This week and next, we present a series of longer pieces unraveling the histories of storied buildings.
At the end of the 19th century, Ernest Flagg had a vision. Educated in the École des Beaux-Art in Paris, the young architect came back to New York in 1890 wanting to “reform the barbaric housing standards of the day.” Then he met banker and philanthropist Darius Odgen Mills, and before long Mills House No. 1, an inexpensive hotel for working men, opened in Greenwich Village in 1897.
It was a place for men seeking employment, a revolutionary concept at the time. Built in the fashionable area just south of Washington Square Park, the hotel had the look of a luxurious building from the outside but inside, it was divided into 1,560 rooms of 5-by-7 feet each. The idea was that providing affordable lodging would empower young men and keep them from other undesirable activities.
Today, all that’s left of Flagg’s vision is an old sign that reads “Mills House n1” in majestic font, at the entrance to the Atrium, a luxury co-op at 160 Bleecker Street, between Thompson and Sullivan. There, a one-bedroom apartment goes for $3,800 a month, a good $700 over the average Greenwich Village rent.
For years, the Village has been known for its noise complaints and buzzing culture. And Bleecker Street has a history of high creative density. Even though only a few jazz and comedy clubs remain, the area’s artistic origins can be traced back to when Bleecker Street was not even Bleecker yet.
During most part of the 19th Century, this part of Bleecker Street was named Depau Row. There, six identical houses commissioned by Francis Depau soon deteriorated into boarding houses known for hosting artists. Jump a half century later, and Mills House n1 would occupy the lot. The cheap accommodation soon attracted artists of all kinds—from novelist Theodore Dreiser, at the turn of the century, to Allen Ginsberg in the 1950s.
In 1958, music impresario Art D’Lugoff rented the basement of 160 Bleecker, when it was still Mill House n1, and opened the Village Gate. Some of the hottest talents of the 20th Century performed in that basement: Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Aretha Franklin, and Miles Davis, to name a few. D’Lugoff also contributed to the comedy scene in the Village, securing a stage for names like Bill Cosby, Mort Sahl, Woody Allen, and John Belushi.
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A French-born businessman, Francis Depau first arrived to the United States in 1807 and lived in Charleston, South Carolina. In 1840 he bought the block between Sullivan and Thompson Street, on the south side of Bleecker. Some say it was this Charleston influence that made him build the houses in the Depau Row with their long second-floor verandas. It certainly distinguished them from others in the area.
As Richard Grant White wrote in The Century magazine in 1883, Depau had envisioned the row for “people of a certain and identical social standing, and that they should be hereditary family residences.” The idea was to build elegant houses and by making them hereditary ensure the stability and long history of the old estate mansions in an urban setting. After all, not far from there, there was the estate of Richmond Hill where George Washington, John Adams, and Aaron Burr had once resided. And on the same Bleecker Street stood Van Nest place, an estate once owned by British naval officer, Sir Peter Warren. His was the last farmland in the Village.
But those grand dreams, as White noted, eroded fast. In less than 20 years, the house where New York nobility had been guests at lavish balls had become a slum house. “The attempt failed,” wrote White, “partly because of the uncontrollable movements of the various currents of population; partly because of its social design was incongruous with the spirit of the country.” Bleecker Street wasn’t ready to become the home of the American aristocracy.
Soon, the rich families started to move uptown, and when the widow of the Depau, Sylvie deGrasse, died in 1871, none of the initial families remained there. In the 1869 city directory Nos. 1, 4, 5 and 6 Depau all were listed as boarding houses.
In 1958, Thomas Gunn wrote, in The Physiology of New York Boarding-Houses, “Bleecker-street is, par excellence, the street of Boarding-House. What tenement is not a shop may be safely assumed as devoted to the accommodation of the boarding public.” And most boarders were artists. About one of these Bleecker boarding houses, Gunn wrote, “Dropping in on an evening, you might find yourself the amazed center of a half a dozen temporary lunatics indulging in the wildest of gymnastics over chairs, beds, and tables.” This seemed to portend what would later come to the block: a thriving center for artists.
During the last two decades before the Depau Row houses were demolished, stories of criminality in the houses were common. “A Strange Story” was the headline of one of the last news reports from the block during that time. Published in 1879, the New York Times item reported that Frank Leon, a variety actor living in one of the Depau Row apartments, charged that two men entered his apartment in the middle of the night, sedated his wife with chloroform and robbed her. But the police found incongruences between the accounts of husband and wife and ended up dismissing the case. Another report in the Times two years later told of a cigar-stealing plot that ended in a shooting in front of one of the houses.
The property had been pretty much abandoned to the homeless when millionaire Darius Odgen Mills acquired it to build the Mills House n1. As the New York Observer and Tribune described it in 1896, it was “one of the worst slums of the city.”
But Mills and Flagg rapidly turned the place into what Scribner’s Magazine called “a palace at twenty cents a night.” And that was precisely what they had in mind. Mills was set on running the place as a business and expected to make at least a moderate profit from the venture. At the same time, he believed that providing affordable housing—and luxuries such as washing rooms or good restaurant food—to single working men would be a social and personal benefit.
For his part, Flagg was appalled by New York’s most deplorable living conditions. In an article published in Scribner’s Magazine in 1894, two years before Flagg was commissioned to build Mills house, he wrote, “The greatest evil which ever befell New York City was the division of the blocks into lots of 25 x 100 feet. So true is this, that no other disaster can for a moment be compared with it.” Many New Yorkers who’ve lived in a narrow East Village tenement apartment would probably agree.
Perhaps Flagg was exaggerating with his statement, but his legacy would leave a mark on the architectural history of New York. As Christopher D. Brazee noted in a 2003 Landmark Preservation Report, Mills House is “an important example of Reform Era housing, meant to improve the living condition of the city’s working class and that helped inspire legislation that influenced the design of countless early 20th century tenement buildings throughout Greater New York.” It also was instrumental in influencing the 1901 Tenement Act.
Likely inspired by what he had seen in Europe, Flagg advocated for 100-foot-wide buildings with a central light court. Now known as the Atrium precisely for the central open structure that allows natural light in, the Mills House n1 was notable for its efficient use of space. With fewer wall enclosures and partitions than the typical tenement building, it provides larger room space, light, ventilation, and better fire protection.
But once more, the building’s pretensions of luxury eroded. The music impresario Art D’Lugoff remembered the place as “the largest derelict—bum’s hotel in the City.” But that allowed him to get a good rate for the basement, and so he spent a year refurbishing it to become the Village Gate.
“I went on and opened up the Village Gate, and we didn’t know what we were going to do there,” explained D’Lugoff in an interview with Trudy Balch in 1993. The Gate started off as a venue for D’Lugoff to bring in artists who couldn’t find other performance venues. D’Lugoff was very interested in the folk movement and brought in acts that other music venues would not book. “There was a little bit of fear and fright,” D’Lugoff said. “It was still part of the McCarthy period.”
He managed to book many of the best musicians of the era. Jazz legends such as John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk all performed at the Gate. But D’Lugoff’s instincts weren’t always right. He famously turned down Bob Dylan in an audition. “I looked at him as a second rate Woody Guthrie because I wasn’t too familiar with him as a composer.” Some argue this pushed the young singer to sit at the back of that basement and compose some of his best songs.
The Gate became so popular that D’Lugoff could afford to expand it to the upper levels of the building. He first opened the Top of the Gate upstairs, and later on, a street-level terrace for jazz.
The club became popular for its eclectic offerings. As D’Lugoff told the New York Times in 1988, “I used to put together a lot of unlikely combinations to appeal to a bigger audience.” He added, “Once we had Nina Simone, Dick Gregory and Larry Adler all on the same bill and had so much trouble deciding who would open that I went across the street and hired a guitarist.”
A combination of bad investment and cultural shifts in the city finally brought an end to the Gate era. Like many such clubs in Greenwich Village, in 1993 the Village Gate was shuttered.
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Today, the spiritual successor of those crazy musical years is the eclectic (le) poisson Rouge, next door at 158 Bleecker. The club-slash-restaurant started with D’Lugoff as adviser before his death in 2009 and now offers a range of activities, from jazz to bingo.
On a recent Sunday evening, a friend and I met at LPR for a chamber music concert. We joined a confused crowd of middle-aged men in ill-fitting suits, and tourists, cameras in hand, all struggling to understand the bouncer who was telling them to move to the side. They hardly resembled the young fans of Jack Kerouac, Billie Holiday and Bob Dylan of days long gone.
The basement is now half the size it was in the days of the Gate. Purple, green, blue, and red lights illuminate the space, and a disproportionately small disco ball hangs from the black-painted ceiling. At the end of the concert, after renditions of Bach, Debussy, and Prokofiev, the harpist requested more light. “Any color really,” he said, “but I need light to read the score.”
After the show, as I exited and came back onto Bleecker Street, I noticed a funky sign that hung above the 24-hour CVS next door, where the jazz terrace of the Gate once stood. The sign, with marquee letters that don’t light up anymore, reads: “The Village Gate.” As if time had stopped, two shows remain perpetually on display: “Jacques Brel’s 25th anniversary” and Penny Arcade’s “Politics, Sex & Reality.”