Saturday, July 11, 2009

On This Spot

I stopped to give someone directions on Monday and ended up in a time warp.

I had just stepped out of my building at lunchtime when a little old lady stopped in front of the revolving door and asked for directions.

“Excuse me,” she said in what sounded like an Eastern European accent. “Could you please tell me where is 198 Broadway?”

She was speaking to a man standing by the door and I was about to walk away until I noticed the guy was ignoring her. So I stepped in.

“Where do you want to go?”

“198 Broadway,” she said, holding up a slip of paper. “My eye doctor is there.”

I work at 195 Broadway, so I didn’t think this would be too difficult. My office is located in this magnificent old building in Lower Manhattan that dominates one side of the street.

The place is a treasure, with this fabulous lobby that looks like something out of a Cecil B. DeMille picture.

It was the headquarters of AT&T from 1916 to 1983 and since they were a monopoly back then money clearly was no object. The place is like a cathedral of capitalism.

AT&T even installed a basketball court on the fifth floor so their employees could get a workout during the workday. I’ve been working there for several months now and I’m still amazed every time I walk through the front door.

But 198 Broadway? That was another story.

I looked across the street to the massive Fulton Street Transit Center project, which may actually be finished before the sun burns out.

There’s only one narrow building at the end of the block but it’s empty now, boarded up so it looks like a 12-story tombstone. Everything else has been torn down.

“This is 195…” I said, pointing lamely to my building. “But I think 198 Broadway is gone.”

She paused for a moment and then shrugged.

“All right,” she said. “I’ll just go there and ask them where he moved.”

She turned and walked down the street and I went in the opposite direction, not realizing until a few minutes had gone by that there was no “there” to go to and no “them” to ask when she got there.

I turned around and tried to find her, but the lunchtime crowd had already swallowed her up.

The hammers and the drills were going full blast at the construction site so I went over to St. Paul’s Chapel to walk around the tombstones and escape the racket, but the noise from nearby the Freedom Tower site was even louder.

I started seriously thinking about a vacation.

St. Paul’s is a survivor, unlike a lot of other structures in this town. It was completed in 1766 and George Washington worshiped here on his Inauguration Day in 1789.

After the 9/11 attacks, recovery workers at the WTC site rested at the chapel and you can find banners, letters and other 9/11-related items on display there.

From George Washington to September 11—and still going—that’s quite a ride.

Back in The Day

St. Paul’s is a popular tourist site and there are so many people walking around there taking pictures that sometimes you forget it’s a church.

I went there recently and was a little surprised to see an African American man on his knees before the altar devoutly praying while the out-of-towners moved around him. It was a strange, but comforting sight.

Still, I couldn’t get that lady and the phantom building out of my mind. I told my aunt about her and how disappointed I was that I couldn’t help her.

“You can’t help them all, dear,” she said.

No, I guess not. But I decided to do a little research about 198 Broadway and I learned that Central Telephone Exchange was located there in 1880 before being consolidated with other companies.

On July 2, 1902, The New York Times reported that Arthur S. Cox Co. and L.J. Du Mahaut had sold a six-story building at that location for Martha H. Andrew. The structure had been occupied by the Dennison Manufacturing Company, but was gutted by fire six months earlier.

“The price paid for the property is $325,000,” the article said. “The buyer is a builder, who will erect on the site a twelve-story office building costing $250,000, from plans by Walter H. Wickes.”

That would by my friend’s building, the future home of her eye doctor…and now a hole in the ground.

The building was once apparently home to a photographer, E. Muller Jr., who had taken a picture of a troop ship steaming past the Statute of Liberty in 1919.

On August 12, 1964 the Times reported that “the 12-story office building at 198 Broadway, between Fulton and John Streets, has been purchased by an investing client of Joseph S. Wohl, lawyer, from Daniel S. Levy and Joseph Richter.”

How strange it was must feel to look for a place and find that it's gone. I remember driving with my parents years ago by the ruins of Shore Road Hospital, the place where my siblings and I were all born, and seeing how it had fallen into disrepair, with weeds growing all around the property.

There’s a senior citizen’s home on the site now and I wonder if I might be making a return visit to the place someday.

I once helped an elderly woman cross Sixth Avenue near Leif Ericson Park and she told me about growing up in Bay Ridge when it was a much different place.

“This all used to be farmland,” she said, pointing to the park, the highway, and surrounding buildings. It was hard to imagine farms where there is now so much concrete and asphalt.

Old photographs can tell you a lot about a street or a neighborhood. You’ll see magnificent homes that are gone now and you’ll marvel at how much a place has changed.

But it’s not a smooth, magical transition. It’s done with drills, wrecking balls and dynamite. It’s the future rolling over the past and people can be swept aside.

I got on the subway that night and I saw a woman with a little boy in a baby carriage. He was a completely hairless fellow, kind of like yours truly, and he looked around the car as if he were an alien scientist studying a newly discovered species.

I imagined him years from now, as a young man, and I pictured myself as a senior citizen, approaching him and asking him for directions to a place that no longer existed.

I wondered how I would react when I got the news. And I wondered if he would try and give the old guy a hand or just keep walking.

You can’t help them all, dear.


Ask Aunt B said...

Wow Sweets, this is a really good, thought provoking piece. But you always manage to mesmerize me.

Big Hugz & Warm Thoughts...Always


Rob K said...

Hey, Babs, what do you say?

Hugs, kisses, and very warm thoughts right back at you.