Beat writers and bohemians: One woman’s memoir of 1950s Greenwich Village

July 19, 2021

“When I got back to New York after my divorce came through there was never any question that Greenwich Village was where I wanted to be,” recalled Helen Weaver in her 2009 autobiography, The Awakener: A Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties.

Helen Weaver and Jack Kerouac, undated

It was 1955 and Weaver was in her early 20s. Her brief marriage to her college boyfriend was behind her, and she looked forward to moving to a “patchwork crazy quilt” section of Manhattan filled with “artists, would-be artists, and oddballs like myself.”

“To the overprotected little girl from Scarsdale that I was, the very dirt of the streets and the subway and the stairs of tenements was exciting,” she wrote. “It represented freedom from everything I had escaped: parents, marriage, academia.”

Sullivan Street and West Third, 1950s

Little did Weaver know that she’d find herself part of the fabric of bohemian Village life in the 1950s and early 1960s: a love affair with Jack Kerouac, dalliances with poet Gregory Corso and Lenny Bruce, and a witness to the Village’s transformation from quirky and artsy to a neighborhood with rougher edges.

He story at first sounds like that of any young adult who arrives in the Village on their own. First, Weaver had to get an apartment: a third-floor walkup on Sullivan Street.

“E.B. White wrote that New York City ‘bestows the gift of privacy, the jewel of loneliness,’: she wrote. “That first apartment was a magical place for me because it was there that I learned the art—and the joy—of solitude.” To pay for her space, she secured a position as a “gal Friday” at a publishing house.

Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso

A college friend also on Sullivan Street showed her how to live, getting furniture at the Salvation Army, dressing like a Village bohemian (“long skirts, Capezio ballet shoes, and black stockings”), and going to dinner at the Grand Ticino on Thompson Street. They also visited Bagatelle, a lesbian bar on University Place.

A new friend—Helen Elliott, a free spirit who had attended Barnard—became her roommate in her next apartment at 307 West 11th Street, “an old brownstone with a small paved courtyard just west of Hudson Street and kitty-corner from the White Horse Tavern of Dylan Thomas fame.”

So thrilled to have a bigger apartment, it wasn’t until after she moved in that Weaver realized there was no kitchen sink. No matter, they would do the dishes in the bathtub.

White Horse Tavern in 1961, across from Helen Weaver’s West 11th Street apartment

Helen Elliott had become friendly with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac while at Barnard, and one November morning in 1956 the two not-yet-famous Beat writers showed up at Weaver and Elliott’s apartment. They had just returned to New York after hitchhiking from Mexico.

Elliott and Ginsberg went off to see fellow Beat Lucien Carr, who lived on Grove Street. Back on West 11th Street, Weaver and Kerouac began their tumultuous year-long relationship, which was marked by Kerouac’s drinking, long absences, and then the 1957 publication of On the Road, which made him a celebrity.

Upset that Kerouac wasn’t the man she wanted him to be, Weaver had a one-night stand with poet Gregory Corso before breaking things off for good.

Villagers at Cafe Wha?

“The pain of my disappointment in Jack and the pain of rejecting him was compounded by the pain of rejecting the part of myself that felt most alive,” wrote Weaver.

As the 1950s slid into the early 1960s, Weaver moved to a third apartment on West 13th Street. She smoked her first joint with a boyfriend and began campaigning for the legalization of marijuana.

She also became a fan of rising comic Lenny Bruce, attending his show at the Village Theater on Second Avenue (later it would become the Fillmore East) eight days after John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

In 1964, when Bruce was arrested for obscenity at the Village’s Cafe Au Go Go, Elliott and Weaver started a petition in support of Bruce’s right to free speech. When Bruce heard about it, he got Weaver’s number and thanked her…then came to her apartment, where the two went to bed together.

“All those hours Helen and I had spent listening to his voice on the records: that was our foreplay. And his gig at the Village Theater back in November: that was our first date,” Weaver wrote. In the end, Bruce was convicted of obscenity. (Bruce died two years later of a heroin overdose before his appeal was decided.)

In the 1960s, Weaver moved a final time to West 10th Street. But rising crime drove her to leave the neighborhood she loved.

MacDougal Street, 1963

When she first came to the Village, she recalled being able to walk around at any hour of the night and feel safe. Not so anymore: “Near Sheridan Square I saw a big bloodstain on the sidewalk. Another time in the subway a man punched me in the breast. I started taking cabs home instead of riding the subway. It got so I was afraid to walk to the corner deli after dark for a quart of milk. New York was getting scary.”

In 1971, she sublet her apartment and relocated to Woodstock, where she worked as a translator and astrology writer. Except for short trips back to New York City to see old friends and be part of Beat Generation events, Weaver never lived in the city again.

Helen Weaver in the 1950s

She began her memoir in the 1990s. By the time it was published in 2009, the main characters—Helen Elliott, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso—had all passed away. Weaver died in April of this year at 89. She was perhaps the last of a group whose sense of adventure and artistic leanings defined a certain time and feel in Greenwich Village.

[Top photo: from The Awakener: a Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties; second image: oldnycphotos.com; third image: unknown; fourth image: LOC; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: Village Preservation; seventh image: Robert Otter; eighth image: The Awakener: a Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties]

This pricey co-op building was once a Lower East Side public library

July 18, 2021

New York developers have made apartment buildings out of former hospitals, police stations, schools, and churches. Now, a library branch has undergone the transformation to luxury housing.

What was once the Rivington Street branch of the New York Public Library has been rebranded as a Lower East Side boutique co-op called, of course, “The Library.”

Purchased by a developer in 2018 and renovated into 11 high-end units, The Library is already luring buyers, even though it doesn’t look like the co-op redo transformation is finished. But it’s not much of a surprise that many of the units have been snapped up, considering the recent reinvention of the Lower East Side as a posh area.

Imagine Rivington Street the way it was in the early 1900s as part of a very different Lower East Side.

Opened in 1906 on a crowded block between Eldridge and Allen Streets, the Rivington branch was designed by McKim, Mead, & White in the popular Beaux-Arts style. The architectural firm was responsible for great public buildings like Penn Station, but they also took on smaller projects, such as the Tompkins Square NYPL branch on East 10th Street.

The Beaux-Arts design lent a sense of elegance to a building largely patronized by poor immigrants living in the neighborhood’s surrounding shoddy tenements.

Engaged readers on the roof

The Rivington branch was one of the city’s new “Carnegie” libraries, funded by wealthy industrialist Andrew Carnegie (who lived in a spectacular Fifth Avenue mansion more than 100 blocks north). The main New York Public Library building was still under construction on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, set to open in 1911.

Like other neighborhood libraries, the Rivington Street branch quickly had a devoted following. Part of its popularity might be due to the open-air reading area on the roof, which proved to be a huge draw during the hot summer months, according to a 1910 New York Times article.

As the photo above shows, the roof really was for dedicated reading rather than sunbathing or goofing off. “Only children or adults actually engaged in reading are permitted to stay,” the Times wrote.

So how did the library branch end up as a co-op? I’m not sure when the branch was decommissioned as a library, but at that point a church took the building over. A developer bought it from the church in May 2018, renovating the former reading rooms and adding three stories.

The “adult desk” at the Rivington Street NYPL branch

What does it cost to live in a former library, where generations of New Yorkers read, dreamed, educated themselves, and stole some time away?

It’s not cheap. The five-room penthouse is in contract for more than $4 million, according to Streeteasy. At least the engraved plaque on the front that reads “New York Public Library” is still on the facade, a reminder of the building’s original purpose.

[Second photo: NYPL. Third photo: New-York Tribune, 1906. Fifth photo: NYPL]

A painter captures the last years of these East Village tenements

July 12, 2021

A New Yorker since his birth in 1928, Arthur Morris Cohen studied at Cooper Union from 1948 to 1950, according to askart.com. So he knew the neighborhood when he decided to paint what looks like the southeast or southwest tenement corner at Third Avenue and 9th Street in 1961.

Cohen’s version of the corner would be similar to what it probably actually looked like in the early 1960s. The East Village was not even the East Village yet; it would be a few years before the tenement neighborhood was rebranded from the Lower East Side, which was on the decline economically.

1941 tax photo of 111-113 East Ninth Street

None of these walkups exist today. In fact, all four corners at Third and Ninth are occupied by postwar buildings. On the southwest corner is a 1960s-era white brick apartment building called the St. Mark, which likely took the place of these low rises in 1965, when the building was completed. Or maybe the row stood where a huge NYU dorm has been since the 1980s, with Stuyvesant Place running alongside it.

This 1941 tax photo from the NYC Department of Records and Information Services at the southwest corner gives some idea of what Cohen painted.

The Central Park spring that provided water for a forgotten village

July 12, 2021

It looks more like a large puddle than a source of fresh water. But close to Central Park West and about 82nd Street at Summit Rock is something unusual: one of the few remaining natural springs in Central Park.

Tanner’s Spring, 2021

It’s called Tanner’s Spring, and there’s a story behind that name. In the summer of 1880, Dr. Henry Samuel Tanner became the most famous man in the U.S. when he launched a 40-day fast, abstaining from all food and drink except for the “pure” water from this spring—which then became a local attraction associated with health and wellness.

But Tanner’s Spring has an earlier 19th century distinction: It may have been the water source that allowed Seneca Village to flourish, according to the Central Park Conservatory.

What was called “Dr. Tanner’s Well” in the caption looked different in 1899 in this NYPL Digital Collection image

Seneca Village has been described as a small community of roughly 300 people in this rocky, hilly section of Manhattan between 82nd and 89th Streets and Seventh and Eighth Avenues, stated educational material from the New-York Historical Society.

From the 1820s to the 1850s, Seneca Village was a mostly African American enclave also home to Irish and German immigrants. Three churches, a school, cemeteries, and small houses with gardens made this outpost a true village similar to the many villages dotting uptown Manhattan in the mid-19th century, albeit a small one.

Not identified as Seneca Village, but an idea of what the community may have looked like, from the NYPL

“Historians speculate that Black New Yorkers living downtown began moving to Seneca Village in part to escape the racist climate and unhealthy conditions of Lower Manhattan,” wrote the Central Park Conservatory. Here, Black residents, who likely worked in the service trades, were also property owners.

In pre-Croton New York, the many streams across Manhattan were vital, and Seneca Village wouldn’t have thrived without this one. Even after the Croton Aqueduct opened in 1842, water from the nearby Receiving Reservoir wasn’t accessible; it was piped to the Distributing Reservoir on 42nd Street and then to downtown homes and businesses.

Egbert L. Viele’s 1865 “Sanitary and Topographical” map shows the spring where Seneca Village once stood.

Much is still unknown about Seneca Village—but its demise is no mystery.

When city officials decided to build New York’s great park here, they seized the land via eminent domain in the mid-1850s and kicked out everyone living within the boundaries of the yet-to-be-built park, including residents of Seneca Village. Roughly 1,600 people were forced out, and at least some land owners were paid by the city.

The spring is behind a short wire fence

Forgotten for more than a century, Seneca Village is the subject of renewed interest. Historians have discovered stone foundation walls and thousands of artifacts, including the handle of a pitcher that one can imagine held fresh, cool drinking water from nearby Tanner’s Spring.

‘Inertia and desolation’ of Sunday in New York in the 1920s

July 5, 2021

Like so many paintings by Edward Hopper, “Sunday,” completed in 1926, is shrouded in mystery. Who is this lone man sitting on the curb, and what’s the significance of the row of empty storefronts he’s turned his back on?

The scene may be ambiguous, but the sense of isolation and disconnection conjured by the image will feel familiar for New Yorkers in the 1920s and the 2020s as well.

“Sunday depicts a spare street scene,” explains the Phillips Collection, which owns the painting. “In the foreground, a solitary, middle-aged man sits on a sunlit curb, smoking a cigar. Behind him is a row of old wooden buildings, their darkened and shaded windows suggesting stores, perhaps closed for the weekend or permanently.”

Though it’s impossible to know, this scene might be in Greenwich Village, near where Hopper lived and painted for most of his life on the Washington Square North.

“Oblivious to the viewer’s gaze, the man seems remote and passive,” the Phillips Collection continues. “His relationship to the nearby buildings is uncertain. Who is he? Is he waiting for the stores to open? When will that occur? Sunlight plays across the forms, but curiously, it lacks warmth. Devoid of energy and drama, Sunday is ambiguous in its story but potent in its impression of inertia and desolation.”

“Sunday” shouldn’t be confused with “Early Sunday Morning,” a better-known Hopper painting of a row of two-story buildings thought to be on Bleecker Street. That painting has a similar haunting, solitary feel. The same unbroken line of low-rises he depicts still exist today.

Beautiful ruins of the early 1900s “Bankers’ Row” on West 56th Street

July 5, 2021

When an area in Manhattan becomes fashionable—as Fifth Avenue in the upper 50s did in the 1880s and 1890s—only people with the most elite names (think Vanderbilt, Vanderbilt, and Vanderbilt) are typically able to acquire property and build their mansions there.

The gaping hole between 17 and 23 West 56th Street

But Gilded Age New York was minting many social-climbing millionaires. So the side streets off Fifth Avenue filled up with beautiful, costly, single-family townhouses designed by top architects. In many cases, these architects gave opulent facelifts and redesigns to preexisting modest brownstones, which were now out of style.

One block in particular, 56th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, became home to so many financiers and their families, it earned the nickname “Bankers’ Row” after the turn of the century.

30 West 56th Street, former home of investment banker Henry Seligman

And while it’s hard to imagine this block with some notably shabby exteriors and empty lots as a wealthy New Yorker’s enclave, enough of the old dowager beauties with illustrious backstories remain to prove you wrong.

One of these is Number 30 (second from left, above, and below), designed by C.P.W. Gilbert and completed in 1901 for investment banker Henry Seligman and his wife, according to the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC).

“Henry and Adelaide had three children, Gladys, Rhoda and Walter,” states the LPC. “The lavish townhouse at 30 West 56th Street also housed a Scottish butler; an American valet and chauffeur; a Swedish footman, maid and laundress; two Irish cooks; and three English, Swedish, and French servants.”

The couple lived in the house until their deaths in 1933 (the year Henry died of a heart attack inside) and 1934; it was converted into apartments in 1941, per the LPC.

26 West 56th Street, once home of E. Hayward and Amelia Parsons Ferry

Number 26, currently behind scaffolding, sits two doors down from the Seligman mansion (above, center). Built in 1871, it was remodeled in 1907-1908 with a limestone facade and copper roof and “long occupied by banker E. Hayward Ferry and his wife Amelia Parsons Ferry,” according to w50s.com.

“E. Hayward Ferry was a prominent businessman who served as first vice president of Hanover Bank from 1910 to 1929,” w50s.com states. “He and his wife occupied  this house from 1908 to 1935.”

28 West 56th, in the Arts & Crafts style

Dr. Clifton Edgar is one resident of Bankers’ Row who wasn’t actually a banker. A prominent physician, Edgar had 28 West 56th Street redesigned in 1908 from its original brownstone style to an Arts and Crafts townhouse (above)—one of few examples of this architectural style in Manhattan, states Community Board 5.

Widow Edith Andrews Logan acquired her wealth from her industrialist father and horsebreeder husband, who was killed in the Spanish-American War. In 1903, she bought 17 West 56th Street and had it redesigned in the neo-Federal style, with fluted columns and Flemish bond brickwork, per the LPC.

Mrs. Logan’s townhouse, where her daughter made her society debut

Logan made good use of her stylish home: She held an “informal dinner dance” that served as the debut of one of her daughters into New York society in 1909. The next year, she hosted that daughter’s wedding reception. Long after Logan departed her house, Number 17 became a trendy restaurant called the Royal Box in the 1930s.

These days, what was once Bankers’ Row is now more of a Restaurant Row. Many of the wealthy palaces of the early 1900s have long since been converted into ground-floor restaurants and chopped into apartments.

Some original modest brownstones, others lavish townhouses

Others have been demolished entirely; the block has missing buildings and lots of signs of redevelopment. But beneath the restaurant signs, grime, and scaffolding, some of the former showstoppers of Bankers’ Row are still hanging on.

[Fourth image: Google]

The story of the twin former horse stables of Great Jones Street

July 5, 2021

If you walk down Great Jones Street between Lafayette and the Bowery, you’ll come across these handsome Italianate-style red buildings with almost identical black cornices.

Built by separate developers in 1871, the sign in the center of each cornice indicates that both buildings were used as stables. Like so many other former stables throughout New York, they were converted to residences with ground floor commercial space once automobiles replaced equines in the early 1900s.

True, both of these buildings originally did house horses. But while the sign on the cornice of one is authentic, the signage on the other was only put up in the 1970s.

The Great Jones Street stables in 2011, without scaffolding

Let’s start with Number 33, on the left. The slightly damaged letters on the cornice read “Beinecke & Co’s Stables.”

Who was Beinecke? Johann Bernhard Georg Beinecke immigrated from Germany at arrived at Castle Garden in 1865, according to the website Immigrant Entrepreneurship.

His is a rags to riches story. “Bernhard signed on as a wagon driver for a meat concern; within a few short years he bought the company and appropriately renamed it Beinecke & Company,” the website continues. Later, he branched out into banking and the hotel business, buying the original Plaza Hotel and other luxury hotels.

From 1890 into the 20th century, the horses that pulled the delivery wagons for the Beinecke meat company were stabled here, states the Landmark Preservation Commission’s NoHo Historic District Extension Report.

And what about Number 31 on the right? This building was originally the home of the New York Board of Fire Underwriters, and the LPC Report says the Underwriters board moved its Fire Patrol No. 2 here from 1873 to 1907. (At the time, of course, a fire patrol needed fire horses.)

“Following the departure of the Fire Patrol, the building was converted to other uses,” states the LPC report. One of those was home base for the Joseph Scott Trucking Company. This business established itself at 59 Great Jones Street in 1966 before relocating to Number 31 in the 1970, and then moved a third time to Number 33 until 1997, according to Walter Grutchfield.

Numbers 33 and 31 in 1980, by Edmund Vincent Gillon/MCNY

At some point, the trucking company added their own signage—copying the late 19th century look of Beinecke & Sons. “This is a modern cornice/pediment inscription meant to immulate its neighbor at 33 Great Jones Street,” Grutchfield writes.

Two 19th century former stables, but only one authentic stable sign.

[Second photo: Wikipedia; fifth photo: Edmund Vincent Gillon/MCNY 2013.3.2.1790]

A West Side historic district packed with Queen Anne beauty

June 28, 2021

Walking along Manhattan Avenue feels like being in on a secret. Part of it has to do with the street itself, which is quiet and slender, tucked between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West and only running from 100th to 125th Streets.

Then there’s the architectural eye candy on both sides of Manhattan Avenue: three blocks of confection-like Queen Anne and Romanesque Revival row houses with all the terra cotta detailing and ornamental bells and whistles you could ask for from these two eclectic styles popular in the late 19th century.

These three blocks at the lower end of the avenue make up the Manhattan Avenue Historic District, which fronts 104th to 106th Streets and includes a few buildings on side streets. (There’s a second Manhattan Avenue Historic District from 120th to 123rd Street as well.)

Manhattan Avenue’s secretive vibe also might have to do with the fact that it wasn’t part of the 1811 official city street grid that mapped out Manhattan.

“Laid out as ‘New Avenue’ in 1872-73, this late addition to the Manhattan gridiron received its current name in 1884,” wrote Andrew Dolkart in Guide to New York City Landmarks. “The district contains 37 row houses, a six-story apartment building, and two structures built as part of General Memorial Hospital, originally known as the New York Cancer Hospital.”

When the Upper West Side—then known as the West End—transitioned from a collection of farm villages to an urban residential area in the late 19th century, the lovely row houses in this historic district went up as well. The busiest years spanned 1886 to 1889, the same time period when the Manhattan Avenue Historic District houses were built, according to the Landmark Preservation Committee (LPC) Report from 2007.

“The earliest group, located on the west side of the Avenue between 105th and 106th Streets, was designed by Joseph M. Dunn,” states Dolkert. “Opposite these buildings is an early row by C.P.H. Gilbert, who later became one of the city’s best-known residential architects.” A third group of rowhouses were then built on the west side between 104th and 105th Streets.

The first residents of these homes were upper middle class folks, states LPC report. “The United States Census of 1900 indicates a wide variety of occupations, including salesmen, real estate brokers, a janitor, engineer, pressman, teacher, bookkeeper, dentist, and physicians,” the report details. In subsequent years, lodgers and boarders were also recorded.

As New York City’s fortunes rose and fell in the 20th century, so did the cachet and character of Manhattan Avenue. Today these flamboyant houses are restored and well cared for, part of the quiet enclave of Manhattan Valley.

Number 127 went on the market last year for $2.5 million—many times more than the cost of the houses estimated by the original builders, which was in the neighborhood of $10,000 each, per the LPC report.

One summer night on a New York tenement roof

June 28, 2021

Saul Kovner was a Russia-born artist who came to New York City in the 1920s. After attending the National Academy of Design and setting up a studio on Central Park West, he worked for the WPA in the 1930s and 1940s.

Kovner captured gentle yet honest scenes in all seasons of urban life, particularly of working class and poor New Yorkers. In 1946, he completed “One Summer Night,” a richly detailed depiction of tenement dwellers seeking refuge from the heat in a pre- air conditioned city.

I’m not sure what part of the city we’re in, but you can just feel the sweat, discomfort, and frustration—that sense of being trapped, as these people are, on a tarry island that offers little relief.

“One Summer Night” gives us a situation any New Yorker living in the city in a tenement can relate to. No wonder so many social realist artists have painted or illustrated similar scenes in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Here’s how John Sloan, Everett Shinn, and some wonderful unidentified illustrators captured the “fiery furnace” of a New York heat wave.

Two mystery gargoyles on a 57th Street building

June 27, 2021

When you walk along New York City streets, you never know who is looking down at you. And on a busy corner at West 57th Street and Broadway, you’re getting the evil eye from two mysterious grotesques.

These stone figures are affixed to what was once the main entrance for the Argonaut Building—a terra cotta beauty with Gothic touches that opened in 1909.

Back then, the building was the showroom for the Peerless Motor Car Company, a long-defunct carriage and car manufacturer that vacated the premises in the 1910s.

This stretch of Broadway near Columbus Circle was known as Automobile Row, thanks to all the car showrooms that popped up there in the early 20th century.

After Peerless (above, in a 1909 ad) left, General Motors took it over. Eventually the building was renovated and converted to office use. The Hearst company bought it and based many of their consumer magazines here through the 2000s.

When it was important to have a presence in this car-showroom neighborhood, Peerless made sure they occupied prime real estate.

But they also designed the building to fit into the corner, which explains why it has the Gothic look of the Broadway Tabernacle Church, which held court on Broadway and 56th Street (above photo, likely from the 1940s).

But back to the grotesques. Spooky and sly, laughing or crying out, they’re either holding up the building or hiding under it with sinister intentions. Shrouded in what looks like robes and slip-on shoes, they’ve been with the building since the beginning…and are apparently here to stay.

[Third image: New-York Tribune, December 12, 1909; fourth image: NYPL Digital Collection]