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Reformers and Performers at 158 Bleecker Street

If you’re a New Yorker who spends any time in the West Village at all, the odds are good you’ve passed this Bleecker Street building without giving it a second thought.

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But if you take a closer look, and strange details begin to emerge. For example, why is there a sign above the entrance that says “MILLS HOVSE NO. 1?”

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The first building at the corner of Bleecker and Thompson was a block of townhouses called Depau Row. Built in 1838 by a Charleston shipping magnate named Francis Depau, Depau Row came with all the latest amenities. An 1840 advertisement touted gas-lit dining rooms, stairways of white Italian marble, and “pump of excellent water and two cisterns in the yard.” For a touch of Southern charm, Depau added iron galleries to the exterior and shared doors between the parlors which could be thrown open for large parties. The handsome houses attracted members of Manhattan’s upper crust like department store tycoon Alexander T. Stewart and president of the New York Academy of Medicine Valentine Mott, who lived at 1 Depau Row on the corner.

Depau designed the block for what The Century magazine called “people of a certain and identical social standing, and that they should be hereditary family residences.” But controlling the fluctuations of New York City real estate is easier said than done. Over the next 50 years, the rich and famous moved out and Manhattan’s growing Italian community moved in. Depau Row gradually succumbed to tenement-style dwellings, with residents working as seamstresses and cigar-rollers out of their homes. A reporter from the Galveston News in 1883 was shocked to find dining rooms “inhabited by scores who filled the high-ceilinged rooms with the odors of garlic.” Here and there, tiny patches of Depau Row’s former glory remained: a family of five slept in a single room under a trompe l’oeil fresco on the ceiling, barely discernible beneath layers of grime.

MNY30778Depau Row was demolished in 1896 by an idealistic banker and philanthropist named Darius Ogden Mills. He hired architect Ernest Flagg to build a clean, reasonably-priced hotel for poor working men. “I hope to give him a larger equivalent for his money than has hitherto been possible,” wrote Mills. “[H]e will think better of himself, and will be a more self-reliant, manly man and a better citizen, if he knows that he is honestly paying for that he gets.” Mills House No. 1 had rooms for over 1,500 residents, and it was usually filled to capacity. Jacob Riis praised the amenities, including “smoking and writing rooms, and a library for his use; games if he chooses, baths when he feels like taking one, and a laundry where he may wash his own clothes if he has to save the pennies, as he likely has to. It is a good place to do it, too, for he can sleep comfortably and have two square meals a day for fifty cents all told.” The only stipulation? Bedrooms were locked between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. when lodgers were expected to be working or looking for work.

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Much like Depau Row, Mills’ standards for cleanliness and order did not last long. By the 1960s, the now-decrepit building was a flophouse called the Greenwich Hotel. An 8’x5’ room with no toilet or running water cost $2.75 a night, $18 a week. (These days a studio runs you a cool $3,000.) These cramped quarters, filthy but cheap, attracted drunks, gay cruisers, and as many as 450 heroin addicts in 1971. The Commissioner for Social Services described it as “almost uninhabitable” and “a public nuisance.” A drunk told the Village Voice, “if you live in the Greenwich Hotel, you already about as bad off as you ever gonna be.”* Today, the building is an apartment complex called the Atrium, but you can still see “Mills House No. 1” carved over the entrance.

Another remnant on this building’s past juts out above the entrance to a CVS. 

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The sign advertises the 25th anniversary of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, a revue of French chansons that premiered on this spot in 1968. This is the last physical link to the Village Gate, one of Bleecker’s most historic music venues. Named for the gated Thompson entrance used to avoid the rough customers of the Greenwich Hotel, the Village Gate was founded by Art D’Lugoff in 1958. He created a split-level entertainment venue, the Top of the Gate on the ground floor and the Village Gate in a subterranean space previously occupied by a laundromat.

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A man of excellent and eclectic taste, D’Lugoff quickly gained a reputation for hosting the best and most varied talent in the Village. On any given night, you might see Jimi Hendrix playing a benefit for Timothy Leary, Aretha Franklin making her New York debut, pre-SNL John Belushi and Chevy Chase starring in a National Lampoon revue, or a young Richard Pryor opening for Nina Simone. Simone recorded a fantastic live album at the Village Gate, as did Charles Mingus, Tito Puente, Thelonious Monk, Herbie Mann, and the Bill Evans Trio. There was poetry by Allen Ginsberg, stand-up by a young Woody Allen, and an all-nude musical called “Let My People Come.” A long-standing activist, D’Lugoff booked Paul Robeson, Harry Belafonte, and Pete Seeger after they’d been blacklisted by Joseph McCarthy, and Lenny Bruce after his obscenity trial. Out among the cafe tables, you might see Bob Dylan scribbling lyrics to “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” a young Sam Shepherd bussing tables, or Dustin Hoffman taking drink orders (that is, if he hadn’t already been fired for ignoring patrons in favor of the performances.) There were so many characters coming through that D’Lugoff could barely keep the plates spinning. ““Once we had Nina Simone, Dick Gregory and Larry Adler all on the same bill,” he said, “and had so much trouble deciding who would open that I went across the street and hired a guitarist.”

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I think we should all pause to realize how awesome that must have been.

When the Village Gate closed in 1993, Art D’Lugoff tried to turn the space into a National Living Jazz Museum and Hall of Fame. Despite vocal support from Dave Brubeck, Lionel Hampton, and Wynton Marsalis, the space was instead sold in 1996 and turned into a disotheque called Life. The new owner was a club promoter named Roy Stillman, who sounds like nothing so much as a fussy grandmother in this 1997 article for the New York Times.

“People get all excited and dance on my ebony macassar banquettes in the V.I.P. lounge,” Mr. Stillman said, cringing. ”It drives me crazy. That room cost me $200,000.”

Today, 158 Bleecker is le Poisson Rouge, a bar and music venue that continues the Village Gate’s tradition of eclecticism. They host pretty much everything – folk, punk, ska, electronica, contemporary classical, jazz – and the only constant is that I never feel cool enough to be there.

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