The good times at the Golden Swan, a notorious ‘hell hole’ for Greenwich Village writers and artists

The nightclubs and taverns of yore usually never leave a mark. Never appreciated in their latter days and rarely ever landmarked, historic nightclubs and cubbyholes are demolished, accessories parceled off, their contributions living on only in photographs and memories of bad hangovers.

The remnants of the Golden Swan, however, are quite easy to find.

Head down Sixth Avenue to Fourth Street, next door to the Washington Square Diner and across the street from the basketball courts, and you’ll find a prim little garden park named appropriately Golden Swan Garden.

Flickr/Erick

Here sat one of Greenwich Village’s seediest but most influential hangouts, an inspiration for artists, thinkers and playwrights.

As with any place flocked to by creative types, the Golden Swan Café went by different nicknames, most notably the Hell Hole, though there are few signs anything truly devilish happened here.  

This watering hole was opened sometime in the 1870s by an Irish prize-fighter — Thomas Wallace, who lived upstairs in the three-story building with his brother George and several other boarders.

You wouldn’t need directions to locate the Golden Swan.  A gold-painted swan hung over the doorway, the bar’s wide glass windows overlooking the Sixth Avenue elevated train.  It doesn’t appear to be that different from any number of taverns in the West Village today.

The Golden Swan as photographed by Robert Bracklow, 1900. Note the Sixth Avenue Elevated Railroad to the right. Getty Images

Mentions of the Golden Swan appear in late 19th century newspapers, usually in unflattering lights. In 1907, Wallace made news by purchasing a portrait of J.P. Morgan which the financier had rejected (he thought it unflattering) and sold at auction. Wallace hung it inside the Golden Swan “next to … a life-size portrait of Consul, the celebrated chimpanzee.” [source]

(That newspaper had one fact wrong. It wasn’t a portrait of the chimpanzee. It was the actual celebrated chimpanzee, preserved in taxidermy.)

But it would be the bohemian clientele of the Golden Swan in the first quarter of the 20th century that made it legendary.  Photographers, painters, writers and gadabouts slowly began frequenting the Golden Swan’s backroom, swilling its cheap liquor.

But none were more renown — and none made the bar more famous — than Eugene O’Neill (pictured below), a patron of the Golden Swan (or ‘Hell Hole’, as he preferred it) at the start of marvelously creative period in his budding career.

courtesy Pilgrim Monument & Provincetown Museum 

When he wasn’t in Cape Cod with the Provincetown Players — or in a small theater on MacDougal Street, working on a new show — he was here at the ‘HH’, regaling drinkers with poetry, enjoying the company of writer friends (like activist Dorothy Day) or delighting in the antics of the tavern’s thuggish bartenders, such as Lefty Louie.

From one of O’Neill’s letters to his wife (1919):  “Last night I made a voyage to the Hell Hole to see how it had survived the dry spell. [Prohibition] There was no whiskey in the house….and it had to be stolen by some of the gang out of a storehouse, and sold to Tom Wallace.  All hands were drinking sherry and I joined this comparatively harmless and cheap debauch right willingly.”

The painter John Sloan’s take on the ‘Hell Hole’, O’Neill in the upper right

The place was every bit as rough and raunchy as any bar on the Bowery. Women were only allowed to use a side entrance, and many of those were, in Eugene’s words, “‘hard’ ladies of the oldest profession.” He occasionally slept upstairs in Wallace’s apartment.

O’Neill eventually paid tribute to the Swan by putting it in one of his greatest works, The Iceman Cometh, and modeling the play’s tavern owner Harry Hope after Wallace.

The Golden Swan inspired several artists including John Sloan, who worked just across the street, and captured the joys of the tavern in his work “The Hell Hole,” featuring depictions of both O’Neill and Day.  Charles Demuth was similarly inspired in his 1919 painting “At the Golden Swan.”

Journalist and labor activist Mary Heaton Vorse attributes the bar with otherworldly qualities, “something at once alive and deadly sinister. It was as if the combined soul of New York flowed underground and this was one of its vents.”

The party lasted only a few years after those sentiments were written.  As with many structures along Sixth Avenue, the Golden Swan was torn down during construction of the subway right below it.  At least with the Golden Swan Garden, constructed in 2000, you can at least stand in the spot where so many great minds once let their hair down.

Charles Demuth’s lively painting ‘At the Golden Swan (Also Known As The Hell Hole)’

This article originally ran as part of our FRIDAY NIGHT FEVER series spotlighting famous nightlife establishments of the past. Previous entries can be found HERE.