Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Neighborhood Guides - Flatiron District/Gramercy

  If you were a visitor to New York at the end of the 19th Century, the area around 23rd Street and 5th Avenue would not need an introduction. Madison Square and the streets around it hummed with the goings-on of the brightest, sparkling members of the Gilded Age. Businessmen and high society families shopped at Constable's and Lord & Taylor. They ate at Delmonico's and were entertained at Madison Square Garden. By 1892, Moses King's Handbook of New York City described the "...resplendent lines of retail stores sweeping around Union and Madison Squares and along the intervening and branching streets, these are always fascinating, alluring, and irresistible. What cannot be found here, is not to be found in any shopping district anywhere."
   Fashion is fickle however, and the party kept moving uptown as the wealthy kept building mansions further up 5th Avenue and the shops relocated with them. By the end of World War I, all the department stores had moved and were replaced by warehouses and factories serving the growing ready-to-wear garment industry. The glitz had been replaced by grit. Over time the area became yet another anonymous region of dwindling manufacturing, ready for reinvention. Like other former manufacturing areas, buildings were reinvented as office space and loft apartments. But unlike many areas, the old businesses often remain. Publishers, booksellers, wholesalers and other old businesses mingle with tech companies, residents, shoppers, and nightlife. And at the neighborhood's center, the namesake Flatiron Building stands timeless.
   The Flatiron District isn't a secret, but I do find it's overlooked by visitors as a destination in its own right. Few parts of the city better exemplify a hodgepodge of old and new as well as the Flatiron District. So here are some of my favorite tidbits from the neighborhood.


23rd Street & 5th Ave/Broadway
   First things first: Let's clear up some persistent misinformation. The Flatiron is not the first skyscraper. That honor goes to Chicago's Home Insurance Building of 1884. Nor is it the oldest skyscraper in New York. Nor was it the tallest building in the city when completed in 1902. The Park Row Building near City Hall is three years older and more than 100 feet taller. The building's fame comes simply from its incredible design and dramatic placement. Manhattan's street grid maintains a rigid order of 90 degree angles. But old colonial Broadway slashes through the island and creates numerous triangular lots as it bisects the Avenues. Often these lots are partially developed or turned into open plazas. But the Fuller Company, a general contracting firm, set out to build its own offices on the triangular 23rd Street lot. Their choice of architect was the great Daniel Burnham of Chicago. It would be his only New York commission and he made quite a statement.
   The Flatiron never gets old to look at. As many times as I've passed by, it always draws my eye again. The way the building seems to be only a slender 6 foot wide sliver from the side, or the way the setting sun illuminates the west side while leaving the east side in shadow. Just being able to see most of a building is a rare treat among Manhattan's rectangular architecture. It has drawn the city's filmmakers and photographers since its opening. Alfred Stieglitz's photograph of the building from the year it opened is one of the great shots of the city. The building is one of iconic shots of NYC.

Stieglitz's famous shot. 1903. 
between 20th and 21st Streets at Lexington Avenue

   Gramercy Park is an oddity. In most respects, it is just like Manhattan's other squares. It is a small, formal green space surrounded by genteel homes. But unlike Tompkins or Washington Square, Gramercy Park is kept under lock and key. It is Manhattan's only private park. It is also one of the first examples of large scale urban planning in the city.
   The whole district was purchased by developer Samuel B. Ruggles in 1831 when the area was still mostly swamp. He intended to develop a dignified enclave of houses surrounding a green square. Ruggles plotted 66 lots around the square. The owners of the lots would also be the caretakers of the square. And in a very impressive bit of lobbying, Ruggles convinced the legislature to lay out a new street to serve his development. If you've ever wondered why Lexington Avenue doesn't have a number like most of the other avenues, it is because it was laid out after the creation of the street grid to go directly to Gramercy Park.
   Gramercy also has a long history with the arts. The Players Club is on the south side of the park. It was founded by one of the great actors in early American theater, Edwin Booth. He was a renowned Shakespearean actor in the mid 1800s. His purpose in founding the Players was two-fold. Half the building would be his private home, and the ground floors would be a club bringing together the world of business and society with the arts, letters, and theater. Over the years, membership has run the gamut from Mark Twain to Nikola Tesla. Current members include Ethan Hawke and Jimmy Fallon. A statue of Edwin Booth stands at the center of Gramercy Park. And if you're trying to remember why a 19th century actor named Booth seems familiar, it's because of Edwin's brother John Wilkes Booth, the infamous assassin of Abraham Lincoln. Edwin's career would never quite recover from the shame of his brother's crime. Next door is a similar private club, the National Arts Club. The NAC occupies the former home of New York governor Samuel Tilden, who ran for president in 1876 and won the popular vote, but infamously lost the election to Rutherford B. Hayes when the election was thrown into the House of Representatives.
   If the allure of a private park is simply too much to overcome, there is one surefire way to gain access to the park. Book your room at the Gramercy Park Hotel, on the north side of 21st Street. All hotel guests get a key to the park.
20th Street between Park Ave and Broadway

   How many American Presidents would you guess are from New York City? It's by far the biggest city in the country after all. A few? 5 or 6? 10? The answer is 1. Just good ol' Teddy Roosevelt. The most famous outdoorsman to ever grace the White House grew up on 20th Street.
   The Roosevelts are one of the oldest and most prominent old money families in New York's history. Claes van Rosenvelt arrived in Manhattan sometime in the mid-17th century, a Dutch citizen in the Dutch settlement of Nieuw Amsterdam. Over the generations, the Roosevelts would become one of the venerable old Knickerbocker Dutch families of New York. They counted more than a century of old money by the time Theodore was born in 1858. Contrary to his later reputation as an man of active pursuits, Theodore was a frail child who suffered from chronic asthma. He would often be driven around at nights when he couldn't sleep to try and get some fresh air. When he was a teenager, his father had an outdoor gymnasium for the children to improve their physical health. When Teddy was 14, the family moved away uptown to 57th Street.
   The house is currently a National Park Service historic site dedicated to President Roosevelt. But sadly, the house is not actually the home Teddy grew up in. New York City has a bad habit of tearing down incredible historic structures. After the Roosevelt's moved away, the house became a commercial space and its facade was altered quite a lot. There was a group that attempted to buy the house in the 1910s but was unsuccessful and the house was torn down in 1916 and a cafe put in its place. According to the New York Times reporting, Roosevelt was asked if he wanted any part of the house and declined. In 1919, when Roosevelt died, a group called the Women's Roosevelt Memorial Committee purchased the property and set out to build a replica of the house on site. It was finished four years later. So although you won't be stepping on the floors young Teddy stepped on, you can still appreciate what life was like growing up in the city for our most outdoor President.

Various locations

   The Flatiron District is one of my favorite historic districts in New York City. The fine shops that lined the avenues are almost uniformly preserved and restored. The architecture here is some of the most fanciful in the city, and it is packed together making it easy to take in. Just 6th Ave south of 23rd Street has 5 full block former department stores in a row, all intact. Start on Broadway, which was the shopping for the high end trade. The area along Broadway and 5th Avenue was dominated by fine homes (like the Roosevelt home) in the 1830s through 50s. But That started changing in the Civil War as shops from further downtown began opening. The first commercial building in the area was called the Mortimer Building and it was built in 1862. It still stands at 22nd Street with corners on Broadway and 5th Ave and it currently houses fine homegoods retailer Restoration Hardware. Further down Broadway were the biggest brands on the block. Arnold Constable & Co. was the first major retailer to move to the area in 1868. The beautiful building that was built at the southwest corner of Broadway and 19th Street still stands even through alterations. The mansard roof added in 1876 is the dominant feature of the building and a reminder of the elegant shopping that went on inside. Accounts at the shop were held by the families of Grover Cleveland, Thomas Edison, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and more.

   Just up the block on 20th Street is the former store of Lord & Taylor. L&T started in NYC in 1830 as a small dry goods store and had already become a major brand by the time they followed Arnold Constable uptown in 1830. Rather than the marble facing of Arnold Constable, L&T was built with a fashionable cast-iron facade, arched storefronts, and large picture windows. The store made quite a statement and the large corner tower on 20th and Broadway still defines the streetscape today. Both L&T and Arnold Constable moved uptown in 1914, with Lord & Taylor moving into their current 5th Ave building that year. Their old buildings were converted to light industry and have since been restored to retail and office use.

   Most of the shoppers on Broadway would arrive at the shops in their carriages, giving rise to the term "carriage trade" to define the high end shopping. Over on 6th Ave, the shops were less genteel and more bustling. The arrival of the 6th Avenue elevated train in 1878 meant that middle class shoppers could hop on the el from points all over the city and make their way to 6th Ave for their shopping. 6th Ave became the city's newest "fashion row." Most of the shops would start small and expand until they rapidly took up the whole block. B. Altman was the first retailer to make the jump to 6th, opening their cast-iron shop on 18th street just as the el was under construction in 1876. Altman's was a New York institution that lasted on 5th Ave all the way until 1989. The building at 18th Street still stands intact and now contains a Container Store. Across the street from Altmans was the amazing palace of Chicago-based retailer Siegel-Cooper. It was a power play for Siegel-Cooper to come to New York and open a gleaming shop right at the 18th Street el station. It was a record-setting building. It was the largest department store in the city when it opened. It was the second most expensive NYC building built at the time. It awarded the city's largest ever contracts for elevators and iron work. And it was the first steel-frame shop in the city. The most over-the-top feature was the lobby, where a copy of Daniel Chester French's sculpture from the Chicago World's Fair stood atop a fountain. Advertising copy for the shop advised their customers to meet at the fountain. Despite the hoopla, the "big store" would last only 20 years with Henry Siegel selling upon going bankrupt in 1914 and the store would close three years later.

   As you walk north up 6th Ave, the department stores appear one by one on the west side of the street (which was deemed to have better light). Simpson, Crawford, & Simpson from 1900 is between 19th and 20th. Hugh O'Neill from 1887 is between 20th and 21st. Adams Dry Goods from 1902 is between 21st and 22nd. And Ehrich Brothers from 1889 is between 22nd and 23rd. My favorite of these is the Hugh O'Neill store. Hugh O'Neill and his brother Henry followed a storybook tale from Belfast immigrants to American retail giants. They were already prospering in 1867 after moving their millinery shop to Broadway and 20th Street. But they thought the opportunities were better on 6th Ave and so they moved to two houses on 6th Ave in 1870 and began a small dry goods business. By 1880, they had purchased the full block and began work on a grand store. O'Neill happily catered to the larger population of middle class shoppers, often advertising the discounts available at his store compared to the prices on Broadway. His shop was a great success until his death in 1902, when the store declined and closed during WWI just as most of the other 6th Ave shops did.

Hugh O'Neill store in 1890. From the New York Times.

   The dominant features of the store are the gold domes at either corner of the building. Visitors today see them looking just as they did in that old NY Times photo above. But, in fact, the domes were torn off many decades ago as the building was converted to manufacturing, even being used to manufacture Army uniforms. The current domes are actually replicas that were added less than 10 years ago when the building was converted to luxury condos.

20th Street and 6th Ave

   This is the oldest landmark in the neighborhood and a reminder of an era before that of the big shops. It was built as a progressive Episcopal church between 1844-53. It was groundbreaking in allowing worshipers to come to church for free without having to pay a pew rent. And it was also one of Richard Upjohn's many church designs in NYC, who famously designed the current Trinity Church at Wall Street. But it became most famous after closing in 1975. The congregation merged with two other nearby churches and the building was de-consecrated. In 1983, the building was bought by nightclub owner Peter Gatien who opened his third, and ultimately most succesfull and infamous night club, the Limelight. The debauched club in an old church was a bound-to-succeed business model and The Limelight opened by having a 70th birthday bash for William Burroughs (with Madonna in attendance) and after that it was nonstop. Along with Tunnel and Palladium, Limelight was one of the mainstays of the 80s and 90s club circuits in NYC. Today, the building has been adapted again and now houses a small collection of boutiques on various levels and nooks of the old church.


   The grand department stores have long gone, but the spaces they built are still perfect for retail. And as the city's economy and tourism have roared back, shops one again populate the streets and avenues of the neighborhood. 6th Avenue these days is home to big box retailers like Bed, Bath & Beyond and TJ Maxx (in the Siegel Cooper Building), and Old Navy and Modell's across the street. 5th Ave has also become a retail center with international clothing brands setting up shop. In fact, 5th Ave in the flatiron district has a lot of the same shops as Soho or (upper) 5th Ave, but without the major crowds, making it one of my favorite places to hit up major retailers like the Gap or J. Crew.
   But what makes Flatiron unique is the mix of shops catering to both everyday shoppers and more specialty shops. Some even have the ability to transport you to the dry goods shops of old. Starting with:

19th Street and Broadway

   This is one of those fun places where the new and trendy is directly mirroring the old. ABC Carpet and Home is every New Yorker's dream furniture store. Filled for six floors with carpets, chandeliers, chairs, desks, and everything you could possibly imagine for your apartment. The items are an impeccable combination of rustic, modern, and classical pieces all matching the store's vibe of old and new combined. Could I ever afford anything in there? I doubt it. But walking through lets you at least dream about that perfect rustic/modern loft you'll have waiting for you downtown....someday.
   What also makes the shop cool is the history of the building. ABC is in the old W. & J. Sloane building. Sloane was the major retailer and wholesaler of fine rugs and carpets in its day, and the 19th Street building was built in 1882 as their shop on Broadway. Sloane sold carpets for the Plaza, Waldorf, and Savoy hotels and provided rugs when Nicholas II was coronated as Tsar of Russia. ABC has kept the interior of the building quite untouched. In fact, it probably resembles the industrial 20th century uses of the space better than the fine 19th century shopping. But still, being able to go browse through fine rugs and one of New York's fanciest stores in the exact building where New Yorkers did the same thing 125 years ago is a rare treat.

19th Street and Broadway

   Located kitty-corner from ABC, Fishs Eddy is a more fun and freewheeling home goods store. It's chock full of affordable and fun kitchen supplies. In fact, I'm drinking coffee from one of their mason jar mugs as I write this! It is one of the best non-traditional souvenir shopping since much of their merchandise has New York themed decoration. Where else can you get a coffee service set with the mugs labeled "cawfee" and the creamer labeled "creamuh" the way a proper New Yorker would say it? It's a great shop for stuff to bring the folks back home.

18th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues

   There are camera and electronics stores all over midtown, stuffed with cameras and accessories in the windows. They are ALL disreputable scam shops and you should never shop at them. Adorama doesn't have as large or devoted a fan base as their competitor B&H, but you will find fair priced, high quality goods for all your photo and video needs. And for all the tourists with their SLR cameras shooting NYC for the first time, Adorama makes a great toy store.

6th Ave between 17th and 16th Street

   This isn't a traditional Army/Navy store, though the do have plenty of insignia and patches. Mostly, Dave's is a working man's idea of the perfect store. It is independently owned, staffed by long-term professionals who are informed and helpful. It stocks an incredible selection of workwear, from jackets and coats to denim and boots. And it keeps prices low and selection high. For every husband who has ever been dragged unwillingly on a shopping trip, just drop them at Dave's and they'll come home with an armful of shopping bags. And for all the visitors caught out by New York's sometimes severe cold and rain, come here for the best boots and raingear. You'll look so much better than in a poncho. And as a special tip, the shop seems to be very popular with European tourists who want to have a hint of American steelworker or cowboy in their wardrobe.

18th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues

   I will admit that crafting isn't much of a hobby of mine. But if you are the type that swoons over typography, stationary, gifting, and scrapbooking, you will fall in love at this palace of paper. It's appropriate in a neighborhood that still employs a great deal of the publishing industry (the Flatiron building is a publishing office) would put paper on such a pedestal. They can also be your hookup for unique souvenirs for you and your crafty friends back home.

19th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues

   Now here's a store devoted to my favorite passions: reading and travel. Idelwild is a wonderful independent bookstore stocking travel guides for all over the world, travel memoirs, foreign language books, and even language classes. It is, of course, a great resource for picking up NYC guides that you might have forgotten to bring with you. But, for me, nothing inspires travel more than being on the road. When I'm on the road I'm already thinking about my next journey. Let Idlewild propel your dreams of globetrotting.

Food & Drink

   The Flatiron District is one of the few true destinations for fine dining in New York City. The restaurant scene is headlined by reinvented fine rustic cuisine at Gramercy Tavern, Craft, and ABC Kitchen (yes, it is inside ABC Home). And at Eleven Madison, chef Daniel Humm puts together the most critically acclaimed menu in the city. Much has been written about these fine places, and if you have the budget you should splurge on one of them. But what about the more casual or everyday lunch and dinner places? There's lots of great options in the area.

19th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues

   This is a Spanish tapas restaurant with a great Spanish wine and beer selection. It's an ideal spot for dinner with a big group as the tapas menu means everyone gets to try a little bit of everything. Patatas Bravas and Croquettes make for classic Spanish eating. But the dish everyone will want more of is the datiles con beicon: bacon-wrapped dates! It is a memorable mix of sweet and savory. This is a great lunch or dinner spot for groups or couples.

18th Street between Broadway and 5th Ave

   Since I lived in Texas for a few years, I always like my Mexican food cheap and plentiful, whixh sian't always the way of things up north. Most of Manhattan's more upscale Mexican places don't do much for me. But I have to admit, I liked Rosa Mexicano quite a lot. The can't miss item is the guacamole appetizer that is actually made at your tableside. It's a bit of cheesy showmanship but it does guarantee that your guacamole hasn't been sitting in a fridge for days. It's a pricier Mexican option, but it is one the most memorable I have had in NYC.

5th Avenue between 23rd ans 22nd Street.

   This is exactly the kind of place that is usually written up in guidebooks left and right. But somewhow, it ends up overlooked. It is a historic lunch counter from 1929, which has recently been bought and kept running by a new owner. It oozes with history and threadbare charm. You can imagine mid-century businessmen in fedoras and trenchcoats scarfing down their lunch. Classic lunch counter dishes like tuna melts and BLTs are always good. And from the soda fountain you can still get a lime rickey or an egg cream. Never heard of an egg cream you say?!? It's a classic New York concoction of chocolate syrup, seltzer, and milk. The kids will love it. The food is solid, on par with any other good diner in the city. But the ambiance is what's really memorable.

Inside Madison Square Park at 23rd and Madison Avenue

   Let's get this out of the way. Most everyone has heard of Shake Shack by now. Here's my take: The burgers are excellent. They're smaller sized (one handed eating, not two) and worth waiting in a short line for. If the line is really lengthy, don't bother. The fries are average. The frozen custard and and concretes are excellent on a hot day and can be bought from a separate cold food only line.

21st Street between Park Avenue and Broadway

   Sometimes I can't quite put my finger on why I like a place. Sometimes it might just be that they don't do anything wrong. Harding's has a lot of good things about it. Their drinks and food are inspired by classic American recipes. The cocktails, beer, and wine are all normally priced for a nice Manhattan place. The food is tasty and comforting, especially the short ribs and pumpkin soup. The beer and wine list is high quality, even if it's not extensive. The staff is friendly and helpful. The space has cool vibe to it. The crowd is lively but not overcrowded or extra annoying. There's nothing wrong with it! And while that might seem like faint praise, I mean it as a high compliment. Harding's isn't likely to win any best of the city awards, but it's a great spot in the neighborhood you could come back to again and again.

20th Street and Broadway

   Wine and cheese, with the emphasis on the cheese. Beecher's isn't just a cheese shop/deli upstairs and wine bar downstairs. The highlight of the shop is the actual cheesemaking that takes place right in the front window. Their flagship cheese line is award-winning and delicious. And praises are sung to the rafters about their Mac & Cheese. It's a lovely spot to drop in for lunch on the run. But it's even better at night when the cellar lounge opens downstairs. They have a great happy hour deal on wine, cheese, and food. And all the while the cheese ages gracefully along the cellar walls while you drink.

18th Street between Park Avenue and Broadway

   Trendy cocktails and wine cellars are all fine and good, but sometimes you need to put your foot down on a brass rail. Thank goodness for the Old Town Bar. It opened in 1892, and kept on running through prohibition due to it's close proximity and close working relationship with the Democratic Party and Tammany Hall. They claim their dumbwaiter to be oldest active such system in the city. There was even a centennial birthday bash when the bar's urinals turned 100 years old in 2011. It's the perfect place to end a long day in one of the great quarters of Manhattan.

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