The ghost signs behind an ex-Bowery flophouse

Walking on the Bowery near Rivington Street the other day, the signage caught my eye.

Painted on glass panels were vintage-looking ads for restaurant fixtures—including the very old-school “bar benches” and “coffee urns.” (Does anyone use the term coffee urn anymore? Somehow I imagine it’s too morbid for Starbucks.)

The signs are on the ground floor windows of 219-221 Bowery, two unusual and conjoined late 19th century buildings with five floors of decorative panels, bays, and pilasters.

Clearly they were painted by a no-longer-operating restaurant supply company.

Numbers 219-221 are within the boundaries of the Bowery’s restaurant supply row, which sprang up in the middle of the 20th century, reports a 2004 New York Times article.

But numbers 219-221 are also located along the Bowery’s skid row, which became infamous in the 20th century, when Bowery was most often paired with the word bum.

These twin buildings with the mysterious kitchen-supply signs once housed a notorious Bowery flophouse called the Alabama House.

(It’s very faint, but you can just make out the name in a faded ad on the side of the building in the photo above.)

The Renaissance Revival/Queen Anne structure was built in 1889 and designed by James Ware, the architect who also invented New York’s signature dumbbell tenements.

When the Alabama was built, the Bowery had already become a dive district with a shadowy elevated train (at left, looking up Grand Street) and cheap bars, dance halls, and theaters lining Chatham Square to Cooper Square.

The Alabama joined a long list of lodging houses where for a dime (or less) a night, poor men could lay their heads (at right, another Bowery flophouse) through much of the 20th century.

By 1960, the fee for a room was still a relatively low 80 cents a night.

But the “gentle men, the sherry drinkers, the slightly unbalanced,” as a New York Times article described the denizens of the street at the time, would be shuffled elsewhere after 1967.

That year, it was announced that the Alabama Hotel, as it was now called, would be converted into artists’ lofts. “Bowery Hotel Where Derelicts Slept Being Converted to Artist Studios,” the Times headline read.

Now, more than 50 years later, the men who slept there are phantoms, just like the faded restaurant-supply signs.

[Fifth photo: MCNY, 1908 X2010.7.1.4022; Sixth photo: Jacob Riis, 1895, MCNY; Seventh photo: New York Times 1967]

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31 Responses to “The ghost signs behind an ex-Bowery flophouse”

  1. The ghost signs behind an ex-Bowery flophouse ⋆ New York city blog Says:

    […] [Fifth photo: MCNY, 1908 X2010.7.1.4022; Sixth photo: Jacob Riis, 1895, MCNY; Seventh photo: New York Times 1967] Source link […]

  2. wibiwonder Says:

    What a great post – so evocative.

  3. Paul Eversman Says:

    As always, a fascinating story. I have a copy of Joseph Mitchell’s “Up In The Old Hotel” and your article has inspired me to read it again. Thanks!

  4. greg chown Says:

    I’ve heard the term “Skid Row” originated in Seattle, where they would “skid” the logs down the street to the harbour.

  5. George Quinn Says:

    Howdy Folks, I just went up to NYC. Everything’s changed from the last time I was there about the 80s somewhere. The streets that were all Italian are now Asian. My 73 year friend who lives on Roosevelt Island took me on a walk-about 4 days in a row till my 77 year old feet needed a rest. We went into the stores with stuff that I would never find in Florida. Bought 1 1/2 lbs. of provolone for 20 bucks…couldn’t help myself. I saw a building near what Dick told me was the old Tammany police station. The building in question was a couple hundred feet high with a dome atop. A magnificent structure. It may be high dollar rentals or condos now. Maybe you can shed a little light. I must say…Every nifty building I gazed upon, I wondered if it ever made it to Ephemeral NY.
    Your e-mails are simply excellent. I keep 100, or more, of em in a folder.
    George Quinn
    367 Notlem Dr.
    Fort Pierce, Florida, 34982

  6. Michael Leddy Says:

    I like seeing these ghosts.

    The coffee sense of “urn” is pretty common in crossword clues:

    And there’s Tom Waits’s “Eggs and Sausage”: “There’s a rendezvous of strangers around the coffee urn tonight.”

  7. R Lewis Says:

    I love living across the street from this building, and worry what’s gonna become of it, but thanks for covering the signage.

  8. John Gagliardi Says:

    The picture at 221 Bowery rang a bell. Hammacher Schlemmer was at this address in its early years as a hardware store, from about 1848-1857 when we moved down the street to 209 Bowery. I have a picture I’d be happy to share.

  9. trilby1895 Says:

    As always, Ephemeral, sincere thanks for another illuminating glimpse into the history of our beloved city. And a sincere thanks to the Powers That Be for somehow preventing greedy, grasping, loathsome “developers” (“destroyers”) from destroying these witnesses to the Past.

  10. RLewis Says:

    for more info’…

    • trilby1895 Says:

      RLewis, Many thanks for your fascinating overview of “The Alabama” building. I’m inspired, as soon as this heat-wave breaks, to seek out the building to pay my respects….the human stories having played out within over the years are certainly food for thought.

  11. Former Flophouse Was Early Storefront of Hammacher Schlemmer, Restaurant Supply Store, Artists’ Lofts | Bygone NYC Says:

    […] The ghost signs behind an ex-Bowery flophouse […]

  12. Buzzkill McGee Says:

    Somehow there is a kind of beauty in breathing life into the abandoned past.

  13. Barb Says:

    “The bowery, thebowery…They say such things and they do such things…” I remember my grandparents singing this.

    • David H Lippman Says:

      I know that song, too….I sometimes sing it.

    • trilby1895 Says:

      I, as well, remember hearing my grandfather sing that….and the ending, “I’ll never go there anymore”. My mother told me that he’d told her about what it was like on “The Bowery” and “Fulton Street when he arrived in NY from Europe in 1912,. How I regret never asking him about his early days here.

  14. David H Lippman Says:

    Very saddened about the demise of the flophouses, because as long as they existed, I knew that I would have somewhere to wind up when my life turned out as a failure.

  15. Bob Says:

    New York Templar, 1903:

    “Temperance Restaurants

    “We clip the following from the New York World of January 19:

    “MEN — We feed the hungry. Don’t eat until you are hungry. Then go to Hand-In-Hand Restaurants, 219 Bowery, near Rivington street, or 2 mulberry Street, corner of Park Row, and eat the largest, cleanest and best meal on earth for five cents. Variety of dishes; everything neat and clean. Cup of fine coffee with each meal.

    “This odd advertisement appeared in the “Help Wanted” columns of The World. A reporter who went to one of the restaurants found that the five-cent banquet was a reality, and, as a departing patron put it, “all to the good at that.”


    ‘How do you do it? Why do you, as it seems, conduct this place for your health?’ asked the reporter of a stout, kindly looking man behind a desk at the front of the clean, white painted basement, No. 219 Bowery.

    “‘Don’t do anything of the sort,’ returned the manager, Mr. John Conroy. ‘We run this place to feed men and to keep them independent. We don’t hand out slice of charity or sign hymns to a man while he is eating. We let him come in here and buy his food.’ […]”

    “JAMES GAGE BEEMER was born in Hamilton, Ontario, January 16, 1849, and was the son of Levi and Eliza Gage Beemer. He died at his home, 170 Shonnard Terrace, Yonkers, May 6, 1921, and was buried in Greenwood cemetery. Mr. Beemer moved to the United
    States in early manhood. He was one of the first settlers on Shonnard Terrace, a residential district then undeveloped. He was
    president of the Chestnut Ridge Corporation of New York City, and of the Phenix Mineral Products Corporation and was a
    stockholder in other corporations.

    For many years he gave a large part of his time to philanthropy. He organized the Hand-in-Hand Restaurants on the Bowery, where
    meals were sold for five cents, and was president of the Hand-in-Hand Supply Company.”

  16. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Wow, definitely something for a future post! Thanks for your research Bob.

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