25 November 2013

A House in the Heights

Whenever I'm walking through Brooklyn Heights, there are certain buildings and dwelling of such reliable charm, beauty and interest that I invariably stop when I pass them and take a good long gander.

The simple white, two-and-a-half story number at the northeast corner of Hicks and Cranberry—No. 59 Hicks Street—is such a house. It's not the most impressive structure in the area. But in its modest, village-like qualities, it is somehow very Brooklyn Heights-ish. It looks like it should be in some small town in Massachusetts, not in the middle of a huge metropolis. It is also evidently a very old structure, even to the untrained eye.

For years, this was the home of the Heights Veterinary Hospital. And, as far as I can tell, that's what it was for a long time. Here's a photo of the same building from 1958, when it was already the a hospital for animals. Not only that, it was white, just as it is today. In fact, nothing about the facades seems to have altered in the last 50 years.

The address has a very distinguished history. It was built by a cooper named John Rogers in 1822. Rogers apparently fell on hard times, for in 1846 the household furniture was put up for auction. 

Its greatest fame came later, when it was the office of none other than John and Washington Roebling, the designers of the Brooklyn Bridge. A building can't get more Brooklyn than that without being the one-time home of Walt Whitman. 

The Roeblings were out by 1897, when the house was advertised as renting for $35 a month. In 1911, the trustees of Plymouth Church bought the property, with the intent of using it as an entrance to the nearby church. They purchased it from Rev. Dr. Frank Halliday, who was for many years the assistant to Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, when the latter was pastor at Plymouth.

At some point after that, a chain grocery store operated out of the space. In 1937, a poor, hungry man named Anthony Gimenez was arrested for stealing eight loaves of bread (value: 64 cents) from the store. It was next owned by Joe Kaplan, who repaired and altered Navy uniforms for seaman down at the Navy Yard.

It's life as a veterinary hospital began in 1957 when Dr. Bernard Wasserman bought and renovated the building. Dr. Richard Turoff worked with Dr. Wasserman for four-and-a-half years before buying the practice in 1985. (Dr. Wasserman, who continued to live above the clinic with his wife Bernice, died in November 2012. Dr. Turoff closed the hospital closed in 2012. Turoff, who was reported to be an old-fashioned type doc and didn't charge a lot, decided to retire last year. 

21 November 2013

Lost City: Indiana Edition: Rocco's Pizza

Finding good food in South Bend, Indiana, can be a challenge. There aren't many eateries that are thought of as local institutions. But one place that was recommended to me several times was Rocco's, a pizzeria on N. St. Louis Boulevard.

It was founded by Rocco Ameduri, his young wife Julia, and her parents Rose and Louis Simeri. All four were Italian-Americans from the region of Reggio Calabria, in the south of Italy. The younger couple settled in South Bend, where Rocco worked as a cook at Notre Dame, and Julia as a waitress. In 1951, they opened their own place, right next door to where the Simeris lived. The menu consisted of a collection of Simeri and Ameduri recipes.

The original pizzeria seated only 12. (You can see photos of the original buildings below.) Today, it's still fairly small, but the squat, sprawling building seats 150 people.

Rocco's daughter Linda eventually married Warren Verteramo, another Reggio Calabria native who worked in the kitchen in Rocco's from the age of 15. They took over the restaurant in 1991. They expanded the place in 1996 to its present dimensions. Rocco died in 2008. Linda and Warren's two sons also work at Rocco's now.

19 November 2013

Lost City: Virginia Edition: Horne's

Given the number of boarded-up and abandoned motels that line its edges, Highway 301, which runs through eastern Virginia and Maryland, must have had a livelier past. I imagine that, before the huge interstate 95 was built, it was the thoroughfare by which residents of Washington D.C. drove to the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic shore.

Today it is a sad, small tract. One of the only survivors of those more touristy times stands in Port Royal, which is best known as the town were the Union caught up with John Wilkes Booth. Horne's is a combination restaurant, gas station and gift shop, and an absolute trip back in time to an era when a well-scooped ice-cream cone and a junky little souvenir keychain were enough to etch a permanent holiday memory into a kid's brain.

14 November 2013

Goodbye, Happy End Diner

Glad I found time to visit the very homey Happy End Diner in Greenpoint in 2012, and took in its wonderful semi-circular counter and stools, and menu of tripe soup, borscht, pierogis, stuffed cabbage, kielbasa, blintzes, pig's knuckles and Hungarian potato pancake (stuffed with beef goulash). Because its gone now.

Eater reports that it reopens at the Brew Inn, a fancy beer bar, tonight. Silver Lining: it's still in the family. Martin Cyran, son of the founders of the Happy End, is the owner of the Brew Inn.

Lost City: New Orleans Edition: Willie Mae's Scotch House

New Orleans is a town rich with historical food destinations, many of which served up food to match their fame. A great many lie within the French Quarter, and are well-patronized. An equal number, however, are beyond the Quarter's touristy borders. A more adventuresome spirit is required to reach them—the kind that doesn't mind a long streetcar ride or trip to a sketchy neighborhood. (Or one can just take a cab, I suppose. How prosaic.)

Willie Mae's Scotch House is one such place. Hardly unknown, it's been renowned for its fried chicken for years. Founded in the 1950s, it sits on a corner of Saint Ann Street in the Seventh Ward. At one point, the building housed not only the restaurant, but a beauty salon and a barber shop. The Willie Mae of the name is Willie Mae Seaton, who was the chef for many years, well into her 80s. Her granddaughter, Kerry Seaton, now runs the kitchen.

13 November 2013

More Tin Pan Alley Woes

When will it no longer be necessary to write posts about how Tin Pan Alley is endangered, I wonder?

I first wrote about the uncertain future of the stretch of old buildings on W. 28th Street—the historical home of the American Songbook—in 2008, when it looked like the former homes of myriad music publishing houses would be levels in favor of apartment towers. The media coverage that ensued and the economic crash of late 2008 helped save the buildings then. But the (still!) un-landmarked structures they're never been quite out of danger. Every year, it seems, a new threat arises. 

In April, I reported that the strip of low-slung edifices—47 through 55 W. 28th Street—were again on the block. Read the Massey Knakal notice: "This Chelsea/Madison Square Park nighborhood has experienced a unique renaissance of hotel conversions, recent residential developments, office building restorations, trendy eatery's [sic] and excellent shopping. All retail units could be delivered vacant."

A reader now informs me that 45-53 W. 28th Street have been sold as a parcel, apparently to Yair Levy, developer of less than sterling character. This is arguably the worst possible news. You can read about the travails of Mr. Levy here. Though Levy is no longer allowed to sell real estate in NYC, he apparently is still permitted to buy real estate. (If you can figure out the logic of that one, please contact me.) It's doubtful Levy cares about the street's former life as the musical soul of America. 

According to this reader, Levy has already approached one of the tenants offering to help them find a nice apartment in an elevator building and has told others he wants to build condos. It seems the as-of-right FAR for the buildings reaches up 10 stories.
This was never a matter that our departing Mayor cared about. (The preservation of any building was a non-issue for him.) Maybe incoming Mayor de Blasio will show more concern about our City's cultural heritage. 

12 November 2013

Lost City: Indiana Edition: A Good Sign: The Linebacker Inn

The Linebacker Inn, a South Bend bar within throwing distance of the Notre Dame football stadium, wins "A Good Sign" kudos three times over, for the above beauty...

...and this more humble, Coca-Cola-sponsored relic on the side...

08 November 2013

A Bit of Old St. Mark's

As undulating glass and metal towers rise on both sides of the western entrance of St. Mark's Place in the East Village, the four-story brick building at 23 Third Avenue looks more and more like a forlorn totem of the street's past. It is currently occupied by the eatery Archie & Sons (which has applied a very 19th-century-looking painted sign to the western wall) and King's Magazine, a shabby all-night newsstand that has been there for as long as I can remember.

Before Archie & Sons arrived, it was briefly St. Mark's Pizza, and prior to that Tahini (which also went in for painted wall ads). For some years before that, this was the home of a nice, cheap falafel joint called Chickpea.

The structure was likely built sometime in the 1850s. From 1852 to 1960—108 years!—is was owned by a single family, until a descendent of that clan, Marie O. Gregory, sold it to Sam Gabay and Louis Ameri. Gabay was a Turkish immigrant who came to America as a boy in 1905. He later entered the garment business. He opened his first store at 1 St. Mark's Place (the same building as 23 Third Avenue). So, essentially, Gregory sold the building to her tenant. Later, Sam moved his business to 225 First Avenue, where it still is. Today, its run by Sam's grandchildren.

07 November 2013

The Marquet Building

Across from Cinema Village on E. 12th Street—a very nice block on the Middle Village—are a trio of old brick buildings. The one in the middle, 15 E. 12th Street, is particularly handsome, having retained its original lintels and cornice. Particularly earning my notice was a carving in the middle of the cornice indicating the building had been erected in 1873. Pretty old, even by Village standards. It has been home to the Marquet pastry shop since 1993.

The large central window on the second floor would indicate that this was a commercial building of some sort, and that there was a business on the second floor. I've seen other similar display windows on old building in other parts of the city. The date in the cornice would also point to an early mercantile life for this building; private residences rarely proclaimed their erection date on the facade.

I cannot find any evidence as to who built the thing or first occupied it. But old Certificates of Occupancy from 1933 show a store in the ground floor space, but apartments on the floors above. In 1955, there was a luncheonette here. In the 1970s, the ground floor was used for storage. In the 1980s, there was a custom print shop here. And then, of course, Marquet.

06 November 2013

The Pumpkins Go Up (One Last Time) in Cobble Hill

The Great Annual Pumpkin Impaling went on as scheduled at the Cobble Hill corner of Kane and Strong Place, with dozens of tiny Jack-'O-Lanterns finding their private cast-iron spike in the afternoon hours of Oct. 31, just prior to trick or treating hours.

As reported earlier, this will be the last year the impressive gourd display will occur. I spoke to Jane Greengold and her husband, the people who live in the corner brick building, about their decision to end the local tradition. It turns out they are not moving away. When asked why they chose to stop mounting the smiling squashes, they said, "It's complicated." Mysterious.

Talking to the couple, I also learned a few tricks of the trade. In order to light up the many small pumpkins, they drill holes in the back of the vegetables and then thread miniature Christmas lights into the holes.

Anyway, I took the Greengolds up on their invitation to contribute a Jack-'O-Lantern this year. That rather large one above is my contribution. A great many locals took part and, as you can see from these pictures, they got rather creative in their carving. I will be sorry not to see these double rows of autumnal cheer next Halloween.

05 November 2013

East Side French Mainstay Les Sans Culottes Closes

Les Sans Culottes East, the uncelebrated but steadfast old-school French restaurant on Second Avenue near 57th Street—and an early subject of my column "Who Goes There?"—has closed after 37 years. When exactly it shuttered, I do not know, but it appears to have been sometime in May. But the interior is gutted and the phone has been disconnected. A sign in the window—captured in an Instagram photo—says the owners lost their lease.

The joint opened in 1976. It was owned by the same family throughout its run, with various members of the clan to be seen around the place, performing the duties of host, waiter, cook, etc. Prices were always low, for French food. And the restaurant had an interesting calling card. Once you sat down, an enormous basket of fruit and vegetables and a wire stand garlanded with sausage arrived at your table. You picked off what you liked and ate. It was on the house.

Here's what I wrote about the place back in 2008:

Lost City Asks, "Who Goes to El Sombrero (The Hat)?"

Who goes to The Hat? Well, I do, that's who. Or, I did. Often. I lived on Eldridge Street from 1988 to 1994, when the area was still pretty scruffy. I soon learned of The Hat and it's cheap, hot, nourishing food and inexpensive Mexican beers. Mexican cuisine wasn't as common back then as it is now, and The Hat's kitchen work passed muster. At least with a not-especially-savvy twentysomething, anyway.

Over the years I've seen all of the things I associate with Ludlow Street back then disappear: Todo Con Nada, The Pink Pony, Max Fish, Ludlow Street Cafe. The Hat will be the last man to fall. (Aside from Katz's, of course, which I place in a separate, 19th-century category.)

Here's my Who Goes There? column:
Who Goes There? El Sombrero Restaurant (The Hat)
El Sombrero Restaurant—known to one and all simply as "The Hat"—is the last bit of the old Lower East Side to grace the northernmost block of Ludlow Street. Not the old, OLD Lower East Side; that neighborhood is still represented by Katz's Delicatessen, which still anchors the street after 125 years. I mean the old Lower East Side, the gritty, pre-gentrification neighborhood, when the streets at night were still forbidding and empty.
At the time it opened, in 1983, The Hat was a necessary outpost of cheap, decent food, a place where both locals and the various young people who had moved to the Lower East Side for the cheap rents (can you imagine such a time?) could fill up for very little money. Because of that, and its highly visible location and late hours, it became an instant hit among downtown denizens. Today, it looks quite quite of place, surrounded as it is with trendy bars and restaurants that outclass it in both food and price. You can see the swanky Stanton Social down the street through The Hat's long double wall of windows. So, it wasn't much of a shock, then, when it was announced that the place would close. (A waitress told me it might hang on until January.) I'm surprised it actually lasted this long in the current economic environment.
I used to go to The Hat quite a bit, but roughly 15 years had passed since my last visit. I was a bit stunned to see that almost nothing had changed about the joint. The dining room was still a collection of utilitarian tables, some designed for large parties, many covered in plastic. A few sombreros and bad painting adorned the walls. The not-terribly-potent frozen margaritas were still flowing. The menu of Mexican-American standards was the same, and I'll be damned, but I think the prices were, too. (Taco and enchilada and beans and salad: $9.) The food, I have to say, was not as good as I remember it. I never thought it was fantastic Mexican cuisine, but I did find it satisfying in a humble sort of way. Maybe the quality's gone down over the years. Or maybe I was just hungrier back then.
Also the same, roughly, is the crowd. The Hat still attracts young people, as it did in the '80s and early '90s. Back then the neighborhood was brimming with scruffy, upstart theater companies like Nada and The Piano Store, and indie boutiques, and the talk at the tables was often about creative matters. That's no longer the case. It's just plain, vacuous, table talk now. On the television was the World Series. But, when the customers weren't watching, the staff would change the channel to a Dominican baseball game.
Sibling owners Josephina Diaz and Palmerio Fabian's decision to close their restaurant down is their own. Apparently, they've had enough. (They bought the business in 1990 from their uncle, Jose Suriel, who founded it.) El Sombrero will be replaced by a branch of the Artichoke Pizza chain, which softens the blow a bit. At least it's a local chain. The Hat may not have been a great restaurant—apart from its excellent name—but for a long time it was a necessary one. It was a place where a poor twentysomething with $40 in his pocket could eat and drink like a king on a Friday night, and, for one hour, not think too badly of the way New York was treating him.
—Brooks of Sheffield

04 November 2013

A Good Sign: Cinema Village

Cinema Village, on E. 12th Street in the Village, is one of the last great, small, movie theatres left in the city. It typically shows foreign and indy films, and retains a distinctly movies-as-art-conscious aesthetic. The movie house was built in 1963. I don't know how it's hung on all these years. It's wonderful neon sign—currently only half lit up—dates from its founding. I find the aquamarine hue very soothing.

01 November 2013

The Dublin House

The Upper West Side doesn't have much grit these days. But there are still a few lovably dingy corners. Stubbornly continuing to throw some dirt on the shiny shoes of Manhattan's most sanitized neighborhood is The Dublin House.