At first glance, Old Country Coffee, managed by Lower East Side native Jesus Guerrios, seems out of sync with the bustling Hudson Yards and massive construction project that surround it. But that, it turns out, is precisely Jesus’ objective. “Our goal,” he says, “is to provide an oasis in this industrial, commercial area.” This small, inviting coffee shop with floors and ceiling made from Pennsylvanian oak combines modern and antique in its decor. And indeed, once the door closes, it is almost as if New York did not continue to exist outside.
Jesus was approached by owner Dennis Donato in August 2015, who asked him to build a coffee shop and gave him free rein to design and manage it as he saw fit. Gregory Allan Cramer, I learned, was the genius behind the cafe's design. An important choice that stands out is that the coffee shop serves locally roasted, custom blend coffee - sixty percent of which is from Asian Pacific beans and forty percent from South American beans - together with pastries from La Marjolaine Bakery in Queens. The resulting coffee is smooth and flavorful without being too bitter.
Yet this is just the tip of the iceberg of what Jesus, the former manager of the popular Cocoa Bar (with a striking resemblance to Dominican singer and icon, Juan Luis Guerra), has in the works. Sometime in late 2016 the coffee shop will become a beer and wine bar at night. Once the scaffolding outside gets removed, Jesus plans to install tables and chairs to seat more customers. To top it all off, he may open two more locations next year. So, as the Hudson Yards project is driven to completion and pedestrian traffic increases, Old Country Coffee may serve as an oasis not just in that area, but in many others throughout the city.
Originally known as the Manhattan Opera House, 311 West has had an interesting history. Oscar Hammerstein built the theater in 1906, but after a few short years, the Metropolitan Opera House came to him requesting that he not compete with them, and made him an offer that he could not refuse. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Hammerstein sold the building to the Shubert brothers where they continued to feature a variety of shows and concerts. In 1922, it was sold again, and this time a Grand Ballroom was added. Unbeknownst to the builders, they had created an outstanding acoustic setup where musicians from Harry Belafonte to the Grateful Dead have performed and recorded. Over the past twenty plus years, construction has been on-going as more multimedia studios have been added and a refurbishing done to the Hammerstein Ballroom to accommodate large private events.
With construction starting in 1958 and finishing ten years later, Saint Vartan Cathedral represents the first Armenian Apostolic cathedral built in North America. Named after a saint who was martyred a millennium and a half ago defending Armenian Christianity, Saint Vartan Cathedral had a memorable beginning. During its construction and immediately following its completion, the building was visited by the highest authority within the Church, His Holiness Vasken I, marking the first such visit by a Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians in the United States. For a people so persecuted throughout history, and especially by the recent Armenian genocide, the building and consecration of this holy house was a monumental event in the community. His Holiness Vasken I, looking out at an assembled audience soon after Saint Vartan's completion, spoke of "an admirable picture of spiritual grace - a rare moment of spiritual bliss - to which we are all witnesses. " But far from being a relic, the church continues to thrive with the energy of the community it houses. I encourage any visitors to the church to walk through the intricately decorated doors and take some time to absorb the sheer size and depth of the church. Narrow strips of stained glass depicting biblical scenes and significant events in the history of the Armenian Church rise up to the impressive dome, which depicts Christian symbols in paint and stained glass, such as a human eye within a triangle (representing the omniscient Triune God), the wooden ship (representing the Church), and the white dove (representing the Holy Spirit). Closer to the altar, the “Head of Christ” is chiseled on a slate of stone in high relief. Silver and gold crosses decorate the distinctly Armenian altar. On the sides of the altar are paintings of St. Sahag and St. Mesrob, the two men credited with inventing the Armenian Alphabet, and a painting that seeks to honor the victims of the dreadful Armenian genocide.