Monday, March 12, 2018

Before It's Gone: Lee Brothers' Auto

Every once in awhile, I get off at the Carroll Gardens stop at Smith and 3rd St. and this building catches my eye, especially when the afternoon sun is cutting across it, casting these dramatic shadows. Every time I made a mental note to draw it someday. A few weeks ago, I happened across this post saying that the property would be demolished and replaced with a residential development, so it instantly became one of my "Before It's Gone" projects.

The building is kind of an eyesore, but sometimes eyesores are more interesting to me, visually. In addition to the shadows created by the auto shop's deep overhang, I'm also intrigued by the decaying Mediterranean-style roof and façade on the left. I love these bits of leftover archictecture. I think of it as a type of architectural palimpsest, "something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form," a phrase derived from old manusctipts in "which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain."

In this case, that part of the building is the century-old remnants of the Court Theatre, a movie house which operated from 1922 to 1941. I think that Spanish-esque tiled roof is part of the Hispanophile trend in architecture of the late 1920s, where buildings were given faux-European characteristics to lend them a sense of elegance and sophistication. I wrote about this before in my post on the Seville Studios.

As the photo below shows, the original theater, which had 560 seats, was more than double the current length. At some point, it was cut in half, perhaps for the construction of 3rd Street, which now runs where that billboard was. Why the whole building wasn't demolished, I have no idea. Surely it would have been easier than demolishing half of it, and gutting the other half to turn a theater into a garage? And yet no one bothered to removed that little piece of decorative roof. Here's another old photo of the theater.

1932 photo by Percy Loomis Sperr. NY Public Library

In 1942, it was turned into a gas station called Pep Service Station, and in 1992 it was purchased by the Lee Brothers, who operated it until recently. Apparently, there has been talk of the brothers closing their shop for years, but now it's definitely happening. It will be replaced by a four story residential building.


Thursday, March 8, 2018

Smith Union Market

This little corner store in Carroll Gardens caught my eye last week. It was shuttered in the middle of the day, so I was unsure if it was still open for business. I looked it up later, expecting to find the same old story about a small business being priced out by skyrocketing rent, or a business owner who'd reached retirement age without a successor. What I found out was quite different and unexpected!

The store is owned by Vinny Taliercio. It opened in 1945, one of three meat markets owned by his grandfather, Placido Scopelliti. His daughter, Marie, married Vincent Taliercio, who took over the meat market and diversified it into a general store. After Vincent's death in 1986, son Vinny joined his mother and two brothers in running the store. Vinny, now 65, is the only surviving sibling, and their children did not join the business.

I didn't get to see the inside, but a New York Times article describes it like this: "Take all the random stuff out of that dresser drawer where it tends to land, and all that stuff's distant cousins in the kitchen drawer, and the exotic little screws and bolts from the untouched corners of the toolbox. Put them all on shelves in a dark little room, add coolers stocked with beer, and declare everything for sale. That's pretty much the business model at the Smith Union Market in Brooklyn." It's a local landmark, an institution in the neighborhood, and a meeting place for local elders.

So why the shuttered doors? Well, in February, Mr. Taliercio was arrested in a sweep of Genovese Organized Crime Family. He's alleged to have acted as a middleman for a mafia gambling network. Reportedly, he was caught on police wiretaps arranging bets between the mafia and bettors, including celebrities including Charlie Sheen, Tony Danza, Paul Sorvino, James Caan, Larry David, and James L Brooks.

Mr. Taliercio made bail and has been back at the store, but I guess he has some matters to take care of. He, of course, denies the allegations. "I work 98 hours a week, seven days a week," he says. "No mobster works those hours."


Behind Old Doors: Smith Union Market

NY Times: Corner Store Owner Denies Family Ties: All Five Families

Friday, March 2, 2018

Before It's Gone: Sunshine Cinema

This one is already kind of gone. The Sunshine Cinema had its last screening on January 21. The building is still standing, for now. It will be demolished in a few weeks, to be replaced by, you guessed it, a glass high-rise tower.

The building, at East Houston and Forsyth Street, was built in 1898. It was originally a Dutch Reformed Church. It later became a prize fight club called the Houston Athletic Club, and in 1909, it was purchased by Charles Steiner and Abraham Minsky for $96,000 (approximately $2 million in today's money). They turned it into the Houston Hippodrome, offering movies and Yiddish vaudeville, catering to the Lower East Side's large Jewish immigrant population. It was renovated and renamed Sunshine Theater in 1917. Eventually the theater went out of business, and the building was used as a warehouse for a family hardware store for decades. In the late 1990s, Tim Nye secured the lease and partnered with the Los Angeles-based movie chain Landmark Theaters to renovate the building. It opened with its old name, Sunshine Cinemas, in 2001.

The Sunshine became a fixture in NYC's cultural landscape, and was successful. But its rent was well below current market rate, and its lease was about to end, and so . . . The building was sold to East End Capital and K Property Group last year for $31.5 million. Despite its long history, it was turned down for landmark status because it had had too many alterations over the decades. And so, that was that for the Sunshine Cinema. It's a familiar story by now.

I don't wring my hands every single time an old building is torn down or a long-lived business goes out of business. To be honest,  I hadn't been to the Sunshine in many years. I think a lot of people fetishize old New York buildings and businesses without question. My friend Noah Diamond wrote a piece called 400 Years In Manhattan, and one passage has always stuck in my mind:

We're on our fourth Madison Square Garden, and there are plans for a fifth. We're on our second Yankee Stadium, and there are plans for a third. Of course, many are heartbroken at the thought that Yankee Stadium will be demolished, and it's easy to sympathize with them. But it's also easy to sympathize with those who were heartbroken in 1923, when the current stadium replaced the original one; to them, the Yankee Stadium we know and love is a soulless imposter. People were heartbroken in 1930 when the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Thirty-Fourth and Fifth was demolished; they said that without that building, this just wouldn't be New York City anymore. But in its place, we built the Empire State Building. Did that make it more or less like New York City?

Noah makes a good point here. But. One thing that strikes me about much of the current development of the city is how plain and dull and uninspiring it really is. This is the building that will be constructed on the site of the Sunshine.

I can't imagine that if this torn down in 100 years, that people will mourn it. Will anyone have nostalgic sentiments for all these glass boxes? Will anyone argue for landmark status to preserve these things? Will a sense of history ever attach to these ubiquitous generic glass towers? Maybe they will. Maybe everyone will be like, "We're losing all our classic early-21st century minimlaist glass architecture!" But here's another thing: With the exception of its stint as a warehouse, this building had always been a place of communal activity; first as a church, then as a sporting club, then as an entertainment venue. Its replacement is just boring offices. Hard to imagine that an office building will find a place in people's hearts. But then again, the Empire State Building is just a very tall office building, so who can say?


Friday, February 23, 2018

Miracle Garden

For the last several years, my summer gig has been working on a play festival for Clubbed Thumb theater. The venue is across the street from this community garden, the Miracle Garden, and last summer I spent my down time drawing it.

This lot was once occupied by a dilapidated, drug-infested building. In the 1983, it was torn down, and the local community was able to secure the lot for a garden. The initial plants all died due to bad soil, but they were able to resurrect it, hence the name "Miracle Garden." For more of the history of the garden, including a film interview with Penny Evans, one of the main forces behind it, visit their website here.

This was actually my third attempt at this view, drawn from the roof of the Wild Project across the street. I still wasn't 100% satisfied, but three tries was enough for me.

These have been there, unmoved, for at least two years. I think it's hilarious that someone used such a huge chain to secure these two rusted old bikes. They are a 1980s Challenger BMX scooter and Schwinn L'il Chik bike. I wonder if they've been there since the garden was built!

The garden is run completely by volunteers, so you never know when it will be open, but if it is, you can visit and hang out in this little oasis on East 3rd St. between Avenues A and B.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

David S. Brown Soap Store

The David S. Brown Soap Store Building at 8 Thomas Street.

Built in 1875-76, this building is an example of Victorian Gothic or Gothic architecture, an 18th century movement originating in England. The architect was a young architect named Jarvis Morgan Slade, who tragically died a few years later at the age of 30. It was commissioned by David S. Brown, a soap manufacturer.

His company was a large regional presence producing products such as "Blizzard Soap," a laundry detergent, "David's Prize Soap," a toiletry product, and "Brown's Barber Soap," a shaving cream. The secret to his success was his pioneering use of product premiums, giving out jewelry, clocks, silverware, children's books, and toys in exchange for soap wrappers, and gimmicks like producing "Rough Riders Soap" to capitalize on Teddy Roosevelt's popularity, and throwing bars of soap from a decorated covered wagon during Albany's bicentennial celebration.

By 1998, the building had been taken over by a textile merchant, with a cafe on the ground floor. In 1984, it was converted to a high-end luxury condo. The building was landmarked in 1984, but the rest of the block is not, so it stands out dramatically. Today it is sandwiched between a modern residence tower and a McDonald's.

History sources from here.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Livery Sale and Feed Fake Out

This looks like some cool relic of Brooklyn's industrial past, right? Or one of those types of businesses that you didn't think still existed in the city. But after drawing this for an hour on a cold winter afternoon, I found out that it's actually just leftover set dressing from a film shoot for "Boardwalk Empire!" I still like the way it looks, though.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Before It's Gone: 13th Street Repertory Theatre

Blah blah

I've been in New York City for over 20 years now, working in theater. I've worked in, or at least attended a show at, nearly every theater space in the city, especially the small ones - Off Broadway, Off-Off Broadway, waaaaaaay Off Broadway. But I've never set foot inside the 13th Street Rep. I've walked past it many times, and always asked the question: How does this place continue to exist?

The building itself dates back to the late 18th century, and was reputedly a stop on the Underground Railroad. The Repertory was founded by Edith O'Hara, who was already 50 years old when she quit her job as a kindergarten teacher in Idaho and rode to New York on the back of a motorcycle. In 1972, she saw an ad in the Village Voice: "Building For Lease. Contains Small Theater." It is one of the oldest Off-Broadway theaters still in operation in the city, but despite its longevity, it never directly produced major figures in theater. It's main claim to fame is the play "Line," which was the longest-running play in history, running over 45 years. It's now on hiatus; a hiatus that seems permanent.

The main characteristic of this theater is not the work, but the community it's built. As this New York Times article describes: "A curious group of six people lives above the theater. They are not ordinary tenants, but something like the cast of an eccentric, bohemian sitcom family. They are actors, authors and playwrights whom Ms. O'Hara offered lodging to years ago, and they never left. Mostly in their 60s and 70s now, they include a German man who smokes on the theater's steps, a woman who wrote a memoir 20 years ago that inspired a television movie, and a man who was homeless before Ms. O'Hara offered him a crawl space above the lighting booth." The homeless man became the resident costume and set designer of the theater. "These characters became part of the 13th Street's real life repertory: building props, working lights, acting in shows, painting sets, cleaning bathrooms and working the ticket booth, sometimes all in lieu of rent."

At one point, the 50-seat theater ran into financial troubles. It was saved by an "angel investor" who bought a half-interest in the property, only to later attempt to sell the property to a real estate developer. This lead to an acrimonious legal battle that became a David-And-Goliath cause célèbre in Greenwich Village. The result was an agreement of some sort that allows the theater to remain during her lifetime. The thing is, Edith O'Hara is now 100 years old. The Times reports "The past disputes were resolved for her lifetime and there is no provision for what comes next."

The residents seem resigned to what's coming. One says, "All of this is going to change drastically when Edith is gone. All this will probably end. Whether that is weeks or months or longer, we all eventually will have to move. And I will be very sad." Another, "It doesn't look like a good ending. But I'm grateful it happened. When I moved in they told me: 'Welcome to the insane asylum.'"

Reading about this place made me of high school drama club, theater camp, community theaters, and the summer stock. I don't mean that in a derogatory or condescending way. The opposite, really.

Many of us started out in a group like this, in school.  It was a home where people who didn't fit in easily could find a place to be. A place where Dunning-Kruger is in full effect, standards are both high and low, and passion is off the scale. There's a special potency to this sort of theater community. It's rare to have that sort of experience as an adult.

Now, I would never want to work at 13th Street Rep. I am certain the theater is run-down with antiquated equipment, and an environment guaranteed to drive a trained professional crazy. But when it goes away, as it assuredly will very soon, I'll be sad, because I know there are at least six people who will have lost something very real, and another unique piece of New York City character gone forever.