The past lives of the “bunker” on the Bowery

The first people to hang out at the red brick, Queen Anne–style building that opened in 1885 at 222 Bowery were working-class men.

At the time, the Bowery was a cacophonous circus of vaudeville theaters, beer gardens, pawnbrokers, rowdies, and streetcars all under the screeching rails of the Third Avenue elevated train.

Much of New York loved this, of course, and lots of men flocked there, living in the five-cent hotels or in doorways. Reformer Jacob Riis estimated their numbers at more than nine thousand.

But this was the 1880s, and to keep young men who were “not yet hardened” from getting sucked into sin, the YMCA built their first New York branch at 222 Bowery and called it the Young Men’s Institute.

It was actually a novel idea and an example of Gilded Age uplift. The institute was to promote the “physical, intellectual, and spiritual health of young working men in the densely crowded Bowery,” states Landmarks of New York.

Instead of bars and dance halls, men ages 17 and 35 who joined could attend lectures by Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Ward Beecher.

They could borrow books from a circulating library (this is before the New York Public Library was established), work out in the gym or pool, or use the bowling alley. Classes in mechanical drawing, architecture, penmanship, and bookkeeping were offered—and Bible reading too, on Sundays.

After the turn of the century though (above, in 1910), as the Bowery’s fortunes fell even further, membership declined.

The Y sold the building in 1932 and it became a residence on the mid-century Bowery, less a raucous zone of fun and vice and now a strip of forgotten men and bars (1930s Bowery at right).

That’s when the artists arrived—like Fernand Leger. After fleeing the Nazis in Normandy, the French surrealist painter landed in Manhattan and lived and worked at 222 Bowery, even after it was sold to a dental manufacturing company.

By the time 222 Bowery was  turned back into a residence in the late 1950s, more artists and writers came, like Mark Rothko, who painted his Seagram murals in the former gymnasium.

Fellow abstract artists James Brooks and Michael Goldberg (his “Bowery Days” painting, at left) moved in too, as did poet John Giorno. Andy Warhol held parties there. Allan Ginsberg and Roy Lichtenstein spent time at 222 as well.

It was William S. Burroughs (right, with Joe Strummer inside 222 Bowery in 1980) who dubbed the building the Bunker.

Burroughs arrived in 1974 and officially stayed until his death in 1997, though he lived his last years in Kansas.

Patti Smith recalled visiting Burroughs there in the 1970s. “It was the street of winos and they would often have five cylindrical trash cans to keep warm, to cook, or light their cigarettes,” she wrote in Just Kids.

“You could look down the Bowery and see these fires glowing right to William’s door.”

Burroughs’ nickname for this gorgeous survivor of the Bowery’s past life remains.

The building, now co-op lofts, “is still affectionately called by that name,” states the 1998 Landmark Preservation Commission report that gave 222 Bowery landmark status.

[Second photo: Alamy/King’s Handbook of NYC 1893; fifth image: Artnet; sixth image: unknown]

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11 Responses to “The past lives of the “bunker” on the Bowery”

  1. greg chown Says:

    Another excellent post. I worked on the film “Naked Lunch” back in the 90’s.

  2. marygerdt Says:

    Great history lesson! When I studied my ancestors and their journey to the USA, I discovered more than I was taught in high school or at family reunions. My research is here with helpful links. Blogging this forward😎

  3. marygerdt Says:

    Reblogged this on Journey Through The Universe and commented:
    My favorite NYC history website🦅🇺🇸

  4. Tom Hakala Says:

    Very informative post. Thanks! I have a question about the photograph (Gay 90s sign across the top of the picture) identified as a 1930s photograph. The Third Avenue Elevated line does not appear in the photograph. The el structure over the Bowery was an immense structure with the uprights embedded in the sidewalk and should appear in this photo in front of 267 Bowery if taken in the 1930s. It would seem that the picture was taken in the 1950s after the el was demolished. The 7 Up signs in the window of Sammy’s might be a clue as I think they are definitely of 1950s vintage. What do you think?

  5. Robert Ressler Says:

    Great story. Lived in NYC my whole life. Always more to learn.

  6. 5/8: Unicorn frap lawsuit; Times Square sword swinging; Secrets of McSorley’s | SpotCorner Says:

    […] The past lives of the “bunker” on the Bowery At the time, the Bowery was a cacophonous circus of vaudeville theaters, beer gardens, pawnbrokers, rowdies, and streetcars all under the screeching rails of the Third Avenue elevated train. (Ephemeral New York) […]

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