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40th St. & 8th Ave., Pt. 2, and Okeh Recording Studios

March 13th, 2009 by David Freeland

The Site of Okeh Recording Studios

The Site of Okeh Recording Studios

This week I made a trip to the New York Historical Society Library to research Ford’s Saloon (follow up to my post from last week). The Library is a great resource for historians, and it’s completely free – if you explain to the front desk that you’re there to visit the library, you won’t be charged admission. The space is also very comfortable and well-organized (in contrast to the sometimes chaotic City Municipal Archives downtown). I figured a good starting point would be Trow’s Business Directory, which is a sort of 19th and early 20th century version of the Yellow Pages. The directories are available for perusal on the shelves, just to the right of the library entrance. There didn’t seem to be a directory for 1919, but 1918 lists a “Ford’s Hotel” at 273 West 40th Street, run by a Peter B. Malloy. This was the first sign that Ford’s may no longer be standing, because I know that in Manhattan all odd-numbered addresses are on the uptown side of the street. And, of course, the New York Times building occupies a large stretch of 40th Street on that side.

Pulling a directory for 1920-21, I found an entry under “Molloy, Peter B,” at 620 8th Av, identified with a “Sal” for saloon (evidently Prohibition had not caught up with the publishers of Trow Directory). So far it looked as if Ford’s Hotel and Molloy’s saloon were one and the same, and that this was the establishment that Perry Bradford had written about in his memoir. Knowing that the red-brick building I had hoped was once Ford’s is numbered 618 Eighth, I realized that 620 Eighth would have been at the corner just above it, on the north side of 40th Street – exactly where the Times is today.
Moving to the Library’s computer terminals, I went online and visited the Buildings Information System, available at the NYC Department of Buildings’ website (http://a810-bisweb.nyc.gov/bisweb/bsqpm01.jsp). Typing in “273 West 40th Street,” for the borough of Manhattan, I confirmed that this address is, in fact, the same as 620 Eighth Avenue (northeast corner). A certificate of occupancy for the property, available for download in PDF format, indicated that a permit for a new building was granted in 1963. The means that the site which once housed Ford’s/Molloy’s has been built over, not once, but twice, since the 1920s.

At the same terminal I clicked on an icon for “NYT Proquest Database.” This is another resource, offered at the New York Historical Society (and the New York Public Library too) that allows researchers to do a full-text search of the entire New York Times archive from 1851 to about 2004. I found an article from February of 1965, detailing the construction of a 6-story building on the 620 Eighth Avenue plot, to be leased by Chase Manhattan Bank. The article noted that the building was to be “the first office structure to rise on Eight [sic] Avenue in 25 years.” A hazy image of what stood on the site prior to the New York Times building started to form in my memory – I recalled a boxy edifice covered with a series of square, aquamarine-colored panels (very 1960s). By this point, I felt resolved that 618 Eighth Avenue, the old building I had come to the library to research, was at one point in its life a speakeasy (“Friedman’s Pharmacy”) but was never Ford’s Saloon.

Just to end on an upbeat note, though, the building Perry Bradford cited as Okeh Recording Studios, where he and Mamie Smith went that day in 1920 to record “Crazy Blues,” is still standing, at 145 West 45th Street, next door to the Lyceum Theater. It now houses an Irish pub, visible in the photo. If anyone has information about Okeh’s history in this space, I’d love to hear it!

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