AUTOMATS, TAXI DANCES, AND VAUDEVILLE: Reviews/Press
Razed to Be Remembered
Capturing the raffish vigor of New York’s fabled neighborhoods
Newton’s third law—every action has an equal and opposite reaction—goes on display every day in Manhattan. The action is provided by renters and owners who want a piece of the city. They’re the ones who empower developers, a group that delights in bashing down old structures and replacing them with high-rises (and higher prices).
The equal-and-opposite reaction to this process takes the form of a wistful longing for bygone pleasure palaces. When they were around, those dance halls and theaters and restaurants were taken for granted. Now that they’re gone, the lamentations are as loud as the wrecking ball.
In “Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville,” historian David Freeland takes full advantage of this longing for the colorful past. With an archaeologist’s eye and a storyteller’s wit he roams from Chinatown to Harlem—concentrating on scenes of the city’s nightlife a century ago during the vaudeville era but also reaching back into the 19th century as he summons up forgotten neighborhoods and personalities who gave old New York its raffish vigor.
En route, he provides a hilarious anthology of New Yorkers’ biases—immigrant populations invariably came in for a hard time from the locals. On the Bowery in the mid-19th century, the burgeoning population of German newcomers was generally regarded as ambitious and industrious, but that didn’t stop a historian at the time from giving a satiric account: “The chief end of man has long been a theme of discussion among theologians and philosophers. The chief end of that portion who emigrate from the Fatherland is to drink lager, under all circumstances and all occasions.”
In the early 20th century, a growing Chinese presence downtown was marked by warfare between the criminal “tongs” that ruled the nascent Chinatown, stirring the scorn of established New Yorkers. “Two years ago,” reported the New York Times after one bloody outbreak of tong violence in 1905, “the policeman at the corner said, he would have summed up the whole situation in the words ‘just Chinks,’ but yesterday he was obviously wondering what kind of people those were who on Sunday night, ablaze with fury, hacking, hewing, shooting, and stabbing as if possessed of the devils they worship, were now sitting on the curbstone, lounging at the restaurant doors, peering at ornaments in the windows of the curious shops as if nothing had never happened, as if nothing ever could happen.”
But even a century ago, New Yorkers savored a visit to Chinatown, particularly if it included taking in one of the exotic dramas at the Chinese Theater. It was owned by a prosperous merchant with a shady background: Chu Fong, who in 1892 was the first person of Chinese descent to be convicted of forgery in New York. The next year, he opened the theater, where the offerings were “initially viewed with perplexity by New York audiences,” Mr. Freeland writes.
Within a few years, though, New Yorkers were “making efforts not just to see plays at the Chinese Theater but actually to enjoy them.” Despite the owner’s dodgy past, the theater’s offerings were decorous to the point of prudery. Wrote one Christian missionary: “Here, instead of some unnameable social scandal being utilized as the dramatic impulse of their play, the national history, the greatest fictions of Chinese literature, embodying innumerable moral precepts and examples, are the subjects for the actors’ interpretations.”
These days, Mr. Freeland reports, the interior of the building that housed the Chinese Theater on Doyers Street “has been so carved up and reapportioned that whatever may exist from its past is hidden beneath its newly plastered walls”—it’s a place where travel agents, dentists, feng shui specialists and others now ply their trades.
At the turn of the century, New York’s first movie studio was in full swing—on the roof of 841 Broadway. American Mutoscope used actors from the theaters that then clustered on 14th Street. The actors’ stagy performances made the films laughable, but viewers of the company’s hand-cranked films derived even more amusement from the subject matter. The movies offered equal-opportunity derision. In one movie, the bibulous Irish were mocked with a sign in a tavern promising “All Kinds MICK’ST Drinks.” Another film, “Hollow-E’en in Coon-town,” was a comedy—according to the Mutoscope catalog—about “four darkies burying their faces in basins filled with flour, in a search for coins.” The comedy “A Gesture Fight in Hester Street” depended for its humor on the hilarity of a clash between “two Hebrews.”
Also at that time, Second Avenue downtown was a hotbed for the performing arts—though the Yiddish-theater productions found there were comprehensible only to Jewish immigrants who jammed the tenements and sweatshops of the Lower East Side. The Yiddish theater presented everything from Shakespeare to shund—the Yiddish word for trash.
This is an area of particular interest to me—I wrote a book about it a few years back, and Mr. Freeland is kind enough to quote from that work: Boris Thomashefsky, a famed impresario of the Yiddish theater, “later compared himself to his rivals by boasting, ‘If they rode in on a real horse, I had a golden chariot drawn by two horses. If they killed an enemy, I killed an army.’ ”
Mr. Freeland drops by the Hebrew Actors Union headquarters on East 7th Street. The place is full of old photographs and ghosts. “The long clothes rack is empty,” he reports, “save for a woolen sweater, indicating the presence of one last caretaker. Everyone else has gone home.”
Very little has escaped the author. He investigates Tin Pan Alley’s old haunts on West 28th Street near Broadway. It was here that the Von Tilzer brothers, Harry and Albert, did their best work. Harry came up with the song about a lady who married for money and lived to regret it, “A Bird in a Gilded Cage” (1900); Albert wrote “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” (1908).
The original, low-level buildings of Tin Pan Alley remain intact but are now used for apartments, Mr. Freeland tells us. He visits a few of them, sprinkling fascinating asides as he goes—at midcentury, he says in passing, “actor Zero Mostel used the top floor of 51 West 28th as a painting studio.”
The author also walks through the nearby Tenderloin, once the gambling center of New York, and he takes a long, affectionate look at old Harlem. Long before the celebrated Apollo Theater, there was the Lincoln on 135th Street, a showplace for the likes of Duke Ellington and the blues singers Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.
During the silent-film era, the Lincoln’s daily slate of movies included musical accompaniment on the pipe organ played by a teenage Fats Waller. Nowadays, the building is occupied by the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church and, “aside from some dropped ceilings,” the interior is largely unchanged.
Mr. Freeland says that his book searches for “windows”—odd openings “where we can view the past, if only for an instant.” As I peered through those windows, two ironies struck me. The first concerns the fate of automats, those marvelous restaurants where diners dropped coins into a slot, unlocking one of the little glass-fronted doors and gaining access to a sandwich, a bowl of soup, a slice of pie or some other tasty prepared food waiting in its own cubby hole. Now, in an age of true automation, when everything from cars to computers are manufactured on assembly lines, those economical eateries have vanished.
Perhaps the most famous automat of all, the Horn & Hardart’s that operated on Broadway in Times Square from 1912 to 1976, was converted into a Burger King. Today, Mr. Freeland says, the site is the Grand Slam tourist shop, where the offerings include James Dean refrigerator magnets and Osama Bin Laden toilet paper. But if you pause to look around, the author notes, you’ll notice a small mosaic and a “majestic staircase” that are vestiges of a more elegant past.
The second irony is to not to be found in the book but on its spine. “Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville” is published by New York University Press. NYU, my alma mater, is responsible for draining much of the charm from Greenwich Village East. The construction of college buildings and dormitories has overwhelmed the Washington Square area, and there are more buildings to come. Perhaps this delightful volume is the university’s way of doing penance.
—Mr. Kanfer is the author of “Stardust Lost: The Triumph, Tragedy, and Mishugas of the Yiddish Theater in America” and, most recently, “Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando.”
Publishers Weekly, 8/17/2009
Web Pick of the Week
Automats, Taxi Dances and Vaudevilles: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure
Lost—and Found—New York
By Margaret Heilbrun — Library Journal, 7/15/2009
David Freeland’s Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure (New York Univ.) will be published in August (see review, p. 109). At summer’s approach, I have arranged to meet the author, a historian of music and popular culture and a contributing writer to New York Press, on the southwest corner of Canal and Bowery, near the edge of New York’s Chinatown. It’s been scores and scores of years since there was any canal or bower on offer here, but part of the magic of old street names is in their hints of what once was, their beckoning to you to look further.
Freeland himself (www.gothamlostandfound.com) was beckoned to this part of Manhattan by his interest in the 19th-century beer gardens of New York, specifically the Atlantic Garden, which opened on the Bowery in 1858 and lasted until 1909. Such beer gardens satisfied many thirsts; they also offered entertainment, music, and conviviality to their largely immigrant customers.
In his quest for traces of the Atlantic Garden, Freeland explains, he came up against a brick wall—as well as stucco, residing, multilevel signage, construction netting, and concrete, all of which flourish on every block we walk along. But, Freeland explains, he persisted. Although “when historians mentioned the Atlantic at all, they usually described it as having been completely demolished,” he wanted to keep looking.
The Atlantic Garden backed onto Elizabeth Street, from which at first it seemed to Freeland that only the commercial offerings of today’s Chinatown could now be seen. He ventured into the Elizabeth Street police station, and—after persuading the cops as to his intentions (which took a while, he says)—he was able to find a vantage point there from which an old peaked roof, the structure of the Atlantic Garden itself, could be seen. Behind the clamorous facades shielding it from the street, it looks stoic and peaceful.
When Freeland conducts me next to Doyers Street (above), called in previous centuries “a forbidding cow-path,” and, more famously, “the bloody angle,” for the Tong gang warfare that was centered there 100 years ago, is it any wonder that, grid-oriented as I am, I feel a touch of vertigo? Doyers bends between Pell Street and the Bowery; Freeland shows me its secrets. We go through a doorway east of the yellow Co Co Fashion sign and descend through successive staircases and along hallways. Just as Freeland has said in his book, it’s a more circuitous version of Doyers Street itself, now revealing the underground storefronts of podiatrists, feng shui specialists, and other commercial offices.
What do today’s residents of Chinatown who frequent these businesses make of the hallway’s eccentric dips and turns before other stairs take them up and out onto where the Bowery meets Chatham Square? Do they know that it’s a pattern in exact echo of the old underground passageway from Doyers Street’s Chinese Theater to the Chinese Theatrical Boarding House on the Bowery? The popular Chinese comedic actor, Ah Foon, took this route one evening in 1909, seeking to stay hidden from the Hip Sing Tong. Accompanied by policemen—from that same station house that still stands—he made it back to his boarding-house room. The old dormer of that boarding house is still visible if you cast your eyes above the facade of the United Orient Bank that now inhabits the space. But Ah Foon was killed that night. The underground passageway kept him safe; the boarding house hallways did not.
We have now traveled through Part 1 of Freeland’s book, and I bid him good-bye, wishing that I could head uptown through the Tenderloin, catch a quick bite at the grandious art deco Times Square Automat, take the El up past San Juan Hill, while reading in the evening paper about what’s on offer for the night’s entertainment up at the Nest on West 133rd Street. Freeland, in his book and on my tour, has not simply pointed out the hidden structures and embellishments that abide; he has gathered their stories and secured them, buttressed with precise research. He accepts all that is lost, but he retains for us the dreams with which we, immigrants all, invested these spaces.
Historian and music journalist Freeland (Ladies of Soul) shows us the palimpsest that is Manhattan: a volume of tales, many obscured and overwritten by newer stories, with much early material lost forever, but with parts that lurk obscurely, not entirely erased. A seeker like Freeland, who set forth both along New York’s pavement and into its archival material, can discover many old stories, ripe with adventure, colorful personalities, and triumphs and sorrow. Stoked by his knowledge of local cultural and musical history, Freeland sought to “bring out of hiding” New York’s obscured places, the half-visible fragments, that testify to earlier eras of the city’s history of entertainment and leisure. Freeland explains that because popular culture is ever shifting and changing, and operates beyond the status quo, its built environment falls prey to destruction sooner than does that of government and finance. From Chinatown (beer gardens, Chinese theater, gang warfare) to the East Village and Union Square (the “Jewish Rialto,” rooftop movie-making) to Tin Pan Alley, Times Square (the Automat, taxi dancers), and Harlem (jazz and ragtime on 133rd Street), Freeland turns his readers into intrepid time travelers. The richness of the New York stories he presents, in elegant prose, is more abundant than the actual brick and mortar that remain. His is a guidebook to the city’s history, to what it has bequeathed us, even as much may be lost. VERDICT Highly recommended for all urban history buffs, New York City visitors and residents, and all studying the colorful history of urban American popular culture. [See the Behind the Book, p. 108.]—Margaret Heilbrun, Library Journal
Q. How did Tin Pan Alley get its name?
A. There have been different Tin Pan Alleys, as the music publishing business moved north in Manhattan. But there’s a standard account of the origin of the term, which is believed to have first seen print in 1903, describing the block of 28th Street between Broadway and Avenue of the Americas, where music publishers were then concentrated.
According to the account, Monroe H. Rosenfeld, a journalist and songwriter, was visiting the office of Harry Von Tilzer, a music publisher, in 1902, and asked about the weird sound Von Tilzer was making on his piano. Von Tilzer had inserted strips of paper between the strings, either to simulate a banjo or to muffle the sound from complaining neighbors, depending on who tells the story.
“It sounds like a tin pan,” Rosenfeld supposedly said, and then, “Why, this whole street is a tin pan alley.”
Not so fast, cautions David Freeland in a new book, “Automats, Taxi Dances and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure” (NYU Press). Mr. Freeland suggests that the term evolved in a more gradual way, referring to the noise made by all the pianos on the block.
He also writes that Tin Pan Alley was most likely a pun on Tin Pot Alley, a very old lane south of Rector Street that had existed since Dutch Colonial times near 55 Broadway and was renamed Exchange Alley in the 20th century.
Further, Mr. Freeland notes, the term “tin pot piano” had been used since at least the 1850s to describe a cheap instrument. MICHAEL POLLAK
Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville
Four out of five stars
New Yorkers who incessantly gripe about gentrification have become as grating as the near-constant noise of luxury condo construction—yes, even in this economy. But David Freeland’s affectionate, detail-packed tome about Manhattan’s forgotten pleasure centers—from dance halls to gambling dens—adds a lyrical song to the cacophony. Organized geographically and for the most part chronologically, the book explores eight neighborhoods—Chinatown, Chatham Square, the Bowery, the East Village, Union Square, the Tenderloin, Harlem and Times Square—via their entertainment centers, with the added hook that physical remnants of these historical hot spots still exist.
With only simple maps and two-dozen illustrations to supplement his prose, the onus lies on Freeland’s words to evoke these long-lost places, both in aesthetic and spirit. At times, the meticulousness of his physical descriptions can be overwhelming, making the buildings difficult to picture. However, he captivates when relating the events that occurred in and around those edifices: a bloody gang massacre at the Chinese Theater; the fight to serve beer on Sundays at the Atlantic Garden (much more thrilling than you’d think!); the nexus of gambling, gangsters and girls of ill repute in the Tenderloin; and the hit sounds of Tin Pan Alley, to name a few. He also ends up providing a cursory history of the borough’s immigration and northward migration.
Since all the stories are linked to (mostly) still-standing but nonlandmark structures, the book also serves as a sort of preservationist’s call to arms, as well as a reminder to those who seek out the city’s grittier past: Take in these already severely altered sights while you still can.—Raven Snook
THE NEW LEADER
Automats, Taxi Dances,
and Vaudeville: Excavating
Manhattan’s Lost Places
By David Freeland
288 pp. $19.95 (paper).
New York Times columnist
COLSON WHITEHEAD, a talented young writer living in Brooklyn, observed
in an essay several years ago that the physical city of the past is, for a true New
Yorker, often more real than what exists at present. “No matter how long you have
been here,” Whitehead wrote, “you are a New Yorker the first time you say, ‘That
used to be Munsey’s’ or ‘That used to be the Tic Toc Lounge.’”
By that definition—and it’s not a bad one—David Freeland is as true a New
Yorker as you are likely to find. In a city where endless change is about the only
constant, he searches for what once was or what, at best, survives as a remnant.
“Our buildings reflect who we are as people,” he says. Even if many of those buildings
are spectral now, they “can still speak to us today and tell us something about
Freeland is not concerned with architectural triumphs like stately banks,
inspiring churches or centers of political power. He goes in for racier stuff:
buildings from the 19th and early 20th centuries where ordinary people sought
entertainment, relaxation and (gasp!) raw sex. Unlike a majestic bank or a neo-
Renaissance church, old-time dance halls and gambling joints come and go in a
blink. You have to catch them while you can, Freeland says in his Introduction, or
risk losing them forever: “These are the places that most often disappear after
their economic usefulness runs out, casualties of an American popular culture
that is always moving to the next trend.”
He adds: “Places associated with entertainment culture possess dramatic and
sometimes turbulent histories.” Indeed, where are you more likely to dig up fantastic
stories—in a bank, notwithstanding the recent revival of interest in Dillinger,
or in a Harlem swing club called Pod’s and Jerry’s Log Cabin, where Billie Holiday
got her start?
Even the staid Automat, that early mode of fast-food dining pioneered a
century ago by Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart, can produce some great yarns.
One day in 1933, a man was found dead in the bathroom of a Horn & Hardart on
the Upper West Side. Moments later, a middle-aged woman dropped dead. Both
had been poisoned. It turned out that the man, despairing over financial losses
brought about by the Depression, decided to kill himself by dousing a seeded
roll “with enough cyanide to take out a borough.” The woman was known in
the neighborhood as a scavenger, who would hang out at the Automat to grab
table scraps. She polished off the guy’s half-eaten roll. (And then it was discovered
that she had $45,000 stashed in the bank—equivalent to nearly $740,000 in
FREELAND, a writer on popular culture and music history, focuses here on a
few Manhattan neighborhoods that have undergone such enormous transformations
over the decades that it is virtually impossible in some instances to detect
what was there in 1970, let alone in 1870. Reading this book is like going on a walking
tour with a really knowledgeable guide, who knows not only what building
to point out but also what stories lurk behind the front door.
We stop early on at 50-52 Bowery (De Bouwerij, by the way, is Old Dutch for
“farm”). A commercial building sits there now, obscuring the remains of what
was once the Atlantic Garden, a highly popular concert hall and tavern for much
of the second half of the 19th century. The Atlantic was at the heart of repeated legal
battles over whether beer sales and entertainment should be allowed on Sunday.
At 841 Broadway, off Union Square, we visit a building whose rooftop, starting
in 1896, was home to the American Mutoscope Company (later to morph into
Biograph). It is believed to have been the first movie studio in Manhattan. Although
the movie industry shifted before long to Hollywood, the rooftop studio “remained
firmly a New York institution,” Freeland writes. “During its early years,
American Mutoscope often solicited story ideas through the use of public newspaper
ads. And if an idea was accepted, most likely it would be filmed using
actors pulled from Union Square vaudeville houses; or, if they were not available,
bartenders, sales clerks or anyone else who happened to work within the
The tour goes on. Second Avenue below 14th Street was home to a oncevibrant
Yiddish theater. Streets in the 20s and 30s west of Fifth Avenue formed the
notorious Tenderloin district, ridden with crime and graft. Received wisdom is that
it got its name in the 1870s when a corrupt police sergeant named Alexander
(Clubber) Williams was transferred there from his less lucrative former precinct.
“I’ve had nothing but chuck steak for a long time,” Clubber boasted to a colleague,
“and now I’m going to get a little bit of tenderloin.”
No. 6 West 28th Street is today an uninteresting store selling perfumes, sneakers
and wristwatches. But at the turn of the last century, it was home to a popular
gambling house run by an ex-bank robber named Thomas (Shang) Draper. Also
based on West 28th Street was the music publishing center known as Tin Pan
Alley. A dominant figure on the street was Harry Von Tilzer. His name is barely
known today. More familiar to you should be his brother, Albert. Still not ringing a
bell? In 1908, Albert Von Tilzer wrote the music to a number heard endlessly
throughout the American summer: “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” (with words
by Jack Norworth).
Freeland takes us to Harlem and the Lincoln Theater on West 135th Street,
now a church. People came there to hear Mamie Smith, billed as “Queen of the
Blues.” Her fame would not endure. The singing Smith better known today is Bessie.
But when Mamie walked onto the Lincoln stage in 1922 and “opened her
mouth,” we are told, “the sound was clear and penetrating; it rose to the balcony
sconces and lodged in the filigree.”
Freeland ends his tour in Times Square, which of course remains a center of entertainment.
But it has none of the glitter of the Diamond Horseshoe, Billy Rose’s
nightclub in the Paramount Hotel, which still stands on West 46th Street. Then
again, it has come far from the tawdriness of the Orpheum, at 46th and Broadway.
Its taxi dancers, their toes crushed by companion-starved men, inspired the
Rodgers and Hart Depression classic “Ten Cents a Dance.” Years later, as Times
Square degenerated from tawdry to sinister, young women offered a good deal
more than a dance—and for a lot more than a dime.
The book is not without its ironies. One reason the Tenderloin district disappeared
is that a thick slice of it in the West 30s was carved away to build the majestic
Pennsylvania Station, opened in 1910. Five decades later, that Penn Station disappeared,
too, torn down in one of the greatest urban crimes ever. Yet the demolition
had a saving grace. It ignited a lasting movement of landmarks preservation.
The author is on the side of the preservationists.
“New Yorkers are an inherently curious lot; once they make the city
their own they want to know everything they can about it,” he writes. “The challenge
they will face in the future is that exploring history becomes more difficult
once the physical markers themselves are gone.”
Automats, Taxi Dances and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure
New York University Press
August 2009, Paperback, 269 pages, $19.95
It is easy to tell the difference between a book that is written with genuine passion, and one that is written to fulfill a contract, or build a curriculum vitae, or fatten a wallet. Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure fits firmly into the former category, as is apparent from its very first pages when the author, David Freeland, recounts a recurring dream:
Although some details change, the basic situation is the same: I am walking in an American city sometime during the middle of the 20th century. I keep searching for a neighborhood that I know, from my previous visits, contains a large number of old theaters. By the time I figure out where the neighborhood is I am forced to remember that many of the theaters have been torn down… but always I am able to find one or two that are still there – and feel tremendous relief when I go inside and head to a seat, usually in the balcony where I can get a nice view of the whole building. But always something is different about the interior: either it has been stripped of all architectural detail, just a blank shell, or else the stage seems so far away that I can barely see it. It’s as if I’m watching it from the opposite end of a telescope. Everything appears to be growing smaller, shrinking in front of me to a pin-sized speck before evaporating completely.
The emotions that motivate a recurring dream like this are, I would guess (for I have similar dreams, although usually about out-of-the-way city neighborhoods and dying small towns) a combination of nostalgia for a past that never was, and yearning, mixed with a bitter regret, for a present that can never be again. These emotions may be rooted in the psyche, but in Freeland’s case also are based, unfortunately, on concrete, and steel, reality. For, as Freeland goes on to say, “My dream is essentially true; it represents a search I have been on my entire life, one that continues to plague, frustrate, and sometimes delight me.”
Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville is Freeland’s record of his search—not, it should be emphasized, for the titular amusements themselves, but rather for the places where they once delighted thousands of his fellow New Yorkers. And here is where the bitter regret comes in, for while hardly anyone would argue that taxi dances and vaudeville are overdue for a full-scale revival (though I wouldn’t mind a few 21st century-style automats), the buildings that once housed these diversions were thoughtlessly and soullessly obliterated, or left to molder.
Thus, though this book is a fine history of many old forms and sources of middle-class diversion for Manhattanites, including Tin Pan Alley, beer halls, dance palaces, and dime-a-dance joints, Freeland isn’t attempting to revive popular enthusiasm for these art forms. He’s after something much more reasonable, and therefore, in this unreasonable world, much more difficult to attain: an appreciation of the sometimes architecturally amazing buildings that once housed these entertainments, and a civic willingness to save and restore them.
It’s too late, in any case, for most of them. Witnessing Freeland’s search for the barest remnants of the stunningly beautiful Times Square Automat (if you have trouble believing that what was, essentially, a walk-in vending machine could be “stunningly beautiful,” you have to read this book) or Shang Draper’s gambling house, or the Orpheum Dance Palace, is to experience the very sensation of a dream, when one is running, but cannot get anywhere, or reaching for something important, but unable to grasp it.
But while Freeland cannot save most of these buildings, he is able to evoke them, and the wonderful high times that once took place inside of them, with a rare passion. Here is his lyrical attempt to bring to life the way a vanished Bowery beer hall called Atlantic Garden must have looked and sounded:
After passing through the front restaurant on the Bowery, visitors emerged into a long rectangular hall with a high, delicately curved ceiling. Spaced above at even intervals were limpid skylights that slowly gave way to the bright blaze of gas lamps at night… (u)nderneath the gallery patrons entertained themselves with a range of amusements—bowling, shooting galleries, billiards, even an aquarium—while directly opposite… an orchestra performed… (t)he sonic result of all this activity was an even, cyclical hum, rising and lowering like a tide; first the violins, then jabbering talk and laughter, then the rat-tat-tat of ammunition, followed again by violins, all competing for attention amid the steady, rhythmic clinking of schooners. Each night the floor was thronged with an estimated fifteen hundred to three thousand people…”
And then, a little later, he brings back to life the amazing Automat:
Nicola D’Ascenzo, esteemed stained-glass artist whose work also graced the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, designed an astonishing central panel—more than a full story high—for the exterior façade. In the center the word “Automat” was spelled in playful letters, an unusual instance of Art Nouveau in U.S. building design. Smaller arched panels graced doorways on both sides, and, at the very top, the effect was capped with another line of stained glass on the third story. Inside, the climate was glittering and magical, as colored light streamed in and suffused the large, airy room with soothing rays of green, orange, and yellow. The ceiling alone was a wonder: dense vegetal patterns—flowers, vines, and leaves all twisted and overgrown—crept their way up a central pillar, from which radiated four beams covered in the same lush ornamentation. Smiling elfin figures sat hunched on the pillar’s upper corners, looking down on diners like Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
And where is this dream today? It was replaced in 1976 with a hamburger joint and “covered in forest-green Burger King shingles,” then supplanted, in turn, by a souvenir shop. All that remains is a bit of the old decorative ceiling.
Think about that the next time you have a Whopper and fries. Better yet (because it wasn’t Burger King’s fault that Horn and Hardart, the company behind the Automat, fell on hard times) think about it the next time someone in your community proposes demolishing something beautiful and rare, or even just interesting and odd, in favor of a new structure that will, itself, be demolished soon enough. That’s the American way, or at least it is in most communities, most of the time.
In this wonderful book Freeland, a writer who has the courage of his dreams, is not afraid to remind us of what we have wiped out, and in our stumbling childlike sleepwalk through time continue to destroy.
— 28 October 2009