Tag Archives: Bowery

Subway Tavern: ‘greasy’ church-operated bar alternative

 

LOCATION: Subway Tavern
Bleecker and Mulberry, Manhattan
In operation 1904-05

The early planners of the New York City subway negotiated that very first route through some of the city’s mostly heavily populated areas, those obviously in need of rapid transit. The locations of the first underground stations were based on the amount of available space at key cross streets. If you happened to own property along the route and specifically near a planned station, you would have hit the proverbial jackpot in 1904, the year the subway opened.

And so begins the tale of the Subway Tavern, at the corner of Bleecker and Mulberry, which tried to monopolize on this lottery of suddenly-valuable real estate with the worst idea in the history of New York City nightlife — a moral tavern.

1905, Greenwich Village, Manhattan, New York, New York, USA — Subway Tavern 47 Bleeker Street. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Like all religious leaders, the Bishop Henry Codman Potter of the Episcopal Diocese of New York was gravely concerned with the evils of alcohol upon the poorest classes and the newest arrivals from Ellis Island. Most of the temperance stripe preferred to hit areas most soaked in booze — particularly the Bowery — with bibles in hand and moral example on display. Often to no avail and to the occasional danger to the proselytizers themselves.

Potter (pictured below), a rector at Grace Church, thought outside the box. His own ideas for social reform were radical for the time but some (like daycare in churches) seem standard and even obvious today. Although he lived rather luxuriously — his stately home at 89th and Riverside Drive is still standing — he made a point, even after his ascension to bishop, to work regularly in poor neighborhoods.

He was often a voice for labor groups and consistently berated Tammany Hall for its abuses. Nobody could say the man’s heart was not in the right place. Which made it all the more shocking when he decided one day that the Episcopal Church should open a tavern.

Since it seemed unlikely that people would stop drinking entirely, went his theory, why not found an establishment where proper and gentlemanly drinking would be encouraged? A place where the staff could monitor and guide patrons to more responsible imbibing.

Potter found the perfect location, a former saloon owned by future Fire Commissioner Joseph ‘Oak’ Johnson, at the corner of Bleecker and Mulberry streets and sitting right in front of a new subway entrance. Although the trains would not run for another few months, the new experiment was dubbed the Subway Tavern.

Potter christened the new tavern on August 2, 1904, opened with $10,000 in funds from distinguished citizens, including money from U.S. representative Herbert Parsons and former lacrosse star Elgin Gould. In case anybody was unclear of the intentions of the unusual establishment, a holy doxology was performed to an enrapt, standing-room-only audience.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

The Subway Tavern was to operate like a respectable upper-class club, except for poorer folks. “I belong to many clubs which I can go,” remarked the bishop, “but where can the toiler go?” Where, indeed!

Potter honestly believed the Subway Tavern could be jovial and free-spirited without becoming debaucherous. The front room, adored with a sign ‘To The Water Wagon’ playfully overhead, would be open to both sexes “with a ‘sanitary’ soda water fountain where beer will be served to women.” [source] Men would have a private room behind some swinging saloon doors in the back.

As the bar was funded by donations, the ‘evils’ of profit were eliminated. And thus, reasoned Potter, bartenders would not encourage patrons to drink. Men and women could come to converse, read a newspaper and have one — maybe two — drinks. Employees were to closely watch the intoxication levels of customers; if one even looked tipsy — if say, somebody appeared to be enjoying their drink a wee too much — they would be cut off. Healthy food would also be on hand downstairs to soak up any amoral toxins in the belly.

As the New York Times lightly mocked, “The benevolent bartenders … are anguished when they are compelled to serve whisky, and … dimple with joy when sarsaparilla pop is ordered.”

Naturally, many Episcopalians were not too thrilled having their church associated with a tavern just a couple blocks from the Bowery. Many dubbed it ‘The Bishop’s Inn’. The experiment made national headlines and was greeted with remarks like those from Pittsburgh pastor J.T. McCrory: “I supposed the ‘Subway Tavern’ was called that because it is an underground way to hell.” (Several accounts I read seemed to believe the tavern was actually in the subway.)

Another preacher called it a “low down, greasy Bowery saloon.” Shocked clergy flocked from other cities to gander at this oddity and register their opinion to the press. “I do not think it will turn the tide of drunkenness,” said one stunned clergyman, “nor will it solve or diminish the curse of rum.”

The naysayers were right. The Subway Tavern turned out to be a horribly ill-conceived idea, and its flaws were magnified several months after the subway opened in October 1904. When a reporter for the Advance visited the pub in September 1905, they found the exterior covered in ‘tattered’, ‘stained’ advertisements, a main barroom empty and most surfaces covered in flies.

Presumably, patrons quickly grew tired of being stately. As the Advance so plainly stated, “The liquor sold at the Subway does not make men sober. There is no method by which a young man learning the drink habit may not go elsewhere to complete his ruin.”

Within days of the Advance’s visit to the Subway Tavern, the holy drinking establishment closed up and reopened as a no-pretenses ‘out and out saloon’. Bishop Potter died just a few years later with a mostly unblemished record.

Many years later, the structure that once housed the Subway Tavern was ingraciously replaced with this building.

 

This article originally ran as part of our FRIDAY NIGHT FEVER series entry. Past entries can be found here.

The Story of Bayard’s Mount, Lower Manhattan’s Missing Mountain

Bayard’s Mount, one of the highest points in Manhattan, has been gone for more than two hundred years. Where other hills and high points have been incorporated into the modern topography New York, this old hill was wiped from the map.

Bayard’s Mount used to sit at around where Mott and Grand Streets meet today, in today’s Little Italy. Indeed, back when nearby SoHo was but a dense thicket of oak and tulip trees, the Mount was the best place to view the waters of Collect Pond, the wild northern orchards, and the flat tidal creeks to the west.

A smaller hilltop, called Mount Pleasant, sat to its east and, with the introduction of Europeans, a farm road (Bowery) ran along it. Sitting atop Bayard’s Mount, a person could wile away the day watching travelers going along the Bowery, to and from the city.

A watercolor by artist Archibald Robertson in 1798, looking south, with Bayard’s Mount/Bunker Hill to the left and Collect Pond dead center.

Some reminiscences refer to Bayard’s Mount and Mount Pleasant as the same hill, and they were close enough they seem to be part of the same ridge.

After the territory went from Dutch to British hands in the mid-17th century, most of this property fell into the hands of Nicholas Bayard, and the “small, cone-shaped mount” took on the name of its landowner, who built his sturdy estate just to its north. Even by the early 18th century, Bayard’s family would still have few neighbors; swampy ground prevented much development west, while property to the east eventually belonged to James DeLancey, the governor of the colony.

Below: A later 19th century property map highlights the broken western border of Bayard’s farm. The wetlands known as Lispenard’s Meadow prevented the estate from developing further westward.

The mount took on a more serious purpose with the onset of the Revolutionary War. In March of 1776, “One third of the citizens were ordered out to erect new works; they began a fort upon Mr. Bayard’s Mount near the Bowery.” [source]

This fortification, built in anticipation of a messy battle with the British, was named after a critical battle the year previous at Bunker Hill in Boston; soon, the hill itself took on the name, and in most histories after 1776, this place at today’s Mott and Grand Streets is officially known as Bunker Hill. Notably stationed here at Bunker Hill was Nathan Hale.

There would be no significant altercations here between British troops and the Continental Army. No, in fact, the bloodshed would wait until after the war, when the hilltop would be known as a fashionable place to host your duel.

For instance, in 1787, a disagreement between two French men ended in a duel here and the death of one of them, a “Monsieur Chevalier de Longchamps” who was apparently no stranger to offense and violent response.

Below: From Montressor’s map of Manhattan, 1755, you can see Bayard’s property and both hills — Bayard’s Mount and Mount Pleasant, the elongated hill. The Bowery runs along the bottom right hand of the illustration, with Collect Pond in the bottom left corner. You can also see the grid plan of Bayard’s farm (which was ultimately adapted for the modern street plan of SoHo).


In July 1788, to celebrate the federal ratification of the Constitution, a procession marched through the city and ended its revelry at Bayard’s Mount/Bunker Hill, where “ten enormous tables laden with provisions” and hundreds of pounds of roasted ox were served to hungry patriots. Several years later, in 1795, a different gathering, angered by their governor John Jay over his (perceived) treasonous treaty with the British, burned his portrait in a bonfire here.

Another curious pastime at the hilltop was the British sport of ‘bull baiting’, where a bull would be tied to a stake and slowly tortured by angry dogs. Why this is of any visible amusement is beyond me, although its cousin ‘bear baiting’ is still sometimes practiced in Pakistan.

Below: A bit of this nasty little pastime out in Long Island as it was advertised in 1774

New York was outgrowing the southern point of Manhattan, and former deterrents for expansion — the marshes of Lispinard’s Meadow, polluted Collect Pond, and of course, Bayard’s Mount — were slated for elimination. The ponds and marshes would soon be drained, creating Canal Street, and Broadway expanded further north. (Listen to our podcast on Collect Pond and Canal Street for more information.) By then, Bayard’s was but a memory.

Beginning in 1802, workmen began levelling Bayard’s Mount and Mount Pleasant which also included moving the old Bayard family crypt which had its entrance at the bottom of the hill. Unfortunately, it was discovered that a “hermit or ragman” had moved into the vault and turned it into his very own macabre home. Remarkably, the man was allowed to live there — “he was somewhat feared and not much troubled by visitors” — until he was found one day dead in the vault.

By the time Collect Pond was completely drained (around 1811), the hills to its north had gone, replaced with land lots and the first hints of townhouses and new businesses.

Below: From an 1821 New York Evening Post, an advertisement for plots on the old Bayard farm — at Bayard Street and Mott Street, just a couple blocks south of the location of the Mount

Another clipping from an 1888 New York Evening World, recalling the landscape here:

 

Below: The approximate position of where Bayard’s Mount would have been:


View Larger Map

 

A version of this article originally ran in October 2010

A handy guide to the most loathsome saloons on the Bowery in 1903

Many of the bars and taverns found on the Bowery today are unfortunately clean, friendly and even trendy establishments, wonderful safe places to meet with friends and family. Not a ruffian or scoundrel in sight. Where’s the fun in that?!

Of course, for most of its history, the Bowery was one of the most notorious places in America, the location of great vice and debauchery — gambling dens, brothels, dance halls, dime museums, saloons full of soused drinkers hovering around a boxing ring. For many decades, an elevated train line turned the Bowery into a shadowy haven for illicit shenanigans of all sorts.

And so may I turn your attention to an article which ran in the New York Tribune, on April 12, 1903, that touted New York’s reform efforts along the Bowery. This report proudly lists the Bowery’s most “evil resorts” which were successfully wiped away thanks to efforts by Mayor Seth Low.

While these would surely be dangerous places to visit, you can’t deny that these lurid newspaper descriptions make even the most lowly of dives seem rather interesting.

With each address, I’ve put a link to Google Maps, revealing what stands on that spot today. In many cases, the building itself is still standing:

15 Bowery “Known to the criminal ‘under world’ as Spanish Mamie’s. Took its name from the presence of a Spanish girl, the associate of many crooks. This was a dive of the lowest sort.”

19 Bowery “A back room ‘ginmill,’ the headquarters of ‘Boston Charlie,’ a well known character, and his even more notorious woman pal ‘Boston Clara.’ Boston Charlie was known as a ‘first rate cane man’, that is, a beggar who pretended to be a cripple. He served many terms in the workhouse and gave this place a reputation in his now line. It was the resort of ‘panhandlers’.”

Below: An 1880 photograph of the Bowery at Canal Street

MCNY

25 Bowery The New-York Tavern.  Here was  planned a brutal robbery and assault on a Brooklyn jeweler. A low order of ‘crooks’ made this their ‘hang out.’”

101 Bowery “A common backroom resort, a place of assignation and the gathering place of ‘crooks’ of an inferior order.”

Below: The Bowery in 1915. The establishments listed below would have been on this block

Courtesy MCNY

114 Bowery “A resort of cheap pugilists, where obscene pictures were exhibited on a screen, best known as Steve Brodie’s” [Read more about Brodie’s dive bar here]

115 BoweryLittle Jumbo. This was a notorious resort and the scene of a brutal murder. Criminals and ‘panhandlers’ made it their headquarters, and sailors were the victims of all sorts of crime, from robbery to murder. It was run for the proprietor by an Italian who was discharged and replaced by an Irishman; soon after the Irishman and the Italian had a fight and the former was killed.”

MCNY

119 Bowery Flynn’s ‘Black Hole.’ This notorious resort is mentioned by Josiah Flynt as a resort of all sorts of crooks. It had a wide reputation, and went out of business soon after its proprietor, Flynn, was arrested for illegal registration in the last campaign.”

Also* — “‘Eat ’Em Up Jack’ McManus’s Rapid Transit House. This was a well known dive kept by McManus, who was formerly head bouncer for McGurk [most known for the morbid McGurk’s Suicide Hall, see below]. The assertion that no ‘touch’, that is, robbery, was ever made in McGurk’s and that such business was barred there, is somewhat justified by the fact that this place was started by a former employee of McGurk, and was famous for the ‘touches’ made there. McManus was known to his ‘pals’ as a ‘strong arm’ man, one who garrotes victims he is about to rob with his crooked arm.”

287 BoweryThe Tivoli — A concert hall where women in indecent costumes sang indecent songs on the stage; where assignation was carried on openly, and solders and sailors were dragged in and later taken to disorderly houses.”

The Bowery in 1905

MCNY

291 BoweryThe Volks Garden — The most notorious concert hall in the Bowery, and, like the Tivoli, a resort for prostitutes, a place of indecent stage exhibitions and the largest of its sort on the Bowery. As many as fifty women were attached to this place, and the business was carried on brazenly, numbers of ‘barkers’ and ‘pullers in’ being stationed at the door to drag people in by main force.”

295 BoweryMcGurk’s ‘Suicide Hall’ The most notorious resort in the Bowery, the ‘hangout’ of a large number of young girls. Solders and sailors frequented the place in large numbers. Carbolic acid suicies were the special of the place and gave it its name.” [Read more about it in my piece on Suicide Hall.]

*Address not specifically listed. May have shared the building with Flynn’s Black Hole

The above is an expanded excerpt from our book The Bowery Boys Adventures In Old New York, now available at bookstores everywhere.

Jane’s Walk 2015: Ten Recommended Free Tours (And Over 100 More!)

Above: This is the Bowery, 110 years ago.  One of the recommended Jane’s Walks highlights the rapid changes along this historic street. (Picture courtesy Shorpy)

 

There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans. — Jane Jacobs 

Jane’s Walk 2015, the annual celebration of New York City (and Spring, for that matter) named for the influential urban activist, arrives this Friday. In New York, this festival of walking tours is hosted by the Municipal Art Society, providing a great way to mix discussions of history, architecture and preservation with a little healthy exercise.

There are over 100 tours available and they’re all free. You could literally fill your entire weekend with activities. The first tour begins Friday morning at 10 am, the last on Sunday at 5:30pm.

You would be insane not to participate in at least one! Here are ten that particularly fascinate me this year. But this is just my opinion. Check out the full list on the Jane’s Walk site and find one that best suits your interests.

Please visit the individual pages devoted to these tours for updated timing and meeting-place information.

Grant Square from Bergen Street, in the neighborhood of Crown Heights (Picture courtesy the Museum of the City of New York)
Grant Square from Bergen Street, in the neighborhood of Crown Heights (Picture courtesy the Museum of the City of New York)

Brooklyn

 Brooklyn Bridge Park Sneak Peak: Pier 6 Parkland — There are so many good tours of Brooklyn neighborhoods this year, but who can resist one that requires you to wear a hard hat? From walk organizer Patricia Kirshner: “The Pier 6 landscape will complete construction of the outer two-thirds of the pier. Designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc., the design includes planted areas that will provide a counterpoint to the adjacent active program at Piers 5 and 6. A seasonally vivid flower meadow, winding pathway and lush perimeter plantings will introduce new ecosystems to the southern end of the park.”  [More information here]

 May 1, 2015 | 06:00 PM

Jewels In The Crown: Crown Heights – This time-traveling tour within the heart of Brooklyn – highlighting some spectacular homes from the days when the borough was a proud, independent city — should prove quite spirited as led by Irv Weitzman. “Crown Heights is a neighborhood rich with history and architectural contrasts. Some of the biggest mansions in New York City exist next to row-houses, some with front gardens, as well as elegant (past and present) and dilapidated apartment houses. It contains one of the widest boulevards in New York City as well as two of Brooklyn’s longest streets. It is the historical home of the Brooklyn Dodgers (the ONLY Dodgers — L.A. is simply not recognized whereas Yankee fans are cautioned).” [More information here]

 May 3, 2015 | 11:00 AM

 

An apartment building along the Grand Concourse, taken between 1900-1925,  photo by the Wurts Brothers (Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York)
An apartment building along the Grand Concourse, taken between 1900-1925, photo by the Wurts Brothers (Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York)

The Bronx

 1920s & 1930s Bronx Apartment Heaven – This tour highlights one of my favorite eras of Bronx history, when vast development granted the young borough some of the city’s most glamorous architecture. From tour guide Cuyler Christianson: “When the subway reached the Pelham Parkway South neighborhood between 1917 and 1920, a feast of beautiful six-story apartment buildings went up over the twenty years that followed. Styles include Art Deco, Art Moderne, Tudor, Mediterranean, Renaissance, etc. Over time, the neighborhood would transition many times and today contains a classic New York mixture living in harmony in this neighborhood known for it’s a low crime rate and the beautiful buildings that remain!” [More information here]

May 2, 2015 | 01:00 PM and May 3, 2015 | 01:00 PM

 

Fulton and Water streets with Schermerhorn Row in the distance. Photo by Edmund V Gillon (courtesy the Museum of the City of New York)
Fulton and Water streets with Schermerhorn Row in the distance. Photo by Edmund V Gillon (courtesy the Museum of the City of New York)

 

Manhattan

The South Street Seaport Walk – Given the unique challenges facing this neighborhood today – and its somewhat discombobulated state – you’ll really need a tour to sort out its fascinating history and its uncertain future. Luckily guide David Sheldon is proving three different times over two days. “We will be looking firsthand at the many elements that define the character of this District: It’s vessels, buildings, Museum, views, history, and markets. From the waterline to the masthead, pavement to rooftops, from the founding of New Amsterdam to the current day.” [More information here]

May 1, 2015 | 07:00 PM, May 2, 2015 | 11:00 AM and May 2, 2015 | 02:00 PM

 

Jane Jacobs West Village – Since these walks are named for iconic urban planner, why not learn a little about some her work in her neighborhood of residence?  From tour guide Joan Schecter: “Our tour will include the history of the area, woven with stories and relevant sights of Jane’s epic battles with city bureaucracy and the powerful Robert Moses to preserve her beloved Village.” [More information here]

May 1, 2015 | 11:00 AM

 

#SaveNYC: Hyper-Gentrification and Appropriation on the Bowery – I’m not going to say you’ll feel great after this tour – watch the Bowery outprice you before your very eyes! – but hopefully you’ll be instilled with some proper, pro-active outrage. And you’re in good hands here, with a tour organized by Jeremiah Moss (Vanishing New York) and guided by Kyle Supley: “[P]articipants will tour the main sites of the Bowery’s massive transformation and engage in a discussion about hyper-gentrification and appropriation.” [More information here]

May 2, 2015 | 03:00 PM and May 3, 2015 | 01:00 PM

 

Gay Bars That Are Gone – This tour will take you into the party zones of the past, a unique angle into the sometimes obscured history of gay New York. From guide Michael Ryan: “Together, we’ll stroll by what the local press in the 1890s called the ‘wickedest place in New York’, and check-in on what stands where the city’s first gay disco opened in 1974. We’ll stand atop the collapsed underground vault once home to Walt Whitman’s favorite haunt, and pay a visit to the mafia-run ice cream parlor that was known to permit same-sex dancing when the chandelier flickered off.” [More information here]

 May 2, 2015 | 06:00 PM

High Bridge & Croton Waterworks (Courtesy New York Public Library)
High Bridge & Croton Waterworks (Courtesy New York Public Library)

 

Bridge to Bridge: Walking High Bridge to the George WashingtonOne of the most fascinating tours if the weather happens to cooperate, a lovely walk from one of New York’s oldest bridges to one of its longest bridges. From tour guide Anna Araiza:The High Bridge is the only pedestrian bridge connecting the Bronx and Manhattan, restoration is underway and the bridge is scheduled to re-open this summer. Learn about the origins of the bridge and water tower and the recent efforts leading to the re-opening.” [More information here]

May 2, 2015 | 11:00 AM

Queens

Astoria: A Once And Future Village – How about a robust walk through an old neighborhood on the dawn of some major changes? From guide Rich Melnick: “Since Adrien Block … dubbed the place ‘The Bright Passage’ (‘Helle Gat’ in Dutch), people have fallen in love with ‘Old Astoria Village.’ It has a strong sense of the past, where a 17th century farm’s gardens and orchards are outlined by streets older than Wall Street – and roads were first blazed by Native Americans.” [More information here]

May 2, 2015 | 11:00 AM

A view of Astoria in 1862, courtesy Currier and Ives (and Fanny Palmer)!
A view of Astoria in 1862, courtesy Currier and Ives (and Fanny Palmer)!

Staten Island

 Walk on the Water: Harbor Views for a Local – This may be the coolest one of all, because you’re on a boat and the guide is your captain! From your guide Capt. Margaret Flanagan: “New York Harbor has a lot more to view than impressive landmarks! As we cruise across the harbor, and face away from the Statue of Liberty, we’ll be impressed by the gigantic ships at work, and the breadth of the infrastructure that supports them.” [More information here]

 May 2, 2015 | 03:00 PM but get there at 2:45 at the latest

The Wildest Era In New York History: My New York Magazine Investigation

New York Magazine produces an annual buffet of New York City history each year called the Yesteryear Issue.  It’s probably the biggest celebration of the city’s past in print and usually corrals some of New York’s finest writers and celebrities.  Last year’s issue featured eight entertainers from New York’s past including Barbra Streisand, Bob Dylan and the Notorious B.I.G.

This year’s fabulous issue is no exception. The theme is After Midnight, a look at history through the years (from the 1850s to today) as it played out in the late-night hours.   You can read it all right here or go to your newsstand and pick up one of the three gorgeous covers.

3

This issue features tales, interviews, reminiscences and asides by the likes of Jay McInerney, Bebe Buell, Sloane Crosley, Colin Quinn, Alec Baldwin, Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, Laurie Anderson, J.B. Smooth, Sarah Silverman, Lydia Lunch, Isaac Mizrahi, Laurie Anderson — and the Bowery Boys!

That’s right, I have a fun little article in the issue, a thought experiment called “Which New  York Was the Wildest New York? An Inquiry.”

It’s an absurd argument — how do you really quantify debauchery? — but a wonderful thought experiment and a fine excuse to wallow in genuine New York wickedness.  It was fun to pour over the decades and identify four particular eras of rampant bacchanalian excess — the 1970s, the 1920s, the 1880s-90s and the 1850s.  You can read the article to discover which era I crown the wildest.

Disagree?  Have a favorite era you’d love to visit? Leave a comment and tell me about it!

And here are a few images of people and places that I mention in the article.

Harry Hill’s Concert Saloon 

2

1.w

For more information on Harry Hill’s check out my Bowery Boys article Purging Evil: New York vs. the Concert Saloon.

 

 Kit Burns Rat Pit (or, in this case, Dog Pit)

2

For more information on Kit Burn’s Water Street saloon, check our our podcast on the South Street Seaport.

 

McGurk’s Suicide Hall

4

For more information on McGurk’s Suicide Hall check out my Bowery Boys profile on this sad and dangerous place on the Bowery. (The article was written all the way in 2007 so the neighborhood has changed greatly since then!)

 

“Parisian-style dance  halls”

2

For more information on the Bleecker Street ‘distractions, check out my Bowery Boys article called Don’t Douse! The Glim! Four Infamous Dancehalls and Dives

And for particular information on The Slide, you can read my profile from back in 2007. (Kennys Castaways has since closed.)

 

Texas Guinan

4

For more information on Guinan, read my profile of her notorious speakeasy The 300 Club.

 

Larry Fay and the El Fay nightclub

4

The Astor Place Riot: Massacre at a busy crossroad as a Shakespearean rivalry ignites New York class struggles

“By the pricking of my thumbs / something wicked this way comes” — Macbeth

PODCAST England’s great thespian William Macready mounted the stage of the Astor Place Opera House on May 10, 1849, to perform Shakespeare’s Macbeth, just as he had done hundreds of times before.  But this performance would become infamous in later years as the trigger for one of New York City’s most violent events — the Astor Place Riot.

The theater, being America’s prime form of public entertainment in the early 19th century, was often home to great disturbances and riots.  It was still seen as a British import and often suffered the anti-British sentiments that often vexed early New Yorkers.

Macready, known as one of the world’s greatest Shakespearean stars, was soon rivaled by American actor Edwin Forrest, whose brawny, ragged style of performance endeared the audiences of the Bowery.  To many, these two actors embodied many of America’s deepest divides — rich vs. poor, British vs. American, Whig vs. Democrat.

On May 10th, these emotions overflowed into an evening of stark, horrifying violence as armed militia shot indiscriminately into an angry mob gathering outside theater at Astor Place.  By the end of this story, over two dozen New Yorkers would be murdered, dozens more wounded, and the culture of the city irrevocably changed.

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, subscribe to our RSS feed or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #164 The Astor Place Riot

The riot immortalized on a cigarette card. (courtesy the Museum of the City of New York)

The Old Astor Place Opera House.

____________________________________________________________________

And we would like to again thank our new sponsor Squarespace!  Squarespace, the all-in-one platform that makes it fast and easy to create your own professional website or online portfolio.  For a free trial and 10% off (your first purchase), go to squarespace.com and use offer code BOWERY.
 ____________________________________________________________________

BOWERY BOYS MERCHANDISE IS ON ITS WAY! More details on Monday. But here’s a preview. [Official Bowery Boys Store]
 ____________________________________________________________________

RIOT OR RIOTS?  You may have noticed in our podcast that we go from calling it the Astor Place Riot and the Astor Place Riots.  We both saw primary references to both the singular and the plural.  Though it was just one riot which occurred on May 10, the incidents on May 7 and May 11 constitute smaller riots or disturbances that lead up or were the result of the May 10 event.  The word ‘riot’ is even funny as it starts as a riot and ends as a massacre.

In the end, I just decided to simplify it in the headline, but I think either are acceptable

CORRECTION: In the podcast, I mention that John Jacob Astor lived in the line of stately buildings today known as Colonnade Row.  Although he built them, he never lived here.  However he moved his family into them, including his grandson John Jacob Astor III.  Cornelius Vanderbilt and Washington Irving also lived here.
 ____________________________________________________________________

The Astor Place Opera House in 1850 and its approximate location as it looks in 2004

Inside the Astor Opera House, one of the most lavish spaces in all of New York in the 1840s.  Curiously, this illustration depicts a ball for the New York Fire Department.  Many members of the volunteer fire departments  actually set upon the opera house as part of the angry mob.

After the riots, the opera house quickly lost its cache. High society moved uptown to the Academy of Music (not so far away actually, on 14th Street, near Union Square).  The interior of the theater was eventually demolished and sold to the New York Mercantile Library and renamed Clinton Hall.

This was torn down in 1890 and replaced with the 11-story structure that stands there today.

Many considered the demons of Astor Place purged when Cooper Union was finally constructed in 1859, a decade after the riots.  In this image, we’re looking up Third Avenue and the final remnant of the Bowery.  The Third Avenue Elevated has already been built here:

William Macready:
(In the podcast, I note that a photograph — actually a daguerreotype — exists of Mr. Macready. I admit, that I only read that they exist but I was unable to find one. Once I do, I’ll replace the image below.0

Edwin Forrest: In portrait and in daguerreotype

Most images above courtesy the New York Public Library (except where otherwise noted). We thank them again for being an invaluable resource for New York City history!

When the Bowery Ballroom was a shoe store and other scenes from Delancey Street in the 1930s

The Tree-Mark Shoe Store at 6-8 Delancey Street. You may know this building today as the Bowery Ballroom, a music venue since 1997. (Wurts Brothers, date unknown, both courtesy NYPL)

The interior of the shoe store, 1930 (Pic courtesy MCNY)

8 Delancey Street. Tree-Mark shoe store, interior.

This building has had a rocky history, according to historian Matthew Postal.  Using remnants of an old theater at this spot, the current building was constructed in 1928 as a retail store, but the stock market crash the following year ensured tenants never stayed for long.  Tree-Mark was home here the longest, almost thirty years.

Tree-Mark Shoe Stores, a family-owned establishment since 1919, was an affordable shoe outlet with three locations in New York by the late 1950s — the original Delancey Street location, one off Herald Square and another on Kingsbridge Road n the Bronx.

“Comfort, rather than high style, is the goal,” the New York Times mentioned in a fashion write-up of the shoe franchise.  “However, it is possible to get a good-looking pump with a stacked heel for as little as $13.95.”  In a later article about the popularity of boots, Tree-Mark is mentioned as “specializ[ing] in boots for women with larger than average calves.”

The advertisement, at right, is from a 1934 issue of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.  “8,000 customers cordially recommend them.”

On an unrelated note, in 1971, employees at the Herald Square location all chipped in to buy a lottery ticket and won $100,000.
_________________________________

Here’s a couple bonus photos of life along Delancey Street in the 1930s. The first captures the southwest corner of Delancey and Ludlow. Judging from this 1929 picture of the same corner, that building being torn down is a public school.  Today that is the location of the swanky lounge The DL.

And here’s the northeast corner of Delancey and Essex, Wurts Brothers, date unknown (NYPL)  Outside of the Blue Building towering over it all, this street corner isn’t that much different today.

Santa Claus: a Broadway concert saloon from the 1850s

A Broadway saloon in 1859 during a ‘Sunday sacred concert’, as in, not very sacred at all. The Santa Claus probably looked like this on a good night. [Courtesy NYPL]

I’m doing some research on a couple upcoming entries for the How New York Saved Christmas feature which I started last year and came across something rather odd and Christmas-related that didn’t save anything at all.

Broadway was becoming New York’s de facto entertainment district after the 1830s, ushered in by luxury shops, pleasure gardens, and grand theatrical palaces like the Olympic (at Grand Street) and the Chambers Street Theatre. The Bowery, pretender to that title, would stoop (or elevate, depending on your tastes) to tawdrier amusements, starting with horse shows and comedic theater and degenerating into that infamous row of saloons and dance halls.

But the line was never precisely drawn and, anyway, weren’t the bawdier establishments more fun anyway? And so it was that saloons with musical acts seeped over to the more fashionable street, which explains how Santa Claus came to Broadway.

Not the bearded heavy-set gentlemen from north of Canada, but a place named in his honor. Santa Claus was a dance hall originally located at 596 Broadway, placing it adjacent to the newly built Metropolitan Hotel (on the Niblo’s Garden property).

Little is known about the ‘concert saloon’, as it was billed by its owner R. W. Williams. Opening in 1858, it may have attracted mixed clientele just below the line of New York respectability, but its bill of entertainment pretended otherwise. The unadorned long hall had a sawdust floor, a smattering of billiard tables and a high stage for performances from an odd mix of “opera, ballet, concerts, minstrels and gymnasts,” according to advertisements.

It’s not clear why such a place would be named Santa Claus who, as far as we know, is not a drinker. Enjoying the delights of an ‘uncommonly stocked bar’, patrons could enjoy German acrobats, ‘singing and dancing gypsies’, dog tricks, Irish comedians or, for a more somber occasion, the sounds of Dodworth’s Military Band and Cornet Corps. And all for a door charge of twelve cents.

The only review of the place I could find (a fussy, otherwise condescending review from a Dec 1858 issue of the New York Times) paints a dour scene, a ‘cheerless-looking hall’ with ‘a very dingy and forlorn aspect’. Interestingly, the place appears to cater to both white and black patrons, which the Times reviewer did not particular care for.

Santa Claus lost its lease and in 1859 moved a bit south to 72 Prince Street. At its new home, you could hear the talents of ‘pleasing concert singer’ Julia Barton, Spanish dancer Josephine West or minstral comedian Jerry Merrifield.

One source I found calls the Santa Claus “the first recognizable New York variety theater,” although few were recognizing anything here, and it appears that the new Santa Claus never made it to another Christmas.

Before CBGB’s, parties at 315 Bowery were for the birds

Above: The first of hundreds of Bowery hotels — the old Gotham Inn in 1862. The inn, which dated from the 1790s, sat quite close to where 315 Bowery is today, just north of Houston Street. (Pic courtesy NYPL)

The early history of buildings at 315 Bowery — the address that would later become the club CBGB’s — is spotty indeed, but some early references to the address reveal some rather odd events that took place here.

In the 1860s, the Bowery neighborhood would still have been a de facto theatrical district for the lower classes, “New York’s primary locale for down-market entertainment – saloons, beer gardens, amusement halls, dime museums, street vendors and oyster houses,” according to David Levinson. Not quite given over to the truly seedier elements which would define the street for over 100 years.

In the early 1860s, it appears a pet shop or bird supplier resided at the address 315 Bowery. One William F. Messenger, with profession listed only as ‘birds’, lived at this address in May 1861.

On January 31, 1862, the New York Times reported on a strange gathering at 315 Bowery and presumably at Messenger’s shop — the Bird Fanciers’ Third Annual Exhibition of prized fowl. Little is known of the group, which had reportedly been in existence over a decade by this time.

Prizes were awarded to bird lovers who kept roosters and hens, with a gentleman by the name of William Manson really cleaning up:

“First prize, yellow cock, WM. MANSON; second prize, yellow cock, JOHN WILLIAMSON; third prize, yellow cock, JOHN HIGGINBOTHAM. First prize, mealy cock and best bird exhibited, WM. MANSON; second prize, mealy cock, —- BAKER; third prize, mealy cock, —– BAKER. First prize, yellow hen, WM. MANSON; second prize, yellow hen, WM. MANSON; third prize, yellow hen, —-MURRAY. First prize, mealy hen, JOHN HIGGINBOTHAM; second prize, mealy hen, JOHN HIGGINBOTHAM; third prize, mealy hen, WM. MANSON.”

However, despite its avian beginnings, I was able to find mention of the address’s musical heritage during this period: a John Bogan is listed as living or working at the address in 1867-68 as a “banjoist”, a teaching instructor (and possible manufacturer) of banjos.

Murder unearthed at a condemned Bowery building

Old Hester Street: Could that gentlemen be the murderer*?

Grim news today from the Lower East Side: the residents of 128 Hester Street have been forced to evacuate their home due to the structure being declared ‘unsafe’ by the Department of Buildings. And boy, is it. The terribly dilapidated tenement suffered “cracks on the wall, holes in the ceiling, termites on the floor, holes in the floor” according to one tenant.

The building, right off the Bowery, was erected in 1910, and looks every bit of it; however the building it replaced at the same address had long before achieved a bit of notoriety itself. Like many buildings in the area, 128 Hester Street housed a former saloon, called The Old Stand, finding itself in the headlines one October 1906.

Across the street was another saloon called The Star. Early one morning, officers discovered a man slumped in the doorway with a knife wound to the heart. The victim, one ‘Yaller’ Wilson (nicknamed for his yellowish complexion), died of his injuries shortly after.

Who killed Yaller? Inconclusive from the records I’ve found, but one suspect is a former employee and bartender at the Old Stand, Joseph Coyne, who was taken in for questioning. He claimed he attempted to stop the altercation between Wilson and an unknown man, receiving a “cut across the back of the hand.”

Also suspiciously on hand was Wilson’s own wife Emma who provides the police with an odd story in which she seems to have entered the Star saloon with the same ‘unknown man’ and suspected murderer, who then go into an argument with her husband. This is truly a rough and tumble group; the events all seem to take place between the two saloons in the wee hours of the morning.

Enjoy reading the original report in the New York Times to see if you can make sense of this strange, mysterious murder.

Police believe Yaller was extorting money from the stranger, who met the threat by killing Wilson. But is the unknown man the real murderer, or are our two suspects hiding something? The suspect is “45 years old…had a dark complexion and a sandy mustache, and wore a brown suit and a black derby hat.”

*No, probably not. This picture was taken a good ten years before the murder took place. Plus, everybody wore black derby hats back then.