All week, we’re bringing you a series of deep dives into the surprising histories of storied addresses. Back to our usual after the New Year.
If you walk past 177 Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village and see a middle-aged guy in black clothes and a flowing red cape making a horn sign with both hands, watch out for the multi-dimensional mayhem about to be unleashed.
To us mere mortals, 177 Bleecker may be a stately Queen Anne-style apartment building that rises five stories above a busy Manhattan street. But in the Marvel universe, the building has long been the home of Dr. Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme who’ll be played by Benedict Cumberbatch in a hotly anticipated film. Since Marvel introduced the master magician to the comic world in the 1960s, he has lived in his Sanctum Sanctorum at 177 Bleecker Street, and much of the universe-threatening action perpetrated by the forces of darkness against our unsuspecting world has taken place within these walls.
According to the South Village Historic District Designation Report, the current building dates back to 1887. It’s the work of Alexander I. Finkle, a New Orleans-born architect and builder whose other noteworthy designs include a synagogue at the corner of Lexington Avenue and 72nd Street. But Finkle seemingly did his best work on private residences. He was responsible for a row of Queen Anne houses in the Upper West Side/Central Park West Historic District, but only one of these is still standing. He also designed two German Renaissance Revival style tenements in NoHo, as well as another two in the East Village. But in Greenwich Village, the buildings at 171, 173, 175 and 177 Bleecker Street are today his most visible legacy.
Early history & James H. Paine the Miser
Details are sketchy about the building that preceded the present-day 177 Bleecker, but the designation report notes that the houses on the street were part of “an affluent residential area in the early 19th century” whose rise “began in earnest during the 1820s and 1830s, when unprecedented growth pushed the limits of the city northward and – for some four decades – made the blocks of the historic district one of New York’s most prestigious residential neighborhoods.” Some of the houses even had pretentious sounding names, such as Carroll Place, but if 177 Bleecker had one, it does not seem to have survived.
One of the few existing documents about the former building is a curious New York Times clipping from 1886 about a former resident named James H. Paine, who lived and died in the building’s attic in 1885.
Paine was an old “miser” (so termed by the Times), who was either a music critic or avid music fan, and made the news when the then-substantial sum of $40,000 was discovered in his attic room after his death. He died just before Christmas and was buried on Christmas Day 1885. The newspaper did a follow-up on him a year later.
Paine had interesting ancestry. He was the grandson of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Robert Treat Paine, a fact that the Times found noteworthy enough to include in its one-year follow-up. The newspaper listed the “atheist Thomas Paine” as another ancestor, although a detailed biography of Robert Treat Paine by a contemporary merely states that the ancestors of both men came from the same region of England.
One thing that’s somewhat more clear is that the Bleecker family, for whom the street is named, had something to do with the house. According to the Designation Report, the Bleeckers acquired the land in the late 1700s from the Bayard family, which had ambitiously acquired that and other property in South Manhattan during the previous century. Anthony Bleecker and his wife signed overthe land on which 177 Bleecker now sits to the city in 1808.
And lest we New Yorkers get too contemptuous when seeing those Southern mansions depicted in Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind, the designation report clearly states that slave labor was commonly employed in many of the estates in South Manhattan. In fact, Nicholas Bayard, the patriarch of the family, not only had slaves, but “was also a merchant who participated in the slave trade.” Little wonder that Dr. Strange has so many malevolent specters to fight.
Anthony Bleecker, on the other hand, seems to have been primarily a developer with a flair for literature. He regularly published his prose and poetry, and even garnered a nice compliment from the noted American poet William Cullen Bryant: “Anthony Bleecker, who read everything that came out, and sometimes wrote for the magazines, was an amusing companion, always ready with his puns.” An amateur writer could certainly be made to do with a bleaker epitaph.
At any rate, Bleecker was either directly or indirectly responsible for the houses that once existed where the 177 Bleecker Street apartment building now does. In fact, the association also notes that Bleecker personally requested the street that now bears his name to be widened to 60 feet in order to better accommodate and showcase the stately residences that were springing up. These houses were built in the Federal style, which the association explains featured “brick facades laid in Flemish bond pattern, which alternated a stretcher and a header in every row and allowed a linking of more expensive face brick with cheaper, rougher brick behind.” Whatever else one can say about the old house at 177 Bleecker Street, it is obvious that Paine found himself a nice attic in which to die.
Why did the creative minds at Marvel Comics decide on a century-old stone building near the New York University campus as the fictional residence of Dr. Strange? According to the former editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, Roy Thomas, the answer is pretty simple: he and famed comic-book artist Bill Everett lived there in the mid-1960s.
“The address which is now listed over its doorway as ‘177’ Bleecker Street was, in 1965-66, ‘177A’ Bleecker Street,” Thomas said in an email interview. “At one time I thought it was Bill who had used the address for Marvel’s hero magician Dr. Strange, which he sometimes drew and I sometimes wrote. But I later realized it was I who had done it. Dr. Strange lived in Greenwich Village, according to the comics, so, despite the impossibility of his unique mansion fitting into that space (but he was a wizard, right?), I gave it that address.”
Thomas and Everett moved into an apartment on the second floor in July of 1965. After about half a year, they left owing to a rent dispute with the landlord, but have kept the address as the domicile of Dr. Strange for almost 50 years now.
“My wife Dann and I appear in front of that doorway and even inside the building (I hadn’t been inside since 1966) in the Travel/Discovery Channel special Marvel Super-Heroes’ Guide to New York City that was filmed in 2003 and on TV in 2004,” Thomas added.
If James Paine was indeed related to the famous pamphleteer and author, then 177 Bleecker Street has been home to more than one literary descendant. The aforementioned Marvel artist Bill Everett — or William Blake Everett — was a descendant of the great British Romantic poet William Blake. Everett was no slouch in the imagination department either, having been the creator of Prince Namor the Submariner and co-creator of Daredevil, according to Thomas.
Frozen Yogurt War: Pinkberry vs Red Mango
In 2007, probably even to Dr. Strange’s surprise, there suddenly were long lines out the doors in front of his Sanctum Sanctorum. 177 Bleecker experienced its most hectic era when the frozen yogurt chain Pinkberry opened a franchise on the ground floor in the early 2000s.
Bleecker Street became a major battlefield in the Frozen Yogurt War, as the New York Times coined the rivalry, when competing chain Red Mango began peddling its wares three doors down at 182 Bleecker Street. While not the usual mystic-dimensional caliber of a Dr. Strange tale, the yogurt war itself could have been a more prosaic episode from an Archie comic book, with Jughead at the counter, of course, scooping the frozen provender and hammering the cash register. Or, think about it: “Yogurt madness” motivated hoards of aficionados to descend upon the supposedly hidden lair of Dr. Strange, not to do battle with the dark forces of evil, but instead to lift their spoons in the eternal battle of the beltline. Red Mango could have been a villain’s name in another Marvel series.
It’s hard to declare a victor in those Frozen Yogurt War on Bleecker Street. Red Mango seems to have had an edge in Yelp! reviews, earning four out of a possible five stars, against only three for Pinkberry. But Pinkberry was able to stay in business three years beyond Red Mango’s closure in 2009.
Today, both firms have closed their Bleecker Street locations; in place of Pinkberry is a convenience store whose proprietor is unaware that he daily treads the hallowed magical enchanted ground of the master magician.
Necromancing Toward the Future
There’s nothing surprising about businesses in busy New York neighborhoods coming and going, but what does intrigue an investigator is that there should be such continuity in the literary connections of such an otherwise nondescript residential building. The South Village Historic District Designation Report does not even mention famous former residents of the building, although it does highlight the names of literary and other cultural figures who have been associated with nearby sites. Given that 177 Bleecker has been home to a presumed relative of the author of Common Sense, a famed writer of fantasy comics, and an equally famous artist and creator whose own ancestor was responsible for Enitharmion and Nobodaddy, it’s little surprise that the demigod Dormammu will occasionally show his flaming face at 177 Bleecker.