Art Deco Automats in 1930:
An Interview with Louis Allen Abramson
By Anthony W. Robins
New Yorkers and visitors of a certain age remember with great affection the old Horn & Hardart Automats, such a well-known institution that they inspired songs across the decades from Irving Berlin’s Depression-era “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee” to the original 1949 Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend: “A kiss may be grand but it won’t pay the rental on your humble flat, or help you at the Automat,” to a 1960s comedy revue number (at Julius Monk’s Upstairs at the Downstairs) sung in a tragic tone of voice: “It’s autumn at the Automat!”
Often credited as the nation’s first major fast food chain, Horn & Hardart at its peak became the world’s largest restaurant company, serving some 800,000 people every day.1
When it first opened in 1902 in Philadelphia and then in 1912 in New York (but nowhere else), the Automat posed as the restaurant of the future, offering Automatic dining: find the various components of your meal in a wall of shiny steel and glass compartments, insert the requisite number of nickels, and serve yourself.
By the 1930s, the Automat had become a refuge for the Depression era down-and-out, who famously mixed the free ketchup with the free hot water to make a passable tomato soup.
By the 1960s, Automats delighted children who could get change for a dollar from the change lady––with a sweep of her hand deftly rolling a half-circle of twenty nickels–and then, as empowered diners, choose from chicken pot pie or baked beans, various sandwiches, and, best of all, desserts: rice pudding, strawberry shortcake, or coconut custard pie.
Horn & Hardart Automat, West 33rd Street; exterior
The unkind decade of the 1970s saw most Horn & Hardart outlets in New York rebranded and redesigned as Burger Kings, so very few of the original façades survive.2 Lost with the happy childhood memories are the wonderful Art Deco Automats of the 1920s and 1930s; just one––at Broadway and West 104th Street––has earned Landmark status. But once upon a time Horn & Hardart brought Modernist sparkle to neighborhoods all over town.
One firm, F.P. Platt & Brother, designed most of the city’s Automats, but two of the most intriguing came from the hand of an architect who, for a time, specialized in streamlined eateries: Louis Allen Abramson. I came across these two buildings––one on West 33rd Street, the other on West 181st Street––in early 1980 while researching Horn & Hardart. I hunted articles on his work, and then, on a whim, flipped open the Manhattan phone book, and discovered a listing for him on lower Fifth Avenue. I dialed the number, not knowing what to expect, and heard the voice of Abramson, then 93 years old. We arranged an interview, and on February 16th at three in the afternoon I found myself in his living room with a tape recorder.
Abramson had designed the two Automats in 1930––exactly half a century earlier. To a 29-year-old historian, he was living history. Abramson got his start as an office boy to John Duncan, the legendary late Victorian architect who designed Grant’s Tomb in the 1890s. From Duncan he learned to admire the work of McKim, Mead & White. When Abramson spoke of that firm’s University Club or Penn Station, he was talking about buildings that he likely saw under construction. Abramson designed his first building, a Y.W.H.A. on West 110th Street, in 1913; he smiled as he recalled the design: “The auditorium was Stanford White’s Italian. That was the influence.”
Abramson died in 1985, at the age of 98. But though he’s gone, thanks to twentieth century cassette technology, we can still hear the voice of this remarkable man. The following is an edited excerpt from the transcript of that 1980 interview.
AWR: How did you come by the commission from Horn & Hardart?
LAA: I have tried to reconstruct how they first came to me, and I‘ll be damned if I can remember. The only clue that I have is that the real estate people that handled their work also did work with my brother, who was an attorney, and I imagine that was how it came about. Then they came to me, they wanted me to do a job for them, I say a little job, a restaurant on West 33rd Street, near Seventh Avenue.
AWR: Had you been in a Horn & Hardart Automat before you designed these two in 1930?
LAA: When I was studying engineering, there used to be a little place on lower Broadway. Duncan’s office was on 25th, 26th Street and Fifth Avenue, and I used to walk down to Cooper Union, and I used to stop in there and have my dinner. I’d forgotten all about that little place. It must’ve been one of the very early ones, a dingy sort of a place. [Later, when his own office was near Fifth Avenue and 45th Street] when we were in a rush, a bunch of the draftsmen and myself would go in [a basement Automat] at 45th Street and Fifth Avenue. As a matter of fact, they had a delightful men’s room I recall, very spacious, very accommodating. Anyway, we were familiar with the operation.
AWR: What were they like to work with?
LAA: I enjoyed working with them, because they were very easy to get along with. I had almost no contact with them excepting a young man, the liaison, and I really had very little to do with him . . . they wanted me to be extremely conscious in the working areas of sanitation. Everything would be as easily cleanable as possible. Nothing absorbent in the working areas, for instance. That’s all I can recall of my personal contact with anybody in connection with the organization.
AWR: What kind of instructions did they give you regarding the architectural style of the 33rd Street building?
LAA: I knew they were building in what would now be termed Art Deco, I suppose, [including] a restaurant on Sixth Avenue, and rather nicely done. I asked them whether they had any preference for style, and I recall that Mr. Hardart said yes, we like modern, but not Moderne. I was very much amused by that.
AWR: What did that mean to you? Didn’t you do the reverse? Wouldn’t you call the 33rd Street building Moderne, and not modern?
LAA: Perhaps you can give me the distinction. I can’t. I think it’s a fine line. I’m sure that I was influenced by the one near my office on Sixth Avenue, and if that’s the character of the thing they wanted, why, I’d take that as my base and proceed. Anyway, I designed that little one down there, and then I built one up in Washington Heights.
AWR: Did they say anything about style?
LAA: They left it entirely to me, and I don’t remember that I ever submitted any designs to them. I’m sure I never did.
AWR: What do you remember about the 181st Street building?
LAA: This is a building that brings back very many memories. I remember it, because I had a great deal of fun. I developed the design myself. It was on the way to the George Washington Bridge, whose opening was right in that period. That was the motive in the design.
AWR: What is the design of the glass on the wall about––the skyline, tug boats, a woman’s figure?
LAA: [Laughing] Oh, you’re giving me credit for having the memory of an elephant! I couldn’t recall. I have no recollection at all.3
AWR: The 181st Street Automat looks more elaborate than many others.
LAA: That was an expensive building. And I’m sure that they never came to me and said that we want to cut back on the cost. They gave me carte blanche.
AWR: Did that ever happen, before or since?
LAA: [Laughing] Rather rare.
Horn & Hardart Automat, West 33rd Street; lower level detail.
Horn & Hardart Automat, West 33rd Street; lower level.
Horn & Hardart Automat, West 33rd Street: street level.
Horn & Hardart Automat, West 181st Street; interior.
AWR: Did you go on to do other restaurants?
LAA: I went all the way from a busy bee type of quick service all the way to the arrivals building at Kennedy Airport, the big restaurant [there]. In fact, I did the restaurants for the Brass Rail who were the operators before that, in the old building, in the Quonset Hut buildings that were out at Kennedy at the time, when it was still called Idlewild. (Abramson also designed the Brass Rail outlets at the New York 1939 World’s Fair, as well as several other cafeteria chains.)
AWR: I found a picture of a Longchamps restaurant you designed in 1936. How many did you do?
LAA: Five or six. As a matter of fact, I was telling my wife the other day the fun that I had working, because the client could not read plans. I continued doing those restaurants until the owner got into trouble with the authorities.
Horn & Hardart Automat, West 181st Street; close-up showing the wall and ceiling ornamental glass
Longchamps restaurant, first floor of the 42nd Street side of the Chanin Building.
Abramson began the series of Longchamps restaurants in 1934, and worked with painter Winold Reiss on six branches, each arranged around a different pictorial theme. One outlet once occupied much of the 42nd Street front of the Chanin Building––a perfect tenant for one of Midtown’s earliest Art Deco skyscrapers.
After Abramson died, I learned that he’d left me a shopping bag with photos of some of his buildings. Those are the photos that illustrate this article, and they are all that survive of Abramson’s two Automats, which sadly have been altered beyond recognition.
Before and after the Automats, Abramson enjoyed a long and varied career, specializing in hospitals and synagogue complexes, designed in styles ranging from “Stanford White’s Italian” to what we now call mid-century Modern. But it’s his Art Deco buildings that stand out, at least for those of us who love the period.
About the Author:
Anthony W. Robins, ADSNY’s Vice President, is a historian and writer specializing in New York architecture. A twenty-year veteran of New York’s Landmarks Commission, he now teaches at NYU and Columbia University and consults on historic preservation projects. A popular leader of walking tours, he is best known for Art Deco, a passion reflected in his most recent book, Art Deco New York: A Guide to Gotham’s Jazz Age Architecture. If you’d like to read more of this interview, you will find it in Robins’s essay, “New York From Classic to Moderne: Local Architects Remember,” in Everyday Masterpieces: Memory & Modernity (Serra, Bollack, Killian, Edizioni Panini, 1988) or online at anthonywrobins.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Interviews.pdf, which can be more easily accessed at tinyurl.com/Robins-interviews.
All Photos: Author’s collection
(1) For a nice summary, see Carolyn Hughes Crowley, “Meet Me at the Automat,” in Smithsonian Magazine, August 2001, at smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/meet-me-at-the-Automat-47804151/.
(2) Horn & Hardart held the franchise for the New York Burger King stores and repurposed the spaces.
(3) Christopher Gray described them in a Streetscapes column in The New York Times Real Estate section, January 29, 2012, page 7.
Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 3, Issue 1, Spring 2018. View a digital version of the full journal here.