Monday, February 8, 2016

Hotel Neon: the Hotel Allerton

The Allerton's big neon sign, a relic of the bohemian fringe if ever an old sign was, retained its place over Eighth Avenue in Chelsea well past its time.  That such a genuine remnant of urban grit could survive so unabashedly in Carrie Bradshaw's New York seemed unbelievable, which in an odd way is partly why I never paid much attention to the Allerton.  The hotel finally closed in 2007, and I am still utterly displeased with myself for not having photographed that old sign, which seemed just too real to be real in 21st century New York.

The Allerton, at 302 West 22nd Street, in 1994.  (Walter Grutchfield)

But the Allerton was indeed the real thing, as an excerpt from Patti Smith's book Just Kids and newspaper headlines from its last years attest.  "Chelsea residents have tried to stop the noise, crime, drugs and harassment they say come from tenants at the Allerton Hotel," wrote David Kirby for the New York Times after a murder took place there behind the flickering neon in 1998.  "The victim . . . and the other man checked into a room at the Allerton Hotel at 3:10 a.m. Monday," reported the Daily News of that particular incident.  The pair had apparently met at the legendary Limelight disco on Sixth Avenue earlier that night.  "Cops believe they went to the hotel for a sexual liaison . . . They were there for less than 20 minutes when a loud argument broke out."  One man was stabbed in the chest and abdomen; the other disappeared down West 22nd Street into the night.  

The Allerton flickering away in the mid-1990s. (Gregoire Alessandrini / NYC in the 1990s)

Patti Smith's account of the scene at the Allerton a quarter century earlier provides a sort of be-all-end-all summation of the dark world of the neon hotelJeremiah's Vanishing New York featured Smith's remembrance of the hotel in a post entitled "Patti's Allerton" back in 2011.  The Allerton passage from Just Kids serves here to provide as graphic a window into the "hotel neon" milieu as anything since Raymond Chandler first cast Philip Marlowe in that menacing red glow back in 1940.  Having run out of options, Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, then young artists struggling to catch a break, checked into the Allerton as a last resort:  "We left most everything behind . . . traveling across town to the Hotel Allerton on Eighth Avenue, a place known for its very cheap rooms,"  writes Smith:

These days marked the lowest point in our life together.  I don't remember how we found our way to the Allerton.  It was a terrible place, dark and neglected, with dusty windows that overlooked the noisy street.  . . . The springs of the ancient mattress poked through the stained sheet.  The place reeked of piss and exterminator fluid, the wallpaper peeling like dead skin in summer.  There was no running water in the corroded sink, only occasional rusted droplets plopping through the night . . . .

The place was filled with derelicts and junkies.  I was no stranger to cheap hotels. . . .  There was nothing romantic about this place, seeing half-naked guys trying to find a vein in limbs infested with sores.  Everybody's door was open because it was so hot, and I had to avert my eyes as I shuttled to and from the bathroom to rinse out cloths for Robert's forehead. . . . His lumpy pillow was crawling with lice and they mingled with his damp matted curls.
I went to get Robert some water and a voice called to me from across the hall.  It was hard to tell whether it was male or female. . . .  He had once been a ballet dancer but now he was a morphine addict, a mix of Nureyev and Artaud.  His legs were still muscled but most of his teeth were gone.  How glorious he must have been with his golden hair, square shoulders, and high cheekbones.  I sat outside his door, the sole audience to his dreamlike performance, drifting through the hall like Isadora Duncan with chiffon streaming as he sang an atonal version of 'Wild Is the Wind.'

He told me the stories of some of his neighbors, room by room, and what they had sacrificed for alcohol and drugs.  Never had I seen so much collective misery and lost hope, forlorn souls who had fouled their lives.  

The Allerton, still hangin' in there in 1999.  ( / Verplanck)

The horrors of the Allerton drove Smith and Mapplethorpe to seek refuge at another neon-crested hotel around the corner - the Chelsea Hotel - where things took a turn for the better.  

The Allerton had opened its doors in a very different era, back in 1912.  Its origins are traced by historian Walter Grutchfield at his superb web site  Grutchfield relates that this was actually the first in what grew to become a chain of at least five hotels by the 1920s, run by one James S. Cushman, a member of the Society of Mayflower Descendants, who named the enterprise for a Mayflower ancestor called Mary Allerton.  Architectural historian Christopher Gray tells us that in their day, the hotels offered "club-type lounges, gyms and laundries" intended to serve a clientele of white collar workers, "but by the 1930s, the Allerton corporation faltered, and the buildings were converted to conventional hotels."

By the late '90s, the 22nd Street Allerton had become a make-shift shelter for the city's Department of Homeless Services.  Its crumbling neon sign made way for a nondescript replacement around 2003.  The beleaguered old hotel finally succumbed a few years later, by then starkly out of place in a city that seemed hellbent on shaking off all traces of its wayward past with the fervor of a born-again zealot.  The building was subsequently gut-renovated and reopened as the Gem Hotel, a boutique hostelry whose rooms offer "down pillows, free WiFi, flat screen TVs, coffee makers and free bottled water."  Foragers Market, a "gourmet grocery store" on the ground floor, sells 45-gram packs of spaghetti for $7.99. 

Walter Grutchfield notes that a remnant of the Allerton's old signage remains in place on the facade.  One wonders if that old neon sign, had it survived just a few years longer, might have been kept around as a nostalgic gesture to bygone grime, now just a flickering memory. 

The Allerton reborn, sans-neon. (T. Rinaldi)

THIS IS THE EIGHTH in a series of stories entitled "Hotel Neon," exploring the unique resonance of neon hotel signs in the American psyche. See also: 


 If you haven't gotten to it yet, Just Kids is a must-read.
• Jeremiah's Vanishing New York visits the Allerton, here and here.
• Walter Grutchfield on the Allerton's origins.
 Gregoire Alessandrini's photographic timeport back to New York in the '90s.
 A fantastic field guide to other backdrops from Just Kids by Alison K. Armstrong and Fiona Webster.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Ziegfeld

The Ziegfeld Theatre called it quits last week after nearly 47 years on West 54th Street.   Opened in 1969, the Ziegfeld stood in the shadow of a big bland glass and steel office tower and, moreover, of its namesake theater, which was destroyed to make way for that tower in the mid-1960s.  Though the latter-day Ziegfeld never really escaped the shadow of its illustrious predecessor, it was not without its charms - its kitschy, Pat Nixon-meets-Diamond Lil, gay-90s-bordello decor that survived intact as a kind of freeze-frame of the day and age from which it sprang.  

The Ziegfeld, outside and in. 

Its neon, too, is worthy of study as a period piece.  For the purposes of my book and blog, the Ziegfeld fell outside of my scope for the simple reason that its signs concealed their neon behind acrylic lenses.  In this, the Ziegfeld's signs were in step with their times:  by the mid-1960s, neon had fallen decidedly out of favor, and the popular trend away from exposed tube signs changed the aesthetic of the commercial landscape everywhere.  

Marquee names.

In New York Neon, I trace the chronology of this change and explore the fascinating psychology behind it.  From heights of vogue in the early 1930s, neon's appeal began to suffer even before WWII.  Big corporations, which had fueled the explosion of the neon business in the 1920s, began to dump neon by the late 1930s.  Plexiglas became commercially available in 1936; design requirements at the 1939 New York World's Fair discouraged the use of exposed tube neon signs.

The crowd pours in for the Ziegfeld's final screening last Thursday.

Particularly for small, independent businesses, neon storefront signs maintained a certain look through the 1950s, typified by what I call "pre-Helvetica" letterforms wrought in exposed neon tubes.  But this began to change by the early 1950s.  Chain businesses and corporate franchises led the way.  In 1953, Nedick's began to re-equip its New York locations with acrylic panel fascia signs.  Three years later, Woolworth's introduced a new program of plastic-clad signs to be installed at its five-and-dime stores nationwide.  By the mid-to-late 60s, exposed tube neon signs were down and out.  

Ziegfeld script.  

Enter the Ziegfeld.  Like so many banks and chain drug stores of the period, its signs conscientiously abandoned the neon-bedecked aesthetic that characterized movie theater marquees of the previous generation.  (As its NYT obit pointed out, the Ziegfeld was "the first major new movie house in Midtown Manhattan since Radio City Music Hall opened in 1932.")  But with their jaunty script letterforms, their old-world spelling of the word "theatre," the signs had one foot in the pre-Helvetica landscape of the early 60s, marking them as products of the changing times into which they were born. 

Show's over.

Much as I loved going there, it always struck me that the Ziegfeld must have been something of a bitter pill to swallow for those who had admired its predecessor and the other old movie palaces of New York that had already begun to disappear en masse back in the 60s.  None of those grand old pre-war theaters survives intact as a dedicated cinema in New York today, so the Ziegfeld was about the best thing we had.  And after nearly a half century, it had taken on its own authenticity, and in fact even outlived its predecessor (the old Ziegfeld lasted just 41 years).  Arguably the best place to see a movie in New York, it was certainly the most fun.  The Times reports that the former Ziegfeld will re-open as an event space catering to "galas and corporate functions" next year.  


The Paris
• The main auditorium at the Village East
• The occasional screening at the United Palace
• The Loew's Jersey