Located in one of the most metropolitan areas of Manhattan, the Hilton Vacation Club at 6th Avenue and 57th Street is probably the last place you’d think had a history. But this plot of land was once the site of the popular Horn & Hardart’s Automat, a pre-McDonald’s fast food establishment in which customers purchased already prepared dishes from vending machines.
The automat first arrived in Philadelphia in 1902 after business partners Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart borrowed the concept from an establishment in Germany, Quisisana Automat. A few years later, the automat made its entrance into New York, with the 57th street site opening in 1938. The presence of this not-quite fast food chain in the East Coast revolutionized the food industry– not to mention how we prepare coffee, which, prior to Horn & Hardart’s, was bitter and traditionally boiled with egg shells to clarify the liquid.
By the 1970s, however, the popularity of automats waned as new fast food chains entered the scene, and the fifty establishments in New York whittled down to a mere two by the twentieth century. Horn & Hardart’s 104th street’s automat now houses a Rite Aid, the only indication of its past the Art-Deco style terracotta ornaments above its windows. The 57th street Automat was completely demolished for the development of the Hilton Vacation club, and none of its Art-Moderne facade remains today.
Read more about the 104th street Automat and in David Freeland’s wonderful book AUTOMATS, TAXI DANCES and VAUDEVILLE: Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure.