And what, pray tell, is an automat?

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Horn & Hardart Automat Cafeteria, 146 W. 38 St. between Broadway and 7th Ave. (1986) (Image from 14to42.net)

David Freeland pulled in quite a crowd at the Tenement Museum the other night: standing room only in a room with no discernible air conditioning. I was a few minutes late and missed the opening comments, but I did catch him read from several chapters, including his finale for the evening — the conclusion to his chapter on Times Square automats and Depression-era labor disputes.

I enjoyed the other passages he read, to be sure, but the prose in this particular passage really moved me. He’d been talking about the chain of automats — automated restaurants, basically a huge selection of vending machines plus seating — that once populated the city. The original and most famous was Horn and Hardart’s, a Philadelphia import, which provided a cheap culinary centerpiece, the forerunner of fast food, for Times Square from the 1910s to the 1970s, when their locations were transformed into green-shingled Burger Kings, “an incongruous attempt,” Freeland writes, “to bring faux-suburban rusticity to the Crossroads of the World.” Oh, horrible harbinger of suburbanization to follow!

The chapter’s conclusion offers a glimpse inside the chain’s former location at 1557 Broadway, between 46th and 47th, where today you’ll find three-floors of tourist knick-knacks in a store called Grand Slam. You have to give Freeland props for being brave enough to venture inside looking for signs of the old automat, and find them he does:

[I]n the harsh overhead light of high-wattage lamps — the suspended, bowl-shaped kind used in gyms and cafeterias — it is possible to make out one more thing, battle-scarred yet remarkable for having survived at all. In the ceiling’s dead middle, clustered around the central pillar like a stalactite formation, twists a lovely design of blossoms and foliage, interspersed with tiny holes for the placement of incandescent bulbs. Then, on a perpendicular spot beside an air-conditioning grate, a rectangular patch of decoration — viscous and dripping like melted caramel — stands out against a bare white wall. Move back and the whole pattern becomes clear: it is what’s left of the Art Nouveau centerpiece unveiled [at the automat] that long-ago morning of 2 July 1912, ignored but not yet willing to disappear.

That last line seemed to sum up the argumentative and moral thrusts of Freeland’s project: a call to witness what surprising things remain — persistent, insouciant, repurposed, perhaps –  and to let that survival cheer you and move you to preserve more and more of the city’s quotidian past while we still can. Once a building’s gone, he warns, it’s really gone.

In the tradition of Ephemeral New York, here are a couple looks at an H&H postcard I found on line:

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Under the first, Flickr user Betty Blade wrote: “When I was a kid … I’d go wit my muddah to an automat (orw-dah-mat). She’d give me a fist fulla nickels and I’d run around and get what ever I wanted … as long as I was tall enough to reach.”

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