Tuesday, December 19, 2006

104th Street Automat Listed With amNewYork's Top Ten NYC Endangered Buildings

In its December 18, 2006 issue, amNewYork selected the 104th Street Horn and Hardart Automat as one of its Ten Endangered Buildings in New York City. This follow-up story from December 19 includes an account of the December 12, 2006 Landmarks Preservation Commission public hearing. LPC has not scheduled a vote to determine the building's landmark status.

Fans try to save Automat
Special to amNewYork
December 19, 2006

Some of Susan Dessel's favorite childhood memories are of day trips into New York, when, between museum visits, she would lunch with her parents at a Horn & Hardart Automat.

"It was so exciting to put a coin in the slot and get food, it was so different from anything else," said Dessel, an artist who was about 7 years old at the time. "They were absolutely wonderful in every way."

Dessel, 60, was among a procession of people who lined up last week to urge the city Landmarks Preservation Commission to landmark one of New York's last Horn & Hardart buildings on Broadway and 104th Street, two blocks from where Dessel has lived for 30 years. The building's Art Deco design, still undamaged under the Rite Aid Pharmacy sign that now covers it, is a remnant of New York culture in the 1920s and 1930s, advocates said.

"I think it is important to look at this building as a major example of the vernacular popular architecture of this time," said Andrew Dolkart, a Columbia University professor of historic preservation, at the Landmarks Preservation hearing on Dec. 12.

The automat at 104th Street was built in 1930, at the peak of Horn & Hardart's popularity. Automats were the city's first fast food joints, where customers slipped change into slots to get their meals. Their numbers reached into the 50s in the 1930s and 1940s, and the last one closed in 1991, said Marianne Hardart, co-author of "The Automat" and great-granddaughter of Horn & Hardart co-founder Frank Hardart.

Many of the automats have since been built over or altered beyond recognition, said Kate Wood, executive director of Landmark West!, which advocates preservation on the Upper West Side. The 104th Street automat's multi-color terra-cotta decorations and large front windows remain intact, she said. Landmark West! added the structure to its designation wish list in 1985.

Rite Aid now occupies the building's ground level and two nonprofits rent the upstairs floors.But not everyone who spoke at the hearing did so in favor of landmark status.

Norma Teitler, 83, bought the building with her husband about 50 years ago, after the automat had closed and the Teitlers had opened a Foodarama supermarket in it.

"Making it a landmark it will devalue it, and I don't think it's fair," said Teitler, who worries about bearing the cost of maintaining a historic site. "If you look at that building, you will see it is no longer an automat, nor do you see a supermarket."

Owners of landmark sites must get the commission's approval on any work they plan to do and are required to keep the structure in good condition.

The commission has not yet voted on whether to make the automat a landmark. With the current development of the Upper West Side and new condominium buildings going up, many at the meeting hope the building is protected.

"This is one of the last undeveloped areas of New York," said Carol Goodfriend, found of the 104th Street Block Association. "To allow it to be torn down will dramatically alter the sense of light and space on the block."

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