This week, we continue with our series of longer pieces unraveling the histories of storied buildings.
It’s a little after seven on a Friday night, and the narrow basement of 6 St. Marks Place is heaving with booze and bodies. A young man juts his phone over his head and, like a digital periscope, slowly pans the room, recording the clusters of people huddled around the 56 arcades lining the walls. For countless other ‘90s kids, his enthusiasm is unsurprising. “Dude, they have Mortal Kombat!” he gushes, “I used to love that game!”
Barcade is a chain of seven bars across the East Coast that house a vast collection of preserved retro arcade games. The venue on St. Marks Place first opened in 2004 as a place “dedicated to the ‘90s,” and indeed each arcade game here stands like a totem to a cherished childhood. It’s not uncommon to overhear people reminisce about hard-won battles waged by Ms. Pac-man, evading those conniving blue aliens in Galaga, and that time they almost saved Princess Peach from Bowser.
This is an odd moment in the building’s life—6 St. Marks Place has never been one to look to the past. For most of its history, the characters who have woven their lives into its five stories harbored high-minded notions of revolution, anarchy and even subterfuge. Often, it has been a refuge for outsiders, a place where vagrants found solidarity. This single plot of land has also invited some mighty intense police scrutiny.
Peter Stuyvesant never could have imagined that his rural oasis would one day house a future bastion of the counterculture. Sent to New Amsterdam by the Dutch West India Company in 1643, the “Redresser General,” as he was called, had a reputation for strict, uncompromising leadership. When he first landed in Manhattan, he sought to lead the settlers “as a father governs his children.” But Stuyvesant always resented the immorality he saw in this adopted family of New World citizens, and quickly worked to escape the wickedness by transforming the 300 acres north of the company town into his own private bouwerie, or self-sufficient farm. In her book St. Marks is Dead, Ada Calhoun suggests the plot where St Marks Place now stands was once Stuyvesant’s pear orchard.
When Stuyvesant died in February 1662, ownership of his Bowerie farm fell to his descendants, each of whom expanded the territory by buying land in adjacent lots. By the time the Revolutionary War came and went in the mid-18th century, Peter Stuyvesant’s grandson, Petrus, was working to build his meadowland into a thriving city, hiring a surveyor to etch out streets into his family’s grounds. To each street, he the assigned names of various family members. The street he named “Nicholas William” falls roughly where St. Marks Place is today. In 1805, when Petrus died, his son Peter Gerard built the Petersfield mansion on its eastern block, between modern-day First Street and Avenue A. It was one of the few structures on the street in that period.
It took the ambitious real estate developer, Thomas E. Davis, to bring Petrus’ dream to fruition and fully transform the area past the Stuyvesant’s farmland escape. He happened on the three blocks bordered by Third Avenue and Avenue A, called East 8th Street, in the 1830s, and worked with the Stuyvesant family to develop the neighborhood for the New York elite. Naming the street St. Marks Place after the local church, Davis built a row of townhouses in 1831 on both its eastern and western stretch.
In many ways, Davis’ decision to christen the street “St. Marks Place” portended its turbulent future. According to the Coptic tradition, Saint Mark the Evangelist travelled to Alexandria in 61 A.D. to bring Christianity to Africa. Seven years later, the pagans of the Egyptian city, resenting Saint Mark’s attempts to convert them, fastened a rope around his neck and dragged him through the streets until his death. As Saint Mark found, change can often be seen as a deliberate act of aggression—and no building conveys this quite like the one on 6 St. Marks Place, where failed acts of dissent seems to plaster its walls.
But all that would come later. In Davis’ time, developing St. Marks Place was nothing more than a lucrative financial plan, cementing his status as a “far-seeing man.” One of the first owners of the newly erected 6 St. Marks Place was the merchant Samuel David Rogers, who bought the building and three adjacent houses for a cool $56,000. Just like that, St. Marks acquired the the up-and-coming reputation it sought.
Like Stuyvesant before him, the author James Fenimore Cooper, of Last of the Mohicans fame, sought escape when he first took up residence at 6 St. Marks Place in 1834. He spent his winters in the Davis townhouse, becoming the neighbor of the son and widow of Alexander Hamilton at number 4. Cooper was trying to shake off a series of attacks published against him in the newspapers, which had inspired in him a great “distrust of public opinion under the Republic.” He vowed to abandon the literary life altogether, and, as Appletons’ Cyclopaedia of American Biography explains, “was no longer in sympathy with the restless spirit of progress.” He eventually left the city on a more permanent basis to live in his family mansion in Cooperstown.
Cooper wasn’t the only one to leave St. Marks for a more pastoral scene, and by the time the Civil War broke out, St. Marks had lost much of its exclusive charm. Starting from the 1850s, many of its wealthy residents began to move farther north, and the once elegant single family homes became multiple dwellings, clubs and commercial institutions. With the construction of Cooper Union, Astor Place and Tompkins Market, St. Marks Place became more commercial. In 1878, just by the eastern corner of 6 St. Marks Place, where Ray’s Pizza now stands, the Third Avenue Railroad went up.
Most of Davis’s townhouses—including the one at 6 St. Marks Place—did not survive into the 1900s. French flats and tenement houses replaced them. Developers reimagined 6 St. Marks Place as a functional commercial venue, though its occupants didn’t always share this vision.
On a chilly Thursday evening–January 5, 1911 to be exact–a mass of New York’s anarchists, socialists, and radicals were celebrating just 3 blocks north of St. Marks Place at Webster Hall. Prof. Bayard Boyesen of Columbia, and Leonard Abbott, the president of the newly formed Francisco Ferrer Association, along with Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, announced their plans to build the Ferrer Modern School at 6 St. Marks Place. Abbott proclaimed to the assemblage that this anarchist school, the first of its kind in the country, would teach “revolution in education,” a kind of institutionalized subversion.
The rest of New York was unsure what to make of their plans. A January 7, 1911 New York Times article said this “exotic school” was importing revolutionary European values unnecessary for “the people of this country [who] do not feel that they are born into such conditions.” A week after the event, Boyesen told the New York Times that the Modern school would not impose any doctrines on its students, but rather intended to “train the rising generation to be free men, if we allow them to develop without being blunted by the drill which is now called education.”
A “conversational bomb” was how the newspaper described his speech, decrying the school’s “dark designs.” Soon after this interview, Boyesen lost his tenure for his radical ideology and affiliation with the school. The school itself would hold meetings to free detained Mexican refugees, lecture on women’s rights, and generally scheme on how to inspire revolution on New York’s streets.
Suspicion and fear of “radicals” reigned in pre-war New York, and ironically, the anarchists’ desire to propagate their values through the Ferrer Modern School would make it easier for police to target and arrest them. Goldman would write, “The New York activities resulted in a number of arrests, among them that of Becky Edelshon and several boys from the Ferrer School. . . . On being convicted, [Becky] had declared a forty-eight-hour hunger strike in protest. It was the first time a political prisoner had done this in America.”
The school moved three times in the span of just eight years, and municipal documents reveal that the city’s Joint Legislative Committee to Investigate Seditious Activity, often called the Lusk Committee, sent a “special agent” to its campus in 1919, which was now at East 12th Street. Although Abbott and the rest of the school’s founders insisted that it stood for “higher ideals,” the special agent found that “Morality, such as we understand it to be, has no place in their scheme of things.”
Soon after the committee hearing, city authorities shuttered the Modern School. At 4 a.m. on December 21, 1919, Labor Department authorities gathered Berkman and Goldman, along with 249 identified radicals, into ships known as “Soviet Arks” and deported them to Finland.
If the Modern School represented the emerging progressive spirit of New York’s European immigrants, in the following years the building would house a much more disaffected population.
The St. Marks Baths were established at 6 St. Marks Place in 1906. The Russian and Turkish bathhouse not only served local residents in dire need of hot water, but also acted as a halfway house and restaurant for some of the city’s drifters.
A World War I veteran named Samuel Weinberg, the son of Russian immigrants Meyer and Rebecca Weinberg, had settled in a predominantly Jewish area of the Bronx, where he met and married his wife, Fannie, and fathered their two sons, Elliot and Herbert, as told by records at New York City Municipal Archives.
The Weinbergs lived a comfortable life far away from the lively bustle of St. Marks Place. But when Samuel lost his job as a salesman in January 1934, things began to unfurl. Six weeks later, in the early hours of March 6, Samuel was at the bathhouse at 6 St. Marks Place. He slipped his leather belt around his neck. Later that day, an attendant discovered his body, hanging from the bathhouse ceiling.
There were no other known suicides at 6 St. Marks Place, but it was the site of murder, violence and other untimely deaths. In 1923, two men dressed as sailors strangled a woman named Elizabeth Berry at the candy store just across the street. In 1955 an ex-convict, who had lived in the baths for five years, was shot to death by three unknown gunmen. The same year, another 85-year-old man was found in the building’s locker room with mysterious burns on his scalp, back and legs. And then, of course, there was poor Samuel Weinberg.
Amid these gruesome departures, the St. Marks Baths also served as a discreet and unofficial meetup spot for gay men in the city. Andy Milligan’s 1963 film Vapors was set at St. Marks Baths, and depicted an unconsummated locker room encounter between two strangers. The film is more of a meditation on loneliness than on the lives of the city’s gay men, and comes close to portraying the true nature of 6 Marks Place, liberating, but at the same time, not.
By the 1970s, St. Marks Baths had embraced its edgy reputation. In 1979, its owner, Bruce Mailman, announced the baths would become formally, exclusively gay. He rechristened the so-called “pornographic palace” The New St. Marks Baths.
At the New St. Marks Baths, men could rent a locker for $7 or a room for a few dollars more, and could cruise the four floors in search of partners. Jay Blotcher, a towel boy at the baths in 1983, kept a diary during the time he worked at the baths. He quipped, “I’m basically the desk clerk at the Sex Hotel.”
But this was also the era of the AIDS epidemic, and the city’s gay bathhouses soon came under fire. New city regulations introduced in 1979 obliged the baths to hand out condoms and flyers on safe-sex to its patrons. But fear had already spread, and attendance at the baths dropped dramatically. On Februrary 25, 1983, Blotcher wrote in his diary, “In the Age of AIDS can I really afford to handle cum-and-crap stained sheets and overturned bottles of poppers?”
Mailman struggled to keep the New St. Marks Baths safe and profitable. He offered a defense in a statement to the New York Times on October 14, 1985: “Am I profiting from other people’s misery? I don’t think so. I think I’m running an establishment that handles itself as well as it can under the circumstances.”
Mailman, and others in New York, would heavily criticize the city’s response to the AIDS crisis, charging that its officials had targeted the gay community without acknowledging the significant steps its members were taking to reduce infection. Ralph Blumenthal in the New York Times would write, “A number of leaders questioned the fairness of government’s focusing on homosexual practices while apparently ignoring heterosexual health threats.”
But, whatever was done, it wasn’t enough. By December 1985, New York City’s Health Department had forced the New St. Marks Baths to close down. Mailman would go on to fight the closure, appealing that it was against his patron’s constitutional rights to free speech for the baths to close. In a five-page, hand delivered letter to Mayor Edward Koch, Mailman argued that closing the baths in the midst of the AIDS epidemic was like trying to “close the barn door after the horse has escaped,” and that such actions were effectively homophobic: “one unexpressed sentiment pervades this controversy, namely, the aversion that many heterosexuals feel towards homosexuals.”
This wouldn’t be the building’s final brush with the law. In 1995, a Korean business man, Yongman Kim, decided to make 6 St. Marks Place yet another niche attraction, opening Mondo Kim’s for the city’s cinephiles. Mondo Kim’s was the destination for unusual, rare and subversive films, and soon garnered a cult following in New York, not least for its snooty clerks, many of whom went on to illustrious careers in film and music.
The building never quite shook off its illicit reputation. Musician Christopher Pravdica of the band Swans, who was once a clerk at Mondo Kim’s, witnessed this first-hand. “I was working that day the FBI came in with machine guns because we had some Chinese bootlegs that they didn’t like.” This was in June 2005, where police went on to arrest five people, including Kim and manager Charles Bettis. Bettis would later testify that “all the other employees were released from there [sic] cells before me, I had a panic attack that was prompted by all this stress, not eating (jail is not really vegan friendly) nor sleeping the entire time I was in.”
But, if the history of 6 St. Marks place tells us anything, it’s that longevity for any one incarnation was never in the cards. In 2008, Mondo Kim’s shut down for good.
It was reinvention time again. Like Davis, more than a century before, developers looked at St. Marks Place and saw dollar signs. Throughout the 1990s, the area had quickly lost its disrepute, and accrued an underground charm that was now in high demand. Real estate prices shot up. A Newsday article published just this year suggests that with the end of Mondo Kims and other St. Marks quirky establishments, “the area’s crusty days seem to be receding even further into history.”
In many ways, that’s true. In 2014, four friends expanded their idea of bringing craft beer and classic American video games to East Coast cities with their Barcade brand to 6 St. Marks Place. The anarchist thinkers, clandestine gay romancers and subversive culture-snobs of yesteryear had now receded like echoes into its walls.