Two portraits of one lowdown saloon in 1919 Greenwich Village

The Village has always had dive bars that attract locals and luminaries. But The Golden Swan, on the corner of Sixth Avenue and West Fourth Street, might have been the first—and the most notorious in its day.

Inside this Irish tavern dating back to at least the 1870s, writers, artists, activists, and assorted Village characters of the 1910s gathered to drink. (National prohibition was looming, after all.) While the front of the tavern may have catered to locals and Hudson Dusters gangsters, bohemians made the back room—aka, the Hell Hole—their own.

Charles Demuth was a fan of the Swan. Demuth, who gained fame as a precisionist painter, captured the mood and mannerisms of the Swan’s nightly denizens in a visceral portrait from 1919 entitled “At the Golden Swan, Sometimes Called the Hell Hole.”

Here he “depicts himself and Marcel Duchamp, the acclaimed French Dadaist, seated at the left table of the popular meeting spot for young artists and bohemians,” wrote Christie’s in 2007.

“Other patrons included the artist John Sloan, who produced an etching of the bar in 1917 (above), and the playwright Eugene O’Neill, who incorporated it into some of his plays, including The Iceman Cometh,” stated Christie’s. Social activist Dorothy Day, journalist John Reed, and anarchist Hippolyte Havel were part of the crowd.

Sloan, whose studio was across the street on the other side of the Sixth Avenue El, depicted O’Neill (on the upper right) in his sketch. Both works give viewers a good idea of what the Golden Swan and Hellhole looked like. But Demuth’s feels rawer; you can feel the isolation among all the people packed into the small back room of a bar together, none of them looking at the person they’re sharing their table with.

Christie’s included an excerpt about the Golden Swan from the biography O’Neill, by Arthur and Barbara Gelb: “The Hell Hole was a representative Irish saloon. It had a sawdust covered floor, rude wooden tables, and was filled with the smell of sour beer and mingled sounds of alcoholic woe and laughter. Its barroom was entered from the corner of Sixth Avenue and Fourth Street the ‘front room,’ in which women were not allowed.

“Above the doorway swung a wooden sign decorated with a tarnished gilt swan. Farther east, on Fourth Street, was the ‘family entrance,’ a glass door that gave access to a small, dank, gaslit chamber known as the ‘backroom.’ Wooden tables clustered about a smoking potbellied stove, and it was here that respectable Irish widows came to cry into their five-cent mugs of beer…”

The Golden Swan was demolished in 1928 to make way for the subway. But at the corner today is a patch of greenery known as The Golden Swan Garden.

[Top image: Christie’s, second image: Metmuseum.org; third image: New York Post/Getty]

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8 Responses to “Two portraits of one lowdown saloon in 1919 Greenwich Village”

  1. Peter Bennett Says:

    I grew up halfway up the block and probably spent half my childhood in the playground where the Swan once stood. Little did I know of all that took place in that once crowded spot.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Me too—it’s not far from the McDonald’s on West Third that was such a treat to visit. Sadly I hear that’s gone now too.

      • Greg Says:

        McDonald’s, really? It must have closed in the last two or three months, it was open very recently.

  2. Ricky Says:

    If the “family room” was called the Hell Hole what was the front room like?

  3. velovixen Says:

    Rickky and Greg–Well, a family room could be a Hell Hole, depending on what kind of family come from!

    I would love to have been there.

  4. Ann Haddad Says:

    I love how “Cafe” is stenciled on the window.

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