Tag Archives: Soho

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

The Story of SoHo: The Iron-Clad History of ‘Hell’s Hundred Acres’

PODCAST The history of SoHo, New York’s 19th century warehouse district turned shopping mecca

Picture the neighborhood of SoHo (that’s right, South of Houston) in your head today, and you might get a headache. Crowded sidewalks on the weekend, filled with tourists, shoppers and vendors, could almost distract you from SoHo’s unique appeal as a place of extraordinary architecture and history.

On this podcast we present the story of how a portion of “Hell’s Hundred Acres” became one of the most famously trendy places in the world.

In the mid 19th century this area, centered along Broadway, became the heart of retail and entertainment, department stores and hotels setting up shop in grand palaces. (It also became New York’s most notorious brothel district). The streets between Houston and Canal became known as the Cast Iron District, thanks to an exciting construction innovation that transformed the Gilded Age.

Today SoHo contains the world’s greatest surviving collection of cast-iron architecture. But these gorgeous iron tributes to New York industry were nearly destroyed – first by rampant fires, then by Robert Moses. Community activists saved these buildings, and just in time for artists to move into their spacious loft spaces in the 1960s and 70s. The artists are still there of course but these once-desolate cobblestone streets have almost unrecognizably changed, perhaps a victim of its own success.

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

You can also listen to the show on Google MusicStitcher streaming radio and TuneIn streaming radio from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #232: THE STORY OF SOHO

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A map of the Bayard farm and how it was broken up and carved into the streets we know today.

Niblo’s Garden, located at Broadway and Prince Streets, was one of the finest theaters along Broadway in the area of today’s SoHo.

Looking north along Broadway between Grand and Broome Street. The St. Nicholas Hotel is the white structure in the center of the photo.

Photo attributed to Silas A Holmes

 

An auction poster from 1872 advertising a property on Broome Street and “South Fifth Avenue or Laurens Street” — today’s West Broadway.

MCNY

 Here is that corner at 504-506 Broome Street — in 1935 (photo by Berenice Abbott). Per Sean Sweeney on Facebook: “The two buildings were demolished and for years were a parking lot. Now a new 3-story retail building sits in their place.”

NYPL

 

 

The house at 143 Spring Street — in 1932 (photograph by Charles Von Urban) and today (it’s a Crocs shop!)

Museum of City of New York/Charles Von Urban collection

 

491 Broadway at Broome Street — in 1905 (photograph by the Wurts Bros.) and today

James Bogardus, the man who helped give SoHo its distinctive appearance thanks to his vigorous marketing and promotion of cast-iron architecture.

The first cast-iron structure in New York, built in 1848, was further south at the corner of Centre and Duane Streets.

NYPL

 

Robert Moses’ view of Broome Street via his project Lower Manhattan Expressway project. Broom Street would have had an elevated highway, enclosed within modern buildings. A view of surviving cast-iron architecture on the right.

 

SoHo would have been eliminated (or greatly reduced) by Moses’ project which was thankfully nixed.

Map produced by vanshnookenraggen

A map of the art galleries in the SoHo art scene during the 1970s.

SoHo Artists Association Records, 1968-1978. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

From a 1971 SoHo newsletter: The criteria for qualifying as an artist — and eventual resident — of a specially-zoned loft in SoHo. M1-5A and M1-5B were the newly created work-living zones.

SoHo Artists Association Records, 1968-1978. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

 

We greatly encourage you to check out the SoHo Memory Project for a lot of fantastic and often deeply personal recollections about the SoHo days of yore.

For further listening, check out the following Bowery Boys podcasts which were referenced in this week’s show:

Before Harlem: New York’s Forgotten Black Communities (#230) for information on first farms of the city’s first black New Yorkers

Niblo’s Garden (#113) for the history of the district’s most famous entertainment center

Our podcasts on Robert Moses (#100) and Jane Jacobs (#200)

 

And we really hope our show inspires you to check out two films that features interesting views of SoHo during its chic gallery phase — The Eyes of Laura Mars and After Hours

 

Going Up: New York got its first commercial elevator 160 years ago

Cast-iron construction, pioneered in America by architect James Bogardus in the 1850s, became the preferred method of building large dry goods shops and department stores in the mid- and late nineteenth century, thanks to the speed with which these enormous buildings could go up and the savings they presented over heavier, more cumbersome construction methods.

Today SoHo contains the largest surviving collection of cast-iron buildings in the world. Wandering through these streets in the late afternoon, sun ignites their white- and cream-colored exteriors. It’s magical—and the stuff of a million postcards, album covers, and selfies.

But SoHo contains another secret. It’s the location of New York City’s very first commercial elevator.

There had been so-called ‘hoisting elevators’ — crude platforms elevated by man power — but they were dangerous and their cords easily snapped. Elisha Otis, an inventor from Yonkers, New York, perfected the safety break which allowed a large containment to be moved up and down without fear of plummeting. He debuted this device to enthusiastic acclaim at the 1854 Crystal Palace Exposition. And soon, after some savvy newspaper advertisements, Otis finally found his first major client.

Library of Congress

That would be the magical emporium of E. V. Haughwout, at Broadway and Broome Street, a luxury store which sold fine china and glassware. The corner building’s two-sided cast-iron construction and facade was the first of its kind when it was completed in 1857, and soon inspired blocks lined with similar construction throughout SoHo.

Below: The department store — and the elevator — were first opened ‘for public inspection’ on March 23, 1857.

New York Times

But its most important contribution was placed inside—a passenger elevator, installed the same year, which lifted and lowered its wealthy clients to its various exotic departments.

According to the website of OTIS elevators themselves: “On March 23, 1857, Otis’ first commercial passenger elevator was installed in the E.V. Haughwout and Company…….The price of the elevator was US $300. The unit rose at a speed of 40 feet per minute (0.2 meters per second).”

From the New York Tribune: “Among the novelties we noticed is an elevator to be worked by steam, which is to be furnished with a sofa and carriage to carry ladies from one floor to the other. The steam engine and boiler are located on the rear lot disconnected from the main edifice.”

Museum of the City of New York

The grand opening on March 23, 1857, drew thousands of curiosity seekers throughout the entire day. Although the time to visit would have been right around 7:30 when all the lights went on at once spontaneously, “in all the windows of the six stories. The view from lower Broadway and Broome Street will be truly grand.

Haughwout’s Emporium was also famed for its French champagne and for the fine flutes that it was drunk from. Surprised? While the neighborhood today still pops more than its share of bubbly, SoHo was never more glamorous than during the Haughwout years. And part of the reason for its acclaim was its marvelous, state-of-the-art elevator.

More pictures of the Haughwout Building, courtesy the Library of Congress, via the Historic American Buildings Survey, Cervin Robinson, Photographer March 1967.

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

Spectropia, or How to Make Ghosts in Your Home

Above: The cover of the New York edition of Brown’s optical illusion book

One of the hottest books in New York City in the fall of 1864 was an optical illusion collection that conjured ghosts through a simple trick of the eye.

Spectropia, or surprising spectral illusions showing ghosts everywhere and of any colour was both a parlor amusement and picture-filled chapbook written and illustrated by J. H. Brown, an early skeptic of the spiritualism movement.

From the books introduction: “It is a curious fact that, in this age of scientific research, the absurd follies of spiritualism should find an increase in supporters; but mental epidemics seem at certain seasons to affect our minds, and one of the oldest of these mental afflictions — witchcraft — is once more prevalent in this nineteenth century, under the contemptible forms of spirit-rapping and table-turning.”

To counter the phonies, Brown presents readers with a nifty optical illusion that will allow its readers to create their own ghosts at home.

According to advertisements for the book:

The directions are very simple.  You have merely to hold the volume so that the strongest possible light will fall upon the engraved plate; look at it steadily without blinking for nearly a minute; then turn and look steadily for the same length of time at any white surface which is in part shadow, and the object or specter will presently appear.”

“The effect is best by gaslight.” My goodness, what isn’t?

Here’s a sampling of the illustrations.  See if they work for you! And yes, definitely try these out if your home is equipped with gaslight….

The book was produced in New York by publisher James Gregory at 540 Broadway in today’s SoHo area. (It’s the building where the Steve Madden shoe store is today.).

Believe it or not, Spectropia was a hot gift under the tree that Christmas. The New York Times lists it that year in their recommended holiday gift list. “The publications of Mr. JAS. G. GREGORY, of No. 540 Broadway, are characterized by good taste and fine execution.”  Mr. Gregory kept the book in publication for several years afterwards or at least until the novelty wore off.

You can read the book here.  And here’s a PDF.

Below from the New York Daily Tribune, September 13, 1864

The missing: Revisiting the Etan Patz disappearance in SoHo and holding on to memories of a transformed neighborhood



The scene at Wooster and Prince Street on April 19, 2012.

 The world has changed since the disappearance of Etan Patz from the streets of New York on May 25, 1979. At least it seemed that way yesterday when the FBI and the New York Police Department reopened the cold case of the boy’s disappearance and focused its attentions on a building in SoHo at 127 Prince Street. Etan went missing after leaving his home at a few doors down, at 113 Prince Street, on the way to the bus stop.

The neighborhood today is a concentrated collection of boutiques, franchise clothing stores, art galleries, cafes and an Apple Store. The building that may hold the secrets to one of New York’s most famous unsolved mysteries holds a Lucky Brand jeans boutique on its ground floor.

Etan would be about my age now. But I have never lived in SoHo. For Etan, it was the only place he ever called home. The SoHo of today is a broad caricature of that neighborhood he lived in. It’s sunny and mostly welcoming now but oddly dispiriting. One block way is a two-story retailer entirely devoted to Crocs.

It’s a neighborhood that has changed dramatically in tone over the past thirty years, even if its appearance has remained almost identical thanks to its designation as a historic district in 1973. (Given the madness of development along the neighborhood’s western edge, could you imagine what would have happened here without it?) Its sleek, bustling character is of fairly recent invention, a perversion of the 1970s art and fashion scene which flocked here, attracted to the abandoned old factories and warehouses garbed in striking cast iron.

Below: Crosby and Spring Street, 1978 (Flickr/straatis)

The district was pulled from the jaws of destruction — Robert Moses‘ failed project, the strange and insane Lower Manhattan Expressway— in the 1960s, then became populated with adventurous young creatives drawn to the neighborhood’s relative isolation and large lofts. Former storage rooms for textiles and other dry goods became ideal for art galleries and performance spaces. The ‘cast iron district’ may have itself informed the creativity that flocked here. Gallery owners could think ambitiously. High ceilings, canyons of uniform metal, and stark cobblestone streets appealed more to the avant garde.

There was still something mysterious about SoHo in the mid-1970s, a time before high-end fashion became entrenched in the windows. It allowed artists and bohemians to thrive in a place that in many ways seemed off limits from the rest of the city, more rarefied. SoHo took on a different artistic hue from the East Village where art mixed with poverty. Quirky (and expensive) clothing boutiques soon arrived; Betsey Johnson, for instance, opened her first store in SoHo in 1978.

The elevation into a sort of edgy high culture was palpable enough that it soon seeped into pop culture. Between horrifying visions of death, Faye Dunaway traipsed the streets here in 1978’s ‘The Eyes of Laura Mars. Martin Scorsese paid homage to its eccentricity in his 1985 film ‘After Hours‘.

But SoHo would not have been immune to the New York’s deteriorating infrastructure of the 1970s. Or its escalating crime. While perhaps not unsafe during the day, this stretch of Prince Street where Etan would have walked in 1979 had far less foot traffic on a weekday, clearly free of today’s starving artists, latte sippers and jewelry and tee-shirt sellers. By 1984, when New York Magazine proclaimed SoHo was “on the verge of becoming a downtown Madison Avenue,” the crime rate was actually increasing. The depths of the neighborhood’s swift gentrification were clashing with reality.

It would take a financial upswing in the late 1980s and early 1990s for SoHo itself to change again. Wealthier residents moved in, as did high-end retailers — and then, slightly less-than-high-end retailers along Broadway. This forced out a great many of the original galleries, now drawn to a new area of warehouse-filled remoteness in West Chelsea.

When Etan Patz disappeared in 1979, the tragedy literally changed how Americans thought about missing children. The search erupted into a media frenzy with detectives fielding hundreds of false leads driven by lost-child flyers that blanketed New York City.

It became the “widest and longest search for a missing child undertaken by the city’s Police Department in decades” [source] and quite possibly the most publicized child abduction in America since the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh‘s infant son in 1932.  In 1983 President Ronald Reagan established National Missing Children’s Day on May 25, the day of Etan’s disappearance. He became the first missing child to adorn a milk carton.

And so, over 30 years later, this case now leads right back here to a building in SoHo a short distance from his home, in a place he might find unrecognizable and in a country transformed by his disappearance.

Podcast Rewind: Spooky Stories of New York

Above: the Algonquin Hotel, home to those bawdy rakes of the Round Table during the 1920s. You may find yourself meeting one of them even today.

A special illustrated version of our ghost-story podcast, Spooky Stories of New York (Episode #65). is now available on our NYC History Archive feed. Just hit play and images of our topic will appear on any compatible media player

By popular demand, we return to the creepier tales of New York City history, ghost tales and stories of murder and mayhem, all of them at some point involving great American icons — Alexander Hamilton, P.T. Barnum, Dorothy Parker and Mark Twain. Featuring a murder at a Manhattan well, a bloody slaying in rural Staten Island, the lingerings of New York’s most fabulous undead, and the most haunted home in Greenwich Village!

Download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, or you can listen to the cleaned up audio version (without visuals) right here: Spooky Stories of New York

Original version released Oct. 10, 2008. Picture above courtesy the New York Public Library/Wurts Brothers.
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AND ARRIVING THIS FRIDAY: Our fifth annual ‘haunted’ podcast, retelling famous folklore and stories of the supernatural, all with a basis in actual New York City history. Our prior shows include the one listed above, as well as the original Ghost Stories of New York, Haunted Tales of New York, and last year’s Supernatural Stories of New York.

Notes from the Podcast (#122) The Manhattan Grid Plan

From H.S. Tanner’s ‘The American Traveller; or Guide Through the United States’, 1836 (book published book 1840)

Stuyvesant Street is mentioned as one of the few streets in New York that was allowed to break the grid, and its diagonal path between Second and Third avenues is a reminder of the original farm grid of Peter Stuyvesant. But as a few listeners have pointed out, it holds another unique distinction.

The original estate owners of Manhattan often carved up their own lands into the shape of small grids. For instance, the grid of the DeLancey farm is still impressed upon the Lower East Side below Delancey Street. The Stuyvesants also had a system of streets on their property that ran true east to west. (Manhattan is obviously not on a true north-south axis, and its grid streets do not truly run east to west, but progress at a slight diagonal. Charles Petzold has a very detailed article on the island’s true orientation.)

Thus, Stuyvesant Street is the only street in Manhattan that actually runs east to west. Walk its length with a compass and be amazed!

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Not too far from Stuyvesant Street is the beginning of grid plan, First Street and First Avenue, Kramer’s “nexus of the universe”. This is the spot were near-uniformity along New York’s streets and avenues begins.

The southern border of the grid plan was, ironically, called North Street at the time, for it was truly north of the city. As I mentioned back in the Niblo’s Garden podcast, today’s Houston Street is actually the adjoining of two roads, the other being a path that cut through the property of Nicholas Bayard, land that is today’s SoHo. Bayard renamed his street after his daughter’s new husband, the esteemed Georgian patriot William Houstoun. Later, it made sense to link Houstoun’s street to North Street, and thus the whole thing was called Houston Street (with a ‘u’ vanishing in the process).
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The occasion of the Commissioners Plan is presents a good opportunity to peer into the extraordinary collection of old New York maps in the David Rumsey Collection. The original 1811 Randel maps are there, as well as others that chart the course of development during the 19th Century. This Tanner map from 1836 shows the grid progressing nicely.
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So, if I didn’t quite get it across on the show, let me say it now: Gouverneur Morris is awesome. I devoured two different biographies on the controversial Founding Father, and I highly recommended them both. Although Richard Brookhiser’s “Gentleman Revolutionary” is a breezier read, the quieter “Gouverneur Morris: An Independent Life” by William Howard Adams still makes room for some salacious details.
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And to repeat one major CORRECTION: Due to my complete misreading of my own handwritten notes and in the flurry of wrapping up the show, I said that Manhattanhenge occurs on March 28 and July 12 or July 13. I meant MAY 28, not March 28.

Niblo’s Garden: New York’s entertainment complex and home to the first (bizarre) Broadway musical

Show-stopping: The interior of Niblo’s Garden Theatre. Illustration by Thomas Addis Emmet, courtesy NYPL

PODCAST It’s the 1820s and welcome to the era of the pleasure garden, an outdoor entertainment complex delighting wealthy New Yorkers in the years before public parks. Wandering gravel paths wind past candle-lit sculptures, songbirds in gilded cages, and string quartets in gazebos, while high above, nightly fireworks spray the sky.

Niblo’s Garden, at the corner of Broadway and Prince Street, was the greatest of them all, with an exhibit room for panoramas and refreshment hall consider by some to be one of New York’s very first restuarants. But it was Niblo’s grand theater, seating 3,000 people, that would make Niblo’s reputation as the venue for both high- and low-brow events. And in 1866, a production debuted there that would change everything — the gaudy, much-too-long spectacle The Black Crook, considered by most as the very first Broadway musical.

Music in the episode is Enigma Variation VI. Ysobel by Elgar. It’s actually from after the time period of Niblo’s, but it’s so very strolling-the-garden, isn’t it? And I had a cold this week, so please forgive my scratchy voice!

You can tune into it below, download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, or get it straight from our satellite site.

Or listen to it here:
The Bowery Boys: Niblo’s Garden

Before Niblo’s, the premier pleasure garden was Vauxhall Garden, derived from a British garden of the same name. The one picture below is from the incarnation before it moved in 1807 to the area just below Astor Place, in what would become Lafayette Street. (NYPL)

The first theater on the Niblo property was a small stage he called ‘Sans Souci’. Demand soon dictated that a larger venue be built. [NYPL]

From another illustration detailing the block just a few years later. The theater looks the same, but other buildings (possibly the saloon or a greenhouse?) have been built up around it. (from Merrycoz)

The garden was soon overtaken by a great hotel, the Metropolitan, which opened in 1852. This image is looking east, down Prince Street, with Broadway stretching to the left. NOTE: The original caption on this illustration says 1850, but the hotel would not be open for a couple years later. (NYPL)

This is one of the only photographs of Niblo’s Theater, certainly from its last years, judging from the fashion of the day. The theater and the hotel were demolished in 1895. [Pic from here]

This poster is from a Boston production of ‘The Black Crook’, but it illustrates nicely the scope and theatricality of the production. The show was cobbled together using a poorly written German fantasia, a troupe of out-of-work Parisian dancers, and some original music. The show ran five and a half hours nightly and was a runaway hit. [Image from Kirafly Bros]

A costumed damsel (in photographic negative) from an early production of The Black Crook. [source]

An early program from Niblo’s, from 1877, featuring stage rendition of Jules Verne’s Around The World In 80 Days. I can only imagine the sets for this one! Also featuring the ‘Greatest Terpsichordean Ensemble’ and ‘250 Danseuses and a Superb Cast’.[Courtesy Jules Verne]

Welcome to Cerebrum. Do you have a reservation?

FRIDAY NIGHT FEVER To get you in the mood for the weekend, on occasional Fridays we’ll be featuring an old New York nightlife haunt, from the dance halls of 19th Century Bowery, to the massive warehouse clubs of the mid-1990s. Past entries can be found here.

LOCATION Cerebrum
Broome and Crosby streets, Manhattan

The 1960s were a decade of experimentation, and not just for people. As rock and roll tripped out, so did the places you went to hear it. No longer were clubs merely about alcohol and frivolity, music and fashion. A nightclub could create ‘happenings’, self-conscious environments of pleasure; recreational drugs helped.

The most glamorous example of this sort of public venue in downtown Manhattan was probably the Electric Circus, psychedelic haunt of the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol, mixing light shows and performance art onto a dance floor of fashionable mods. But even the swirling, mohair environments of the Factory’s favorite club paled in comparison the experiments going on at Cerebrum.

I have to say, part of my fascination with Cerebrum was the hard time I had in researching this article. The place was open less than a year (winter 1968 to summer 1969), and its participants were on the true art fringe. Its most famous patron was most likely Jimi Hendrix — who stole the club’s designer John Storyk to create his fabulous Electric Lady Studios — but I found virtually no mentions of this in biographies. In fact, it took me a few articles to even clarify that the place even existed, that it wasn’t a mass acid hallucination conjured up by a frothing artist in a Nehru jacket.

Cerebrum, which opened in November 1968, was not a mere club but, as New York Magazine calls it in March 1969, a “place implicitly geared to voyeuristic impulses.”

Located at 429 Broome Street at Crosby Street in SoHo, Cerebrum was the brainchild (ahem) of a group of underground theater artists who decided to turn their highly groovy loft parties into regular events, combining theatrical flair with the frippery of psychedelic drug culture.

Chief among the creators was Ruffin Cooper Jr., son of a Texan banker would later achieve some renown as a abstract photographer in San Francsico. To the surprise of no one, his other collaborators, all fabulously creative, would soon be connected to the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, still in its early days of absurdist productions: Richard Currie the lighting designer, Bobjack Callejo its set designer.

Imagine the city at night with the radio on. You’re listening to WNEW-FW and the sweet sounds of Allison “Nightbird” Steele, when suddenly you hear an unusual commercial describing a strange experimental nightclub, an “electric studio of participation.” A “super, electric, turned on, far-out fantasy land. Two 3 hour sessions nightly. 8 to 11 and 11:30 to 2:30 am. Reservations are necessary. Call 966-4031. But above all get to CEREBRUM.”

Behind the unmarked door on Broome Street, the collective pushed the boundaries for the bizarre.

Arriving at the darkened street — SoHo’s warehouses have yet to meet haute couture in 1968 — you press a small lighted doorbell and enter an entirely dark room. A voice asks, “Welcome to Cerebrum. Do you have a reservation?” You are, after all, in a 60s speakeasy. After passing muster, you’re lead into an orientation room, take off your shoes and pay your admission (anywhere from $1 to a pricey $7, depending on the night.)

Ghostly figures inhabit Cerebrum, lost in trances*

At Cerebrum, you let everything go. Your clothes even. Once inside, you were asked by a kind young fellow dressed in silver to get completely naked. He then handed you your ensemble for the evening — a flowing, diaphranous robe, hooded and silky, faux futuristic.

Once garbed, you are led inside via a ramp to a gigantic white room, trippy projections on the wall, distortions of a wide variety of music buzz around you, a thin, scented fog sitting in the air. There’s no liquor, only water and marshmallows, served by the so-called ‘Cerebrum guides’, who led visitors through this strange psychedelic spa. No gabby conversations at a crowded bar, only people sitting and staring.

The club was divided into elevated platforms which you could visit to experience the unique stimulants taking place there — headphones with groovy music, musical instruments, balloons, kaleidoscopes, children’s toys — reclining on white pillows on lush white carpeting. Sometimes the ‘guides’ came along and smeared menthol on yoru lips or tingly lotions upon your skin.

Clearly, it wasn’t those marshmallows enhancing your experience here. Cerebrum clientele were a stoned, listless lot, lost in the vague, spectral imagery and sounds. In Currie’s own words, from a biography on the Ridiculous Theatre Company, “Several people said that it always looked like it was going to become an orgy at any moment.”

Time Magazine called it “a theater without a stage show, a cabaret without food or liquor, a party without an occasion”; the fact that Time was there at all meant it was on the cultural radar, at least with drug-friendly, downtown fashionistas. But its novelty drew only the bravest of trendy crowds.

Cooper explains it this way to Time: “We are trying to overturn every entertainment convention—the ‘sit here,’ the ‘look that way,’ the ‘dance over here’.”

Enter the parachute. You like the parachute.*

Eventually they break out the parachute, with patrons grabbing each side and watching as the white billowy fabrics flaps back and forth in the air. Like what you did in elementary school, except with lots of stoned adults.

Cerebrum stretched the boundaries of interactive theater within the environment of an incredibly chill-out party. And like any good off-off-Broadway production, it closed a lot sooner than it should.

It shuttered early summer of the very next year. The reason was rumored to be mob related. Keep in mind this was the summer of riots outside the mob-run Stonewall bar. But most likely a concept of this type is probably not meant to last. With the 70s on the horizon — with CBGB’s, the Mudd Club, and Studio 54 at the door — a club like Cerebrum seems positively quaint.

FUN FACT: Less than 40 years later, Heath Ledger would die a couple doors down, at 421 Broome Street. Ledger was 28 years old when he died, Cerebrum habitue Hendrix was 27.

You can read here a short recollection by Bart Friedman here, and there’s a nice academic description of the experience here.

*Photos above are by Ferdinand Boesch and are from here. I’m sorry they’re so blurry, but I copied them from a paper and I just had to have pictures of this place to accompany the article.

But the greatest treat is that there’s actual video evidence that this place actually existed, narrated by Ruffin Cooper himself. This video takes awhile to load, but it’s worth it:

The Puck Building “What Fools These Mortals Be!”

A 6-foot plump gold impish figure stares down as you look up to observe the gorgeous red-brick design of the Puck Building, built for one of the 19th century’s most popular illustrated publications. But this architectural masterpiece was very nearly wiped away by a sudden decision by the city. How did it survive?

Puck’s utterance “What Fools These Mortals Be!” is the slogan for Puck Magazine and words written by Shakespeare.

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An illustration of what the Puck Building looked like pre-1897….

…and how the truncated Puck looks today.

The impish Puck standing at the corner of the building — and above the western doorway — is echoed in Puck’s magazine banner

There are, of course, two Pucks at the Puck Building. A smaller, newer Puck stands over the main entrance. Neither this entrance nor the Puck above it existed before 1897.

An early issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. Keppler went to work for Leslie before striking out on his own with the far more satirical Puck Magazine.

Some images from Puck Magazine. Please click into the images for greater detail.

Below is a cover from 1881, satirizing Brooklyn’s most powerful Democrat, Hugh McLaughlin, who frequently butted heads with Tammany Hall.

Republicans attempt to stitch together their fractured party, in an illustration by Keppler himself. Keppler was one of the most influential illustrators of his time, second only to the great Thomas Nast of Harper’s Weekly.

Possibly the most powerful image the magazine ever ran was this one, mocking presidential Republican candidate James Blaine. Keppler was a supporter of Democrat Grover Cleveland, and cartoons like this swayed public opinion. Cleveland beat Blaine in the presidential election of 1884.

In the interior illustration below, Keppler displays his obvious anti-Catholic (and, by extension, anti-Irish) bias. Puck himself is inserted in this image at bottom left.

One of my favorite images, and a good example of Puck’s centerfold illustrations, this one expanding on the war in 1883 between the Metropolitan Opera and New York’s Academy of Music.

One hundred years after the Puck Building opened, another catty, satirical magazine Spy Magazine moved in, carrying on the tradition of political lampooning.