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October 26, 2006

NYC Guidebook, 1954

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

One item I turned up a couple of months ago when I was moving out of the apartment was a 1954 New York City guidebook.

Quite likely it was the one my parents bought for our big 1956 trip from Seattle to Detroit (to pick up our new 1956 DeSoto at the factory) and on to the East Coast and return.

For the record, it's Complete Guide to New York City by Andrew Hepburn, a publication of The American Travel Service, distributed by Houghton Mifflin Company. Price: one dollar.

Just for fun I thought I'd pass along some snippets, and here they are.

Subways. New York's subway system, much maligned and a vast burden to taxpayers, is one of the most remarkable railways in the world. From the standpoint of volume of traffic it is easily the world's biggest -- nearly two billion fare-paying passengers are carried each year by all lines. The fare is 15 [cents], paid by token. [Page 4]

Third Avenue Elevated -- Last of a once big system of elevated railroads, itself doomed to come down, is a picturesque, noisy, and not unpleasant way of travel. The line runs from City Hall north along 3rd Avenue the Length of Manhattan, and to 210th Street in the Bronx. It recently stopped running trains week ends. [Page 4]

[Greenwich Village] So gay and gaudy was the reputation of Greenwich Village at one time -- as a center for artistic expression and unconventional life -- that now many visitors are surprised and disappointed to discover that much of the artistic front is false; that other things in the Village are just as important as artists and their work. [Page 52]

Metropolitan Opera House fills the area between 40th and 39th Streets, Broadway and 7th Avenue, with an ugly, old building that deserves more attention than it receives. For almost 70 years it has been a mecca for music lovers, home theater for distinguished opera singers, New York's and the nation's headquarters for operatic entertainment.

The interior, with five balconies, 35 boxes and great stage, has a luxurious, classic, old-world elegance in sharp contrast to the shabby exterior. [Page 28]

THE THEATER. There are now 34 theaters ("legitimate" in Broadwayese) that stage conventional theatrical entertainment. The number offering shows varies with the season, often drops to as low as 20.

To get tickets, you can mail a check (or go) to the box office, or you can use an agent. The agent's fee is limited by law to $1.20 per ticket, including tax. Ticket prices per seat usually range from $1.65 to $6.60 for musicals, $1.10 to $4.40 for other shows, tax included. [Page 33]

For visitors interested in shopping ...

BLOOMINGDALE BROS., Lexington Ave. at 59th Street -- 7 floors, 2 basements; full range of departments. Features a delicacy shop (imported food specialties), wine shop (selected European vintners), pet shop (harnesses, collars, leashes, canine costume jewelry), a fine furniture department with emphasis on modern; good flower shop. [Page 91]

ABERCROMBIE & FITCH CO., 360 Madison Ave. (45th St.) -- One of the best-known sporting goods establishments in the world; sells everything from fishing tackle and red flannel underwear to portable geiger counters and bathtubs; fine men's and women's sports and casual clothes, accessories for active and spectator sports; sporting goods and prints. Has one of the world's best gun collections. [Page 94]

... or lodging ...

BARBIZON, 140 E. 63rd St. at Lexington Ave. (TEmpleton 8-5700). Residential and transient hotel for women; 22 floors, 686 rooms; single $3.50 up, double and twin $6.50 up; special residential rates; associated garage; social director, shopping consultant, swimming pool, library and sun deck; dining rooms include coffee shop and main dining room. [Page 97]

SAVOY PLAZA, 5th Ave. at 59th St. (ELdorado 5-2600). Transient and residential; 30 floors, 1000 rooms, a few with TV; some rooms air-conditioned; single $11 up, double and twin $15 up; doorman-garage; wide range meeting and banquet facilities; theater desk, foreign department, travel service; Cafe Lounge (dancing evenings), Savoy Room, menus in French manner, gourmet range. [Page 101]

... or dining ...

COPACABANA, 10 East 60th St., between Fifth and Madison Aves. A celebrated restaurant, best known as a supper club, with top star revues; varied menu features French and Chinese specialties, some unusual house features; very big, double deck dining room, dance floor, tropical decor, seats 610; open every day 7 p.m. to 4 a.m. Reservations desirable; cocktail lounge. Expensive. [Page 106]

LEONE'S, 239 West 48th St., between Broadway and 8th Ave. Italian food. The most and some of the best. Big and crowded Italian atmosphere. Specialties antipasto, lasagna, sliced steak in burgundy wine, shrimps Leone and a top-notch wine cellar. Piano music. Bar. Seats 900. Open 4:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. Moderately expensive. [Page 114]

Many of the names should be familiar to older or historically-minded readers, even though most of the businesses are defunct. Bloomingdales is still with us, sans "Bros." And I should point out that the Savoy Plaza was demolished in the 60s to make way for the General Motors Building -- a poor trade architecturally, in my opinion.

If any of you are curious what the book said about other places in New York circa 1954, let me know in Comments. If there's enough interest, I might do a further post on this subject.



posted by Donald at October 26, 2006


I love the idea of seeing a musical for $6.60! And what a cute way of slipping "gay" into the description of life in Greenwich Village. Ain't it the truth!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 26, 2006 7:22 PM

Guns for sale at Abercrombie & Fitch: how times change.

Posted by: joshua on October 26, 2006 7:42 PM

Wait a sec - isn't Copacabana club on 34th street?
How that happened?

And - Donald, what do they say about Lord and Taylor?

[I love the idea of shopping consultant, sun deck, library, pool and a social director in a hotel "for girls", all for $3.50 a night!]

Posted by: Tat on October 26, 2006 8:46 PM

Michael -- Hmm. Um. Lemme see...somebody help me out on this. It's all kinda fuzzy, but in 1954 the word "gay" meant something other than it seems to now. But I forget what it was.

Actually, the word was one reason I passed along the quote (how quaint!). Since you live in that neck of Manhattan, how would you characterize the Village today as compared to that 52-year-old version?

joshua -- Yep. I remember the old Abercrombie, and that makes it hard to wrap my mind around the current incarnation & its marketing strategy.

Tat -- 60th Street is what the book says.

As for L&T...

[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.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on October 26, 2006 9:20 PM

Donald, what a nice find!!

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?

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

11) Does it mention the Aquacade show in Queens?

12) I wonder what bus terminals are listed?

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

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on October 26, 2006 9:58 PM

The Third Avenue El was about to come down in 1955 because it would soon be replaced by the ultra-modern Second Avenue Subway. Not that the Second Avenue Subway was a new idea when the guidebook came out in 1954; it had been planned all the way back in the early 1920's, and an elevated line on Second Avenue itself had been demolished in 1940 in anticipation of the subway's construction.

Care to guess what still hasn't been built?

Posted by: Peter on October 26, 2006 10:47 PM

The barbizon is near where my in-laws live, and is now a very fancy building with an equinox gym on the first two floors. How plain when compared to the hotel for ladies.

Posted by: Gerald on October 26, 2006 11:18 PM

That 1954 New York guidebook is now older (relative to us) than the New York guidebook Frank Sinatra had in the movie ON THE TOWN (1949) that gave rise to jokes about Sinatra's character wanting to see the Floradora Show ("that show closed 40 years ago!") and the Hippodrome. Yet the New York of 1954 somehow seems more familiar to us now and less a lost city of a vanished epoch than the New York of 1909 (or whenever) apparently did in 1949.

Posted by: Dwight Decker on October 27, 2006 12:15 AM

What a great post Donald. Thank you.

Re Tatyana's query about Lord & Taylor, one of the biggest changes I've experienced in 26 years in the Big Apple is how much less idiosyncratic the big department stores are. When I moved here, they were in the last stages of their old selves. L & T had an incredible antique furniture department. Altman's had an excellent rare book and rare stamp department. Gimbel's was the best store in America to buy...antique Art Deco jewelry.

Now they are all so homogeneous (where they still exist, as two of those three are no more). I always think the management was taken over by MBAs whose strict cost-accounting actually put the stores out of business. But that just may be the sentimentalist in me talking. I'd be interested in hearing what Ben Hemric has to say.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on October 27, 2006 12:44 AM

A wonderful stroll down memory lane and I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but the city was near its tipping point (the Dodgers move to LA being the tip off) in the mid 50's.
Given the cenrifugal nature of life in America since mid-century, never again would New York be "the center."

Posted by: ricpic on October 27, 2006 3:27 AM

1) What does it say about the jazz dives?
2) Does it describe anything as "louche"?

Posted by: dearieme on October 27, 2006 5:41 AM

A.C. Gilbert's toy company was the Erector Set, one of my favorites (and my Dad's too). There's still an "A.C. Gilbert Discovery Village" in Salem, Oregon.

Posted by: John Emerson on October 27, 2006 6:07 AM

Great post - lets have more!

Posted by: tschafer on October 27, 2006 9:19 AM

Whew! Are we getting old, or what? Reminiscing about a 1954 guide!

Posted by: Bob Grier on October 27, 2006 9:53 AM

The burden on the taxpayers of the subway system in 1969 was probably even greater as the fare was still 15 cents. As an out of town freshman at NYU's Washington Sq. campus I took full advantage of the bargain and probably rode 50% of the system during the year I was there. This was before the graffiti hit and some trains still had wicker seats. Skipping class and riding out to Coney Island one snowy morning is an especially fond memory - Marco

Posted by: Marco on October 27, 2006 12:48 PM

Also Lionel trains. Gilbert was a stickler for detail and most of his toys had educational vakue.

Posted by: John Emerson on October 27, 2006 1:04 PM

I love the language too: "Supper club." "Men's furnishings." "Operatic entertainment." "Social director." "Banquet facilities." It's as good as reading a John O'Hara novel!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 27, 2006 1:36 PM

Since I've fallen in love with the writing of Francis Morrone (and would love to see him brought back to Blowhard-dom if he weren't doing so much other stuff), I choose to regard this as adjunct information. Nevertheless, New York City is always fascinating in just about any version, so dramatically monolithic and yet infinitely complex.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on October 27, 2006 1:41 PM

Yes, I was weeping over "5'4" shop", the Custom Sleep Equipment and the Men Furnishings *what exactly did they mean?*

Copacabana: yes, they definitely are on 34th stree now, and the reviews are slightly different:

"Dont even bother unless you want to get ripped off, overcharged, treated like crap, and possibly mugged. The crowd is very "thuggish" and mangement needs to learn a thing or two "

Posted by: Tat on October 27, 2006 2:29 PM

Michael: By any chance is there a listing in the book for the Hudson Terminal, which stood where the WTC was later built?

Posted by: Jeff on October 27, 2006 5:22 PM

Er... at the risk of seeming to dwell at a level of geeky-nitpicking... The brand of electric trains sold by the A.C. Gilbert company was called American Flyer. Lionel was a whole other separate different company. In fact, Lionel was very simply the market leader while Gilbert's American Flyer was always a distant second even during the later '40s and the '50s when they went head to head in competition for the hearts of American boys. Lionel had a very New York flavor with its headquarters across the river in New Jersey, while Gilbert's plant was up in New Haven, Connecticut. Both companies had New York City showrooms, however. Quality-wise, American Flyer seems to have the edge with its somewhat smaller, more detailed models and much more realistic two-rail track, while Lionel was more toy-like in the proportions of its models and use of three-rail track (which reflected the limitations of consumer electrical technology in the early 1900s, and a hundred years later toy trains in that size bracket are _still_ stuck with three-rail track). Alas, '60s boys were no longer ga-ga over toy trains, and things like spies and slot-cars (and even a combination of the two -- a poor-quality James Bond-themed slot-car racing set is said to have been the final blow) killed the Gilbert company and sent the Lionel company through a twisting course of corporate evolution too complicated to trace here. Oddly, Lionel bought out the Gilbert American Flyer brand and its current successor company occasionally does something with it, so maybe that's the source of the confusion.

Posted by: Dwight Decker on October 27, 2006 7:25 PM

"Men's furnishings" is an old term for such things as socks, underwear, hankerchiefs, scarves, maybe ties.

Posted by: Peter on October 27, 2006 10:19 PM

Ah, so prosaic..I was thinking that was a perfect one-stop place for all those men with diminished imagination to come and buy their oversized leather chair and the walnut gun cabinet for the den.

[no, , I'm not looking at you]

Posted by: Tat on October 28, 2006 1:51 PM

It does make 1950's New York seem to come alive. I can see the old big taxicabs and tourists with gloves and hats like in the movies. I wonder if a guidebook from then says anything at all about the Actor's Studio. (One person who would have only recently moved out of the Barbizon in 1954 was Grace Kelly).

Posted by: annette on October 30, 2006 9:48 AM

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