Hey guys! It’s another Block Party, where we explore the rich history of a single Manhattan block. Today we’ll check out charming “Cherry Lane,” Commerce Street between Bedford and Barrow Streets. Author Charles Hemstreet called this neighborhood “The Mouse-Trap,” where “you can wander about for hours and lose all sense of where you are.” Thomas Janvier described it as “handsomely at variance with itself” in his 1894 history, In Old New York.
“Greenwich Village has always been to me the most attractive portion of New York. It has the positive individuality, the age, much of the picturesqueness, of that fascinating region of which the centre is Chatham Square; yet it is agreeably free from the foul odors and the foul humanity which make expeditions in the vicinity of Chatham Square, while abstractly delightful, so stingingly distressing to one’s nose and soul.”
In fact, it was these “foul odors” that spurred the growth of Greenwich Village. The stench from lower Manhattan attracted scourges of mosquitoes during the summertime, and with them, yellow fever and cholera. There were major outbreaks of yellow fever (so called because of the jaundice that set in and the yellowish-black bile victims vomited out) in 1794, 1796, 1798, 1805, 1819, and 1822. Many wealthy New Yorkers fled the city proper for the fresh air and clean water found between Minetta Brook and the North River. The Lenape called the place Sapokanikan, and often took advantage of the fertile soil and rich oyster beds along the river. By 1713, it had become known as “Grin’wich.”
Commerce Street has been around since the late 1790s, most likely named to lure businessmen to build on it. The ploy worked: today, the street is lined with handsome red-brick houses built by brewers, farmers, dairymen, and department store magnates, most dating back to the first half of the 19th century.
77 Bedford is the oldest building in the Village and one of the few surviving 18th-century buildings in Manhattan, though just by a hair. A Jewish merchant named Joshua Isaacs broke ground in 1799 on land once belonging to Elbert Roosevelt, but lost the property to creditors shortly after. Fortunately, his son-in-law Harmon Hendricks bought the land back and finished construction in 1801. Hendricks and Joshua’s son Solomon managed a thriving copper rolling shop here for Paul Revere’s copper company. They later expanded their operations into New Jersey, where they made the copper boilers used in Robert Fulton’s steamboat, the Cleremont, and the first steamship to cross the Atlantic, the Savannah.
Over the years, the Isaacs-Hendricks House went from a lone building surrounded by farmland to a Greenwich Village landmark, albeit with some alterations. A brick front was added in 1836, and the roof raised in 1928 to accommodate a third floor studio. In 1930, the front stoop was removed to widen the Bedford sidewalks. Those brick rectangles are the backsides of the house’s twin fireplaces, which could get so hot when used they would have set the clapboards on fire.
Though it’s not technically on Commerce Street, I would be an idiot not to point out the fascinating sliver of a building next door at 75½ Bedford. A mere 9½ feet wide (8½ on the inside), this just might be the skinniest home in New York City. It was built as a carriage-house in 1873, and was home to Cary Grant, John Barrymore, Margaret Mead, and Bohemian poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. However, Millay did not, as some guidebooks suggest, pen the phrase “burning the candle at both ends” here.
We now move from the oldest building on the block to the newest. 81 Bedford doesn’t look like much. It was built in 1952 by the firm of Schuman & Lichtenstein, replacing the offices of the Supreme Chocolate company, and has very little to recommend it architecturally or historically. Ed Koch once lived here, but that’s about it.
Oh yeah, I’m forgetting the CIA acid mind-control experiments.
At the beginning of the Cold War, the Central Intelligence Agency saw tremendous possibilities in a new drug called lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, particularly as a truth serum or mind control drug. In 1953, the CIA initiated a monstrous program called MKULTRA, testing the potential for mind control through psychotropic drugs on unsuspecting subjects. Soldiers, prisoners, even “sexual psycopaths” were given vast quantities of LSD, mescaline, and mushrooms as agents watched their sanity disintegrate.
One such agent was Colonel George Hunter White. 6 feet tall, 200 pounds, and bald as a cueball, White was already a legend as one the nation’s top narcotics men. He’d taken down a Chinese opium ring, coaxed confessions from Lucky Luciano’s lieutenant using marijuana, and arrested Billie Holliday for opium use (she was later acquitted.) He was no stranger to dirty work, either. During World War II, White worked for the OSS, the precursor to the CIA, where strangled a Japanese spy to death with his bare hands. When spymaster Sidney Gottlieb recruited him for MKULTRA, White was thrilled. “Where else could a red-blooded American boy lie, kill and cheat, steal, deceive, rape and pillage with the sanction and blessing of the all-highest?” he enthused.
White commenced sub-project Operation Midnight Climax in 1953, renting a room at 81 Bedford for $215 a month under the pseudonym Morgan Hall. He promptly outfitted the apartment with state-of-the-art recording devices, two-way mirrors, and a top shelf bar. The goal of Operation Midnight Climax was to observe the effects of the most potent hallucinogen known to man – but how to make man take it? According to a Star News article from 1977 covering a Senate investigation, “[p]rostitutes, perhaps men as well as women, may have been employed to lure the subjects to the safehouses, where they were offered cocktails laced with various chemicals while unseen CIA officials observed, photographed, and recorded their reactions.” White experimented on unwilling subjects for two years before moving the project to San Francisco. The CIA cut the project in 1965 shortly after White suffered a fatal heart attack, which even as I type this sounds a little fishy.
Before this building was erected, this land belonged to a farmer named Horatio Gomez. Gomez eventually sold the land and married Isaac’s Hendrick’s daughter, Esther “Hattie” Hendricks (he also built the carriage-house at 75½ Bedford.) The brick structure at 32-34 was originally built by John Crawford as a wagonshed for R.H. McDonald. It was later used as a factory, then finally split into apartments in the 1920s. Today, it’s a single-family home with a pretty spectacular garden shared with several other houses on Bedford and Commerce.
The next three addresses all owe their existences to a brewer named Alexander McLachlan. After setting up a brewery next door a few years earlier, McLachlan built this handsome Greek Revival brick house in 1841. Though it was once split into apartments and stripped of its stoop in favor of a basement entrance, McLachlan’s house has been handsomely restored in the past decade and looking pretty damn good for 170 years.
The centerpiece of Commerce Street is the Cherry Lane Theatre, New York’s longest-running off-Broadway theater. The building dates back to 1836 when it was Alexander McLachlan’s brewery, built over the old grain silo from the Hendricks-Gomez farm. The brewery closed down sometime before the Civil War, replaced by a tobacco warehouse and later a box factory. Then in 1924, a cadre of Greenwich artists led by Edna St. Vincent Millay formed a troupe called the Cherry Lane Players and hired scenic designer Cleon Throckmorton to transformed the old box factory into a 179-seat playhouse. The first production was Saturday Night by Richard Fresnell, and for the next 93 years, Cherry Lane showcased the absurd, the avant-garde, and the provocative. Sometimes a little too provocative. In 1952, the New York Fire Department shut down a production of Ubu Roi and Heroes, ostensibly due to some flammable sets, though many assumed landlord Kenneth Carroad called them due to the plays’ daring tone and homosexual themes. Director Judith Malina became so incensed she chased the firefighters down the street with a bamboo spear.
Over the years, they’ve produced works by Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Gertrude Stein, Eugene O’Neil, David Mamet, Sam Shepard, Eugene Ionesco, Edward Albee, and LeRoi Jones. The list of actors is no less impressive. The Cherry Lane website lists (deep breath) Gene Hackman, Bea Arthur, James Earl Jones, Colleen Dewhurst, Cicely Tyson, Harvey Keitel, Judd Hirsch, Tony Curtis (discovered by a Hollywood scout here in 1948), Gary Sinise, Jerry Stiller, Rue McClanahan, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Roy Scheider, F. Murray Abraham, Peter Falk, Tom Bosley, Nick Kroll, Barbra Streisand (as an understudy and assistant stage manager), Frank Langella, Kim Stanley, Tyne Daly, Estelle Parsons, Geraldine Page, Kevin Bacon, Lee Strasberg, Julia Stiles, and Dennis Quaid.
The actors who passed through this door spent their lives on the stage, and some believe one or two may also spend their afterlives here. One ghost appears as a white mist near the top of the lobby staircase, while the other haunts the dressing rooms as a black shadow. A third ghost may also haunt the theater, this one a more womanly wraith. Some authors and ghost hunters suspect the ghost to be Kim Hunter. The movie star and original Stella in Streetcar Named Desire once lived above the theater, and may have returned to her own home from beyond the grave.
At this point, you might be wondering, why is it called the Cherry Lane Theatre? According to a plaque at the east end of this block, this street was once lined with cherry trees and nicknamed Cherry Lane. Actually, the name is part of an elaborate prank by William Rainey, one of the theater’s charter members. After joking about a Drury Lane production mocked as “Dreary Lane,” the theater group thought they should name their company something cheery. So when a reporter asked him for the name of the new theater, Rainey told him “Cherry Lane” and invented a fake history for the block, only confessing on his deathbed in 1964.
Although Alexander McLachlan sold his brewery sometime in the mid-1800s, he apparently kept the brewery yard and converted it into a home in 1858. I couldn’t find much else until the 1920s when it became a dormitory and shared gallery space for Bohemian artists. By the 1950s, Kenneth Carroad ran a restaurant here called the Cherry Lane Broiler. In the 1960s and 70s, it was a gay nightclub. Today, it’s the 60-seat black box studio for Cherry Lane’s mentorship program, but you can still see the painted sign for the Cherry Lane Broiler peeling above the door.
A man named John Allen built this sturdy house in 1838. Though once stuccoed over and split up into single-floor apartments, the John Allen House has been converted back to its former glory. I couldn’t find much else about this house except for a curious incident in 1885. William Maighan, a driver for the American Express Company, was expected to attend a party at Tammany Hall for the “Tough Club.” According to the New York Times, Maighan arrived plastered after drinking an entire bottle of absinthe (he thought it was Jameson, but still…). He then washed it down with beer and whiskey. He stumbled home, and after several days during which I assume he had the worst hangover of his life, the police knocked on his door and arrested them. Apparently, while he was drunk, he had misheard a question by a man named C.B. Williams and proceeded to stab him seven times in the hands and legs. Which, if you’ve ever had a lot of absinthe, sounds about right.
Although many Manhattan streets bend or curve, Commerce Street is one of only two to have hard right angles (Marketfield in the Financial District is the other.) Originally, this bend marked the far corner of a Governor Wouter van Twiller’s tobacco plantation, dating back to the 1630s when the Dutch controlled Manhattan. In 1705, few decades after the British took Manhattan, Queen Anne gifted the old van Twiller estate to Trinity Church, which leased the property out for farming and development.
Today you’ll find a pair of strange-looking houses tilted in towards each other. In a 1907 novel, Arthur Train nicknamed these “the Pie Houses” since “[t]he natural inference was that the inside of the house was shaped like a piece of pie, with its partially bitten end abutting on the corner.” The Pie Houses were built in 1844 by an Irishman named Alexander Turney Stewart. Born in Belfast in 1803 and orphaned by the age of eight, Stewart immigrated to New York and made his fortune in the dry goods business. Stewart opened his first store in 1825, which grew so popular that he had to move to a larger location in 1826, then again in 1830. In 1846, he expanded with a six-story dry goods emporium of fine marble on Broadway and Reade Streets. Unlike most shops of the day, which were small and specialized, Stewart’s store encouraged shoppers to wander the aisles of his emporium, which had been split up into different “departments.” With that, Stewart created the first department store and ushered in a new era of American business.
“The Merchant Prince” died one of the richest men in America in 1876, leaving an estate worth $80 million in modern currency, yet he’s left a surprisingly small footprint on his home city. Unlike his contemporaries Cornelius Vanderbilt and William Astor, Stewart had no lineage to claim nor surviving children to take over the family business. Nor did he leave any legacy of philanthropy the way the Astors, Carnegies, Morgans, and Rockefellers did.
About the only legacy Stewart left behind were these two houses and his corpse, and only one of these things stayed put. Months after being buried in the churchyard of St. Mark’s-in-the-Bowerie, the sexton’s assistant found Stewart’s tomb opened and his body nowhere to be found. Blame initially fell on medical students of Bellevue, who were known to rob graves for both experiments and gruesome pranks. Then Stewart’s widow received a ransom note from a man known only as “Romaine” attached to a swatch of fabric from the coffin’s interior lining. After two years of correspondence through her lawyer, the widow ultimately paid Romaine $20,000 for the safe return of his remains. The thieves were never apprehended, but at least Stewart’s body was reburied…two miles away in Long Island City.
We now arrive at the Twins. Legend tells of an old sea captain who built these two houses for his jealous daughters. Knowing one would feel injured if she thought the other received a slightly better house in a slightly better neighborhood, the captain built two identical houses right next to each other with a shared garden between them.
Sadly, this tale is as bull-honky as the origins of Cherry Lane. The real founder of the Twins was a Hackensack milkman named Peter Huyler. Huyler bought the corner plot as a real estate investment in 1830. Two years later, he made good by building a pair of two-story houses and renting them out to members of the middle class looking to escape the heat and disease (cholera this time) that tortured lower Manhattan. The first tenant, Peter Burdett, moved into 41 in 1842, while the second tenant moved into 39 in 1848, a Captain William Halsey. Perhaps he’s the origin of the legend?
Like other buildings on Commerce Street, the Twins have had some work done on them. In 1873, Peter’s son George Huyler hired architect Daniel T. Atwood to add a third story by transforming the peaked roofs into the more fashionable mansard roofs of the day. During the 1930s and 40s, the Twins would gain skylights and new stairs before being split up into separate apartments. In 1948, James Lambrakis bought 41 Commerce and resurrected it as a single-family household, but 39 still has apartments available, provided you have a few million dollars to burn.
Though it’s one of the younger bucks on block, 50 Commerce isn’t lacking in history. This 18-family apartment building was built in 1912 by William H. Paine for the St. John’s Realty Company. Its most famous tenant was the photographer Berenice Abbott, who kept a studio on the fourth floor from 1935 to 1965.
Though she dabbled in portraiture, photographing James Joyce, Jean Cocteau, and neighbor Edna St. Vincent Millay, her most important contribution was working for the Federal Arts Project in 1935 on a series of over 300 photos entitled “Changing New York.” Her deep focus and sharp contrast brought an almost noir-like beauty to her subjects, stunning but never sentimental. She focused on the beautiful and varied textures of New York architecture, not just skyscrapers, but barbershops, automats, cheesemongers, gunsmiths, and elevated trains. Here she is describing her tactics:
“The concern is not with the architectural rendering of detail, the buildings of 1935 overshadowing all else, but with a synthesis which shows the skyscraper in relation to the less colossal edifices which preceded it: city vistas, waterways, highways and means of transportation; areas where peculiarly urban aspects of human living can be observed;; city squares where the trees die for lack of sun and air; narrow and dark canyons where visibility fails because there is no light; litter blowing about a waterfront slip; relics of the age of General Grant and Queen Victoria where these have survived; the onward march of the steam shovel – all these things and many more comprise New York City in 1935.”
Downstairs, some kind of bar or tavern has been operating for almost a century. During Prohibition, Paddy Lynch ran a speakeasy accessible through a sham shoe store on Barrow Street. In 1941, Portuguese chef Manuel Neves opened the Blue Mill Tavern, a traditional American steak-and-chophouse that also served Douro reds, frango a mamarrosa, and caldo verde. A giant windmill decorated the outside, while the inside was dominated by mahogany booths, frescoes of the port of Delft, and a blazing blue ceiling that gave the restaurant its name. Served a la carte, you could get a decent meal for $1.30. New York Magazine called it perfect for “whenever the Big City excitement begins, uh, to wear thin…the kind of authentic, true-saloon decor that nostalgia is made of.”
The Neves family operated the Blue Mill for over 50 years, serving everyone from Eugene O’Neill to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and even George Hunter White. After passing from Manuel to his son Alcino and then grandson David, the tavern closed its doors in 1992. Today, it’s the overly-priced cocktail bar Fifty, but you can still see a cluster of painted tiles depicting a Portuguese windmill left over from the original restaurant.
That’s it for this week, guys! Be sure to check in for future Block Parties, and don’t miss the Block Party for Doyers Street, “The Bloody Angle.” And if you want to learn more about the West Village, consider signing up for one of my West Village Ghost Tours!