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.
Johnny Ivanac hopped on board a vessel from Croatia to the U. S. in 1968, with a background in hospitality and a dream of opening his own restaurant. When the ship stopped in New York, he decided to settle here and, thanks to the advice and generosity of the congregants at the local Croatian church, has never looked back. Johnny’s restaurant career kicked off when he was offered a job at a pizzeria, which he accepted with enthusiasm despite one small snag — he had never before tasted pizza. This did not deter him or the owner of the pizzeria, who assured him, “In a week you’ll be the best guy here. ” Sure enough, he was. When a restaurant owner learned of him from a fellow Croatian, Johnny joined his team and amassed a following of loyal customers who encouraged him to open his own place. Hesitant at first because of lacking funds, Johnny reached out to folks back home who pitched in to help him put a downpayment on a business that was about to close. He soon sent for his sister, Maria, and fellow Croatian, Chef Mili. The close-knit team was able to open their dream restaurant in 1981 and pay it off four years later. “With hard work, honest work, good work — you’re gonna make it. ” Villa Berulia has since become a neighborhood staple, uniquely melding elements of Johnny’s Croatian heritage with popular Italian fare. Customers call in advance to reserve a serving of cannelloni or decadent flourless chocolate cake (both recipes remain a closely-guarded secret). Johnny and Maria continue to spend time in the restaurant, but Johnny’s beloved daughter, Alex, and her husband, Steve, now run the everyday operations while carrying on that same “small family that extends to the customers. ”
After being approved by the board, and paying a membership fee, guests are invited to attend the varied events held in this Beaux-Arts landmark building that was erected in 1899. Originally designed to be a civic club for those in the surrounding community, in 1946, the building was sold to the Estonian Educational Society by the wife of the original owner, Frederick Goddard,. Estonians immediately began seeking refuge here, and it has remained theirs ever since. Today, they have folk dancing, concerts, lectures, exhibitions, plays and other entertaining activities. There is a private dining room and bar area, and members are invited to host their own private events anytime in this stunning house.
This iconic brand and hundred-year-old building will forever bring me happy memories of Thanksgiving Day Parades - my family went every single year for my entire childhood (and then again with my own children) braving freezing temperatures, high winds, growing crowds, and more to experience one of New York's greatest spectacles. My 90-year-old father even tells a heart-warming story of being a little boy in the 1920's: While sitting patiently in the lobby of a nearby hospital waiting for the arrival of his new baby cousin, a Macy's truck drove by. As a five-year-old, he told his parents he knew how the baby must have been delivered - by a Macy's truck, of course! I am certain that with the storied past of the now-national Macy's chain that spans three centuries, I am not the only one with stories to share and memories to cherish.
Although they have changed hands over the years, El Parador is reputed to be the oldest Mexican restaurant in the city. Having opened his doors in 1959 on Second Avenue, Carlos Jacott moved to the current address in 1969 and then sold his restaurant to Manny Alejandro in 1990. He, in turn, handed over the reins to his son, Alex, who I enjoyed chatting with one winter afternoon. He told me that parts of the building date back over a hundred years. The menu is typically Mexican, however, Alex continued, "we are always showcasing traditional dishes while also playing with them to make a more modern presentation. " Mole Poblano is their classic recipe that has been handed down, but Alex and his team continue to tweak it. When I ask what his favorite dish is, he smiled and immediately responded, "Shrimp quesadilla - this is mine. " Alex trained at the French Culinary School before coming to El Parador. He initially came in as a manager under his father's guidance, until he purchased the restaurant from his dad in 2007. Now that his father is retired, Alex has his "hands in all the pots" both working his magic in the kitchen and up front with the customers. I always love the stories of the people behind a restaurant's success and on this day, I learned that Chef Boni Jr. has been with Alex for fifteen years, and Manuel, the bartender for twenty-five. The black lacquered beams, wood flooring, tin lanterns, strong margaritas, warm chips and salsa (not for vegetarians), topnotch guacamole and spending time with Alex made for a nice reprieve from the cold.
At the gravitational center of Manhattan stands the Empire State Building, built in 1931 to be the tallest structure in the world and retaining that title for forty years. While other buildings may scrape higher skies, few can capture the imagination as does this towering symbol of our favorite metropolis. A few fun facts: a virtual tour of New York City, Skyride, is available inside, as is a trip to the celestial observation deck. After the tragic fall of the World Trade Centers, the Empire State Building was again, briefly, the tallest building in New York before recently being surpassed by the Freedom Tower - One World Trade Center. It is, however, currently the tallest LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) building in the United States, to which we tip our hats.