Downtown Providence – A Nostalgic Stroll Down Westminster Street

When I was an art student at the Rhode Island School of Design, I loved exploring downtown Providence and taking photographs. In celebration of the 40th anniversary of my RISD graduation on May 24, 1980, I’ll be posting a series of blogs looking back – featuring historic photos and postcards. The first blog is about Westminster Street and some of the wonderful landmark buildings that still exist. Also included are now-defunct businesses I encountered during my RISD years, as well as long-forgotten ones from the late-18th to early 20th centuries. I fondly remember walking on Westminster all the way past downtown to Olneyville to buy jewels at Wolf E. Myrow. During my RISD years, the portion of Westminster in downtown Providence was a pedestrian mall and closed off to vehicles. I loved the somewhat seedy quality of downtown Providence and would likely bemoan its gentrification if I returned. Department Stores Woolworth: Located at 185 Westminster in a five-story building from 1920, I would buy things at this five and dime now and then, but it didn’t have the charm of my favorite Chicago Woolworth store.     Thom McAn: I remember this retail chain on Westminster since it was near Woolworth, but I never went inside nor purchased shoes from this brand. Their retail stores closed in the late 1980s after being bought by K-Mart and subsequently Sears, who still sells this brand – that doesn’t bode well, although I think Walmart also sells them. Lerner Shops: Located in the former Wilkinson Building (mentioned separately later) at 210–216 Westminster, I never shopped here, nor at the location on State Street in Chicago. Founded in 1918 by Samuel A. Lerner and Harold M. Lane in NYC, New York & Company purchased the company in 2004 and they’re still in business.   …

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The Demise of Gem Spa is Another Sign of a Vanishing NYC

Like so many others businesses that have closed in the last decades, Gem Spa in NYC’s East Village couldn’t sustain its business and closed in early May 2020. Although they had financial problems over the years, and most recently in 2019 after losing their lottery and tobacco license, the current owners said the COVID-19 pandemic was the last straw. If you read my blog, you may know that NYC is like a second home to me. The closing of Gem Spa feels like one other place of my youth has slipped away. Although I’m also upset that Jeri’s Grill closed in Chicago, NYC will always be associated with a magical time in my early adulthood when I was spreading my wings creatively, intellectually, and emotionally. This was before sky-high rents forced so many businesses to close and prior to gentrification stripped the Big Apple of much of its gritty character. Unfortunately, Gem Spa isn’t the only thing that has changed on this once incredibly hip intersection of the East Village. When I visited in 2018, I thought St. Mark’s pretty much resembled many other somewhat gentrified NYC streets, albeit with a few vestiges of its storied past.   Located on the corner of St. Marks Place and Second Avenue, the beloved and iconic newsstand dates back to the 1920’s. It operated under a different name until 1957 when the name changed to the Gems Spa – at some point the S was dropped in Gem. It was a favorite hangout of Beat poets, hippies, punk rockers, local residents, and tourists. They sold local newspapers and magazines, including a wide array of international and underground papers and magazines, except for pornography. The little corner business was also famous for its egg creams (a NY drink made from milk, chocolate or vanilla…

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The Greatest Magician of the Early 20th Century Wasn’t Houdini

A few months ago I was looking for vintage magic images to use in my collages. I stumbled upon wonderful posters for a magician named Howard Thurston. Well, you know how one things lead to another – I soon found myself engrossed in a superb book about said magician and the early history of magic in America. The Last Greatest Magician in the World by Jim Steinmeyer sheds light on the greatest magician of the early 20th century who essentially faded into oblivion. Unless you’re a magician, magic aficionado, or collector, you likely haven’t heard about this guy. Everybody has heard of Harry Houdini, but as Steinmeyer points out, while he was a great escape artist, Houdini wasn’t all that impressive when it came to card tricks and illusions. Thurston was five years older and four inches taller than his peer and oft adversary Houdini. Early Beginnings Born on July 20, 1869 in Columbus, Ohio, Thurston had four siblings – May (Myrtle) the eldest was born in 1865, followed by Charles, Howard, Harry (who figures prominently in this story), and William. Their father’s carriage business collapsed in 1873 and he subsequently tinkered with making a wide array of inventions, none of which were successful. Unable to support his family, his father had a mild nervous breakdown and started spending a lot of time at the corner saloon. By all accounts, he was a wretched and abusive father and husband who regularly beat his children and wife. Other than Harry, the only mention of the other siblings in the book is when Charles was murdered in February 1920 while working as a railroad detective in Columbus. The murderer escaped after pumping eight bullet holes into Charles’ back. When he was just 12, Thurston started earned money selling newspapers on trains between…

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10 Female Artists I Didn’t Learn About in Art School

I’ve been reading old Art in America issues and it hit me like a ton of bricks that I learned only about a handful of female artists at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). I do remember the visiting artist Jackie Winsor talking about Eva Hesse and Ana Mendieta. On the other hand, we were introduced to many female authors and several famous ones gave lectures. I met Elaine de Kooning, who was a guest lecturer during my art history class with Baruch Kirschenbaum freshman year. She showed us photos of the sketches for her commissioned JFK painting, among other pieces. It made sense that she was invited to RISD – apparently she was tight friends with Lee Hall, then president of RISD. Hall would betray her good friend four years after de Kooning’s 1989 death from lung cancer in her book, Elaine and Bill: Portrait of a Marriage / The Lives of Willem and Elaine de Kooning. By all accounts, this was a salacious, tell-all, shoddily researched book with mediocre writing that was butchered by critics. I think the reason we didn’t learn about more female artists was tied to the era in which I went to RISD, 1976 – 1980. Moreover, many female artists who later gained fame were virtually unknown when I was in art school. So in honor of Women’s History Month, here are 10 trailblazing female artists I’m glad I learned about – better late than never. This list barely scratches the surface, but it’s a start.   Grace Hartigan (1922 – 2008): I certainly was aware of Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell, but somehow didn’t know anything about Hartigan until recently. Interestingly, she was the first female Abstract Expressionist to gain fame in 1950, when art critic Clement Greenberg and art historian Meyer…

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Majestic and Delicious – Memories, Chicago Style

What started out as a blog solely about Wimpy restaurants morphed into a broader blog when I discovered the above photos. What a shame it would be to not write about the Shubert Theatre and other businesses captured in these great photos. Wimpy Restaurants Originally called Wimpy Grills, the Wimpy brand was incorporated on September 12, 1934 by Edward V. Gold, with its first location in Bloomington, Indiana. The name was inspired by the hamburger-loving character J. Wellington Wimpy from Popeye, created by E. C. Segar. Gold opened the first Chicago area restaurant in 1936, after opening grills in five other Midwestern cities. The restaurant on the Northeast corner of Randolph St. and Wabash Ave. was the 10th Wimpy Grill in Chicago and the 25th in the U.S. when it opened in 1940. I don’t know when the location opened on the northeast corner of Clark and Madison, but these photos date back to 1955 and 1958. I wonder how many people grabbed a bite at Wimpy or the Bamboo Inn before going to the renowned Blue Note Jazz Club next door!   In the 1950s, Gold closed most of the U.S. locations and expanded his operation to Europe, working with J. Lyons & Co., a British catering company. In 1967, he sold the European operations to Lyons, which had more than 1,500 restaurants at that time, while retaining the U.S. restaurants. United Business acquired the UK restaurants in July 1977 and in February 2007, Famous Brands, owner of the Wimpy franchise in South Africa bought out Wimpy UK. As of 2011, Famous Brands operated 509 Wimpy restaurants in South Africa, making it the largest Wimpy franchise. When Gold died in October 1977 at the age of 70, nine Wimpy restaurants in the Chicago area were still in business, including…

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Tribute to Pamela Smith Simpson – Creator of the Rawhide Sculptures

  Thanks to Lana, granddaughter of Pamela Smith Simpson, for solving the mystery about the Rawhide sculptures! I’m thankful she found my 2014 blog and contacted me. Lana sent me wonderful photos and information about her talented maternal grandmother, making this follow-up blog possible! A Brit and Londoner, Pamela was born August 6, 1932 and passed away April 6, 2017. She graduated from Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts (now called Camberwell College of Arts) in 1952, with a degree in Sculpture and Design. At Camberwell, she won many awards, taught as a student assistant, and attained professorship at age 20! Several of her sculptures were in the art school garden, but were moved after the school transitioned to modernism. The family doesn’t know where these early sculptures currently reside. Pamela immigrated to the U.S. in 1954 after meeting and falling in love with her first husband, an American GI. She found work in commercial art and design, including at the Knickerbocker Toy Company, where she designed boxes for toys. After the marriage ended, she moved out west, settling in Simi Valley, California, not far from the movie studios. And that’s where she met and married Lana’s grandfather. Pamela had two daughters (one is Lana’s mother) and two grandchildren, one from each daughter. She was divorced from Lana’s grandfather, who is still living and remarried. The Famous Rawhide Sculptures Pamela was commissioned by the studio to create the Rawhide sculptures. The commission came about through a talent agency of sorts that helped businesses find artists for jobs, such as set design. The actors modeled for her, which must have been quite an experience for a young sculptor! I wonder how she felt being in such close proximity to Eric Fleming and Clint Eastwood! These sessions are captured in the extraordinary photos…

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My Magnificent Mile – Personal Reflections & Short History – North Michigan Avenue

This blog is about my family’s personal connection to North Michigan Avenue (from the Chicago River north), also known as the Magnificent Mile, as well as an homage to a few iconic buildings and businesses that no longer exist. The stretch of North Michigan called the Mag Mile, for short, figured into my family’s life from the day I was born. While my dad first started his private psychiatric practice in a bathroom-sized space at 25 E. Washington (Field’s annex facing an alley) in October 1952 for $93 a month, that was his only office location not on the Mag Mile.     The Sterling Building (also called Michigan-Superior) Shortly after returning from serving in the U. S. Navy in Bainbridge, Maryland in 1958, my dad’s first office on the Mag Mile was at 737 N. Michigan (Sterling Building). Once I was old enough, I would shop at the Walgreens next door before going up to his office. In 1970, my dad was forced to vacate when Neiman Marcus decided to build on that site. Ironically, the deal fell through and a parking lot occupied this site for more than a decade. It took 14 years before Neiman Marcus opened its flagship Chicago store here in 1984. Designed by architect Andrew Rebori and completed in 1929, the Sterling Building was commissioned by the family that owned the Fine Arts Building. The gorgeous 5-story Art Deco building had an intriguing observatory on top. The building was originally designed to include artists’ studios, but even in the 1920s, artists couldn’t afford those rents.      The Farwell Building – 664 N. Michigan My dad’s next office was the 11-story historic Art Deco/Classical Revival Farwell Building designed and constructed in 1927 by architect Philip B. Maher. Arthur Farwell owned several other North Michigan…

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A Nostalgic Trip Down Canal Street, NYC

  My last blog discussed my love of “old-school” art supply and camera shops and my dismay about their dwindling numbers. After I posted that article, I started scanning black and white negatives I shot from 1976-1979 with my handy Canon FTb, mainly during magical sojourns to NYC from my ivory-tower RISD existence in Providence. Lo and behold – I discovered this panoramic view of Canal Street with Pearl Paint at the center. The street was a hop, skip, and jump away after my older sis moved to a garden apartment on Grand Street just east of Sixth Avenue. She was kind enough to put me up on all those NYC visits, even after she got married in 1978. Finding this photo and others brought back a flood of memories about how much I loved Canal Street back then and the many changes in the last few decades that have robbed this once quirky street of its unique character. Escalating rents have been killing ma and pa businesses in NYC for many years. Certainly, today’s gentrification is preferred to the blighted, empty storefronts that plagued the street for so long, but like other neighborhoods in NYC, Canal may be turning into any other upscale street in any other major city USA. A Short History of Canal Street Discovering my old photos of Canal Street prompted research on the intriguing history of the street that began as a solution for the growing problem of industrial run-off. Before Five Points slum existed, a small area of Manhattan called Collect Pond with its underground spring-fed lake, provided a major source of fresh water until the late 1700s. It became too polluted due to tanneries and breweries belching out vast amounts of liquid refuse into it. The water had nowhere to go because the…

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Art Supply and Camera Stores That Are No More

Favor Ruhl 425 S Wabash 1910 and 1938

I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth, I was born with a crayon in my hand. By the time I was 5-years-old, I was drawing all sorts of things on cheap yellow paper my dad bought by the ream. The crayon was replaced with ballpoint pen, magic markers, colored pencils, pastels, paint brushes, sculpting tools, and by age 12, darkroom equipment. Going to art supply and camera stores as a kid was nearly as glorious as walking up the street to the corner store to buy my favorite candy. That’s right, for many artists and/or photographers, a visit to an art supply or camera shop is like unleashing an overzealous kid in a candy store! Nowadays, it’s hard to find old school art supply and camera stores – many have closed. In Chicagoland, you can buy art supplies at Dick Blick, Hobby Lobby, Michaels, JOANN Fabric and Craft, and a handful of small shops. Of course, you can always buy art supplies online, but it’s not the same experience. I first encountered Utrecht in NYC and later shopped at the store on South Michigan Avenue. Utrecht is now partnering with Dick Blick, although they are still doing business online independently. My favorite Chicago-area store is Artist & Craftsman Supply, an employee-owned shop in the old school model – while there are stores across the U.S., the Chicago location at 828 S Wabash reminds me of defunct stores of my youth. Good’s of Evanston is an independent store that has been in business for more than 100 years. It’s more renowned for its framing services and has a certain slick look these days that is the antithesis of old school. Thank heavens for Central Camera, a truly iconic old school store in the South Loop that has been…

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A Walk Across The Brooklyn Bridge

For eons, the iconic Brooklyn Bridge has symbolized New York City in much the same way as the Statue of Liberty. Construction on the Brooklyn Bridge began in 1869 and it officially opened to the public on May 24, 1883. It has special meaning to me because my dad was born and bred in Brooklyn and is a true New Yorker through and through. He regaled us with tales of growing up in Brownsville, a Brooklyn neighborhood that has been rough since the 1960s. He and his pal Bernie started the Osborn Street Camera Club, played stickball in the streets, cooked potatoes in the dirt at the local playground, and frequented the local candy shop called Jake’s. I always wanted to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and finally did with my daughter on September 3, 2018, which was Labor Day, so it was quite crowded. Right before we walked across, we rode on the delightfully charming Jane’s Carousel, which made me feel like a kid again. It was just after Noon and boiling hot – I was so glad when we reached the Manhattan side. The pedestrian walkway across the bridge is 1.1 miles (1.6 kilometers). I didn’t much care for the crowds, bicycles, or the sound of a few loose wooden planks under my feet. Still, I’m glad I did it because the views were magnificent and almost surreal. As I was walking, I remembered the searing images of people fleeing across the bridge on 9/11. Of course, they were going in the opposite direction.   Brooklyn Bridge Mishaps   John A. Roebling started designing what would become the Brooklyn Bridge in 1867. On June 28, 1869, he was surveying the area for the bridge when a ghastly accident occurred. While standing on the edge of the dock at…

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