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October 28, 2006

More on 1954 NYC Guidebook

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The recent post containing excerpts from a 1954 New York City guidebook attracted several requests for more quotations and other information.

I'm happy to comply. But be warned that this will be a long post due to the amount of detail involved.

Let me start by quoting from Benjamin Hemric's comment to the previous posting. Benjamin is one of 2Blowhards' supermaven readers where New York City is concerned. My replies and / or quotes from the guidebook (prefaced by a bold-face headline -- part of the quotation) are inserted where appropriate.

One of the things I like about such old guidebooks is that often can tell you indirectly quite a bit about the time and the place (e.g., what is valued and what isn't, where various businesses, like the publisher, are located, etc.), and I especially like that the author appears to be an opinionated guide, rather than just an objective lister of facts -- or worse, just a repackager of various press releases, etc.

I have the reprint of the "1939 WPA Guide to New York," and I have some guidebook-like books (souvenir booklets and taxi drivers' directories) from the early 1960s. However, it would be interesting to hear about the city in-between those times.

If you have the time, here are the things I hope you get a chance to took at:

1) Is there a listing for the Gilbert Hall of Science. A.C. Gilbert, who was really a remarkable guy (look him up in Wikipedia), had a toy company that had a small museum / showroom on Fifth Ave. I wonder if it is listed as an attraction?

GILBERT HALL OF SCIENCE, 1 W. 25th St. (corner of 5th Ave.) -- home of the Erector set, American Flyer electric trains, Gilbert scientific toys (chemistry, magic sets, toy microscopes, etc.). 80-foot model railroad, push-button scientific exhibits are part of an elaborate toy display. Group tours (by appointment) include a magic show. [Page 95]

2) Also, nearby, the Lionel train people also had a very nice showroom that was open to the public.

3) At one time, there was a Museum of Science and Industry in Rockefeller Center -- although it may have been gone by 1954. If the museum is listed, I wonder where the entrance was? Nobody seems to really know.

Sorry, but I didn't notice any reference to it. The guidebook doesn't go into much detail on any subject, I'm afraid.

4) I wonder what it says about the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although it was probably the largest museum in America at the time, it was tiny in those days compared to what it is today.

It gets two mentions:

Metropolitan Museum of Art, 5th Avenue at 82nd Street -- one of the world's great museums; varied permanent exhibits, many special showings. Free daily, Sun. afternoons. [Page 17]

METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, 80th to 84th Streets -- 5th Avenue bus to 82nd Street -- sprawling monumental building along the park side of 5th Avenue. Open free, 10-5 Mondays-Saturdays, 1-5 Sundays.

Founded 1870, its collections cover 5,000 years of achievement, are the most extensive in the western hemisphere; many the finest in the world.

You'll get a bad case of museumitis if you try to take in more than a hall or two on a single visit. Get a floor plan from the information booth. [Page 22]

5) I wonder what it says about Jack Dempsey's restaurant and about the Latin Quarter nightclub.

No mention of Dempsey's. But I can boast that, when passing by it once during the 60s, I saw Jack (or a look-alike) at a window seat checking out the Times Square area scene.

LATIN QUARTER, West 48th St. at Broadway. Big theater-type night club, dining rooms seat 600; famous for its lavish and flamboyant entertainment. Varied general menu in the gourmet range with wide choice; theater supper menu a house feature. Two orchestras; full bar; dancing. Open 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. Expensive. [Page 114]

6) If restaurants are listed, I wonder what is considered to be the best in New York then: Le Pavilion?

The guidebook has no rankings, but here's the entry:

LE PAVILLON, 5 East 55th St., near 5th Ave. Typically French menu in the gourmet range, some house specialties; continental type dining room with red velvet accents, seats 140. Open lunch and dinner daily except Sunday; bar; no entertainment. Expensive. [Page 111]

7) I wonder what it says about areas above 59th St., the upper West side, the Upper East Side and Harlem?

Not much that characterizes neighborhoods. The focus is on specific sites.

As for the Upper East Side, it states: "East of the park, flanking 5th Avenue and extending to the River, is another section, primarily residential, including the city's greatest concentration of luxurious private mansions and apartments. It is the section traditionally regarded as New York's gold coast." [Page 19]

HARLEM, a vaguely defined area, is not what most people think it is. Years ago it gained a reputation exuberant gaiety, since outgrown. In the simplest terms, Harlem is the area where live about 400,000 of New York's Negro population, about half of the total. In part of it--the eastern edge--live large numbers of Spanish, Portuguese and Puerto Ricans.

Geographically it extends from 110th Street north to the Harlem River, east to the East River and west almost to the Hudson. Parts of it touch the Hudson, in one of the most select of the Negro residential sections. Other good sections are Edgecombe Avenue and Hamilton Terrace, on the ridge overlooking the broad flat where most of Harlem sprawls.

The main business street, both from the standpoint of general shopping and amusement, is 125th Street, river to river. [Page 11]

8) I wonder what it had to say about the Bowery -- then NYC's skid row.

The Bowery, a street of derelicts, flop-houses, cheap saloons and other destitution in the shadow of the 3rd Avenue El, begins at Chatham Square on Chinatown's eastern edge, runs north through the city's biggest hotel and restaurant supply center to Cooper Square, at East 14th Street. [Page 59]

9) I wonder what it says about the outer boroughs (e.g., the Hall of Fame [Bronx], the Bronx Zoo.

Three pages are devoted to Bronx Park. Elsewhere, the Hall of Fame gets four paragraphs (also too long to quote here). There is a short Brooklyn-Queens chapter as well as short chapters covering the northern suburbs, Long Island and New Jersey.

10) I wonder what it says about Coney Island, which was already in decline?

Coney gets six paragraphs, but no mention of decline. The main negative cited is the size of the crowds on summer weekends.

11) Does it mention the Aquacade show in Queens?

Not that I noticed.

12) I wonder what bus terminals are listed?

The Port Authority terminal on the west side (built 1950) was mentioned, as was the Air Terminal near the Queens-Midtown Tunnel (with "a helicopter shuttle service landing on the roof" -- Page 31). Nothing said about the airline terminal that used to be across 42nd from Grand Central, by which airport busses would drop off passengers.

Also, when you and your family came to New York, where did you stay and what did you do?

My parents pondered the guidebook and thought that the Knickerbocker (44th St. between 6th and 7th) would be okay because of the combination of off-Times Square location and reasonable price (twin $6 and up, quoth the book).

It proved to be a rat-hole, the mattresses seemingly filled with straw. So we bailed out after the first night, decamping up Seventh to the Victoria on the corner of 51st, across the street from the Taft. The Knickerbocker experienced a last gasp of fame in 1961-62 because it housed the Peppermint Lounge of Twist fame (I eyeballed it a few times in early '62, but never went in).

Otherwise we did the usual tourist stuff -- Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, UN building, toured the NBC studios, did the Music Hall and the Rockettes. Ate once at a Child's restaurant. Saw Sammy Davis Jr in his Broadway show Mister Wonderful. Was in a Tonight show audience at the Century Theater -- Steve Allen was the host and Jerry Lewis showed up ("unexpectedly") to plug a telethon. I loved New York and the feeling lasted until the 70s when the decay became too painful to ignore.

One reader wondered if "jazz dives" were mentioned. Not unless they included a restaurant, because the only special sections in it dealt with shopping, hotels and restaurants.

Speaking of restaurants, here are three that were well-known in their day:

LINDY'S, 1635 Broadway at 51st St. (the newer and larger branch) and 1626 Broadway, below 50th St. (the original one). Famous meeting place of radio, TV and show folks. Varied, general menu, interesting specialties like chicken in a pot with matzo balls; cheese blintzes; bars both places; no entertainment. Open every day from noon to 4 a.m. (1626 Broadway closed Mondays). Moderate. [Page 114]

RUSSIAN TEA ROOM, 160 West 54th St., between 6th and 7th Aves. Long popular rendezvous for ballet dancers, musicians; general menu, some Russian specialties; continental type dining room, seats 200; bar; no entertainment. Open noon to 1 a.m. daily. Moderate. [Page 116]

AUTOMATS (Horn and Hardart). A famous and distinctive New York restaurant chain, with 44 establishments in the city area. The automat feature is a patented device by which food is selected through glass windows, obtained by a coin in the slot mechanism, supplemented by cafeteria counters. Menus are American in type with house specialties changed daily. Some notable ones are baked beans, beef pie, many vegetables; food is of high quality, well-prepared, simply served. Dining rooms are modern, very informal; newest at 45th at Lexington, 104 West 57th St. Hours of opening vary with location; most are open all meals, every day. Inexpensive. [Page 121]

Another subject that came up in Comments was department stores (Bloomingdale's was mention in the original post). Tatyana was curious about Lord & Taylor, so I posted the following passage:

[L]ong a favorite among suburban shoppers, professional people. Has a large collection of copies of American name designers; featured departments include home furnishings; china and glassware; a good decorating department, full line of men's furnishings, Maternity shop, Now and Then shop (antiques), Bon Nuit shop (custom sleep equipment), Fantasia shop (novelties), "5-4" Shop (for women 5'4" and under), a children's floor. Has a soup bar, children's milk bar, tea shop.

Here a few more write-ups:

B. ALTMAN & CO., 5th Ave. and 34th St.--famous old store; full range of all departments, bargains to museum pieces. Has an outstanding decorating department (Altman's decorated the new White House); notable fabrics, fashions, silver and gift departments, modern and traditional furnishings; features the Country Shop (antiques), Epicure Shop (gourmet foods), Young Homemakers Shop (budget furniture), Beacon Hill Galleries (fine period furniture), Bride's Shop, assorted small shops changed at intervals. The Charleston Garden restaurant (8th floor) inexpensive lunches in a Southern atmosphere; also breakfasts, store tours for wives of conventioneers, other groups. Has a Charles of the Ritz Salon. [Page 91]

GIMBEL'S, Broadway and 33rd. St. (Herald Square) -- handsomely remodeled by famous designer Raymond Loewy; has 10 selling floors, 2 basements (one the largest in the city). Features a candy kitchen, bakery epicure shop, big furniture and housewares departments, the main floor "Roost" restaurant, a theater ticket agency. There is a guided tour, open to everyone; ask at the information desk. [Page 91]

MACY'S, Broadway and 34th St. at Herald Square--the world's best known and largest department store. Has dozens of departments on 10 enormous floors. Smaller specialty shops help take the curse off size, include a Brides' Shop, Tall Girls' Shop, ski, book, antique, gift shops. The Fancy Pantry is one of the New York's best gourmet shops, has top domestic and imported delicacies, meats, wines, liquors. There is a soda bar and tea shop in the basement. Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, with giant balloons, oversize toys, is a New York institution. [Page 91]

Whew. I'm tired of typing. Hope you found the material interesting.



posted by Donald at October 28, 2006


Thanks for all the information! Some comments:

The Kinckerbocker Hotel is now a commercial building, but one vestige of its former self lives on. At the eastern end of the southermost platform in the Times Square station of the 42nd Street Shuttle, there's an old, locked door with the word "Kickerbocker" above it. Apparently, at one time it was important enough of a hotel to merit a direct entrance to the subway system. I know of none others.
Altman's building underwent a huge renovation in the 1990's, after the department store closed, and is now the public library's science and technology division.
Harlem's southern limit on the East Side is today generally put at 96th Street rather than 110th. A walk north along one of the avenues east of Fifth from, say, 90th to 100th street will cover a half-mile geographically but a vast gulf socioeconomically. It's curious, however, that the guidebook didn't note that Harlem's southern boundary on the West Side was and is considerably farther north than 110th, which results primarily from the presence of Columbia University.
The free admission to the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a thing of history, as you might imagine. Today it'll cost you $20. Technically speaking, you can go in for less or even nothing, the twenty bucks being a "suggested" admission, but don't expect a cordial reception if you go that route.

Posted by: Peter on October 28, 2006 5:54 PM

Thanks, Donald, for digging up and sharing -- and typing -- all that interesting information!

Gilbert Hall of Science -- One reason I'm so interested in it is because I don't ever recall even hearing about it until last year when someone mentioned it in an online reminiscensce about Christmas visits to Manhattan.

Metropolitan Museum of Art -- Although it has longed been famed as America's greatest art museum, when I was in high school (and before its modern day expansion) a teacher mentioned how the Met was about the size of only one wing of the famed Louvre, so I was curious how the author would "rate" it.

Dempsey's -- You probably saw the real Jack Dempsey (as I did when I would walk by in the mid-1960s). From what I've read, Dempsey was pretty outgoing and was very proud of his restaurant -- it was his home away from home. He would very gladly sign autographs and pose for photos with patrons -- even gag photos that showed you and him about to fight. He was heartbroken when he finally had to close it.

Le Pavillon -- Interesting to see that in 1954 it was located at 5 E. 55th St. When it finally closed, it was on the northeast corner of 57th and Park Avenue, on the ground floor of the Ritz Tower -- which is about as great a location for that kind of restaurant as there is in New York.

Hall of Fame -- I never went there, but from what I've read it never really was all that much to visit (especially given it's distance from midtown) -- just a series of busts arrayed along a colonnade. (Although for those interested in sculpture and architecture, the busts, the buildings by McKim, Mead and White, and their setting, would be worth a visit.) That the guidebook gives it four paragraphs seems to illustrate how what is considered a general tourist attraction has changed over time.

Coney Island -- My first visits to Coney Island were probably in 1953, so it's interesting to see that the 1954 guidebook author seems to confirm my childhood memories that it still was something to see. Although, even as a child, I noticed how grungy parts of it were even then.

Knickerbocker Hotel -- I'm not sure about this, but I think the Hotel Knickerbocker is the hotel that Ratso Rizzo and Joe Buck are staying at in the beginning of "Midnight Cowboy."

Century Theater -- Interesting to hear that the Tonight Show was done here. (I believe it was done a number of different NY locations. For a while, it was also done, at the Hudson Theater -- across the street from the Knickerbocker Hotel!) You probably mean the New Century Theater, though. This theater was on Seventh Avenue and 58th St. and was on it's last legs as a "legit" theater in the 1950s because it was too far from the heart of the theater district. It was demolished in 1962. In the mid-1950s, Jerry Lewis was doing his telethon, I believe, from Carnegie Hall which is, of course just down the block at Seventh Avenue and 57th St.

The U.N. -- The UN Building was probably brand new when you visited it. It seems to me that the UN Building / complex had a great deal more impact in its early days -- when modern buildings and big open spaces were kind of rare -- especially in Manhattan.

Russian Tea Room -- Interesting to see that the Russian Tea Room is also at a location that is different from its most famous last location (on W. 57th St., next to Carnegie Hall). (In the news the other day was an item that the Russian Tea Room is going to be reopening again.)

Automat -- I believe one the the "newest" Automats mentioned in the guide, the one at 104 W. 57th St., is the one that is about to be demolished -- although there were attempts to have it landmarked. (It was perhaps the grandest Automat of them all.)

Thanks again, Donald!

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on October 28, 2006 6:03 PM

P.S. -- In the comments to the 10/26/06 post on NYC Guidebook, 1954, Francis Morrone wrote in part:

Now [department stores] are all so homogeneous (where they still exist, as two of those three [mentioned] are no more) . . . . But that just may be the sentimentalist in me talking. I'd be interested in hearing what Ben Hemric has to say.

BH writes:

While I can believe that department stores had greater differences among themselves (other than price) in their heyday, I'm the wrong person to testify about this one way or another as I've never been much of a shopper.

One thing that I do remember, though, which is in line with your recollections is that the very big department stores once had a much greater variety of departments -- and had I been more of a shopper (shopping for more different things), I probably would have noticed even a greater variety still.

When I first began shopping on my own, you could buy eyeglasses at Macy's (which is where I bought eyeglasses for the first time on my own). (I think they even had optometrists there, although I brought my own prescription.) It had a significant book department that was probably competitive with all but the largest book stores (probably Brentano's) or specialty book stores (like the 8th St. paperback bookstore in the Village), and competitive large appliance departments (as did Gimbels where I bought my first air conditioner). (And years later, Macy's still had a competitive electronics department where I bought my first Walkman.)

Although I don't personally remember them, I believe Macy's also had a competitive toy department (of course!), a competitive record department, a beauty parlor and a barber shop. And, if I remember correctly, Macy's was famous for having its own branch of the post office where one could buy collectible stamps too. (Plus, there was an Automat in the basement of the Seventh Avenue building.)

A college friend also alerted me to that fact that for those with charge accounts, the bill paying windows at Macy's would also cash personal checks made out to "cash" -- which was very important before the appearance of ATMs and when banks were generally open only 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. So you could also hop over to Macy's for some last minute cash after 3:00 p.m. on a weekday or on a Saturday. (But not on Sunday, as NYC department stores were generally closed on Sundays, until about 1977 or so.)

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on October 28, 2006 7:16 PM

Benjamin -- The "Century Theater" citation I gave was based on a 50-year-old memory, and I easily could be wrong. The location of the theater where I saw the TV show was on Sixth, a few blocks south of Radio City.

I'm writing this in California and my reference materials relating to NYC and the Rockefeller Center area are in Seattle. So apologies if I messed up this detail.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on October 28, 2006 7:59 PM

A bit of museum trivia: Had it been built as originally planned, the Brooklyn Museum would have been larger than the Metropolitan. Only one out of the four planned wings was ever built, however, though it's still a fairly large museum as these things go.

Posted by: Peter on October 28, 2006 8:25 PM

Benjamin, you'll be happy to know that the post office at Macy's still exists. I've been using it for the past 6 years; it's on the 9th floor, right out of the elevators (entrance from the 35th street)
No special stamps, though, alas.
Having been employed in freelance capacity in the Federated Dept.Stores' Store Design Department while still in school, and for 1/2yr after graduating, I came to know not only the various departments, but the basements (2 of them, in fact).
Oh the stories I could tell! But won't. At least not in the public thread.

In any case, in my time 10 complete floors of merchandise already gone to history, for the fact that the whole 9th floor was occupied by the corporate departments: Store Design, Construction, etc. And the 10th fl..or the mystery, suspense and glamour of the 10th floor...
But shshsh, not a word.

Now, let's talk about similarly alluring subject, The Russian Tea Room. The company. I used to work for until recently in 95-97 was responsible for renovation of the premises for LeRoy (not interiors, mind you. My former boss would rather turn gypsy than concieve anything as tacky). I consider myself one of the lucky few who had a chance to browse through original drawings for this job. (As well as the incredibly detailed set of the Waldorf Astoria renovation).

Speaking of classy Russian restaurants - I would strongly recommend Vodka Room on W. 52nd - understated interior, perfect lighting, no cheesy reviews (sometimes discreet piano) and excellent chef with extensive menu.

Posted by: Tat on October 28, 2006 9:00 PM

Donald and Ben,
I think Donald may mean the Center Theater, which was Rockefeller Center's *other* theater, which at about half the size of Radio City Music Hall was gargantuan. It was in what is now the Simon & Schuster Building but was then the U.S. Rubber Building (as in tires, not condoms). It was that theater's demise that made people worried that Radio City Music Hall might (as it almost did) also bite the dust.

I love old guidebooks, and collect old New York and Chicago guidebooks. They give you perspective. For example, I own the "classiest" of the guidebooks published at the time of Chicago's world's fair in the 1930s. It's written by a prominent and gifted Chicago architect named Alfred Granger. He recommends a particular restaurant because the servers are "colored girls of the unspoiled southern type." Yikes.

Ben, I am not a shopper either, God knows. But I used to love to wander around in the old department stores, just for the all-around sensory experience. I haven't wandered around in a department store, though, in years.

Tat, I'm going to go to the Vodka Room posthaste!

Posted by: Francis Morrone on October 29, 2006 1:38 AM


I toss 'em a quarter when I go to the Met. Screw the uncordial reception!

Posted by: ricpic on October 29, 2006 12:33 PM

"At one time, there was a Museum of Science and Industry in Rockefeller Center -- although it may have been gone by 1954. If the museum is listed, I wonder where the entrance was? Nobody seems to really know."

It was not free standing. It was in the ground floor lobby of the then RCA Building also known as 30 Rockefeller Plaza. That building (which has a large footprint, much larger than the Chrysler or Empire State) extended westward to Sixth Avenue and the museum was located at that end of the large lobby. If you entered the building from the Sixth Avenue entrance the museum entrance was smack in front of you.

I worked at 30 Rock in the early 1950s and walked by the museum almost daily; a staircase entrance to the Sixth Avenue subway is located just inside the building entrance.

Posted by: James Graham on October 31, 2006 6:59 PM

James, thanks for the info!

All along I kind of thought the entrance to this museum "should" have been just inside the Sixth Avenue entrance to the "West" building -- where in the 1960s there was, if I remember correctly, a very large and fancy soda fountain (which seemed from the late 1940s or early 1950s). However, let me explain a bit why I said that nobody seems to really know where the entrance to the museum was, and maybe you can provide some additional details about the museum's entrance? (Also, do you know when the museum closed, and if it indeed was replaced by a large pharmacy / soda fountain, at least at ground level?)

About a year and a half ago, on the "Cinema Treasures" website (a wonderful website that has individual webpages dedicated to various movie theaters from all over the country), a discussion came up about Rockefeller Center's underground Concourse, specifically about the "mysterious" ticket booth that is surrounded by two short stairways and leads to to what is now labeled a tenant storage area. It is opposite to what used to be the underground entrance to Radio City Music Hall. Someone said that they thought this was the entrance to the Museum of Science and Industry, but I said that this seemed kind of small and out of the way for the entrance to such a museum (which took up, I believe, at least three floors of the West Building).

A little while later, I ran into a Ph.D. student who was doing a dissertation on Edward Durrell Stone (who designed the interior of the museum) and asked her if she knew where the entrance was. If I remember her answer correctly, she said she wasn't sure, that it was hard to find plans for the museum, but that the underground entrance may have indeed been the entrance.

Then a few months ago, two people on the Queens Board [a nostalgia board for those who grew up in Queens, NYC] said (without any prompting from me) that they remembered visiting the Musuem of Science and Industry and getting in via an underground entrance. I think someone else, though, said that the museum had a second floor or mezzanine entrance!

By the way, the particular interior stairway to the Sixth Avenue subway that you mention (just inside the entrance) is now closed off -- probably because, if I remember correctly, it's kind of blind stairway and probably a safety hazard these days. Also, much of the underground Concourse has been greatly altered for commercial reasons -- vandalized, in my opinion.

Thanks in advance for any additional info you can provide.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on November 1, 2006 5:59 PM


As to the entrance it's more than half a century but that is my recollection and as you said it would make much sense. If one were to enter from 6th Avenue what else would the architect put there but an entrance to the museum which was certainly there?

I do remember a prominent display inside the museum near the entrance consisting of noisily bouncing ball bearings endlessly fed onto a series of surfaces.

The museum was certainly on more than one level and was I believe replaced by a large restaurant, one oriented to lunch for office workers. Nothing fancy. I stopped working at 30 Rock in 1956 and believe the museum was gone by that time.

As for a ticket booth, not sure which one you mean but wasn't there a booth in the concourse for one of the Broadway ticket agents, one that would sell tix to all Bway shows?

Not exactly on topic but in the 1970s while in Madrid conducting business my colleagues and I visited our Spanish attorneys office. On his mantel he had a smallish oil painting (say 3ft x 5 ft) which he said was the "original" of the mural that dominates (still, I hope) the Rockefeller Plaza entrance to the RCA building. Perhaps the artist did the small painting and he and his assistants reproduced the mural from the painting? In any event it was the right style, had the same characters and the lawyer was an upper-class Spaniard who could afford to own it.


Posted by: James Graham on November 1, 2006 7:42 PM

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