Only in Old New York

The Automats, Once a Big Apple Institution, Are Dying Out.

The former 57th Street automat was demolished late last year.

Credit: Michael Perlman

As Marilyn Monroe sang in 1953's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, "A kiss may be grand, but it won't pay the rental on your humble flat, or help you at the automat." Monroe was referring to Horn & Hardart Automats, a chain restaurant New Yorkers embraced as a part of their lives from the 1910s through the 1970s.

The restaurants, the first major fast-food chain in America, served healthy, affordable food in coin-operated window displays. Most of the restaurants were located in art deco buildings with lavish decoration now seemingly impossible in fast-food restaurants.

It is hard to pinpoint how many automat buildings are now left in the city. Most city historians estimate five. One of the last remaining buildings on the Upper West Side has been compromised by corporate "cookie-cutter" ideals. The 1930 structure, located on Broadway and 104th Streets, is now a Rite Aid pharmacy.

"It originally had a monumental glass opening so that customers could see inside. The building was its own advertising," says Kate Wood, executive director of Landmark West, a local nonprofit community group. "Now there is a storefront veneer for Rite Aid."

Yet the original design elements of the Broadway automat are preserved underneath the Rite Aid façade, giving preservationists hope that the building might be restored at some point. Other elements of the automat design remain inside the building but are threatened because they aren't protected. Landmark West is seeking landmark status for the building, which would ensure that New York City's Landmarks Preservation Committee must review any further changes to the structure. The Dec. 12th hearing in front of the Landmarks Preservation Committee delayed the vote to landmark the Broadway automat. The Committee expects a vote on the Broadway automat in late January.

Food lover Joe Horn and long time restaurant worker Frank Hardart opened the first automat in Philadelphia in 1902. They based the concept of the automat on a waiter-less restaurant they saw in Germany. Horn and Hardart believed that the cafeteria-like eatery would be a success if they could provide quality food inexpensively and conveniently. Customers could drop a nickel into a slot next to chrome and glass displays, choosing a hot meal for five cents. The company instructed employees to be especially friendly—anyone, despite the amount of money they spent, was welcome in an automat and could stay as long as they wanted. Some customers, unable to afford the nickel meals, were welcome to make tomato soup out of hot water and ketchup for free. In the 1930s automats appealed to both the working class because of their prices and to the upper class for their quality food. During the Depression, the automats flourished with their inviting atmosphere, excellent food, and bargain prices.

"The automats reflected the nature of the city—you could sit there all day nursing a cup of coffee or come in and get a quick meal," says Marianne Hardart, great-granddaughter of founder Frank Hardart and co-author of the 2002 book The Automat. "It seemed to be a phenomenon especially suited for New Yorkers."

At their peak, the 80 Horn & Hardart Automats were the world's largest chain restaurant, serving 800,000 people a day. Instead of cooking in the restaurants, meals were made at an off-sight commissary in assembly-line fashion. If a particular dish did not meet Horn & Hardart's high standards, it wasn't served. To further ensure high quality, top executives tasted the food every afternoon at a "sample table."

The automats were known for their excellent coffee. Until Horn & Hardart started serving fresh-drip brewed coffee, restaurants on the East Coast served boiled coffee, sometimes clarified with eggshells (results were harsh and brackish). Customers embraced the new method of brewing coffee and enjoyed the low price: Cups remained five cents until 1950. Adding to the glamour of automats, coffee poured out of chrome dolphin-head spouts at each location. For decades New Yorkers considered Horn & Hardart coffee the best in town.

Lorainne Diehl, co-author of The Automat, recalls her own visits to a Chelsea automat. "When I was a girl, I would meet my grandma and see the last cartoon movie and then go to the automat," she says. "Really, there was nothing automatic about it; there was someone behind the window putting the food in the machine. It was a strange little dance that added a wonderful element to the production, especially for children."

Automats became a staple of New York pop culture. Edward Hopper portrayed a lonely girl drinking a cup of coffee in his 1927 painting "Automat." Hollywood captured the automats in films such as Doris Day's That Touch of Mink (1962) and Woody Allen's Radio Days (1987). Irving Berlin wrote the 1930 song "Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee" for the Broadway musical Once in a Lifetime about life at automats. As a testament to the automat's place in American life, a 35-foot piece of Philadelphia's first automat sits in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. 

Lost: The 57th Street automat

Credit: Michael Perlman

Automats started to close in the 1970s, when the makeup of New York changed, sending the middle-class automat customers to the suburbs. Businessmen were no longer interested in the simple dining offered at the automat. The company closed and sold off the majority of automat locations to Burger King. The last automat in New York City, which became a popular location for parties, remained open until 1991.

The Broadway automat has beautiful surviving art deco details. It features blue and tan polychrome terracotta ornament in floral patterns and stylized ancient Mayan motifs. The façade includes solid bronze columns and limestone trim. It is one of three remaining buildings in New York with ornamental details highlighted in gold lustered glaze.

Landmarks West has had mixed success in saving automats. It was able to work with Citibank, the owner of a former 72nd Street automat, to preserve its ornamental features. But it was unable to landmark the flagship automat on 57th Street, and the Art Moderne building was demolished last year.

The trend of automats is coming back into popularity. Recently, an automat-style restaurant called Bamn opened in the East Village, serving moderately priced finger foods.

"It's a fun gimmick, but automats are hard to reproduce." Diehl says. "I firmly believe, though, that if the original food was replicated—if it was made off-site and brought in—that automats would be successful again."

With the status of the Broadway automat still unknown, preservationist reserve hope that it will be landmarked and its beautiful design elements saved.

"It represents our emotional history: who we were, our past, our grandparents. It serves to remind what was once a comfort to people," Diehl says. "Now and then we must save things, especially architecturally, to remind us who we are."  

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