Grand Slam, a tourist emporium on the west side of Broadway between 46th and 47th Streets, was once the first Horn & Hardart’s NYC Automat. Every day, from its opening in 1912 to the mid-1970s, hundreds of patrons would come here to gaze at food displayed in glass compartments like museum jewels. When they had surveyed the range of chicken cutlets, roast turkey slices, pies, and vegetables, they would toss nickels into adjacent slots and feast on inexpensive meals of their choosing. The Automat was a testament to modern convenience, and ultimately it changed the way Americans ate: coin-operated dining, instant meals, and fast food.
Joe Horn and Frank Hardart had been operating an automat in Philadelphia for a decade when they decided to expand to New York in 1912. The site they chose was in the middle of Times Square, just as that neighborhood was becoming the locus for everything new and innovative in popular culture. Employing the Philadelphia architectural firm of Stuckert & Sloan, the Horn & Hardart company built a new structure that occupied the width of four brownstone storefronts. Rising three stories, the building was covered with terra cotta and featured a large central entrance. Nicola D’Ascenzo, whose work also graced the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, designed an astonishing stained glass panel for the exterior facade, with the word “Automat” spelled in playful Art Nouveau letters.
By 1914 Horn and Hardart had opened three more outlets, and eventually their empire grew to far-off stretches of Washington Heights, Inwood, and the Bronx. But the original Automat at 1557 Broadway remained the chain’s flagship restaurant, heralded by guidebooks as one of the city’s great sights, right up there with the Statue of Liberty and Grant’s Tomb. As the Roaring Twenties gave way to the Depression, scores of people who would never have dreamed of eating in an automat during their flush years became a steady presence at the little round tables, savoring pecan pie a la mode in fur coats and intermingling with store clerks, out-of-work actors, and dime-a-dance girls. By this time, Automats had become a cultural symbol of modernity, featured in paintings by Edward Hopper, songs by Irving Berlin, and movies such as the 1937 classic, Easy Living.
Ironically, the Automat was killed by the very concept it had helped create: fast food. In the early 1970s, faced with years of declining profits, the Horn & Hardart company converted most of its remaining Automats to Burger Kings. The original location at 1557 Broadway held on until early 1976. Over the years, most of its beautiful decoration had been hacked away, but today, at Grand Slam, a few original elements remain, including a large brass staircase and a plaster ram’s head. After entering on Broadway, look up and you’ll see remnants of an Art Nouveau ceiling design first encounted by New Yorkers on a long-ago morning in 1912.
Excerpted from Automats, Taxi Dances and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure, by David Freeland. The book is published by NYU Press and can be ordered here.