Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Meet Me at the Automat

Horn and Hardart Automats were the original fast food. Slip a nickel or more into a coin slot, turn the nob and help yourself to velvety mac and cheese, fluffy mashed potatoes, creamed spinach or delicious pies, all of which were made to high-standards. Every morning, company VIPs tasted forkfuls of food, throwing out and not serving items that didn't meet the standards.

Oh my God, the coffee! Horn and Hardart introduced drip coffee to the North (Mr. Hardart was from New Orleans, where coffee was brewed by the French-drip method). The rest of the country boiled coffee!

Once there were more than 50 Automats in New York. Every single one of them is gone. It had its heyday from the 1920s through the late 1950s. What happened? Things changed in America after WWII, with people moving away from cities and to suburbs, and it went downhill from there. Horn and Hardart closed its last Automat in 1991.

So why am I interested in Automats? Maybe I was taken into one as a kid. They were still around, albeit in decline, when I lived here in NY. Maybe I passed them by and was fascinated by their signs and art deco architecture. I know I must have seen them or at least their artifacts; I certainly walked by where they were growing up. Maybe it's because I watched a lot of oldies growing up and have forever been obsessed with the earlier part of the 20th century. I know I saw "That Touch of Mink" plenty of times. That's really what I remember about the Automat, Doris Day peeking through the tiny vending window to speak to Audrey Meadows, who's working in the cafeteria. I remember being completely taken by the Automat scenes in the film and peppering my grandma with questions about them.

Growing up in Florida, I was under the impression that the Automats were long gone and I was incredibly disappointed to hear that the last remaining Automat at 42nd and 3rd ave closed in 1991. My fascination, however, did not go away. In 2003, the Museum of the City of New York had an exhibit of Automat photos, memorabilia, fixtures and stories. I got to hear first hand from folks who ate there regularly. To hear them speak... gosh, the men and women I spoke to truly missed the Automat, missed the food, the equality of the place (tables were shared so you'd get all kinds, musicians, businessmen, working class, poor, everyone ate there), the magic of the vending machines, the magic of the "nickel throwers," women who made changing dollars into nickels an art form. Without looking at the coins, they would give you the exact amount somehow. It is legendary. I cried hearing their stories . And I wasn't the only person crying. It was unbelievable, the yearning, the nostalgia, the good feelings. It felt like stories from my own past. My nostalgia for the Automat took on new life. Last year, I started collecting Automat memorabilia. Then, I wanted to know, where were they here in New York? Have I been in a building that was a former Automat? Can I find these buildings now?

That's when I got an idea.

The Plan. See how many former Horn & Hardart automat locations still exist and if any are reconizable as such. By locations I mean buildings, not interiors. If any original exterior facades exist, I'd be shocked. If an interior existed, then I somehow time traveled.

The Research. First I'm starting with google and I have already done a lot of work. I already own and have read "The Automat," by Lorraine Diehl and Marianne Hardart. I have an automat directory from the 1940s which lists all of the cafeteria locations. I'm going to walk around Manhattan and see what I can find. I'm going to pull up old photos of the exterior of Automats. I also will go to the library and review their collection, delving into microfiche if need be.

Stay tuned!


Major Generalist said...

This is such an AWESOME idea. I can't wait to see what you find out.

Anonymous said...

Did you ever do the walk and see the automat locations? If so, I would be excited to hear news of your research!

vivzan said...

I did, for a while. Funny, I thought about it this weekend. I should pick it up again. It was really sad. Lot of the buildings are gone. I know most of the Automats were turned into Burger Kings and you figure BKs would still be around but maybe the street addresses have changed since my directory was created (1950s).

Things change so quickly in this city.