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A Remnant of Speakeasy Days on West 54th Street

June 11th, 2010 by DavidFreeland

Again I’m offering apologies for going so long without a new post.  I have been busy preparing for book lectures and signings, leading seminars and walking tours (including one last Tuesday for NYU that was great fun), and thinking about new ways to look at and learn from this complicated but fascinating city of ours.  But there are two midtown buildings, sitting side by side, that have been on my mind now for some months.

54th Street west of Broadway

They sit just west of Broadway on a bedraggled stretch of 54th Street.  A large portion of the block’s northern side on the opposite Eighth Avenue end has been demolished for what I can only presume will be another high rise – but who knows when that will ever get built.  These days the only thing we’re guaranteed when a building is torn down is an empty lot.  The building on the left looks like it may have been an old automobile showroom (there was a time when this section of Broadway was lined with such showrooms).  While rundown, it retains much architectural detail, including a lovely row of pilasters along the fourth story.  Not long ago this building and its immediate neighbor to the east looked as if they were slated for demolition; then, the real estate bubble burst.  Last month I noticed a “for sale” sign in its window, touting it as an “architecturally distinctive” property.  I guess we shouldn’t gripe – we’ll take preservation any way we can find it, right?

But it’s that building to the immediate east (231 West 54th) that has really captured my attention.  Here is a closer look:

231 West 54th Street

Intrigued by the colored window panes on the third floor, and by what appears to be a rooftop extension, I did a little research and discovered it was once home to the Fifty-Fourth Street Club, a 1920s speakeasy run by Helen Morgan, the great “torch singer” whose tragic life epitomized the giddy excesses of the Prohibition years and the tough, lean times that followed.

Helen Morgan

As a nightlife fixture Morgan was peripatetic, and after the Fifty-Fourth Street Club was padlocked for violation of Prohibition laws in February of 1927, she moved to a different location.  231 West 54th, meanwhile, was converted into the Chateau Madrid, later known as one of the fabled nightclubs of the Roaring Twenties.  One morning in October of 1928, Joey Noe, a close associate of bootlegger/gangster Dutch Schultz, was gunned down in front of the club, with the Times reporting that the shots were “fired from the windows.”  Schultz was believed to have blamed his arch-rival, Legs Diamond, for the shooting, and was said to have ordered the killing of crime kingpin Arnold Rothstein in retaliation.

Dutch Schultz

231 West 54th Street’s association with entertainment did not end with the repeal of Prohibition.  By 1935, it was operating as Dan Healy’s Broadway Room, with music by the orchestra of Joe Venuti, described by jazz historian Scott Yanow as “improvised music’s first great violinist.”  More recently the building was used as an XXX-rated video parlor and lingerie store.  Perhaps, it can be hoped, future plans will include a return to the music and entertainment for which it was once known.

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7 responses so far ↓

  • How cool…I live half a block away, and now I know what went on here. The block, as you describe, has been that way for at least the last 6 or 7 years. Except for the empty lot at the end of the block. THATS only been that way for two years!

  • Amazing how multilayered a building’s history can be. And as always enjoy reading your posts! I am working on a bio on Schultz so I am always running around making sure the few places left that are connected to him still stand.

  • Hi Tim – Thanks for the note. Yes, it seems as if that empty lot on the other end of the block may stay empty for a long time. It’s frustrating that so often in the current development climate in New York, we lose an old building and then get nothing to replace it! David

  • Thanks, Alana. I would love to hear more about your book – sounds fascinating! David

  • Thanks David! would be glad to keep you posted. I think my email address went through on here so you may contact me if you like.

  • Too Bad some of these Classic Buildings are not kept up for Historic reasons…

  • That is fascinating David.