Thursday, October 13, 2011

Garden Hardware: A Family Shop is the Nuts and Bolts of Hell's Kitchen 

When Bob Orgel moved his store, Garden Hardware, from Eighth to Tenth Avenue in October 2005, it marked another change to hell's Kitchen ever-shifting landscape.

Garden Hardware, founded by his grandfather Nathan Mandell and his father Bertram, opened in 1955.

His family’s presence on Eighth Avenue dates back even before ten. His grandmother Fay, a sharp businesswoman, bought the three-story building near 48th Street, which housed the business, in the early 1940's. She also owned a brownstone at 306 West 48th Street. The backyard abutted the store, and housed the popular Swiss restaurant Mont Blanc, which has since moved across the street.

She opened Fay's corset shop. It closed shortly after World War II when this accoutrement went out of fashion. The store remained vacant for a couple of years before the family converted it to a hardware store.

Hell’s Kitchen has had several "rows" or themed blocks. Two of the city's most popular venues, Restaurant and Theater Rows are still thriving. Eighth Avenue had its own unofficial "mini row" featuring hardware stores. This ended when Orgel moved his business.

At one time at least six hardware stores operated on Eighth Avenue or its side streets. Each one had carved its own niche. W.H. Silver near 50th Street specialized in the movie and film trade; West End Hardware, located just off Eighth on 48th served industrial customers; Longacre, located at the current site of the Food Emporium, at 49th, supplied the old Madison Square Garden, then across the avenue at what is now World Wide Plaza; Silver and Sons, near West 45th catered to the Broadway theaters; and Times Square Hardware on the northwest corner of 42nd, which housed a bank for many years, now a 24/7 Duane Reade.

His grandfather and father carried specialty products for the hospital, hotel and restaurant industries. They also had a large client base of midtown office workers and westside residents.

Different businesses often require specific types of hardware. "The businesses we supplied though different had similar needs. We handled plumbing, electrical supplies plus pieces for doors, tables, bathrooms and so forth. You name it. We had it. We carried the oddball stuff they could only find here. After all, "What is a restaurant? It is a glorified hotel," Orgel said.

Garden Hardware has built a solid reputation over the years. Among their clients are top tier restaurants like Le Bernardin and The Four Seasons. It also supplied the famous Mama Leone's, once the busiest eatery in the country. It closed in the early 90's. Garden still supplies the parent company Restaurant Associates.

In the mid-90's, with the demise of Silver & Sons, Garden Hardware added the Broadway theaters to its list of clients.
When asked which shows and theaters have accounts with him Orgel said, "All of them. We do every single Broadway show, several off-Broadway and some TV and movie productions." He cites Le Miz and Phantom as his first shows.

The late Mickey Fox, a theatrical carpenter and stagehand, gave Orgel his entree to Broadway.
"One day Mickey called and said he needed a few things and that I should start stacking supplies for stagehands," Orgel said.  "Shortly after that Mickey faxed over his list. It turned out to be forty pages long. The pages kept coming and coming. Many of the things he needed I had never heard of before. And at that time I had twenty years in the business. The theatrical industry calls it by their name, and we in hardware had a different term for it.
"For example they call a cable clamp a Crosby. We say eye bolt, they say shoulder eye bolt, which actually is a much higher rated item," he added.

Orgel began working at the store part-time at 18. He made deliveries and got to know the neighborhood. His mother had lived on West 49th Street and had attended P.S. 17 just around the corner from the store. When Orgel, who grew up in Queens and Nassau County, finished college at the New York Institute of Technology, he began working full-time. Although he studied architecture for a time and then advertising he felt destined for the business.

Garden is an old-fashioned city hardware store filled with nuts, bolts, wrenches, screwdrivers, locks, paints and all the important things needed to maintain, repair or build your home or business. It is not the place where you walk around with a shopping basket. The aisles are cluttered with merchandise. The ceiling high shelves are packed with thousands of items. It is the place to go when you cannot find what you want anywhere else, or where you should have gone to in the first place.

Orgel’s knowledge in hardware supplies and repair is impressive. He is soft-spoken and humble but he knows-it-all and readily dispenses advice and the steps to complete a project, big or small, when asked. He is Hell’s Kitchen’s answer to WNYC radio “how-to home repair” gurus Al and Larry Ubell.

A slim 40-story glass tower now fills the old Garden Hardware site. The building remains unoccupied and has never housed a tenant. After all it is difficult to replace the Orgel family and their business.

Garden Hardware and Supply Company: 701 Tenth Avenue New York 10036;  212-247-2889; opened Mon-Sat.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Farley Post Office: Neither Snow, nor Rain can Age a McKim, Mead, White Classic
Photo taken from the 31st side of the Farley Post Office facing north.

When you emerge from the crowded gloomy subterranean world of Pennsylvania Station at 33rd Street, relieved you survived its madness, you cannot help notice the grandeur of the James A. Farley Post Office building across Eighth Avenue.

Completed in 1913 and built on eight acres of land over the Pennsylvania (now Amtrak) rail tracks, this impressive beaux-arts style building features a two-block long staircase, extending almost its entire length.

From street level you climb thirty-one steps to reach twenty 53-foot high fluted columns topped off with lavish capitals.  The columns line the top step and form the world’s longest Corinthian colonnade. Behind them are intricately designed steel-laced grills just above the entrances. This leads to the two-block long service lobby parallel to Eighth Avenue with small rotundas at each end. The layered beauty of its slightly arched coffered ceilings and rich marble floors create a visual escape when waiting on long postal lines.

Designed by McKim, Mead and White who also built one of this country’s great buildings, the late Pennsylvania Station and preceded the train station at the same location. It had the same classic Roman style and enormity, but smaller columns.
The firm succeeded in creating a Roman Forum setting in midtown. Both buildings stretched from 31st to 33rd Streets; Penn Station from Eighth to Seventh Avenues, and Penn Terminal, its original name until 1918 when it became the General Post Office, from Eighth mid block to Ninth Avenue.

Surrounded by a moat on the south and north sides that allowed natural lighting for the workers on the lower level, the post office doubled in size in 1934 reaching Ninth Avenue. Now underutilized it once housed thousands of postal employees. It also had a medical office, gym, photo studio, cafeteria and a jail.  Future plans call for converting to a rail and retail hub for Amtrak and called the Daniel Patrick Moynihan station.
Named the James A. Farley Post Office in 1982, after the 53rd Postmaster General, it has a small Post Office museum and an Operation Santa post during the holidays. Made famous in the 1947 movie “Miracle on 34th Street” the Farley building had 24/7 service windows until a few years ago now closed due to postal cutbacks.  On tax day, usually April 15, thousands of last-minute filers fill the lobby and the steps waiting to post their tax returns,

Prominently inscribed on the front of the building above the columns are the words
 “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
Suggested by a McKim architect it is often mistaken as the official U.S. postal motto, though it derives from “Herodotus’ Histories” about the Greeks expedition against the Persians about 500 B.C.

It is listed on the National Register of Historical Places and it is a New York City Landmark.
(This is the third and last segment of  NYC buildings to visit part of my Elk Hotel alternatives)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

5 Madison Avenue: A Venetian Classic Graces Madison Square Park

5 Madison Avenue and North Annex (Credit Swisse) from 23rd and 5th Ave.

Casting a watchful eye over the serenity and beauty of Madison Square Park and its lush green lawns, colorful landscaping flowers, cherished monuments, European styled walkways and lamp posts, and magnificent century old trees, is the Metropolitan Life Tower. 

Designed by Pierre L. LeBrun of Napoleon LeBrun & Sons, the tower built in 1909, now known as Five Madison Avenue, is often over shadowed by its more famous neighbor, the Flat Iron building, on the Fifth Avenue side of the park.

Modeled after the campanile of St. Mark’s Square in Venice, the 52-story tower, at 700 feet and one inch, dwarfs its 325-foot Italian counterpart. The tallest structure in the world until 1913, when surpassed by the Woolworth building, it served as the world headquarters for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company until 2005. The tower is an add-on to the company’s block long 15 story “East Wing” built in 1893.

Part of the tower’s beauty is its sense of scale. It does not overwhelm Madison Square Park or its surroundings. With its stately clean design it feels as it rises from the park.  Only when you stand within a half block of it do you realize how tall it really is.

Built in the Renaissance style dolphin head balustrades and lion heads once decorated the tower. It lost much of its ornamental detailing during its 1964 renovation including its Tuckahoe marble fa├žade replaced with limestone.
Used in the building of many older city structures including the Federal Building on Wall Street and the Washington Arch in the Village, Tuckahoe is a white marble of high quality found in deposits along the Bronx River in Westchester County. 

The tower still retains many distinct features. The most notable are the clocks, one on each of its four sides, located on floors 25 to 27. They measure 26.5 feet in diameter and are larger than London’s Big Ben. The clocks are inlaid with white and blue mosaic. The minute hands weigh half a ton and the numbers are four feet long.

Each floor contains three bays with three windows. This alignment graces the tower’s four sides and are bracketed by layered textured corners. This pattern extends to the arcaded loggia on the 31st floor. Above the loggia is a pyramid style roof with small rounded English windows. A gilded cupola tops off the tower. It has what is often referred to as “an eternal light” since it remains lit even after the rest of the building’s outer lights go dark.

A three-year restoration project completed in 2002, added a multi-colored lighting system. Much like the Empire State building the tower is draped in different colors depending on holidays and special events.

The original Met Life complex also included a north annex, a 32-story building one block north. The insurance giant had initially planned a 100-story building for that site but canceled plans due to the depression. Credit Suisse occupies it today.
Future plans for the tower have varied between luxury residences and a boutique hotel.

Five Madison Avenue is a National Historic and a New York City landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
*Second part of a three part story: Elk Hotel alternatives.
Location: Five Madison Avenue between 23rd and 24th Streets.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Cooper Union: Lincoln, Roosevelt, 
Clinton and Obama Spoke Here

Main entrance of Cooper Union on the building's south side. 

Fasincating” is not how I would describe the Elk, a dive hotel on West 42nd Street in the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York City. When a friend planned her trip to the city she searched the Internet looking for things to do. And she found the Elk, a grungy hotel (see related story in this blog) on the corner of 42nd and Ninth Avenue.

After reading Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York and Shooting New York blogs she sent me the following email,  “I find it fascinating that this hotel has remained unchanged for over a hundred years.” Immediately I thought if 100 is the magic number then she is coming to the right city. New York has many important old buildings.

If she had asked me to name three alternate choices without giving it much thought I would suggest the following. (P.S. none are are on any tourist guide’s A-list of must-see places.) They are essential to the fabric of New York, all architecturally, culturally and historically noteworthy, and I like them. The buildings and their ages are: Cooper Union, 152; Met Life Tower, 101; James Farley Post Office, although only 98 years old, work began on it in 1910. 

Cooper Union Foundation Building: Founded in 1859, by industrialist Peter Cooper in 1859, Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, is tuition-free private college renowned for its three schools of architecture, art and engineering. Cooper, along with Samuel Morse, laid the first transatlantic cable. He built America’s first steam railroad engine the Tom Thumb.

With its Italianate designed facade Cooper Union is often described as a “high-rise brownstone.”
Built in a style popular with cast-iron builders it is the oldest standing steel beam framed building in America. Cooper, an iron maker as well, used rolled-iron I beams for structural support in the building.

Presidents Ulysses Grant, Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Bill Clinton and most recently Barack Obama have given major addresses in the historic 900-seat Great Hall, located in the basement. Presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln gave his “Might is Right” speech on February 27, 1860. Attended by many luminaries including Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune, Lincoln received rave reviews, which paved his way to the presidency.

Thomas Edison, World Trade Center architect Daniel Libeskind, sculptor George Segal studied here. Felix Frankfurter spent hours in the library. The NAACP and the Red Cross began here. It is a U.S. Historic Landmark and on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
**MY ELK HOTEL ALTERNATIVES...what one should see in NYC besides the ELK HOTEL (see Elk article in my blog). First of a three part story of 100 year-old buildings to check out.
Cooper Union is located at 7 East 7th Street between 3 & 4th Avenues, steps away from funky St. Mark’s Place between 3rd and Avenue A.