So here’s a mystery. A few months ago, I got an email from reader Matthew J. advising me to check out Brothers Hardware at 26 West 38th Street.
The shop is pretty unassuming from the outside…
But go inside…
…head to the back of the store…
…and head down the right aisle…
…and buried in the rear corner…
…you’ll find something really unexpected: a gilded statue at the base of an arch:
There’s one at the end of the left aisle too…
This one is female…
…and like the other, is attached to an arch connecting to the ceiling:
Otherwise, Brothers is pretty much your typical Manhattan hardware store. So where did these come from??
According to the man at the counter, this was once a theater! If you step back, you can see how the stage would have been positioned under the arch, with the statuary at either end.
But what kind of theater was here? Play? Film? As the store is currently situated, the roof comes down at an unusual angle, leaving very little room for any sort of depth to the stage.
Unfortunately, repeated searches for the 26 West 38th Street address have turned up next to nothing. In the early 1900s, a store called Spiro’s was here, which sold makeup and lotions. Later in the 1990s, it was Manny’s Millinery Supply (a hat shop). But what happened in the years between?
I did find one potential clue: the neighboring building was once home to Samuel French and Company, the theatrical publishing house.
The facades have all been altered in the ensuing years, but it doesn’t seem like a huge stretch to think that a small theater might have been located next door to Samuel French.
Or maybe this is completely off. Anyone have any ideas, or perhaps memories of that time you saw a play/movie at the tiny theater on West 38th Street? Please share!
Thanks to Scouting NY readers Daniel J., Carter, and Jenny, it looks like we might have an answer! It appears that 26 West 38th Street was once the home to Ernst Böcker, a retailer of “automatic” (self-playing) musical instruments. This ad announcing the opening of his store notes a concert room on the first floor, which would explain the statuary:
Another ad in a 1912 issue of the New York Tribune promotes daily concerts with the Phonoliszt Violin, the “world’s eighth wonder,” a self-playing violin.
Curious what that would be like? Here’s the Phonoliszt in action!
An entire store of these instruments?? Seems like this was once a pretty magical place.
Thank you all for the excellent detective work!
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