39th STREET, Midtown

The weather in May 2018 was resolutely terrible; May has a reputation for warm, sunny spring weather, but in recent years, fronts have hung up around here, spelling days of overcast and rain. If we’re south of the front, it’s summertime humid; if north, it’s unseasonably cool. The week I did this page, I was tied up with one obligation or the other, and so had to head out on one of those overcast, humid days, but you have to deal with the weather you are dealt. Now and then I pick a Manhattan street arbitrarily and walk its length; I’ve done this for 13th Street, 19th Street, 40th Street53rd Street, part of 55th, and 116th. I’m 60 now, so unless I pick it up considerably quicker, I won’t get to them all, but…here’s 39th Street. 

To begin, I took the #7 Flushing Line all the way west to its new Hudson Yards terminal at 11th Avenue and West 34th Street. It’s possible I’ll feel a bit more sanguine about the massive development once it is finished, but to me this massive, 18 million square foot, 16-skyscraper mixed use development, decked over the Long Island RR train yards between 10th and 12th Avenues from West 30th to West 34th looks to me like “rich people storage” in anodyne, glass-fronted towers. Class resentment? perhaps. They’re not building it for me.

 

Seen here, in the shadow of a Hudson Yards Monolith Monster, is a climbable piece of art, Briton Thomas Heatherwick’s “Vessel,” likely so named because it’s cup-shaped. The public will eventually be able to scale its multitudes of staircases. It is 150 feet tall, and cost $1 million per foot to build. It will encompass 154 flights of stairs and 2400 steps. Though I walk miles per outing, I despise staircases, though they’re good for me, like kale.

The city plans to expand Hudson Park and its accompanying Hudson Boulevards East and West all the way north to West 42nd Street between 11th and 12th Avenues. However I have no idea how they plan to get it past the Lincoln Tunnel approach roads between West 39th and 40th, unless they deck them over somehow. As is, only a small portion has been constructed between West 34th and 36th. Lampposts along Hudson Boulevard are the usual octagonal poles, but with LED Helm luminaires (see the DOT lamppost brochure). Larger fixtures like the Helm and Stad varieties have lost out in recent years to smaller makes. 

The twin 60-story Silver Towers at 11th Avenue and West 42nd Street loom in the distance. 

 

Now home to car repair shops, this low-rise brick building at West 36th and Hudson Boulevard East was probably a stables in a previous life.

Now on West 39th on either side of 9th Avenue, I noted these unique stanchions that carry signs pointing  to parking lots and tunnel on-ramps. This type appears nowhere else in the city.

 

357 West 29th Street, a former zipper factory as evidenced by a painted sign in the wide widow on the left. I didn’t zoom in on it, trust me, it’s there. 

 

As it turns out, the pub Tír na nÓg, 315 West 39th  (yes, Irish words can have capitals in the middle) has something of a Forgotten NY history. In 2000, when  the pub was located at 8th Avenue and West 33rd and I was working at Macy’s, I was interviewed there by the late Bill Bell, who was usually the Daily News‘ religion writer and was photographed by Susan Watts. I never like my photos, but that’s a good one as any, I suppose.

In Irish, Tír na nÓg means “Land of Youth” and was a cognate of the Elysian Fields or heaven in the old Celtic religions predating Christianity.

While at Macy’s, when I obtained the book contract in 2003 I never let on to anyone at Macy’s about it. I had a tyrannical manager who was sure to use it against me during employee evaluations. 

 

Hemmed in by a Westin and a Comfort Inn, #307 West 39th is one of the block between 8th and 9th Avenue’s remaining tenement buildings.

 

Rattle ‘n Hum West, another Irish bar across West 39th from Tír na nÓg, has a name inspired by a 1988 U2 album.

The 1920s building on the southwest corner of 8th Avenue and West 39th sports a nameless liquor store that nonetheless contains two classic neon signs. Next door to the liquor store is Vihan’s Video, once of the Times Square area’s last peep palaces. Jeremiah’s Vanishing NY reports that the building will likely be redeveloped, chasing the shops away. 

A block away, at 300 West 38th at 8th Avenue, is one of my favorite buildings in Midtown.

East 0f 8th Avenue we plunge into NYC’s still-vibrant Garment District. Clothing wholesalers still pack the side streets, as they have since the early 20th Century. More than any other NYC neighborhood, “faded ads” advertising such wholesalers are still inscribed on the tall office buildings that line these streets. Only now are most of them fading into illegibility. The Garment is one of the largest of NYC’s mercantile “fiefdoms,” running from about West 29th Street north to west 41st between 6th and 8th Avenues.

Lefkowitz Fabrics occupies #257 West 39th, a Beaux Arts building completer with rams’ heads, an ancient symbol of industriousness and plenty

 

#225 West 39th is the former HQ of the American Press Organization, which seems to have nothing to do with the present organization with the same name

 

Across the street, similarly, #214 West 39th is the former home of the Pictorial Review Company. The building seems now to be home to several apparel wholesalers. Pictorial Review was a “women’s interest” magazine featuring fashions, etc. published from 1914 to 1939. Interestingly the magazine’s letterhead featured the number 13 with a pencil, surrounded by a wreath, which symbolized the $13 with which founder  William Paul Ahnelt founded the magazine. The magazine a circulation of over 2 million at its peak. 

A pair of monuments on the NE corner of 7th Avenue and West 39th Street remind us we’re smack in the middle of the Garment District. The first is Judith Weller’s sculpture The Garment Worker, showing a tailor hard at work at a sewing machine. It was installed in 1984 with  financial contributions from the Ladies Garment Workers Union, and donations from designers and fashion manufacturers. Weller completed the initial sculpture in 1978, a tribute to her father; this is an enlarged version.

 

The second sculpture, showing a giant needle and button, stands alongside an area information booth. It was designed by Pentagram Architectural Services in the style of Claes Oldenberg‘s works.  

 

I was surprised to see that the old Parsons School of Design building at 7th and West 40th had vanished. Beginning in 2015, it was torn down so that a new hotel could rise in its place. Presently, Parsons is located in a number of buildings in the West Village.

The Parsons School of Design was housed in a nondescript bland box designed by architect William Lescaze on the NW corner of 7th and West 40th. Lescaze has a much more innovative building — his own house — on 211 East 48th, a Moderne building from 1934. The school was founded by painter William Merritt Chase in 1896 as the Chase School; it was renamed in 1936 for longtime president Frank Alvah Parsons, whose Victorian-era St. Mark’s Place home in Staten Island has been highlighted on various ForgottenTours.

 

7th Avenue is also known as Fashion Avenue from 34th north to 42nd (like Avenue of Americas, virtually no one uses the name, though). In 2000, eight medallions commemorating some of the biggest names in fashion design were installed in the sidewalk along this route (subnamed the Fashion Walk of Fame), including Ralph Lauren, Geoffrey Beene, Bill Blass, Calvin Klein, Rudy Gernreich, Halston, Claire McCardell and Norman Norell. 

A public space in front of 1411 Broadway at West 39th commemorates Golda Meir (1898-1978), the prime minister of Israel from 1971-1974. The prime minister was born in Kiev, Ukraine, Russia, and moved with her family to Milwaukee in 1906. In 1921 she moved with her husband to British-occupied Palestine and began work for Palestine’s labor movement. She became an ambassador and later foreign minister of the new State of Israel beginning in 1948, and Premier from 1971-74, guiding Israel through the Yom Kippur War in 1973. She resigned in 1974 and was succeeded by Yitzhak Rabin.

A bust of Golda Meir was sculpted by Beatrice Goldfine and installed in the plaza in 1980. 

 

1411 Broadway is also the former location of the first Metropolitan Opera House, which opened here in 1883, a Beaux Arts classic designed by J. Cleaveland Cady, with a performance of Faust. It was gutted by a fire in 1892, rebuilt to closely match its original appearance, but then rebuilt again in 1903. However, by the 1950s it was clear that its acoustics were insufficient for large-scale opera performance, and the Met moved to the new Lincoln Center in the early 60s. The old Met was razed in 1967, with the present office building appearing in 1970.

An interesting tableaux at the SE corner of 6th Avenue and West 39th, which looks like the old, pre-gentrified Manhattan: a 1910s office building with a souvenir shop on the ground floor, and a set of leftover mid-1800s townhouses on the south side.

The Parker & Quinn Restaurant, located at 64 West 39th Street in an interesting 1930 building decorated with terra cotta eagles, is actually the back end of 63 West 38th Street, the Refinery Hotel, a boutique enterprise with a 1920s theme. 

 

More than the avenues, I think, the side streets of Midtown are a time capsule of a New York of a previous age. The Haskins-Sells Building is a Beaux Arts classic constructed about 1912. Haskins-Sells was a precursor of the modern Deloitte accounting giant.

 

Next door, #25 West 39th Street went up in 1907 as the Engineering Societies’ Building. Like many of the classic libraries around town, it was funded with a grant from philanthropist/industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who was in favor of spreading engineering knowledge. It’s a 13-story limestone tower rising 218 feet. 

It had club rooms for three major engineering disciplines — electrical, mechanical and mining — as well as a floor for groups like the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers. They all shared a 1,000-seat auditorium, lecture and assembly rooms and what The American Architect and Building News magazine called the “crowning detail,” a double-height library on the 12th and 13th floors. [Christopher Gray, NY Times]

 

Edging toward 5th Avenue on West 39th, here’s a clutch of “wall dog” ads that pointed toward area businesses. All of them succumbed ages ago. A recent teardown exposed them, which explains why they still look so well after nearly 9 decades. The Indispensable Walter Grutchfield relates their stories

 

Lord and Taylor, a department store fixture on 5th Avenue between East 38th and 39th Street for decades, has announced its imminent closure. The building will remain, but will become offices including a WeWork shared workspace franchise.

Samuel Lord (1803-1889) was a British foundry worker from Yorkshire who came to the USA with dreams of entrepreneurship, opening a drapery-dry goods shop on Catherine Street in what is now the Lower East Side in 1824, and after struggling for over a decade, he sent for his wife and children to join him in the USA. At about the same time his brother-in-law, George Washington Taylor, joined him as a partner and investor.

Lord and Taylor opened a larger store near the docks at Grand and Chrystie Streets in 1854, at a time when Grand was among the city’s busiest shopping streets — it was close to the east side docks along South Street, making importing goods a simple matter. The business became wildly successful, both men were millionaires by the early 1860s, and were then able to retire and return to England. The store moved to East 20th Street and Broadway in 1902 and then to 5th Avenue and West 38th Street in 1914, where it has continued an over 150-year run of success, until 2018.

Here’s an interesting curio at #4 East 39th Street, the Keppel Building, which features limestone gargoyles and bas-reliefs of painters Rembrandt van Rijn and James McNeill Whistler. East 39th was primarily filled with stables before Frederick Keppel (despite his German-sounding name, he was an Irish immigrant) purchased a plot at #4 for his art importing business, and built his new gallery here in 1905. Keppel  imported and sold rare etchings and engravings, including those of Old Masters such as Rembrandt, and became a close associate of Whistler (whose “Arrangement in Black and Grey,” or “Whistler’s Mother,” is his best-known work today (though it hasn’t been the same since Mr. Bean worked it over). 

Tom Miller at Daytonian has all the details. 

A few doors down at #10, the Moulded Shoe store (formerly known as Conformal) a high-end store whose shoes can run to over $300 a pair, has been in business over 60 years, according to their website. It has some of the best painted-glass windows in NYC, whether they’re new or old. 

 

Across the street the Wood Tobé Coburn School is a very small career college established by fashion editors Tobé Coller Davis and Julia Coburn in 1937. It educated young women in the fashion business until its merger with the Wood School in 1991, when admissions were open to both sexes and the curriculum became more generalized, but with a continued emphasis in the rag trade.  

The Shakespeare at The William is an Elizabethan-themed British “gastropub” in a townhouse at #24 East 39th Street. It was formerly the home of the Williams College Alumni Association and after it was sold, the new owners kept the old name, sort of, but worked in a theme involving the Immortal Bard for a hotel and restaurant.

Edging east toward the United Nations area, several consulates begin to appear; Mexico’s is at 27 E 39th St. 

Consulates provide the same services and carry out the same official functions as the Embassy. Consulates follow the lead of the Ambassador in engaging local government, civil society and other organization to address Mission priorities. In many instances, consulates, because of their location within a country, may serve as the primary actor in achieving one priority or another. So while the Embassy may place great importance on agricultural development, the real work with the local population will be done by officers in a consulate. [diplomacy.state.gov]

The Mexican coat of arms depicts a golden eagle, with one talon standing on an imperial crown and a cactus, devouring a snake it holds in its other talon. The symbolism goes deep into Mexico’s Aztec roots: the eagle represents the sun god Huitzilopochtli, while the cactus represents the Aztecs’ greatest city, Tenochtitlan. According to legend, the Aztec people wandered Mexico in search of a sign that their god Huitzilopochtli had commanded them to find an eagle perched atop a cactus, devouring a snake. After two hundred years of wandering, they found the eagle and snake on a small island in the swampy Lake Texcoco, where Tenochtitlan was founded in 1325. There have been disputes, though, on whether a snake was part of the original legend. Some translations have the eagle holding the staff of the Aztec god of war, Atl-Tlachinolli, which could have been mistaken for a snake. In any case, Mexico’s coat of arms is among the most striking in the Americas.

 

The C.G. Jung Center, #28 East 39th, has promulgated the works and theories in psychology of Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) since 1962, a year after his death.

Park Avenue, renamed in stages from 4th Avenue over the decades, runs above and around the NY Central, later Metro-North commuter railroad, which began as the horse-drawn and later steam-powered NY & Harlem as early as the 1840s. Currently Park Avenue runs from East 32nd Street north to Fordham Plaza in the Bronx (with an interruption for the Harlem River).

The underpass seen here originally served horse-drawn carriages, then trolley cars, and currently automobiles. 

 

109 East 39th, east of Park, is one of the older buildings on the street. It was built in a combined Queen Anne-Tudor style in 1887 for Helena Flint, the wealthy 36-year old daughter of a Larchmont Manor developer. In 1921 the house was purchased by Princess Vilma Lwoff-Parlaghy, a Hungarian portrait painter, who ultimately could not afford it and defaulted. The building was later owned by developer Emily Hepburn, who built the Panhellenic, now the Beekman Tower Hotel at 1st Avenue and East 49th. 

 

The Tuscany Hotel, 120 East 39th Street, was built in 1927 and was frequented by famed figures such as Marilyn Monroe, Groucho Marx, Gregory Peck and Gloria Vanderbilt. According to legend, it was the first hotel anywhere that had a color television in each room.

 

Next door, #124 East 39th is the Permanent Mission of the Rwanda, a landlocked country in east-central Africa, infamous for its longstanding intratribal that came to a head with genocide in 1994. From 1961-1994 it was the only country that had an initial on its flag.

 

On Lexington Avenue and East 39th, 2018 meets 1878 as vastly different architectural types are juxtaposed. 

 

LINKNYC kiosks are proliferating all over NYC and are the modern equivalent of phone booths, since free wireless calls can be made from them. The internet also used to be available on the devices until the raincoat crowd began viewing porn sites on them; the city later blocked access. Clark Kent, though, would find it difficult to change into the Supersuit here when danger struck.

 

Not owning a pet, I have no need of veterinary services, but I do like the Garamond Oldstyle font used on the sign.

Continuing with UN Bingo, the consulates of Armenia and Guinea can be found on East 39th between Lexington and 3rd Avenues.

144 East 39th Street is also the home of the English-Speaking Union of the United States, a “a non-profit educational charity that employs the English language to foster global understanding and good will through educational opportunities and cultural exchange programs” that was founded in 1920. 

210 East 39th, east of 3rd Avenue at the Queens-Midtown Tunnel Exit Street, is a new (2016) 20-story mixed use building home to the African country of Lesotho’s permanent UN mission. The country had owned the townhouse that the new tower replaced.

 

The QMT exit and entrance streets feature original futuristic (for the time) lampposts from 1940. The Westinghouse AK-10 “cups” carry yellow sodium lamps. It remains to be seen if they are adaptable to the LED Revolution. 

 

When 235, 239 and 241 East 39th were developed, apparently the older townhouse at #257 had an owner who refused to budge, so developers simply built around it. 

 

The brick townhouses at #243 and #245 are atypical of what we’ve seen on 39th Street up to here. There are even trees shading the street!

Attaining 2nd Avenue, I decided to head to the subway before I got too far east of the #7, whose easternmost Manhattan stop can be reached from East 42nd west of 3rd. Stay tuned in this space for more east-west Manhattan shenanigans.

Check out the ForgottenBook, take a look at the gift shop, and as always, “comment…as you see fit.”

6/11/18

 


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4 Responses to 39th STREET, Midtown

  1. Peter says:

    Lesotho trivia: it has the highest lowest elevation of any country in the world (4,593 feet).

  2. Richard S. says:

    Yes, who indeed are those galls and steel towers for? That “Vessel” looks to me like a poor mans M.C.Escher.
    You always find a diamond in the bland. That house for Helena Flint is wonderful.

  3. Mitch45 says:

    From 1884 to 1966, Lesotho was known as Basutoland, a British possession. My dad used to collect flag stamps from various African countries, many of which no longer exist. He had stamps from places like Dahomey (now the Republic of Benin) and Upper Volta (now Burkina-Faso).

  4. Tal Barzilai says:

    The head of the Israeli government is a Prime Minister, not a Premier, and I know this especially for being a native of Israel.

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