Lost in Place

Written by David Freeland on . Posted in Posts.


MANHATTAN
DEVELOPMENT HAS finally slowed—which means it’s time to take stock of
what remains. Now that buildings once destined for the wrecking ball
have been given a reprieve, maybe we can save a few more.

Earlier this
year, it was reported on the Lost City blog that Frankie &
Johnnie’s, the venerable steakhouse and former speakeasy on West 45th
Street, would not be closing as had been previously expected. The
restaurant, along with the 19th-century building that houses it, will
likely remain visible for at least two more years, its owners having
renegotiated their lease.

Other
structures have not been so lucky: To the east of Frankie &
Johnnie’s, a row of brownstones—once home to Sam’s, Barrymore’s and
other theatrical hangouts— was demolished last year. But now, given the
economic climate, the lots will likely remain vacant for some time.
Today, few places remain in the neighborhood where friends can
visit after a show and discuss ideas in a relaxed, affordable
environment. This is the kind of activity that humanizes city dwelling,
renders it livable amidst the forces that, sooner or later, will affect
all of us: disappointment, loss and change. In the end, Manhattan’s
buildings are important because they give us a site to express
ourselves; their architectural histories are also human ones.

Since the
city’s real estate downturn is temporary, we must quickly identify
neglected sites deserving preservation. The
following buildings lie outside the boundaries of currently designated
“historic districts” and, for this reason, should be considered at
risk. Admittedly, not all of them are likely candidates for landmark
designation since they have been subjected to renovations that would
probably diminish its worth in the eyes of the Commission. But
these buildings share another factor that may limit their chances for
becoming landmarks: an association with the fringes of established
society, whether through present-day location or history.

Fortunately,
there is strong indication that the historically aristocratic focus of
the Landmarks Commission is changing: The East Village’s Webster Hall,
for decades a proletarian meeting ground, was recently granted
protection, along with the Automat at West 104th Street and Broadway, a
noted Depression-era eatery. These victories notwithstanding, it can be
argued that the marginalized history of African Americans, gays and
lesbians, immigrant groups and the working class remains
underrepresented in the consideration and designation of landmarks.

Let’s
begin on Madison Street, far downtown near the East River, and journey
northward. Along the way we’ll stop at the Bowery (now undergoing a
transformation that threatens many old buildings), Greenwich Village,
the Fashion District and Times Square, before ending in Harlem, where
for years the disinterest of the real estate industry left many old
structures intact, even as gentrification now threatens their continued
survival.


Home of Chinatown’s Animal Sports

47-49 Madison Street: Harry Jennings’ Rat-Killing Pit

On Madison Street in lower Chinatown, lodged between
two tenements, sits a house so old that it appears to predate the
street itself: while its neighbors face the sidewalk, this quaint
dormered building rests at a mild angle. For years the house has been
something of a mystery, but one glimpse into its colorful history is
revealed through a small advertisement from the Spirit of the Times newspaper, as reprinted in the Boston Herald of
March 2, 1853: “Rat Killing, and other sports, every Monday evening.A
good supply of rats kept constantly on hand for gentlemen wishing to
try their dogs, with the use of the pit gratis, at J. Marriott’s
Sportsman’s Hall, 49 Madison Street.”

Described by historian
Luc Sante as “the premier betting sport of the nineteenth century,” rat
baiting thrived at places like J. Marriott’s and Kit Burns’ where, as
Sante recounts in his classic Low Life, “the pits…were
unscreened boxes, with zinc-lined wooden walls eight feet long and four
and a half feet high.” Initially, Sante writes, contests were set up
between dogs and raccoons, but over time “rats were so readily
available that they came to dominate the scene,” and “boys were paid to
catch them, at a rate of five to twelve cents a head.”

By the late
1850s, the house at 49 Madison Street had been taken over by
English-born Harry Jennings, who ran it as a combination saloon and
rat-fighting pit until his conviction on a robbery charge sent him to
prison in Massachusetts. But later, after returning to New York,
Jennings settled into a kind of respectability, winning fame as a dog
trainer and, eventually, the city’s leading rat exterminator. By the
time of his death, in 1891, Jennings’ clients included Delmonico’s
restaurant and such luxury hotels as Gilsey House and the original
Plaza.


Manhattan’s Oldest Hotel?

146-148 Bowery: The Occidental Hotel (Currently
Sohotel)

While the budget-friendly Sohotel may not look like much
today—its interior has been stripped to reveal large stretches of
exposed brick—few lodging houses can boast of such an impressively long
run. Indeed, a hotel has been operating continuously on this spot, at
the corner of Bowery and Broome, since at least 1805. Piecing together
the exact history of the present structure is difficult, but aerial
views suggest that it is composed of a number of 19th-century buildings
strung together. The corner portion seems to be the oldest: It
was probably constructed around 1840 as a replacement for the old
Military and Civic Hotel, a wooden structure that had been a meeting
house for the Equal Rights wing of the Democratic Party. According to
Alvin Harlow in his 1931 book, Old Bowery Days, the building
was remodeled with a fourth story and given its present appearance in
1866 (at the time it was known as Westchester House). In coming
decades, as the Bowery grew increasingly downtrodden in character, the
hotel became a common destination for unfortunates such as John P.
Mount, a dry goods employee who killed himself there in 1897 after
losing his job of 20 years.

But, as The Occidental (a name it
had acquired by 1874), the hotel did enjoy a burst of raffish glory as
Big Tim Sullivan’s headquarters from 1900 to 1913. It would be
impossible to encapsulate Sullivan’s diverse activities, but during his
peak years he was known variously as ward boss,Tammany Hall leader,
state senator, theatrical impresario, real estate baron, stager of
illegal prizefights, saloon owner and, in the words of a 1901 New York Tribune profile, “professional politician.”

His
connections with the world of vice and crime were as legendary as his
generosity, and the lavish dinners he hosted atThe Occidental drew the
likes of future governor Al Smith alongside John L. Sullivan, the
boxer. During these years the hotel gained renown for its barroom
ceiling, which Harlow described as “one vast painting whose fame spread
even to the Pacific, and which is still spoken of with awe by the
old-timers as a work of high art.” The painting depicted a cluster of
nude women in the bath.


A Gay Old Time in Greenwich Village

157 Bleecker Street: The Slide

(Currently Kenny’s Castaways) In January 1892, the New York Herald ran
an exposé on the “most notorious of all dens of iniquity in the
city…where vice reigns in such a hideous mien that it is impossible to
describe it.” The newspaper was referring, in characteristically
purplish style, to The Slide, one of the first gay-oriented nightspots
to gain citywide attention. Despite the reporter’s promise of “orgies,”
it is evident that little, if any, overt sexual activity took place at
the Slide: “there was a fair sprinkling of bloated, dissipated looking
men, some young and some old, who were bandying unspeakable jests with
other fashionably dressed young fellows, whose cheeks were rouged and
whose manner suggested the infamy to which they had fallen.”

The
Slide was owned by Frank Stevenson, a fascinating character who led a
two-pronged career: In addition to operating dance halls in the area
south of Washington Square, he was a frequent backer and referee of
prizefights, becoming known as an expert on pugilism and an all-around
“sport.” Speaking in 1890 to the first publication known as New York Press, Stevenson
attested to the Slide’s drawing power: “I want this house known from
Maine to California as the worst dive in New York. There is money in
such a reputation.”

Today the building that once housed the Slide is Kenny’s Castaways, a rock club

with
a long and venerable history of its own. Maria Kenny, daughter of the
club’s late founder, gladly points out to visitors its 19th-century
architectural features, which include the large mahogany bar in front
and a high gallery in the rear, accessible through a pair of imposing
staircases. Fortunately, if the long-discussed South Village Historic
District receives approval by the Landmarks Commission, this unusual
slice of history will be protected.


Fashion’s Seamier Side

300 West 38th Street: Art Nouveau Gem

Art Nouveau, while abundant in Prague and other European cities, is sadly underrepresented in U.S. architectural design. That’s
why coming across a building such as 300 West 38th Street, on the
southwest corner of Eighth Avenue, is such a delightful surprise. Today,
an X-rated DVD and lingerie parlor occupies the ground floor, and no
doubt the structure as a whole needs a good scrubbing. But its
facade is remarkable: a row of sculpted busts, lush female faces
surrounded by flowing hair, lines the base of the third story, while an
exceptionally wide cornice juts out above. Elegant bay windows sit at
either end of the 38th Street side, creating a sense of balance that
offsets the structure’s more florid tendencies. Meanwhile an
intergrowth suggestive of vines decorates the second-floor window
lintels—evidence of the fixation upon the natural world that Art
Nouveau evokes so movingly. It’s the kind of building that reveals
itself more with each viewing. Stare at it long enough, and you’ll
notice details like the lions’ heads peering out from the supporting
brackets of the iron cornice.

According to architectural historian Christopher Gray, who wrote about 300 West 38th Street in a 2002 New York Times column,
the building was designed by Emery Roth, later known as the architect
for the San Remo apartment house on Central Park West.That building,
part of an elegant upper-class district, is landmarked, while Roth’s
earlier structure, on an admittedly seedy stretch of Eighth Avenue,
sits in need of restoration. While little of historical note happened
here—in the 1930s it was a cigar store and later it was home to one of
the gang members associated with the much-publicized “Capeman” killing
in Hell’s Kitchen—this is one building that deserves to be landmarked
for its architecture alone.


Ragtime Remembered

252 West 47th Street: Scott Joplin Residence

In recent years the few reminders of “old” Times Square—the giddy,
neon-and-grime habitat of cardsharps, freak shows and allnight
cafeterias—have largely disappeared.

The building that once
housed the Cinderella Ballroom, where Jazz Age cornetist Bix
Beiderbecke made his New York debut, was torn down in 2004. McHale’s, a
vintage watering hole complete with banquettes and a vivid 1950s sign,
followed two years later. In this environment of overarching change,
the discovery of a 19th-century tenement structure, in good and livable
condition, comes as a bit of a shock; 252 West 47th Street, near the
Hotel Edison (another undervalued landmark) west of Broadway, is a
six-story brick building with a restaurant on its ground floor.
According to New York City Department of Buildings records, it was
built in the early 1870s, when Times (then Longacre) Square was a
district of carriage manufacturers and stables. In 1904 the tenement
was the site of a grisly murder, in which 54-year-old Tony Tobinie
killed his younger brother with a carving knife, after an alleged
dispute involving Tobinie’s wife. Decades later it again made the news
when two workers at the Chinese Inn, a restaurant then inhabiting the
space, were shot in a robbery.

But this building, unmarked by
a plaque, deserves recognition for something more uplifting: From 1911
or 1912, through 1915, it was the home and studio of ragtime genius
Scott Joplin, one of the core musical figures in American history.
According to Joplin’s biographer, Edward A. Berlin, the composer lived
here with Lottie Stokes, his common-law wife, and together they ran it
as a boardinghouse that catered to musicians and theatrical folk.
During this period, the pair also established the Scott Joplin Music
Publishing Company and entered copyrights for pieces including “A Real
Slow Drag” (from Joplin’s opera, Treemonisha) and “Magnetic
Rag.” Unfortunately Joplin’s remaining years in New York were not
happy: reduced to exiguous circumstances, afflicted with syphilis and
depressed over the lack of support for Treemonisha, he died in
1917. By then he was living in Harlem at 163 West 131st Street, around
the corner from the Lafayette Theater, in a house that has also
survived. Joplin’s grave, in Queens, was not marked until 1974.


Birthplace of a Sound

234 West 56th Street: Atlantic Records’ former home

West 56th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue is a tiny block
with a grubby, somewhat untended air. It is home to two of the
neighborhood’s few remaining 19thcentury townhouses, although they are
dwarfed by the office buildings that stretch heavenward along Broadway.
Patsy’s, the Italian eatery beloved by Sinatra, is one old-school
holdout on the block; Fuji, a Japanese restaurant that lost a brilliant
neon sign some years back, another. But the block’s least-known address
is perhaps its most influential: number 234, a brick structure complete
with loggia and decorative tile work on its fifth and uppermost story,
once the home of Atlantic Records.

Started in 1947 by Herb
Abramson and Ahmet Ertegun (the latter a Turkish diplomat’s son),
Atlantic grew into a leading force in rhythm & blues music, with a
roster that included Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Bobby Darin, Big Joe
Turner, and other nowlegendary artists. In contrast to the streamlined
sound of Motown in Detroit, Atlantic looked toward the Southern juke
joints, the street corners and storefront churches of Harlem, for its
creative inspiration. In later years the company’s recordings became
more sophisticated, with the addition of orchestras and strings, but
early works sounded as if they had been mined from the city’s
bedrock.There was little chance it could have been otherwise: the
label’s sole recording studio during its early days sat on the fifth
floor of the 56th Street building, and doubled as office space. In the
1993 book Rhythm and the Blues (a memoir by onetime Atlantic
vice president Jerry Wexler), engineer Tom Dowd recalled the
setup: “When it was time to record, we’d stack the desks and push
furniture into the halls.We’d wing it.”

By the late 1950s Atlantic had
moved to larger quarters on West 57th Street, although it continued to
use the 56th Street space as a studio (hits such as Bobby Darin’s
“Splish Splash” and the Coasters’ “Yakety Yak,” both from 1958, were
recorded there). Later, it moved to 1841 Broadway, near Columbus Circle
and, still later, to a high-rise in Rockefeller Plaza. Today the
still-active company is subsumed within a corporate behemoth, Warner
Music Group. Atlantic has become so out of reach, its website
does not list its current address. Fortunately, we can still stand in
front of the narrow building at 234 West 56th Street, gaze at the fifth
floor, and muse upon the beginnings of a cultural movement.


Harlem Drama—and Vaudeville

362 West 125th Street: The West End Theatre

Harlem,
may contain more unprotected landmarks than any other section of
Manhattan and, as an historical district, it remains vulnerable. The
former West End Theatre, for example, merits attention for the diverse
phases it spanned in theatrical entertainment and for the care its
longtime occupant, LaGree Baptist Church, has taken in maintaining the
building.

The West End Theatre had an extremely checkered
history. It opened on November 3, 1902, in what was then a largely
German and Irish enclave. Meyer R. Bimberg, its builder and first
owner, was known popularly as “Bim the Button Man” for supplying
customized buttons and banners to political candidates.

Within
months of opening, however, Bimberg had been arrested for embezzlement
and the theater was sold to the vaudeville team of Weber and Fields.
Never a hugely profitable venue, the West End nonetheless maintained a
high standard of quality during its first years of operation. Early
headliners included the Four Cohans, the great African-American
vaudeville team of Bert Williams and George Walker, cherished dramatic
actress Mrs. Fiske, and, in her final New York appearance in November
of 1903, Adelina Patti, the Italian soprano.

In later decades
the West End was reborn as a showcase for African-American drama and
vaudeville. Ida Anderson, one of Harlem’s leading actresses, opened a
stock company there in 1928, while dancer Mable Lee (who is still
living in Harlem and performing) started her New York career at the
West End in 1940, joining the theater’s highly regarded chorus. Today,
as LaGree Baptist Church, much of the building’s interior decoration is
intact, and outside the inscription “1902” can be seen engraved in the
facade. For another surprise, we can walk around the corner to tiny
Hancock Place and a narrow, triangular extension of the theater. This
outcrop, adjacent to the stage door, housed the performers’ dressing
rooms during the West End’s early days. In one newspaper account, the
rooms were described as being filled with natural light—a salubrious
departure from the cramped dressing conditions that existed in theaters
downtown. The windows, now blocked with cement, offer a portal into New
York’s forgotten past, and a ghostly reminder of the people who made it
shine. C

David Freeland is the author of the new book, Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure, which is now available from NYU Press. For more discussion of lost New York cultural sites, visit his website www.gothamlostandfound.com.

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