Jul 19, 2023, 06:27AM

Guitars, Dogs, and Babe Ruth

A nostalgist in Midtown.

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I’m very familiar with the blocks and side streets on the west side of Manhattan in the Penn Station area. I served two separate stints in this part of town, the first from 1988-1991, when I worked in a tiny type shop called ANY Phototype, which specialized in foreign language typesetting, though it did have accounts like Circus magazine, which at the time was all heavy metal and pop metal; most of the other work was typeset in Russian, and I handled all the rest and checked the work character for character, since I was, and am, familiar with no language but English.

I returned to the Penn Station area between 2000 and 2004, when I was a copywriter for Macy’s. I worked in the home goods, furniture and bedding departments. Macy’s has a sale going on almost every day of the year, but the sales are heavily restricted by one exceptions, all of which has to go on the bottoms of the ads in what Macy’s called a floorline. For example, a 20 percent off coupon is good only in certain departments, and some brands (usually the most popular ones) are exempt from the sale. All of this information went in six-point type in the floorlines, which occasionally got so big that they took up a quarter of the ads. This all made my teeth hurt on occasion, and since I was working at 7th Ave. and W. 34th St., one of the busiest crossroads in the city, it grated on my somewhat diffident and solitary nature.

While at Macy’s, I took lengthy lunches and photographed in Manhattan. I went to Central Park and over time, got a photo of every masonry and iron bridge in the park. I’d take the train down to Greenwich Village, rummage around there, or I’d strike off east, now and then making it to 1st or 2nd Aves. Sometimes, the subway would take me to downtown Brooklyn. Sometimes I’d simply explore nearby blocks such as 30th St. Above is #242 W. 30th, which dates to 1927 and its grand arched doorway features a working clock and twin hounds guarding the entrance.

I’m a nostalgist. Without nostalgia, there would be no Forgotten New York, the website and the book, my proudest work. This is the neighborhood where it began. While I was working at ANY Phototype, I became a student at the Center For the Media Arts, which used to be on W. 26th between 7th and 8th Aves., and it was there I used an Apple computer for the first time, most importantly learning QuarkXPress, which with its cousin Adobe InDesign was the main engine of my work life from 1992-2009, as I worked in newspaper and magazine composition and layout. Familiarity with computer typesetting led me to believe, in 1998, that I could combine my obsession with the infrastructure of NYC with page layout. 

After work and on the way to the train I’d often hear the bells of St. John The Baptist Church on W. 30th St. just west of 7th Ave. There are occasionally spectacular churches hidden on Manhattan side streets. The Roman Catholic parish was organized in 1840 for a mainly German congregation, and the present French Gothic edifice was consecrated on June 23, 1872. In early-1997 the building suffered a fire that took out the original organ, choir gallery and several stained glass windows. The five bells that you can hear on the hour during the day swing as they ring and were cast by the St. Louis foundry, J.G. Stuckstede & Brothers.

Formerly, W. 30th St. was a music mecca, with a lot of shops retailing and repairing musical instruments, such as Rogue Music, 30th Street the Recording and the Rehearsal Arts Building (251-255), which used to be recognizable by the G Clef above the door, featuring the NYC Guitar School, Gotham Guitar Works, and Armen’s Musical Instruments Repair Shop. Most of this is gone now, as are the guitar shops of W. 48th St.

The church, even though it has Landmarks Preservation Commission protection, is in the crosshairs of New York State, which intends to raze the block and expand Penn Station. The first plan fell through (in the current economic atmosphere, office buildings are iffy) but eventually, the state will likely find a way.

240 W. 30th is the oldest building on the block other than St. Joseph’s. It was constructed in 1894 as Fire Patrol #1, later #3, in operation from 1895-2006. There are many secrets here: a two-story stable in the rear housed horses that pulled fire engines; check the ornamental pediments and windows, different on every floor. It was constructed by the NY Board of Fire Underwriters and is a survivor of a time before all of NYC’s firehouses were under the supervision of the FDNY.

At 330 W. 30th is a large building with the phrase “Société Française de Bienfaisance (French Benevolent Society)” carved over the front entrance, and two doors marked “clinic entrance” with the vessel-with-the-pestle motif marking medical facilities. From 1929 to 1978 this was French Hospital, where Babe Ruth was treated for nasopharyngeal cancer in 1946-47; Ruth passed away the following year. Don Corleone was taken to French Hospital after he was shot in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. These days, 330 W. 30th is the French Apartments.

Before Penn Station was constructed the area was home to French immigrants. The enclave disappeared, but remnants such as this and St. John the Baptist, built in a French Gothic style, remain.

The giant Morgan Postal Facilityconstructed in 1933, serving Manhattan’s main post office, the James Farley Building, at 8th Ave. between 31st and 33rd Sts., dominates the SW corner of W. 30th and 9th Ave. Most postal operations have shifted out of the Farley here as the latter was remade into the new Moynihan Station, serving Amtrak and Long Island Rail Road. The Morgan facility was named for Edward M. Morgan, the postmaster of New York from 1907 to 1917. 

Long before the Morgan Processing and Distribution Center was built, this was the site of a depot for the Hudson River Railroad, a precursor of our Metro-North. President-Elect Abraham Lincoln arrived in NYC for a visit in the runup to the inauguration on March 4th, 1861, traveling from Springfield, Illinois by train beginning February 11th with stops in Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany, Poughkeepsie, Peekskill and then New York on February 19th. Lincoln’s next visit came after his assassination as his funeral train also left for Springfield from the depot.

—Kevin Walsh is the webmaster of the award-winning website Forgotten NY, and the author of the books Forgotten New York (HarperCollins, 2006) and also, with the Greater Astoria Historical Society, Forgotten Queens (Arcadia, 2013)


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