Ghost Signs of NYC: Horn & Hardart Automat
Ghost signs hold the secrets of businesses and products that vanished decades ago. Clues to our jobs, schools, places of worship, cafes, and concert halls are hidden in their stories. Forgotten brands, obsolete technologies, and surprising discoveries revealed during renovations are featured in the new book, Ghost Signs 2: Clues to Uptown New York’s Past.
In this excerpt, a reminder of one of New York’s most famous restaurant chains in hiding in plain sight in Midtown. Just be sure to look up.
Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart opened their first Automat in Philadelphia in 1902; ten years later, Times Square was the site of the first Automat in New York. Automats featured walls of small glass windows displaying prepared food. Customers fed a few nickels into a slot to enjoy favorites like macaroni and cheese, baked beans, and creamed spinach.
“For all the good food, the Automat’s real secret weapon was its coffee,” noted Smithsonian magazine. “The Automat’s smooth aromatic brew flowed regally from ornate brass spigots in the shape of dolphin heads.”
At its peak, Horn & Hardart was the world’s largest restaurant chain, serving 800,000 people daily. Changing consumer tastes and the popularity of fast food led to the Automat’s demise. The last of New York City’s Automats closed in 1991. Its ghost sign is accessible to photographers from the roof of a parking garage.