Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Then and Now: Keen's Steakhouse, Manhattan

Then and Now: Keen's Chop House, Manhattan

Keen's Chop House on West 36th Street 1976
Keen's Chop House, 1976 (Chris Protopapas).

Keen's Steakhouse is an institution in New York City.  It is one of the grand old steakhouses in a city that always prized its beef. The Old Homestead Steakhouse at 56 Ninth Avenue, founded in 1884, beats Keen's by a year. However, Keen's also has a lot going for it, though being that close to being first but still falling short must rankle.

Chris Protopapas, a Greek immigrant, began taking photographs of ordinary street scenes in New York City in 1974. He took the above photo of Keen's Chop House at 72 W 36th St, New York, NY 10018 in 1976. It's an interesting composition with the Empire State Building looming in the background - which was likely why he took the shot - so I became intrigued. I decided to do this comparison of Keen's Chop House from 1976 to the 2010s and see what the location looked like now.

Well, my research quickly showed that Keen's Chop House remains very much in business. In fact, the entire block looks the same, as you can see in the Google Street View photo of the same area in the 2010s. None of the buildings on the block has been replaced, though their facades have been subtly altered in places. This is one of the most unchanged blocks I've found in midtown, in fact.

You know, of course, that the Empire State Building is still there. Unfortunately for our comparison picture, a building on 35th Street now blocks the Empire State Building from our vantage point at the intersection of 36th Street and Sixth Avenue. However, if you look very carefully at the photo at the bottom, you still can barely see the very tip of the Empire State Building's television mast just above the intersection of the two buildings in the background. A building has to be tall to be able to have any part of it still be spotted from this extreme angle above those tall buildings. If you were unfamiliar with the area, however, you'd never even notice it until you walked down the block and saw its massive presence.

Keen's Chop House on West 36th Street 1976
Keen's Chop House (Google Street View).

Keen's (now called Keen's Steakhouse because the term "Chop House" has gone out of style) opened in 1885. That was the golden age of steak restaurants, places for the wealthy. Lüchow's on 14th Street was another well-known example. While Lüchow's closed in 1984 and its building was demolished in 1995, Keen's survives pretty much exactly as it was decades ago. It has become a tourist attraction in its own right, boasting 90,000 clay pipes which it calls the largest such collection in the world.

Other than Keen's, the entire block seems like it is caught in a time warp. The street lamps, one of which you can clearly see in the 1976 photo but which is obscured by the dark background in the photo below, are still the same. The fire escape on the 5 Boro Burger building at 80 West 36th Street is still there, none the worse for wear after more than 40 years, though they have removed the little ornamental cornice on that building probably because it deteriorated with time and became a hazard.

Anyway, thank you for visiting this installment of this series showing that "the more things change, the more they stay the same." I hope you enjoy these little history excursions as much as I do putting them together!

Keen's Chop House on West 36th Street 1976
The same vantage point of Keen's Steakhouse on West 36th Street, Manhattan today (Google Street View).

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