July 9, 2019

Now and Then is a series of articles appearing regularly on our blog to make tenants aware of the rich and colorful history that occurred on the streets of our Manhattan neighborhood.  Once the center of New York social life and national political life, our neighborhood witnessed some of the epic events, firsts, building projects, and celebrities that signaled the beginning of U.S. power and influence.

 

A theatre stood just behind the Fifth Avenue Hotel, on 24th near Broadway, from 1865 until 1908. Its greatest years were under the management of Steele MacKaye who took over in 1877. MacKaye redecorated the interior and incorporated a number of brand new innovations including the double stage (allowing an entire set to be lowered into place), advanced lighting effects, folding auditorium chairs, and probably most astoundingly “air conditioning.”

Imagine the reaction of people in 1877, who had never experienced air conditioning before. Luckily, we don’t have to because we have a first-hand account of what it was like. An English novelist, Mary Duffus Hardy, noted:

“As the weeks passed on, the temperature became almost unendurable. The coolest place in all New York was the Madison Square Theatre. The thermometer had mounted to 100° when we received a box for an afternoon miscellaneous performance in aid of the Edgar Poe Memorial Statue. Among the many other things selected for the occasion was an abridged version of The Taming of the Shrew, when Edwin Booth consented to play Petruchio. Nothing less than a desire to see this celebrated actor would have tempted us to stir … armed with fans, smelling­ salts and sundry antidotes to fainting fits, [we] panted our way from Forty-fifth Street to a Sixth Avenue car, which landed us close to the theatre.

“Immediately on entering, we felt as though we had left the hot world to scorch and dry up outside, while we were enjoying a soft summer breeze within. Where did it come from? The house was crowded-there was not standing-room for a broomstick; but the air was as cool and refreshing as though it had blown over a bank of spring violets. We learned the reason of this. By some simple contrivance the outer air, circulating through and among tons of ice, is forced to find its way through a thousand frozen cracks and crevices before it enters the auditorium; thus a flow of fresh air is kept in constant circulation, which renders an afternoon in Madison Square Theatre a luxury during the hottest of dog days.”

The introduction of air conditioning was revolutionary, and today, we couldn’t imagine going to a theatre in summer without it. Listening to Ms. Hardy with her fans, smelling salts, and antidotes to fainting, we can appreciate the hazards of an afternoon of summer theatergoing in 1877 (particularly given the heavy clothes and strict clothing customs of the day). How fortunate we are today.

MacKaye’s ingenuity extended to other features of theatre life, too. There was the age-old theatrical problem of time-consuming scene changes—the “stage waits.” MacKay developed the “double stage,” which allowed a setting to be placed in position on a separate stage ready to be swiftly lowered into the proscenium opening when the script called for a change of scene. The previous scene was simultaneously lowered into the basement. This is something that is done many times every season now at the Metropolitan Opera, and without which the legendary magic at the Met could not be achieved.

MacKaye’s early interest in the potential of lighting effects to underscore the content of the play or establish a mood led to his experiments in gas lighting at the Madison Square. In later years, his theories were more influential and had much more pronounced success when incandescent lighting was brought into the theatres. While it is not completely clear, it may be that Edison installed his first theatre lighting at the Madison Square Theatre.

Finally, MacKaye invented the folding auditorium chair, the first major improvement in audience comfort since the addition of the cushion.

December 11, 2018

Just to the right of the main doors of the historic Radio Wave Building, an unassuming set of double doors leads to the basement coffee shop Patent Coffee. But after 5 p.m., just as evening is falling,  the space expands via a set of accordion doors that open up into a cozy brick-walled 34-seat cocktail lounge. Patent Coffee transforms into Patent Pending, a popular speakeasy dedicated to the spirit of invention.

The speakeasy draws its inspiration from inventor Nikola Tesla, who lived in this building at the end of the 19th Century when it was The Gerlach Hotel. Tesla used his rooms to transmit radio waves to his nearby laboratory.  Tipping its hat to significant moments or achievements in Tesla’s life, Patent Pending offers a variety of thoughtfully-mixed cocktails including: “Hit by a Taxi,” “Currents & Coils,” “Cosmic Rays” and yes, “Radio Waves,” among others. A selection of beers and wines are also available.

Getting into the speakeasy is an experience of its own. First, you don’t just walk in. The code 4927# typed into an electronic keypad will prompt the host to let you through the doors. From there, quite often there are waits of up to an hour and a half as standing room in the speakeasy is limited. (Patent Pending does not accept reservations—it’s first come, first served.) But once you’re seated, the dark, relaxing atmosphere and finely-crafted beverages provide the perfect backdrop for socializing with friends, a passionate date, or just unwinding after a long day at work.

Patent Pending
49 West 27th Street
New York, NY 10001
(212) 689-4002

www.patentpendingnyc.com

Hours:
Sunday – Wednesday: 5 p.m. – 12 a.m.
Thursday – Saturday: 5 p.m. – 2 a.m.

September 13, 2018

If you live or work in NoMad, chances are you’ve dined at (or at least walked by) La Pecora Bianca, the delightful Italian eatery in the historic St. James Building at 26th and Broadway. But save for a few faint reminders, one would never suspect that this site once was home to the Havana Tobacco Company, frequently described in its time as “the finest store in the world.”

Opened in 1904, the Havana Tobacco Company became one of the most popular New York cigar shops of its day. Surrounded by other fine shops at the top of Ladies Mile, and in the center of world-class hotels and the homes of high society, this store had to present an image of exclusivity and sophistication.  So, it wasn’t just the fine cigars and tobacco products that made it the “finest store;” it was the architecture and ambience.  The shops décor included: tall marble columns. ornate furnishings, luxurious cigar lighter stands, lush palm trees and greenery, and fine oil paintings depicting Havana Harbor. And of course, long rows of glass cases displaying the finest cigars money could buy. Everything about the interior of the store evoked the look and feel of an opulent tropical terrace, transporting patrons back to another time and place—back to old Havana itself.

New York’s Finest Architects

The style of the Havana Tobacco Company can be accredited to the combined work of the most noted architects of New York’s Gilded Age. The St. James was designed by Bruce Price, known for NYC landmarks like the American Surety Building and the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City.   The grand scale Price provided for the ground floor shops was enhanced by the classic but simple grandeur that was the hallmark of McKim, Mead & White.  The nation’s leading architectural firm, known for buildings like the original Penn Station and the Brooklyn Museum, among many others, created a powerful but retrained space that gloriously reflected Gilded Age style and elegance, branding the space perfectly for its wealthy local clientele and visitors from abroad.

Fine Landscape Paintings

For the upper walls surrounding the showroom, the tobacco company commissioned a mural comprised of seven or eight oil paintings by Willard Metcalf (1858-1925), a famed artist of the American Impressionist school best known for his landscapes. Metcalf reportedly traveled to Cuba in 1902 to create the original studies for the series, which depicted scenes from Havana Harbor, adding a tasteful touch of brilliance to the showroom.  Only one of the original Metcalf panels survives, and it is currently on display at The Art Institute of Chicago.

The Space Today

A few years ago, when La Pecora Bianca owner Mark Barak looked over this storefront as a possible location for his restaurant, he was intrigued by the story of the McKim, Mead & White cigar shop and sought to recapture at least some of the original feeling of the space. Unfortunately, not much of the original store survived the more than 100 intervening years, but Barak chose to build on the bones that were left.  If you look at photos of the dining room today compared to the historic photos of the cigar shop, it’s not an exact replica, but one can certainly see the resemblance.  Very few changes were made to the shape of the room and the current counter is placed as the original cigar counter was.  Perhaps most reminiscent of the original shop are the columns that La Pecora Bianca retained and its ceiling, which is classically beautiful while humanizing the scale of the enormous space.  Barak was largely successful at creating a modern functional space for the demands of a new age, while retaining key elements that still make the space graceful and charming just as they did back when Teddy Roosevelt was President.