34th STROLL

by Kevin Walsh

The summer of 2020 has been among the hottest in years, rivaling the ones I recall in 1988 and 1999. Nevertheless I was itching for a Manhattan stroll, as I had not been in the borough since February, what with Covid and the perceived dangerous state the subways had evolved into. I still cannot formulate a timetable for my return to the subways which are my means of getting all over town. I’ve relied on the LIRR here, a bus there, and a lift from friends over there to get places outside of Little Neck, Douglaston, Great Neck and Lake Success.

I took the LIRR to Penn Station and walked 34th Street to the East River on yet another broiling, humid afternoon. Coming from an Irish family half of which is from Newfoundland, Canada, I tolerate, but do not enjoy, hot, sticky weather. (A Facebook scan of Newfoundland relatives shows them frequently vacationing in hot climes, so perhaps my dislike of heat is unusually acute; then again, it can snow in June in Newfoundland.) I took 31st Street back to Penn Station from the East River, but I’ll concentrate on 34th here, as I write Forgotten NY pages in a hot room and desire a relatively short time to write; the air conditioner in the room where my desktop is broke years ago, but I’ve had to steer funds toward more necessary things during my freelance work era that began in 2011. The air conditioner in my bedroom is turned on in late afternoon and runs all night.

Seen from Google Street View on a normal rush hour with workaday crowds, here’s the SE corner of West 34th Street and 7th Avenue. This is well worn territory for me, because if I’m not taking a subway from Penn, I emerge here from the LIRR’s 34th Street exit. Since about 2000, large illuminated electronic advertising billboards have been installed on both sides of the street. The building they’re mounted on, #439 7th Avenue, is actually a very old edifice but its age is well hidden. This is what it looked like in 1940, when it had pasteboard painted ads.

The SW corner of West 34th and 7th appeared like this at about 11 AM July 19, 2020; the usual throngs are absent during the Covid and various other crises afflicting the city. We can see #2 Penn Plaza at left, which replaced the 1910 Penn Station building in 1968. A single giant illuminated sign was installed approximately 20 years ago. The glassy tower just to its right is Penn Station’s 34th Street entrance, which opened around 1999. The MTA is presently building a third major entrance to Penn Station on 7th Avenue, this one at West 33rd, that is scheduled to open in 2021; the conversion of the former James Farley Post Office building between 31st, 33rd Streets and 8th and 9th Avenue is scheduled to open as the Daniel P. Moynihan Train Hall the same year.

This corner looks completely different from how it appeared in 1940. That year, a 20-story office tower occupied the corner. I do not know its name: help me out in Comments.

The R.H. Macy & Co. department store has held down the parallelogram between 6th and 7th Avenues and West 34th and 35th Streets since 1902, when the concern moved uptown from Ladies’ Mile at 6th and West 14th. The store’s history is well-known: founder Rowland Hussey Macy, who had served on a whaling ship and acquired a red star tattoo, opened general stores in 1851 in Haverhill, MA and in 1858 in New York City. which outgrew its original Ladies’ Mile location. Macy’s hired architecture firm De Lemos & Cordes to design its Midtown Herald Square flagship at 6th and West 34th, which included its original grand 34th Street entrance with the clock seen here. Additions in 1924 and 1928 expanded the building west to 7th Avenue; two small properties at 6th and 34th and 7th and 35th held out and were not acquired by Macy’s until decades later.

I was a Macy’s employee from April 2000-October 2004, working in the copywriting bullpen on the 17th floor on the 7th Avenue side. I was proud to work at the self-named World’s Largest Store but it was not an especially pleasant tenure; the person who hired me was eased into a different role a short time after I was hired, and the replacement supervisor took an immediate dislike, and whatever errors I made were magnified.

However, while I was there I took an immediate liking to the infrastructure. When I got the chance I would wander off onto the 17th floor ledge and got photos of the street below, and I would ride the original 1902 wooden escalators. For my lunch hour, I would rove all over midtown and into Central Park, and even took a train to downtown Brooklyn a few times, getting photos that made their way onto the website as well as Forgotten NY the Book in 2006.

Speaking of books, Arcadia Publishing approached me in 2002 to do a picture book on the history of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (which originated in 1924), and I requested access to the store’s on-premises archives for research. Request denied! All kinds of excuses were proffered, but I realized from the start that their public relations did not want a low-level employee writing that kind of tome. Sure enough, a few years later, after I left Macy’s, the book came out on Arcadia by a different author.

Hungarian immigrant Alexander Samuel Beck opened a shoe store with his brother Samuel on Fulton Street in Brooklyn in 1909. After the partnership with his brother dissolved he opened a more successful store on Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint in 1914, and Beck was able to expand. After a sale to Saul Schiff in 1945 there were 147 stores in the East, Midwest and South, with as many as 18 stores in Manhattan. Business declined after that, and the store this sign illustrates was the last one remaining in Manhattan at #128 West 34th, across the street from Macy’s, when it closed in 1982.

Subsequent owners have found it too expensive or a pain in the neck to remove, and thus the Deco-y sign’s a reminder of an age when people wore shoes other than sneakers. In 1940 the top of the building looked exactly the same.

I thought that the ugliest building on West 34th, #22-30 (seen at left), was a Brutalist monstrosity from the 1960s or 1970s with its tiny windows and blank face. Not quite. It was already standing in 1940, when it was home to Spears Furniture.

High over West 34th near 5th Avenue, there’s a painted ad for the old Hotel McAlpin, which faces 6th Avenue at West 33rd. It was constructed in 1912, the year the Titanic went down, 2 years after Penn Station opened, and it was at the time the world’s largest hotel. It is presently called the Herald Towers and holds condominiums and retail on the ground floor. Its Marine Grill boasted several colorful terra cotta murals of maritime scenes. Thankfully they were saved and placed in the Fulton Street complex of subway stations downtown on Broadway.

This signpost placed outside #7 West 34th Street is at the former site of moderately priced Ohrbach’s flagship store which was in this location from 1954-1987: I vaguely recall buying a lightweight golf jacket there in the 1980s. The store had been founded by Nathan M. Ohrbach in 1923.

Occupying the entire block defined by 5th and Madison Avenues and East 34th and 35th Streets is the former B. Altman building. Both of the emporium’s two gorgeous buildings still stand though each now have different owners and functions. The older B. Altman’s building at 6th Avenue at the NW corner of West 18th was used by the firm between 1877 and 1906 when it moved here; the store closed its doors forever in 1989, and the building how houses the City University of New York Graduate School and University Center.

The Ditson Building, 8-10 East 34th, was constructed in 1907 in the midst of the Beaux Arts Era and features four working copper torches on the third floor, and a lyre and a crossed pair of horns above the second floor. The face could belong to Orpheus: the Ditson family were music publishers and originally, the building was a sort of music department store, selling sheet music, reference books, phonographs, then in their infancy, and pianos and other instruments. Ditson went out of business shortly after World War II. Much more at Daytonian in Manhattan.

The Art Deco Madison Belmont Building at #181 Madison at East 34th was constructed in 1925 [Warren & Wetmore, arch — also designers of the sumptuous Yacht Club building on West 44th and also the 1913 Grand central Terminal] and originally housed the Cheney Brothers silk and textiles company. The entrance doors are especially notable as classic Deco design, by French metalworker Edgar Brandt.

Madison Avenue, looking south, is a lonely place on 7/19/20.

#3 Park Avenue is an unusual 42-story office building (also the home of Norman Thomas High School, named for a Socialist candidate for US President) constructed in 1973 by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon on the site of the former 71st Regiment Armory. The 33rd Street #6 train station, located beneath the building, still boasts terra cotta eagles that were an early subway design indicator of armories. The building is unusually set catercorner to East 34th and windows are hard to come by on the lower floors.

In late 1999 I interviewed for a compositor position with Transperfect Translations, then as now on the 39th floor (the views were incredible), and things were looking good until the fellow that interviewed me was dismissed. Soon enough I wound up at a typesetter, Marx + Myles, further south on Park, and then at Macy’s in April 2000. Those were the days when jobs in my field were relatively available!

Mendy’s is a chain of Glatt Kosher eateries around town, made famous, perhaps on Seinfeld when rival comedian Banya pesters Jerry for a meal at Mendy’s in exchange for a jacket. This one at 61 East 34th doesn’t look as if it will reopen any time soon.

I don’t have details on this cluster of very old buildings on the south side of East 34th near Park, #56-64, except that they appear to have been built in the 1870s or 1880s, making them true survivors on this stretch. The Long Hall pub affects an archaic use of the word “grocery,” which used to mean “drinking establishment” before it meant “a place where comestibles are sold.” #64 was publisher Charles Scribner’s mansion that was built in 1865. 

Across the street is the Pasteur Pharmacy at #53 which has an interesting display window featuring shaving and skincare goods. Louis Pasteur was the French microbiologist (1822-1895) who discovered that fermentation, in which fruit juice and other substances containing sugar become alcohol, comes from the influence of microbes. Through his work, heat treatments were applied to surgical instruments to sterilize them, and to milk to “pasteurize” it, ridding it of harmful germs.

I can’t resist this decommissioned fire alarm every time I pass it on Park and East 34th; it hasn’t worked for years, its wires have been pulled out and New Yorkers use it as a trash receptacle, but it’s the only fire alarm left with the remains of its indicator lamp still in place, miraculously enough, and it’s in the very heart of town at the corner of two of Manhattan’s busiest streets.

When is a building on East 34th not on East 34th? When it’s #107 East 34th, which apparently has the same management as #7 Park Avenue a few doors down and is also called #7 Park Avenue! The high rise apartment houses were built in 1930. Interestingly, a recording released after Badfinger’s Pete Ham’s suicide is called 7 Park Avenue, but it references the 7 Park Avenue in London, not the one in New York.

152 East 34th between Lexington and 3rd Avenues is a Doric-columned, peak-roofed marble building now home to the Armenian Evangelical Church. David Dunlap’s From Abyssinia To Zion, a Guide to Manhattan’s Houses of Worship, says the Armenian purchased what was originally the 1907 19th Ward Bank in 1921.

If you look carefully at the walls of this building exposed by the demolition of the 1888 Hotel Cavalier at the SE corner of 3rd Avenue and East 34th, you can barely discern a painted ad for Fletcher’s Castoria. The mild children’s stomach medicine’s ads were ubiquitous on buildings from the 1880s through the 1920s. The company is still in business.

Jim Rennert (1958- ) is a sculptor who specializes in big guys in business suits. His “Think Big” originally appeared in Union Square in 2013 but was moved here to 222 East 34th, opposite “Tunnel Exit Street” from the Queens-Midtown Tunnel. Unusually, Rennert’s works seem unironic.

The Clover Deli, East 34th Street and 2nd Avenue, boasts one of New York City’s most iconic neon signs, in red and green. Here is what it looks like at night when lit. The Clover has apparently been in business over 70 years.

Two of the Kips Bay/East Side’s more iconic buildings are seen in this shot from East 34th and 2nd Avenue: St. Vartan’s Cathedral and the Corinthian Apartments.

St. Vartan Cathedral of the Armenian Orthodox Church at East 34th and 2nd Avenue was built in 1967: the first cathedral of that denomination to be built in NYC. Check the exterior for inscriptions in Armenian; inside you will find stone crosses that date to the 1400s.

Vartan was a 5th-century Armenian warrior who opposed Persia (today’s Iran) and helped spead Christianity in opposition to the main Persian religion of the era, Zoroastrianism. Armenia was the site of a mass slaughter by the Ottoman Empire during World War I, but Turkey still officially denies it took place.

The incredible Corinthian apartment tower, with its myriad bay windows, was constructed in 1987 by architect Michael Schimenti at #645 1st Avenue between East 37th and 38th.

According to Jim Naureckas of New York Songlines, Corinthian “is used to mean ‘luxurious’ because Corinth was the party town of ancient Greece–noted as the home of Aphrodite’s sacred prostitutes. The fountain in front of the building is called Pierene – named for the fountain in Corinth where the flying horse Pegasus was captured.” Of course you remember Ricardo Mantalban’s “Corinthian leather” car commercials in the Super Seventies.

When I hear “Corinthian,” though, I recall Neil Gaiman’s Corinthian character from his Sandman series in the 1990s. At first a killer and later more sympathetic, the Corinthian usually wore sunglasses, to hide the fact that his eyes were open mouths.

At 314 East 34th, facing “Tunnel Entrance Street” there is a painted ad for a former office furniture store on site.

Speaking of office furniture, the caster wheel housing on rolling office chairs is the deadly enemy of headphone wires. I’ve had to replace two sets of headphones in the past year because of it. Once the wires wind around the caster within the housing, no power on earth can disentangle them and I wind up cutting the wires. I may have to swicth to a nonwheeled office chair at home.

Tunnel Entrance Street, east of 2nd Avenue, where traffic to Queens enters the tunnel. Both entrance and exit ramps have retained their original 1930s lampposts, which look like something George Jetson would pass on his way to work.

At 1st Avenue there’s a glimpse of the American Copper Building towers, one of which has an unusual angled design that makes them look from across the East River in Hunters Point as a giant reverse letter K or perhaps a crooked letter H. The two towers are residential, despite their industrial sounding name, and are connected by a pedestrian skybridge. The two buildings do have copper cladding, with both open for occupation in 2018.

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

7/26/20

15 comments

Ty July 26, 2020 - 7:40 pm

I worked in the Orbachs building last year for Amazon. They leased the entire building partly for their clothing business. (They’re doing 3D scans off of people’s bodies to develop clothes that fit better.). Each floor has floor-to-ceiling pictures of what that office floor looked like in the 1930s. It’s fascinating to see a picture of people from the 1930s working exactly where you are right now.

Reply
Kevin Walsh July 27, 2020 - 9:15 am

Truthfully, I prefer to buy clothes a size bigger to hide the lumps and bumps…

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Beth July 26, 2020 - 8:03 pm

The Long Hall on 34th is a pub that does sell a selection of Irish and UK grocery items. The name is an homage
to The Long Hall in Dublin.

You didn’t mention the newest additions to NYU
Langone Medical Center — the Kimmel Center and the
Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital, plus the giant statue in front of a dog balancing a yellow taxi on its nose.

Continuing east, you hit the ferryport area that offers
great additional transportation options and destinations within NYC and beyond.

Reply
Peter July 26, 2020 - 8:05 pm

William Styron’s famous novel Sophie’s Choice has a memorable scene at the McAlpin back in its late 1940’s hotel days. Stingo the narrator’s father is on a visit from Virginia, and Stingo leaves his Flatbush boarding house to stay with him at the McAlpin. It was a miserable night, as he’s kept awake by Dad’s collision-of-planets snoring and then by the sounds of the couple in the next room enthusiastically Doing the Dirty Deed. I don’t know whether Styron took some artistic license or whether the McAlpin’s walls were really that thin, but at one point Stingo hears the male half of the amorous couple ask the woman if she had reached The Supreme Moment, and she replies that she didn’t know.

I have one of those Butterfly Effect what-if stories that involves the Armenian Holocaust. Back in my college days I was on a day hike in the Berkshires of Massachusetts with the school’s outdoors club when I began talking with this girl who was a year behind me. Things were going very well and I was on the verge of overcoming my normal reticence about such matters and asking her if she’s like to hang out some time (not a term in use at the time). Unfortunately, we started talking a bit about ethnic backgrounds, she mentioned that she was Armenian, and I made some comment about how the Armenian Holocaust was a really bad thing. Terrible idea. The rest of the hike was a miserable ordeal as she went off on a hate-filled rant about the Turks for what they did to her people, how the whole Turkish nation was evil and should be annihilated, you get the idea. Any desire I might have had to “hang out” with her disappeared like snow in a blast furnace. Whatever might have happened between us, never happened.

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redstaterefugee July 28, 2020 - 10:03 am

I could say that your encounter with the Armenian girl was a missed opportunity but actually her reaction to your well intentioned comment revealed her true personality. Just think of what life could have been like for you if you hadn’t discovered her dark side before you were even casual acquaintances & you were therefore free to flee.

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William Keller July 26, 2020 - 8:09 pm

I recall seeing I-495 signage or To I-495 signage
along 34th Street; wonder if any are still there.

http://www.nycroads.com/roads/mid-manhattan/

Reply
Jeff B. July 26, 2020 - 9:53 pm

It might be less frustrating to get a pair of bluetooth headphones. No cord to get “caster-ated.”

Reply
Brad July 27, 2020 - 6:35 am

The radio station WMCA got their call letters because they used to broadcast from the McAlpin Hotel.

Reply
redstaterefugee July 27, 2020 - 9:14 am Reply
Tal Barzilai July 27, 2020 - 11:53 pm

How come you didn’t cover 34th Street west of 7th Avenue?

Reply
Kevin Walsh July 28, 2020 - 10:44 pm

We’re getting picky in the comments section.

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Tal Barzilai July 28, 2020 - 11:31 pm

Although this isn’t exactly on 34th Street itself, it’s not too far off from it. Until recently on the right hand side of 3rd Avenue between this and 33rd Street stood Carl’s Steaks. They were said to be one of the best cheese steak place outside of Philadelphia. They also had another location in Manhattan in on Chambers Street between Broadway and Church Street. For a while, you could even enjoy them at Yankees games on several levels until they stopped and Jersey Mike’s replaced them. Unfortunately, they couldn’t stay in either Manhattan location due to rising costs thanks to Bloomberg’s gentrification wave. These days you can only find them as a food truck some where in Midtown, but I’m not sure where exactly, and I do miss their sandwiches.

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Tal Barzilai August 2, 2020 - 12:23 am

Correction: Carl’s Steaks was on the right hand of 3rd Avenue between 34th and 35th Streets, not 33rd Street as I said before, but I still miss them.

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Chris July 31, 2020 - 12:50 pm

Re 34th – i used to sleep in the large closet my first roommate in NYC had at the McAlpin back in ’82 before we got a nicer, real 2BR on GPS.

My first skipper was Pres of Shreve when the armory was replaced. I always think of him when I go past, and think it his best work.

Reply
Nirmal August 3, 2020 - 10:30 pm

Ohrbach’s provided the wardrobes for dark shadows in the 60’s.

Reply

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