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:
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.”
I remember going to the automat with my grandparents when I was a kid. It was a thrill to put the coins in the slots and then the little door opened to allow access to the food. I think some of the slots also had a rotating tray inside that stopped at your window when the money was inserted.
The problem was that the food always sucked. If it was supposed to be a hot dish, it was luke warm if you were lucky, and everything tasted stale and awful. But the thrill of the “game” always made me want to go back.
It’s hard to imagine the food not sucking. But if you only had a nickel …
Thanks for the story, Jill!
There was an automat on St. Mark’s as recently as last summer but it’s gone now. I got a fried macaroni & cheese log which sat in my stomach as if it were wooden. The slightly-warmed-by-fluorescent-light chocolate chip cookies were tasty, though. Unfortunately it all cost well over a nickel.