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Building's lost lore revealed: A savory (and seamy) story

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amny Photo Credit: RJ Mickelson/amNY

Sandwiched between a McDonald’s and a 110-year-old pawn shop on Eighth Avenue between 34th and 35th streets, the modest, three-story Art Deco-style building conceals an unusual history.

Simply look at the top of the building at 488 Eighth Ave., and you’ll find an Aztec-inspired design etched into the facade that harks back to the building’s beginnings.

The word “Bickford’s,” written in cursive, is a remnant of the days the building housed an outpost of the iconic cafeteria chain by that name.

The Bickford’s logo was hidden behind a metal facade for decades and was only uncovered in 2000, when the structure was a porn superstore.

The history of this 1920s building mirrors the evolution of the neighborhood around Penn Station. It started out as a popular workday luncheonette, morphed into an adult video store and earlier this year became part of another restaurant chain, Famous Famiglia.

The Bickford’s story

Bickford’s cafeterias were New York City mainstays from 1922 to 1982. They were known for quick service and affordable grub. Dishes such as lamb stew, chopped steak, Jell-O and rice pudding were served to workers during the day and to everyone else late into the night.

“It was a time when good service and high-quality, freshly made food was delivered on china dishware, with sterling-silver-plated flatware, at moderate prices, every day at Bickford’s,” said Jeffrey S. Bickford, grandson of founder Samuel Longley Bickford.

Over the years, Bickford’s has been immortalized several ways — in the photographs of Walker Evans, and in Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” where the poet described his friends “who sank all night in submarine light of Bickford’s.”
A neon Bickford’s sign even shows up in the background of the Marilyn Monroe movie “The Seven Year Itch.”

At its peak, Bickford’s luncheonettes dotted Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx. In 1960, there were said to be 48 throughout the city. By 1970, that count was down to 42, and just two remained in 1980, according to The New York Times. The chain vanished in 1982.

The Bickford’s at 488 Eighth Ave. is believed to have opened in 1929 and closed sometime between 1963 and 1965. The building was designed by F. Russell Stuckert, whose father did the same for Horn & Hardart automats — Bickford’s competitors.

(Story continues below photograph.)

At left: The building as it looks today. (RJ Mickelson/amNY). At right: The building during the 1980s (courtsey Municipal Archive).

The porn-palace days

After Bickford’s shut its doors, 488 Eighth Ave. housed a hot-dog stand called Snacktime, owned by Sol Handwerker, the brother of Nathan Handwerker (of Nathan’s Famous renown).

In the mid-1970s, it became a porn shop known as the Adult Entertainment Center. In 2007, following prostitution and drug arrests, the owners paid the city a $35,000 fine and closed shop.

The building was purchased that same year by Vornado Realty Trust for $12.3 million, according to StreetEasy.com. It remained empty for a few years before becoming a Famous Famiglia pizzeria.

William K. Dobbs, an amateur reservationist who’s spent quite a bit of time studying the history of Bickford’s, pointed out the common theme among all of the businesses that have inhabited the building.

“They were all serving tourists and people on the go,” he said. “[This place has] given people food and pleasure for so many generations.”

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