Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Howard Johnson's, Landmark of Old Times Square, to Shut Down

By Robert Simonson
Playbill.com

Howard Johnson's, one of the last functioning remnants of the rough-and tumble, Runyonesque Times Square of yesteryear, will be torn down sometime this year, the New York Post reported April 19.

The restaurant and the land it sits on, a prime site on the northwest corner of 46th Street and Broadway, was recently sold for "more than $100 million" by longtime owner Kenneth Rubinstein to Jeff Sutton's Wharton Acquisitions. Sutton plans to flatten the four-story edifice and replace it with a gleaming new retail outlet.

The Howard Johnson's was built in 1955 and is the oldest, continually operated business facing directly on Times Square. Its squat dimensions once fit in nicely with the low-scale, slightly down-at-heel architecture that for a long time characterized the area. But the real estate revival of the late 1990s saw it dwarfed by glass towers and glossy stores like Toys 'R' Us and the Virgin Megastore. Increasingly, the venerable old institution looked like an anachronism.

In the years following World War II, Times Square boasted not one, but three Howard Johnson's eateries (including one directly across the way, on Seventh Avenue). The restaurants—one of the first to be franchised nationwide— teemed with locals and tourists alike, and matched the homely qualities of other eating destinations of the era, such as Lindy's. In his recent book "The Devil's Playground," James Traub described how people would line up down the street to sample the trademark fried clams and ice cream.

In the '80s and '90s, the diner was still a viable enterprise, taking in tourist group after tourist group, who were attracted by the low prices and ample seating. In recent years, however, the crowds have died down. On any given night, the brown faux-leather booths sport only a smattering of patrons. The bar at the end of the place, with its sign encouraging patrons to order "a decanter of Manhattan, Martini or Daiquiri," is often deserted during the well advertised "happy hour."

Other old-time food emporiums like The Edison Cafe and McHale's have managed to hang on, in part because they do business on less prominent pieces of real estate. However, they have also managed to draw a loyal following among theatre professionals. Howard Johnson's is rarely frequented by the show people who work and live in the neighborhood. (Years ago, however, Gene Hackman worked as a maitre'd and Lily Tomlin was a waitress.)

Rubinstein is a member of an old New York real estate family. According to Traub's book, he has been looking to unload the property for some time, but was waiting for the right price.

The space above the restaurant housed The Gaiety, a strip club, for 30 years. The business recently closed.

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