Like much of the block, 144 was once owned by the Stuyvesant family, but they sold the land in 1854 to James Hart, Jr. A marble manufacturer by trade, Hart turned the former farm into a marble yard, but sold it a few years later. By 1860, there was a pleasant townhouse at the corner of 9th and 2nd occupied by Dr. Michael J. Messemer. As a member of the Press Club, Arion and Liederkranz Societies, the German Democrats, and Tammany Hall, Messemer was exceptionally well-connected. No wonder he was elected New York City coroner in 1884. He lived here during much of his tenure living here with his brother, he also conducted macabre experiments in his basement laboratory. When he moved out in 1884, crowds gathered as movers carried skeletons, brain-damaged pigeons, and a rabbit with a silver feeding tube in its stomach up the block. “A live fat dog without any spleen, and a cat with paralysis of the face, due to the removal of the facial nerves, strolled over by themselves.”
In 1913, townhouses were out and movie theaters were in. Entrepreneurs Philip and Benjamin Menschel bought the land and hastily demolished the old townhouse, replacing it with the 595-seat Casino Theatre in 1915. The theater was short-lived – it was eventually demolished itself in 1928, replaced by the current building and a host of businesses. In 1928, the theater got a facelift, replaced with and all-night diner called the Dutchman. In 1937, a gang of robbers nicknamed the East Side Boys held up the joint for $3,600, shooting plainclothes detective Michael Foley on the spot.
Just a few years later in 1944, Wlodymyr and Olha Darochwal fled the Ukraine and escaped a German refugee camp to come to the United Sates. A decade later, they opened a small candy shop at the corner of 2nd and 9th on the site of the old Boulevard Restaurant. They named the shop Veselka, or “rainbow.” In 1960, the couple purchased the small luncheonette next door and began serving pierogis, borscht, and blintzes.
Veselka quickly became popular with the influx of beatniks and bohemians who could enjoy a platter of pierogis and a cup of strong coffee for only $1.60. (The row of phone booths in the rear was a bonus, functioning as an informal office for many struggling artists and actors.) Wlodymyr apparently despised the hippies who filled his restaurant, but never threw them out, not even when an anarchist squirted him with breast milk after he objected to her nursing in public.
The Darochwal’s son-in-law, Thomas Birchard, now manages Veselka. The whole operation is staggering. Every week, Veselka makes 2,500 latkes, 5,000 gallons of borscht (still prepared by Malgorcata Sibilski as it has been for over 30 years), and a whopping 21,000 pierogis. For decades, Veselka was open 24/7, including holidays. Every Christmas Eve, Birchard serves a traditional Sviata Vecheria, a 12-course meatless smorgasbord representing the twelve disciples.
Well, that’s it, guys! Thanks for sticking with this absurdly long post. If you want to learn more about the neighborhood, consider taking one of my East Village walking tours. And don’t forget to check out previous Block Parties for Commerce Street in the West Village and Doyers Street in Chinatown.