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The 1893 Chinese Theater, 5-7 Doyers Street

June 21st, 2013 by DavidFreeland
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Tiny Doyers Street, tucked between Chatham Square and equally minute Pell, is so narrow and twisted that it resembles a medieval lane in a European town.

5-7 Doyers Street, the former Chinese Theater (building on right with fire escapes)

5-7 Doyers Street, the former Chinese Theater (building in center right with fire escapes) Photo by Dennis Young.

During the early years of the 20th century, when violence and mayhem were commonplace on Doyers, police dubbed the street’s dramatic turn “the Bloody Angle,” in tribute to the built-in potential for surprise that made it ideal as a battleground.  According to writer Herbert Asbury, opposing fighters could approach one another, hidden from view, until they met at the curve in a volley of gunfire.

Every building on this old block could tell a story, but one structure – number 5-7, which appears to have been fashioned as a combined factory and tenement sometime during the middle 19th century – stands out.  In 1893, the very first Chinese-language theater in the U.S. east of San Francisco was constructed inside this building, to meet the needs of a growing community of Chinese New Yorkers.

Sometimes known as the “Chinese Opera House,” the theater was painted with murals on its side walls – the work of Loo Gop, at the time Chinatown’s only illustrator.  There was no balcony; patrons were seated on rows of wooden benches with back panels that ran from stage to exit.  The theater had only a small stage with little room for scenery; in this way it honored Chinese theatrical tradition by relying on actors to create a sense of place through movement and body language.

The Chinese Theater was initially viewed with perplexity by New York audiences.  Most disconcerting for some was the music, with its array of pentatonic intervals seldom heard on the Western stage.  But over time, the theater began to acquire the reputation of an “in” thing to see, a centerpiece of the Chinatown rubberneck bus tours that were becoming popular by the turn of the century.  New Yorkers, wanting to distinguish themselves from the swarming tourists, began making efforts not just to see plays at the Chinese Theater but actually to enjoy them.  Drama critic Franklin Fyles noted, in May 1905, that “evening trips to the Chinese Theatre are a transitory fad with the same people who make up our first-night audiences for new plays during the dramatic season.”

The Chinese Theater around the turn of the century.  Note "Seats Reserved for Americans."

The Chinese Theater around the turn of the century. Note the sign, “Seats Reserved for Americans.”

All this ended in the summer of 1905, when members of two rival tongs, the On Leongs and the Hip Sings, unleashed a ferocious gun battle inside the Chinese Theater that left four men dead.  The massacre signaled an important moment in New Yorkers’ continuing evaluation of Chinatown.  For some, the neighborhood had always been an unpleasant place but not an intrinsically dangerous one.  Now an element of fear crept into Chinatown’s popular imagery, and the little Chinese Theater – innocuous until that awful night – felt the immediate effects.  By the early 1910s dwindling receipts forced its closure, and the space was converted into a mission house for the Rescue Society of New York.

Today, although no plaque marks 5-7 Doyers Street as a historic spot, the building’s influence can be felt throughout the neighborhood, in the spirit and excitement of modern Chinatown.

Excerpted from Automats, Taxi Dances and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure, by David Freeland.  The book is published by NYU Press and can be ordered here.

 

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1st Horn & Hardart’s Automat in NYC, 1557 Broadway

May 19th, 2013 by DavidFreeland
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Automat Today

Grand Slam, a tourist emporium on the west side of Broadway between 46th and 47th Streets, was once the first Horn & Hardart’s NYC Automat.  Every day, from its opening in 1912 to the mid-1970s, hundreds of patrons would come here to gaze at food displayed in glass compartments like museum jewels.  When they had surveyed the range of chicken cutlets, roast turkey slices, pies, and vegetables, they would toss nickels into adjacent slots and feast on inexpensive meals of their choosing.  The Automat was a testament to modern convenience, and ultimately it changed the way Americans ate: coin-operated dining, instant meals, and fast food.

Joe Horn and Frank Hardart had been operating an automat in Philadelphia for a decade when they decided to expand to New York in 1912.  The site they chose was in the middle of Times Square, just as that neighborhood was becoming the locus for everything new and innovative in popular culture.  Employing the Philadelphia architectural firm of Stuckert & Sloan, the Horn & Hardart company built a new structure that occupied the width of four brownstone storefronts.  Rising three stories, the building was covered with terra cotta and featured a large central entrance.  Nicola D’Ascenzo, whose work also graced the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, designed an astonishing stained glass panel for the exterior facade, with the word “Automat” spelled in playful Art Nouveau letters.

Automat 1920s

By 1914 Horn and Hardart had opened three more outlets, and eventually their empire grew to far-off stretches of Washington Heights, Inwood, and the Bronx.  But the original Automat at 1557 Broadway remained the chain’s flagship restaurant, heralded by guidebooks as one of the city’s great sights, right up there with the Statue of Liberty and Grant’s Tomb.  As the Roaring Twenties gave way to the Depression, scores of people who would never have dreamed of eating in an automat during their flush years became a steady presence at the little round tables, savoring pecan pie a la mode in fur coats and intermingling with store clerks, out-of-work actors, and dime-a-dance girls.  By this time, Automats had become a cultural symbol of modernity, featured in paintings by Edward Hopper, songs by Irving Berlin, and movies such as the 1937 classic, Easy Living.

Ironically, the Automat was killed by the very concept it had helped create: fast food.  In the early 1970s, faced with years of declining profits, the Horn & Hardart company converted most of its remaining Automats to Burger Kings.  The original location at 1557 Broadway held on until early 1976.  Over the years, most of its beautiful decoration had been hacked away, but today, at Grand Slam, a few original elements remain, including a large brass staircase and a plaster ram’s head.  After entering on Broadway, look up and you’ll see remnants of an Art Nouveau ceiling design first encounted by New Yorkers on a long-ago morning in 1912.

Automat Historical

Excerpted from Automats, Taxi Dances and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure, by David Freeland.  The book is published by NYU Press and can be ordered here.

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Jane’s Walk 2013: In Search of the Tenderloin and Tin Pan Alley, Sunday, May 5 at 12 Noon

April 25th, 2013 by DavidFreeland
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I realized the notice for last year’s Tenderloin/Tin Pan Alley walk was still posted, so here is updated info for this year: Sunday, May 5 at 12 noon.  If you plan to make it, kindly send me a note via the website.  Apparently a number of the Tin Pan Alley houses are up for sale, again (and therefore threatened with potential development), so this is a good time to reaquaint ourselves with their remarkable history.

In Search of the Tenderloin and Tin Pan Alley

Tin-Pan-Alley

Date: May 5

Time: 12:00 PM – 1:30 PM

Walk Host: David Freeland, Author, AUTOMATS, TAXI DANCES & VAUDEVILLE

Accessibility: Partially Accessible – curbs, uneven terrain, busy sidewalks

Description: From the 1870s to about 1910, the Tenderloin was Manhattan’s most famous red-light district, a cradle of elegant vice that developed north of 23rd Street west of Fifth Avenue, in the shadow of luxurious hotels such as Gilsey House. High-stakes gambling parlors, brothels, saloons, dance halls – the Tenderloin reveled in its own illegality, until pressure from civic authorities and corporate development led to its demise. Since the 1990s, zoning changes have altered the landscape of the old Tenderloin’s main stem – Sixth Avenue – and have led to the destruction of many buildings. But a few reminders survive. On this tour, we will visit sites associated with still-visible Tenderloin businesses, including the block of 28th St. once known as Tin Pan Alley, birthplace of the pop music industry.

www.gothamlostandfound.com

Meeting Place: The sidewalk in front of Gilsey House, located at 1200 Broadway at 29th Street, Manhattan

Ending Place: Site of former Koster & Bial’s Music Hall, at 24th Street & Sixth Ave

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Farewell to Steve Paul’s The Scene

April 22nd, 2013 by DavidFreeland
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The wreckers are set to fall on another piece of Times Square history.

301 West 46th Street, "Steve Paul's The Scene," enshrouded

301 West 46th Street, “Steve Paul’s The Scene,” enshrouded

301 West 46th Street is a decayed 19th-century tenement on the northwest corner of Eighth Avenue.  It has been vacant for years, awaiting development that only now, with the presence of scaffolding, looms as imminent.  In the 1920s the building housed a speakeasy that, as evidenced by the few accounts describing it, catered to patrons with a taste for the outré.  Journalist Stanley Walker’s marvelous 1933 book, The Night Club Era, contains the following tantalization, part of a list of speakeasies vanished in the wake of Prohibition’s repeal:

The strange place in Forty-Sixth Street, in the basement, called the Cave of the Fallen Angels.

On April 14, 1926 The Cave of the Fallen Angels numbered among some 42 New York State nightlife establishments shuttered by Prohibition agents as part of US Attorney Emory R. Buckner’s much-touted “padlock campaign.”

“The Cave of the Fallen Angels,” explained the New York Times in its coverage of the padlocking, “is a night club said to be patronized chiefly by Russian artists and visited occasionally by Russian nobility.”  The interior, according to another Times mention, from 1924, was the brainchild of Soudeikine (aka Serge Sudeikin), esteemed designer for the Ballets Russes and the Metropolitan Opera, who would later, in 1935, create sets for the original production of Porgy and Bess.

Things were quiet for 301 West 46th Street over the next several decades, but they heated up again around 1965, when entrepreneur-wunderkind Steve Paul reopened the basement space as The Scene, soon to become one of the great nightclubs of the 60s rock era.

The_Scene .NYC

Steve Paul’s The Scene during its late-1960s heyday (source: musictrekker.com).

From a description of The Scene quoted on the excellent rock website, It’s All the Streets You Crossed Not So Long Ago, it seems likely that Steve Paul adapted  Soudeikine’s layout and design for his new venture.  Jim Marron, the Scene’s former maitre d’, describes the space as being “like a Paris disco, in that it was a cave-style. It had three rooms that focused in, like, a cross on the stage…”  Others characterize The Scene as “mazelike,” and as a ”bizarre network of brick walled cellar rooms and passageways.”

The Jimi Hendrix Experience performed its first NYC gigs at The Scene.  Linda Eastman (the future Linda McCartney) started there as a band photographer.  Andy Warhol, Edie Sedgwick, and Liza Minnelli were regulars, helping establish The Scene as an “in” place to be long before Studio 54.  Always forward-thinking, Steve Paul used the club to promote up-and-coming acts such as The Doors, Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper, and a ukulele-strumming Tiny Tim.  Owner Paul was as snobbish in determining who got in as he was catholic in his musical taste: one week those lucky enough to be granted admission might hear ”Born to Be Wild” rockers Steppenwolf, the next Slim Harpo, southern harp player known for his swampy R&B hit, “Baby, Scratch My Back.”  In this way, The Scene presaged the musical eclecticism of current spots such as City Winery and Joe’s Pub.

The Scene closed some time around 1969.  Steve Paul, who had worked previously as a press representative for the Peppermint Lounge (early 60s home of the Twist), went on to found Blue Sky Records.  He died in 2012, three years after his longtime partner, Robert Kitchen.

The Scene entrance, April 2013

The Scene entrance, April 2013

I’ve often observed how buildings given over to porn-related business “fall off the map” in the eyes of the public.  Once the main floor of 301 West 46th became an X-rated DVD parlor, the whole building’s identity - along with whatever of cultural and historical significance might have taken place in the basement - seemed to go with it.  Now, it is just another “last vestige” of Times Square blight about to disappear.  Since it will no longer be able to offer a window into its own story, those who remember Steve Paul’s The Scene will, I hope, perpetuate memories, as long as they can, of the great art and music that went on inside.

Special thanks to Louis Brown, of L. Brown Recording, Inc., for making me aware of The Scene and its history. 

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Remembering the Lafayette

April 3rd, 2013 by DavidFreeland
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News of the Lafayette Theater’s recent demolition prompted me to dig up the following article, which I wrote for New York Press back in February of 2005 but which I don’t think was ever published.

The Lafayette Theater during its acclaimed engagement of Orson Welles' Macbeth, 1936

The Lafayette Theater during its acclaimed engagement of Orson Welles’ Macbeth, 1936

David Freeland

Harlem’s Hidden Survivor

As Harlem’s legendary showplace, the Apollo, proceeds with its much-publicized restoration, now might be a good time to remember the Apollo’s spiritual predecessor, the Lafayette Theater.  Unlike the Apollo, whose price tag for refurbishment totals $55 million (according to a New York Times article last year), the Lafayette has been largely forgotten.  You won’t find a plaque marking the site, and an Internet search yields little information on its history.

But prior to the Apollo’s 1934 opening, the Lafayette was the most important African-American theater in the country, cited by historian Jervis Anderson as the first of the major Harlem theaters to desegregate.  For African-American performers, playing the Lafayette meant they had made it, and virtually every artist in black entertainment of the 1920s, from Bessie Smith to Louis Armstrong, graced its stage.  During the theater’s prime (from the teens to the early 30s) it acquired something of a mythic status; the “Tree of Hope,” a chestnut outside its entrance on 132nd Street and 7th, became a good-luck charm for the many hopefuls who longed to play there.  With the ascendancy of the Apollo, however, the Lafayette’s glory days were numbered, and the live musical shows that once brought it fame had ceased by the mid 1930s.

Not everything was lost, though.  Today, walking north on Adam Clayton Powell (7th Avenue) above 125th Street, one catches sight of a wide building adorned with crosses and bells.  Sure enough, it’s the Lafayette, hidden beneath a modern façade.  Inside, a staff member at the Williams Institutional Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (which bought the building in the early 50s) is quick to downplay its theatrical history.  With a touch of frustration, she claims nobody expressed interest in the building until the façade was changed some years back; then, historians and preservationists got up in arms.  To her, the Lafayette is part of the past, bearing little connection with the space today, and she points out that, from a historical perspective, the theater was never owned by African-Americans.  Her argument underscores not just the divide between show people and “church folk” but the differing opinions on how Harlem’s legacy should be preserved.

But in New York the past is never far removed from the present, and while the interior has been heavily altered, a gold-painted dome, ornamented proscenium, and sloping auditorium (divided by large pillars) all speak to the building’s former life.  If sinners and saints share the same coin, then church is the flip side of theater, and the spirit of the Lafayette is alive at Williams Institutional’s Sunday morning service.  The strains of “Wade in the Water” rise in a supple contralto, while later a small congregation gathers for communion and prayer in front of the altar (near what once was the stage).  Goals may have changed, but what made the Lafayette so special – that inspirational convergence of art and community – remains.

 

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Jane’s Walk NYC: Free Walking Tour of the Tenderloin and Tin Pan Alley this Sunday, May 6, at 12 Noon!

April 30th, 2012 by DavidFreeland
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The Tenderloin's "Tin Pan Alley," West 28th Street, circa 1902

As part of Jane’s Walk this coming weekend, I will be hosting a free walking tour through the visible remnants of New York’s forgotten late-19th century vice district, the Tenderloin, along with its most enduring cultural manifestation, the original “Tin Pan Alley,” birthplace of the American popular music industry.  I wrote extensively about the Tenderloin and Tin Pan Alley in AUTOMATS, so this is a chance to share with you some of my research, and the wild stories that made this area one of Manhattan’s most colorful neighborhoods.  We meet Sunday at 12 noon in front of Gilsey House at 29th and Broadway.  Details are attached – come join us!

http://mas.org/walk/in-search-of-the-tenderloin-and-tin-pan-alley/

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An Arbor Day Mystery

April 25th, 2012 by DavidFreeland
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Dear Gotham Lost and Found readers,

Today I was contacted by Aby Sam Thomas, a graduate student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, who sent a piece he had written about a mysterious plaque at 120th Street and Broadway.  After discussing it with Aby (and in honor of Arbor Day, which is this Friday), I am publishing his article below.  To me, it says much about the emotional and physical imprints we as New Yorkers leave upon our city, and our desire to honor those imprints left by others.  It is also a beautifully done piece about survival and remembrance. 

David

An Arbor Day Mystery

By Aby Sam Thomas

Be it the morning rush to the subway, or the hurry to get back to one’s home in the evening, it is a rare occurrence to see New Yorkers stop simply to stand and stare at their surroundings. It seems such an entirely wasteful use of those invaluable seconds. But those few moments are necessary to notice certain curious things about New York City—for instance, the tree on the corner of 120th Street and Broadway on the Upper West Side.

With the imposing red exterior of Columbia University’s Teacher’s College behind it, the tree looks rather indistinguishable from the rest of the trees on the sidewalk. It is a callery pear, with spring blooms on its branches reaching toward the sky. But it isn’t the tree by itself that’s interesting—it is the small, green plaque affixed in the soil, at its base, that is surprising. It is imprinted with the following words:

On November 29, 2010

this tree saved the lives of

Emilia Victoria

and her mother, Sarah

***

The callery pear, an ornamental species native to China and Vietnam, has adorned many a New York City sidewalk since the early 1960s. While such trees are known for their tenacity and ability to survive in extreme conditions, the callery pear has a special link with the city’s history.

Now known as the “Survivor Tree,” a lone callery pear was recovered from the World Trade Center site in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Although it had sustained extensive damage, the tree was nursed back to health, despite its lifeless limbs, snapped roots and blackened trunk. After eight years, the tree was replanted in 2010 at the September 11 Memorial Plaza.

“The presence of the Survivor Tree on the Memorial Plaza will symbolize New York City’s and this nation’s resilience after the attacks,” said Mayor Bloomberg, in December 2010. “Like the thousands of courageous stories of survival that arose from the ashes of the World Trade Center, the story of this tree also will live on and inspire many.”

Like the Survivor Tree, the tree on 120th and Broadway also marks a story of survival—two human lives had, in some hidden, inexplicable way, been saved by this seemingly ordinary tree.

***

Philip Abramson, a spokesman for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, had no information about the plaque, but suggested that someone at the Broadway Mall Association, a non-profit organization maintaining the malls of Broadway, might know more. But Anne Linville, the association’s director of horticulture and landscape design, had no idea about it and said that the Association had no jurisdiction over this particular tree. She suggested going back to the city parks department.

The city parks department reiterated its stand that no one there knew who had put the plaque up. Another possibility was the MillionTreesNYC initiative, a city-wide initiative that aims to plant and care for at least a million trees in the city over the next decade. Andrew Newman, project co-ordinator at MillionTreesNYC, said that while they do allow residents to install tree signage, the callery pear’s plaque was not part of their Adopt-a-Tree program.

Turning to the Web to find information on people and dated events is usually a good idea, but a Google, Facebook and Twitter sweep of the tags “Emilia Victoria,” “Sarah” and “November 29, 2010” didn’t provide an answer. While search results of the two names seemed mostly irrelevant, there was one report on an accident that occurred on the said date in Bwog, the blog version of Columbia University’s undergraduate magazine, The Blue and White.

The report said that two cabs had collided at the intersection, with one of the cabs swerving into a tree. While it’s hard to tell from the images in the story if the tree is the same callery pear, the editors of Bwog said that no one had followed up on the accident and they had no more information on the accident, the tree, Emilia or Sarah.

***

The city parks department, the Broadway Mall Association and MillionTreesNYC all suggested that neighborhood residents had probably installed the plaque. But finding inhabitants who knew about the tree turned out to be an impossible task.

“As much as I pass by that intersection, I have never taken the time to look at the tree,” said David Ronis, a long-time resident of the Upper West Side. His response was characteristic. Be it the coffee-seller who sold coffee everyday near the corner, or the Teacher’s College security personnel who monitored people walking in and out of the school, or even the hordes of Columbia University students who walked by the tree every day, nobody seemed to have noticed the plaque.

“What plaque?” said Corrine Campbell, who works at the Teacher’s College’s facilities department. “I’ve been here so many years, but I haven’t seen any such plaque,” said Campbell, shaking her head. She suggested a list of more than six people from various departments at Teacher’s College who could know about the tree—but none of them did.

Campbell, who had now become very curious about the plaque, approached Robert Schwarz a. k. a Rocky, assistant director for the business services center, one of the old-time faces at Teacher’s College. According to Campbell, “if Rocky didn’t know, nobody would know.” But Schwarz too shook his head on hearing the story about the tree.

“You need a better lead than me,” he said, smiling sadly.

***

In a fit of desperation, I left a paper note next to the plaque on the tree’s soil, strategically placing a few pebbles on top to prevent it from being blown away by the wind. In my hand-written message, I appealed to Emilia Victoria and Sarah to get in touch with me, throwing caution to the wind by leaving behind both my personal email and phone number on the note.

When I checked in on the tree a little later in the day, my hopes were raised. The note was missing.

But the elusive Emilia and her mother haven’t got in touch with me. Yet.

END

***

Know anything about the mystery plaque?  Please respond as a comment or contact Aby: | thisisaby@gmail.com | 201-238-8097 | @thisisaby

 

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An Italian Villa in Upper Manhattan Comes Back to Life

February 3rd, 2012 by DavidFreeland
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A shared post with Untapped New York.

The recently designated Audubon Park Historic District, an irregularly shaped area bounded by Riverside Drive and Broadway between West 155th and West 158th Streets, offers a rare glimpse of an earlier, bucolic Manhattan.  Although the remnants of the house of the famous 19th-century naturalist whose name graces the neighborhood have, in one of the city’s great architectural mysteries, disappeared, the sylvan landscape Audubon valued so highly is still visible in the area’s gentle hills and views of the Hudson.  Handsome apartment buildings such as the Grinnell, the Church of the Intercession (considered by its architect, Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, to be his masterpiece) and the remarkable complex of Beaux Arts museum structures known as Audubon Terrace, only reinforce the elegant atmosphere.

809/811 Riverside Drive, “Berler Houses” (photo by Michelle Young)

The value of Audubon Park lies in its preservation of building types not visible anywhere else in Manhattan.  Chief among these is 809/811 Riverside Drive, an unusual duplex house that resembles an Italian villa looming over the multi-cornered intersection of Riverside, 158th Street, and Morgan Place.  Also known as the Berler Houses, the history of 809/811 Riverside has been well documented by historian and Audubon Park resident Matthew Spady.  Constructed by clothing manufacturer Nathan Berler in 1922, the house was intended as a model for a larger group of similar duplex houses; although, in the end, only 809/811 Riverside was actually constructed.  According to an article dated February 12, 1922 in the New York Times, the houses cost $70,000 to build (roughly $937,000 in today’s figures) and featured a built-in garage, still visible on 158th Street.

Berler Houses Rear, with View of Garage (photo by Michelle Young)

Spady has discovered that the houses also contained a Welte orchestrion (a large pneumatic music box filled with pipes and cymbals), built in 1920 and removed when a new owner bought the property in the 1960s.  Beyond these features, the houses boasted unique design elements which can still be admired, including a tiled roof (in Spanish mission style), Doric columns, balustrades, arched windows and single-story solariums on both sides, covered with patios.

Side View with Solarium and Patio (photo by Michelle Young)

Due perhaps to their distinctive and striking appearance, the Berler Houses have been the subject of a number of neighborhood legends.  One, in particular, asserts they were the homes of the Gershwin brothers, while another claims that Irving Berlin once lived here.  Neither story is true, although the houses have sheltered at least one highly distinguished resident.  In 1947, according to an article in the Chicago Defender, “Miss Jewel Plummer” was residing at number 809 while working as a teaching fellow in biology at NYU.  As Jewel Plummer Cobb (born 1924), she is known today as one of the country’s most important biologists and an African-American pioneer (according to one source, she had initially been denied the NYU fellowship because of her race).  Cobb’s groundbreaking research on cancer cells has led to significant advances in the field of chemotherapy.

After being on the market for some years, 809 Riverside Drive was sold in 2010 and its new owners, according to Matthew Spady, have been engaged in a caring process of restoration.  According to Spady, it’s been a delight to see the house occupied again.  “At Christmas,” he recalls, ”they put their tree in the solarium where the whole neighborhood could see it, a lovely gesture signalling that a family is once again in residence.”

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What’s Left of the Sans Souci/Blank’s Winter Garden

April 17th, 2011 by DavidFreeland
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At 100 Third Avenue, buried within a row of low-level 19th century houses and tenements just southeast of Union Square (between 12th and 13th Streets), sits one of Manhattan’s oldest entertainment relics, the former Sans Souci.

The Sans Souci (center, in scaffolding), formerly Blank’s Winter Garden

As a site devoted to various forms of popular entertainment, 100 Third Avenue lasted for more than 120 years.  From the 1870s to 90s it was known as Blank’s Winter Garden, a smaller version of the popular Atlantic Garden on the lower Bowery (a portion of which also survives today and which I discuss extensively in Automats, Taxi Dances and Vaudeville).  Blank’s was a combined saloon and concert hall with vaudeville performers, a popular spot for Tin Pan Alley songwriters and publishers seeking to “plug” their latest compositions.  In his fascinating memoir, They All Sang (1934), music publisher Edward B. Marks describes making the rounds at Blank’s:

“It was a quiet spot in the backwash of bright-lighted Fourteenth Street, where a girl could steer a bloke for a serious talk.  Blank, the owner, called it a family resort, but they were not the first families.  There were always a few acts working here that would otherwise have been laying off, and they were glad to get fifteen dollars a week.  Needing something new to help them catch on in the big time, they were always ready to try new material.  That, and its proximity to the popular center, made Blank’s a good plug” (p. 9-10).

As Marks suggests, Blank’s was never considered a top-tier entertainment resort.  But it was at precisely these kinds of places that our popular music culture was born.  In those days (before the advent of radio), songwriters needed easy access to vaudeville performers in order to popularize their work – and they got them at Blank’s.

Work-in-progress

Marks also intimates that Blank’s, as a recreational establishment, skirted the bounds of respectability.  Governmental forces certainly thought so.  During the 1891 hearings of the Fassett senatorial committee, established (like the Lexow Committee several years later) to investigate vice and police corruption, a police captain was grilled about Blank’s and what he might have seen there:

“Q: Have you ever heard of Blank’s place, 100 Third Avenue?

A: Yes, sir.

Q: What have you heard about it as to its character?

A: Somewhat mixed.

Q: What do you mean by somewhat mixed?

A: Respectable and women of doubtful character both go there.”

Then, the captain offers a wonderful summation of why places like Blank’s were so popular, and the role they played within the larger social fabric of the city:

“…I will say this, that a place where there is cheap, good music people go there and enjoy it that can’t go to the Metropolitan Opera House, respectable people go there with their families; the doors are open to anybody that comes along, and I have seen women of doubtful character go in and out of there; I have seen respectable people going in and out of there.”

Of course, these were exactly the kinds of places – sites of working-class organization and leisure – that were most threatened by city and governmental authorities.  Establishments like the Atlantic Garden and Blank’s, precisely because they were not the Metropolitan Opera (i.e., not “respectable” institutions patronized by the upper classes) had to fight to survive.

Even more fascinating is the way the captain goes on to defend Blank’s against the efforts of anti-vice crusaders, observing that “those women [of doubtful character] will exist, they exist and will continue to exist.”  When asked to explain, the captain makes an observation that, apart from quantity, could be just as true in the New York of today:

“There is…in this town, New York, nearly 2,000,000 people, there is a demand and there has got to be a supply…There is 30,000 strangers in this town every night that sleep somewhere else to-morrow night.”

Blank’s/Sans Souci in a later incarnation as the Lyric, as photographed by Berenice Abbott (1936)

By 1900 Blank’s had become the Sans Souci, referenced in Timothy Gilfoyle’s excellent book, City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex. Around 1910 it reopened as the Comet, one of the city’s early movie houses.  By 1936, when Berenice Abbott photographed 100 Third Avenue, it was known as the Lyric.  Still later, the theater operated as a venue for foreign and gay male erotic films, in which capacity it survived until the early 2000s.  Now, with extensive renovation work being performed inside and out, its long run as an entertainment venue appears to have ended.

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Last Chance to Save 35 Cooper Square

February 6th, 2011 by DavidFreeland
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35 Cooper Square, one of the oldest surviving houses on the upper portion of the Bowery (c. 1825), is in imminent danger of destruction.  Scaffolding – often seen as a prelude to demolition – is up, and the Asian restaurant occupying the ground floor has closed.

Photo Credit: Scouting NY

The Bowery Alliance of Neighbors, leading the fight to protect 35 Cooper Square, has suggestions on what you can do to help preserve this charming structure with a rich history that parallels the larger growth of early 19th century New York.  Please click on the links below, and join in if you can!

http://www.boweryalliance.org/

http://www.thevillager.com/villager_406/coopersq.html

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