A Forgotten Sign in Times Square

To find one of my all time favorite signs in Times Square, you have to go a few blocks from the neon lights and hi-def LCD screens of New York’s bustling epicenter…

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…to the corner of 42nd Street and Ninth Avenue, an intersection that has remained defiantly seedy despite literally existing in the shadows of encroaching tear-it-down-and-rebuild-with-glass gentrification.

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There, forgotten above a new Papaya Dog, is a sign that almost definitely dates to a time when the entire area was down and out, crime-ridden, dangerous…

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A time when the glamor of your average Times Square hotel amounted to a cheap plastic sign shared with a Pepsi ad:

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Seriously, how great is that? Though I have no solid proof, I’d be willing to make a bet that this wonderful grime-covered, faded sign was up when Taxi Driver was shot, and possibly before. It’s an artifact for an era long gone, for better or for worse, and every time I see it, I wonder how much longer it’ll be up.

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Of course, it raises the question: is there still an entrance to a hotel on 42nd Street as the sign proclaims?

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There is…

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…And they’ve spared no expense for the sign over the door either!

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If you look overhead, there’s actually a proper hotel sign identifying it as The Elk, though this is a very recent addition; for years, only a red neon sign simply reading HOTEL gave any indication that the establishment existed. And, at just $60 a night or so, The Elk is easily one of the cheapest lodging options in Manhattan. Hourly rates of just $5 were around as recently as 1999, though rumor has it those have been phased out.

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The Elk is one of the last remaining old school roach motels in Times Square, which used to count flophouses like the The Evans and Woodstock among its ilk, according to this 2004 NY Times article. History on the establishment is scarce, but The Elk seems to have been in business for at least 100 years. According to a commenter on this Vanishing NY post, The Elk was owned in the early part of the 20th century by an Irish family, the Coens, and served as a first home to numerous immigrants coming to New York through Ellis Island.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to ask for a tour (and I’m virtually certain I was only getting into the building by renting a room). However, I did walk up the stairs to the double glass door entrance, which was locked (a good sign of a reputable place: when directing firemen is clearly more important than directing patrons).

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Ellis island immigrants were replaced by drug addicts and prostitutes, though apparently, the hotel has gotten a bit more strict about visitors:

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A bit of classic NY tile peeking through the rotting linoleum floor.

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The NY Times offers this description of a typical room:

There’s usually no TV, no phone and, beyond a nightstand and a bed, no furniture. There’s also no air-conditioning, making the summers brutal. The bathrooms, two per floor, are communal, which tends to scare off most American tourists.

The Observer fills in the gritty details:

A twin-size bed dominates Room 109-precisely what one would expect from a place charging $25 for a two-hour stay. The ratty, bumpy, mattress features a concave crater directly beneath the semen stains on the once white sheets. With only a little imagination, one can discern the subtle outline of the human form on its surface, where countless numbers of women must have lain, usually paid for the inconvenience of staring at the mold-covered ceiling. Pressed in one corner stands a chipped faux-wood table and underneath it a plastic container with one crumpled napkin, one crusty tissue and one used condom inside.

Are you one of those people who pines for the Times Square of old? I can only recommend that you spend the night at The Elk before it disappears, which will probably be in the next ten years or so (the owner is waiting for the right price).  A few choice reviews from Yahoo Travel from recent Elk guests:

September 2010: I open my $59 a night hotel room to find vermin and feces. I saw a mouse scamper under the dresser and proceeded to hear rats for the rest of my stay…I open the bathroom door to the smell of feces. I thought I was in a sewer hole like Tim Robbins in Shawshank Redemption.

July 2010: The mattress was disgusting…there are no fans or ACs so the rooms get ridiculously hot we had a front facing room on what has to be the noisiest block of new york city. The owner barged into our room, while we were undressed, without reason.

September 2008: Apart from the king size rats, giant roaches, disgusting bathrooms and mean staff, this place could possible be the best hotel in all NYC

September 2006: This is by far the most dreadful hotel I’ve ever stayed at in New York City. I stayed at room 8 at the first floor. Obviously, someone had peed in the sink. The smell was awful. The bed was dirty, the noise was terrible… This hotel should be closed immediately.

Finally, though many claim The Elk to be the last of Times Square’s infamous flophouses, be sure to check out the New York Inn, a fleabag hotel at 47th & 8th Ave…

Hotel Ad - 01

…notable only for the fantastic ghost ad from when it was a more reputable establishment, offering steam (!), hot & cold water (!), and housekeeping (!).

Hotel Ad - 03

One wonders if those amenities can still be found today.

-SCOUT

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45 comments

  1. I actually stayed at The Elk on New Year’s Eve 2009 (it was the only place I could find an impromptu room for my lady friend and I) and had the best sex of my life! So, there’s that.

    • J C^¥¥£¥€^

      You know most people would have gone to the 108 west 43rd street Hotel Diplomat that was before it the Mother Lodge of Elkdom, New York Elks Lodge #1!
      I think their were less rats there and had same amount of roaches. But, it was full air conditioned for the renter. It had bathrooms in most if its rooms. The outside wasnt pretty to look at but the inside was ornate as hell. Their huge ball room that used to be the Lodge Room for the NY Elks lodge was an eyeful.
      They shouldn’t have knocked the Hotel Diplomat down in 1994. It was the most ornate dive hotel to stay in Manhattan. Trust ME!!!!
      Thanks to Douglas Durst it was demolished!

  2. This kind of place brings out the voyeur in me, I had to see inside it, so I looked it up and came across The Elk Hotel Appreciation Society on facebook which show a few of the rooms. http://url.ie/8suk

  3. So who will be the first to get out their Taxi Driver DVD and get a screenshot?

  4. Until just a few years ago, there was a fantastic old sign right on Times Square for a girly show. I would guess it dated to at least the 1950s, if not earlier. I kept telling myself I should try to buy it from whoever owned, but I never pursued it and then one day, it was gone.

    And of course, now I can’t quite recall exactly where it was. Just above or near the Howard Johnson’s that closed a few years back, I think.

    I’d love to see a photo of that sign, if anyone has one.

  5. That logo, with the detailed bottlecap seen face-on, is similar to the one Pepsi was using in 1962. By the time Taxi Driver was released in ’76, Pepsi had been using a more streamlined logo for three years.

  6. Nasty!! I didn’t know places like this still existed, except for in the movies!

  7. Seedy hotels with hourly rates, peep shows, hookers, dirty streets…as a midwesterner in my mid-30’s, THIS is what I think of when I picture Times Square and New York City. It’s nice to know that it still exists, even if just in small pockets.

  8. Scandinavian tourist

    A few years ago I stayed at the Travel Inn two blocks down from the Elk and passed the amazing corner of 42nd and 9th each day. My friend and I immediately fell in love with Papaya Dog, though we never mustered the courage to actually go try it out. And though I found the Travel Inn to be a bit dark and boring, I can now see that I have absolutely nothing to complain about compared to the Elk. Thanks for an amazing blog.

  9. love these old new york posts!

  10. the old times square (late 80’s) was quite an experience.
    i worked at 1481 b’way the original times sq. studios (formerly wor-tv) and you could count on something odd happening every week. one time the building maintenance guy found a body on the roof and since there was no freight elevator the coroner’s office guys had to use the public hallways and elevator.
    the guy either jumped or was pushed out a stairwell in a flop house around the corner on 43rd st.
    we were lucky that he did not land on the one uplink dish.

  11. Pretty sure the sign to which Cladrite Radio refers was the one on the w. side of Broadway just above 46th where the American Outfitters store is — it was the Howard Johnson on the ground floor w/faded photos of go-go boys on the second floor — and the truly glorious sign (no photo I fear) was for the “Whirly Girl Revue” (and appeared to date from the sixties). The HoJo was the one w/a sign to come in and enjoy a pitcher of Manhattans/Daiquiris etc…..

  12. Found it (scroll down to Jan 26, Whirly Girly Revue):http://tinyurl.com/6g2a8ca

  13. That’s it, Jack — many thanks!

    I’m convinced that sign dates further back than the Sixties, as I don’t think the term “vaudeville” would have been used then. But I certainly don’t pretend to be an expert on signage.

    Thanks again for the detective work.

  14. The “Old” Times Square, ah those were the golden days, seedy, slummy, stinky, sensational. There was always an element of danger and adventure, especially in the way back when, when I was teenager skulking down those mean streets. Now it’s like a trip to Disney World or any mall USA.
    Wonderful pictures and commentary as usual.

  15. I differ from many New Yorkers in that I have no great affinity for the seedy Times Square. I don’t mind a bit that it’s been cleaned up, but I wish it had occurred in such a way as to return the area’s character to that of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, when Broad-way (emphasis on the second syllable) was the city’s center of nightlife and culture. Even then, there were no doubt seedy corners to be found, but the decrepit and degraded Times Square of the ’70s holds little appeal for me.

  16. You might be surprised how long a billboard can last in Times Square; just look at this example of a sign from the “Rush Limbaugh TV show” from 2008 http://www.flickr.com/photos/skewgee/2914547968/

  17. I grew up in NYC during the sixties. 42nd street was the most
    amazing place imaginable. You only went there for one reason and
    it wasn’t going to a Bible study meeting. As a teenager, my
    friends used to say that if you can’t get it on 42nd street, it
    doesn’t exist. Great vintage links too. Scout, personally, I think
    you should have grown up during that period. You would have totally fit in.

  18. The Elk is featured in the movie JUMPER starring Hayden Christensen and Jamie Bell. The movie itself wasn’t that memorable, so I can’t remember whose character actually stayed there.

    I live down the street from there, and pass it every day so I was a little excited when I saw it on the film. Highly doubt it was used for the interior shots, but I could be wrong.

  19. I agree with you, Cladrite Radio.

    As a teenage girl growing up in Manhattan, I maintained a brisk pace when in Times Square. Especially when walking on 42nd St between Broadway & 8th. I was always solicited for something or another. It wasn’t pleasant and my folks would have been unhappy to know I was there. I can still imagine those porno theaters and dark corners every time I am on that block today. No way would I want that back. But I don’t want Disney either. A mere rehab and clean-up, rather than a witness protection program, might have been the better way to go.

    P.S. Eli – That’s the point. The sign was there in teh 60’s. The sign is there now. Therefore sign was there when they shot Taxi Driver – regardless of what PepsiCo was doign with their marketing at the time. I hope someone DOES find a screen shot.

  20. I love to find the old holdouts when I visit NY. Since my brother lives there he often knows of and takes me to see different areas with old school businesses. This vanishing aspect of NY is totally fascinating to me. Thanks for sharing these times square spots.

    • J C^¥¥£¥€^

      Heather,

      You should go have your brother check the Queens Elks Lodge that had rooms to stay in. The old queens Elks Lodge is very ornate especially what used to be their lodge room. Have him check it out its worth touring. It’s now new life church and its at 8210 Queens BLVD. They will let you tour the building if you ask them nicely !

  21. WOW – my first day in the NYC film industry took place in this seedy hotel, just after the massive blizzard in Jan 1996! (’twas a low budget indie called A Further Gesture). I recall one of the location PA’s breaking down in tears after the shoot because they had to ‘clean’ the areas we were in, which included bodily waste, used needles and stray condoms. YUCK! For my part I just had to shovel out the sidewalk of 9th and 42nd for an exterior shot 😉

  22. Wow! What an unbelievable find. There are some great holdouts in the big city if you look hard enough!

  23. The so-called “Elk Hotel” is used as a HASA (HIV/AIDS) homeless shelter. I stayed there in the 90s, overnight a few times, while it was still a hotel. A real dump, nothing to get too nostalgic over. But it was cheap – and being poor it was a great place to stay at the time. … I bemoan the loss of housing for “transients.” I was transient for several years in my 20s. My spirit still is. I live in the Times Square Hotel on 43rd Street, and it is too fancy for me! But my rent is 1/3 of my income – so $241. New Yorkers can still survive with cheap rent. Hotels/rooming houses are great ways to go.

  24. The establishment above the Howard Johnsons was the Gaiety. The sign was much older, but the Gaiety had been there since at least the 1970s. It was a male burlesque theatre and shows went all night. Between shows there was an intermission where the male patrons would mingle with the performers and the management would put out bowls of popcorn and pretzels. Talk about a different era.

  25. interesting all this coming publicly. my grandparents were in charge of that hotel. i have more to say, but having trouble getting this posted

  26. great, it went thru. computers not my thing. i hope this hotel doesn’t get torn down. if the place had all new beds etc and maintained its old style wouldn’t that be of interest to NY Historical Society? As my grandmother was the head cook for the Vanderbilts MAYBE they would suggest something. maybe could add some help in getting rid of the rats etc.

  27. TOMMY N A WESTSIDER

    I REMEMBER WAITING FOR THE BUS GOING TO HIGHSCHOOL RIGHT OUTSIDE THE ENTRANCE OF THE HOTEL THE M42 AND LOW AND BEHOLD DID NOT THIS PIMP THROW THIS HO RIGHT OUT THE WINDOW ONE FLOOR UP AND MY HAND TO GOD THATS THE TRUTH

  28. i pray this will go thru, just testing. having difficulty

  29. ok let’s see if i can give this message, at last. my message is that my irish grandmother who worked there was from collooney , sligo, ireland. and there in collooney is the Markree Castle, a major Hotel. they are having major problems now with ghosts , i have informed them of the Elk Hotel….

  30. The Markree Castle is centuries old. the story is on the internet. It was given to a Cooper by Oliver Cromwell as a reward for serving Cromwell. It would be wise to know the work of Cromwell. Would be interesting if many now in Collooney, sligo , Ireland could read about the Elk maybe the elk and the Markree have bonds…..

  31. That’s a pretty neat find, Scout. In addition to the nostalgia factor, you may have found the only hotel in Manhattan that doesn’t have bedbugs. 🙂

  32. Some of the reviews were probably written by ppl used to staying at the Plaza. In my opinion, staying at the Elk is one of the grittier, yet coolest experiences. Imagine being so near to Times Square and not being able to find a hotel. Or picking up a hooker in the 70s and paying $10 for a couple of hours, do the nasty and move on. As a matter of fact, watch the movie “JUMPER” with Hayden Christensen, they use the hotel there.

  33. “That’s a pretty neat find, Scout. In addition to the nostalgia factor, you may have found the only hotel in Manhattan that doesn’t have bedbugs.”

    True, True.

  34. remember the song give my regards to Broadway, on 42nd street. you can think of the Elk Hotel with this song, for it is a FACT that George M. Cohan spend considerable time in this hotel, the Old Elk on 42nd street. My mother gave me many times while i was growing up of the good days at this Elk Hotel, where she lived!

  35. i grew up in michigan, never went to NY till i was age 17 but all the while as a child i so often heard about the great Elk Hotel and all the guests of interest that stayed there, including so many Irish immigrants. i had this hotel really built up in my mind as such a place of peace, happiness, cleaniness, irish music and laughter etc The first time i saw it i stood at a distance in holy awe i have to believe that the past will return again for the Elk Hotel. Someone out there will make it happen Soon comes St. Patrick’s Day, what happy days every year in March there. Maybe it is St. Pa;trick himself NOT letting this building get torn down.

  36. Question. I used to live in the Times Square area during late 1970s, and was familiar with it before and after, but I, and everyone I knew, either referred to it as “Times Square” or “42nd St.” But never “The Deuce”–which is what some people think it was called back then. Do any oldtimers recollect it being called “The Deuce” in those days?

  37. Hey scout excellent post. You can tell it was an excellent post by the number of posts that it got in return in addition to mine. I work in times square been working there as a promoter for the comedy shows on and off for almost 5 years now. Anyone that has been to times square n the past 10 years knows what I’m talking about. hey do you like stand up comedy yea that’s me. I was thinking about staying at the elk Thinking it was just a rat hole because a buddy of mine used to stay there frequently and used to tell me what it was. But now i know that’s it’s a dump with some loooong history. I will look at the experience through different eyes. I grew up in the hood so a couple rats and roaches don’t bother me. Cant fuck wit the bed bugs though, hopefully that will be absent. So it should be interesting. That’s for the post. Happy new year!

  38. Former Elk Resident

    Love the blog!

    Sad to report, as of 2/2012 the Elk has officially closed its doors. No more Elk, soon to become high priced condos or something. The Elk did not go down without a bang – Elk style. A body was found in one of the rooms, having been decaying there for 2 weeks.

  39. What’s your source on the death? I can’t find anything in the news about a body.

  40. It will be helpful to reflect on this standing more generally. equipment are not invariably as obvious as this.

  41. Are you all talking Elk motel or chatting about the Elks Lodge #1 in NYC that was the Elks Mother Lodge.
    The Elks #1 had hotel rooms in it as well as a huge lodge room,
    bowling alleys , and restruants / bars.
    It turned into the Diplomat Hotel that was a crappy hotel
    after the Elks couldn’t hold their Grand Lodge meetings in NYC any more
    so they could afford the big NY#1 mother lodge of the BPO Elks and sold it to the bank.
    They finally pulled the plug on the grand old building on 43rd street in 1994-95.
    The Dursts Company got the okay to demolish the building after kicking all the leasers
    out.
    That day sucked! The Elks Grand Lodge should of saved that great building as NY#1 period!!!

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