This week and next, we present a series of longer pieces unraveling the histories of storied buildings.
She shot him in the chin. Sigmund Bohn was on the third floor of Café Boulevard when Mary Olah materialized in front of him and pulled the trigger. It was December 20, 1904.
The sound of the gunshot startled the patrons in the Hungarian restaurant on the ground floor of the building at the southeastern corner of Second Avenue and 10th Street. Shock turned into dismay when Bohn came barreling down the stairs. “Murder!” he yelled. There was blood on his face. With napkins and tablecloths, customers tried to staunch the bleeding. No one seemed to worry about the possibility of a murderer still on the premises. A policeman arrived in time to hear the firing of two more gunshots and raced upstairs to find Olah unconscious on the floor. She had shot herself in the stomach; her clothes had caught fire.
Olah was an “unusually pretty” girl who had moved to New York from Hungary a year before, the Boston Daily Globe reported. Bohn had promised to marry Olah. He waited tables at Cafe Boulevard, where Olah worked as a domestic in the restaurant’s pantry until she learned that he had neglected to tell her that he had a wife and two children at home. When she made the discovery, Olah’s frantic outburst in the restaurant cost her the job.
Olah was spared the dishonor of dying a murderer; Bohn survived the shooting. She did not. Passion and betrayal drove her to suicide. “I can’t help it. I love this man,” she wrote in the note she left for her sister, Esther. “And the thought that he is another’s is more than I can stand. I can’t allow anyone else to love him as his wife does. I therefore have decided that he must die and I must die with him.”
Olah was not the first or the last woman to wage a struggle in the building that stands at 156 Second Avenue. Their steps have built the history of what is now a Chase Bank branch located diagonally across from St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery. The site was originally part of the farm of Peter Stuyvesant, Dutch Director-General of the colony of New Netherland; by the end of the 19th century it had become a popular dining establishment. It has seen it all: servants in distress, showgirls and suffragettes. Stories of passion, defeat, success and self-affirmation. As the Lower East Side transformed and embraced Yiddish theater culture, the venue was the natural setting to the everyday dramas of women struggling to find their place in a changing world.
Café Boulevard (not to be confused with Boulevard Restaurant, a 1930s gambling joint a block south of the venue) was an institution on the Manhattan restaurant scene. “In this ‘Classic Bohemia’ there is enough to delight the heart of the most exacting connoisseur of ‘atmospheres’,” declared the authors of the “Where and How to Dine in New York” guide in 1903. The San Francisco Chronicle claimed that the Prince of England had dined incognito in the restaurant and opera singer Mary Garden once sang from the top of a table as Wilfrid Laurier, the Prime Minister of Canada, offered enthusiastic applause. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt was said to be a regular visitor, and he did attend at least one dinner in his honor there.
One of the restaurant’s main attractions was its renowned Hungarian orchestra with the “languorous, passionate, yet lonely appeal” of its music. The other was its circular staircase, a graceful spiral rising from the floor that “seemed to float in air, so delicately had it been balanced and so exactly had it been turned,” as the New York Times described it at the time. The stairs, the same Bohn had rushed down after Olah shot him, were there long before Ignatz H. Rosenfeld, a Hungarian immigrant, took over the building in 1896. The land upon which Café Boulevard stood had remained in Stuyvesant hands until the first half of the 19th century. George W. Bruen, a director in various financial institutions and a trustee of New York University, subsequently purchased the plot. Construction works began shortly after; a house much celebrated for its grandeur and good taste was the final result.
By 1845, Bruen had officially moved to 152 Second Avenue, the original address of the site (it subsequently became 156 Second Avenue). In 1850 Jonathan H. Ransom, the wealthy owner of a shoemaking firm, gained possession of the property and two adjoining buildings and moved in with his whole family. With eight girls to marry off, life at Ransom House must have been halfway between a Jane Austen novel and Downton Abbey, without the stress of having to ensure an heir to the estate (that was Aaron Price Ransom’s role). When Ransom’s daughter Georgiana married Walter W. Law in 1866, the man was already working as a clerk for luxury carpet company W. & J. Sloane. Georgiana had undoubtedly married well; her husband would become partner and then vice president of the firm. Ransom died in 1864; two of his sons-in-law, his son Aaron and brother, Warren, took over the shoemaking company. In 1879 W.A. Ransom & Co. declared bankruptcy.
As the Ransom fortune dissipated between business failures and alcoholic heirs, a new chapter opened in the history of the building. In 1885 William Stampfer started leasing part of the building and opened Café Manhattan. As the new tenant moved in, the neighborhood was undergoing a radical transformation. For most of the 19th century, Second Avenue had been a quiet residential street attracting distinguished residents like the Winthrops and the Rutherfords. But in the 1960s, an “exodus” of affluent families began. The area went quickly from exclusive to working class. “The dreaded boarding house arrived, the small cafe, and worse,” a 1920 article in the biweekly Unity complained. Café Manhattan found itself at the heart of the German quarter, and German and Hungarian immigrants made up most of the clientele. It was on the premises of the café that, on the evening of February 24, 1896, two men fought a chess duel over the hand of a young woman named Clara. Baron Eugen Von Ottenkron and his rival, Otto Erlanger, started playing chess in one of the upper rooms.“But the game seemed so interminable that I asked if it would ever end. ‘Don’t disturb us,’ said Ottenkron. ‘This is a serious matter’,” The Alexandria Gazette quoted Stampfer as saying. When the game ended, Ottenkron was pale and shaky; he had lost. He left threatening to kill himself, but it’s unclear whether he actually committed suicide. One has to wonder what Clara would have thought of the two men and their decision to play a chess match over her future, and whether anyone had even asked for her opinion.
Stampfer did not stay at what was by then 156 Second Avenue for long, moving Café Manhattan across the street. In the meantime, Rosenfeld had acquired the property, renovating it from the ground up and changing the name to Café Boulevard. In a short period of time, the restaurant gained positive reviews. Their bread and Hungarian coffee regularly garnered accolades. “This place is always popular with a certain Bohemian set who sits for hours over their dinners enjoying the well-cooked meal and the delicious, often high class, music,” Ethel McClintock May wrote for The Atlanta Constitution in 1901. A September 1906 issue of Town & Country magazine also credited Café Boulevard for being the “first town al fresco restaurant” in New York after establishing a dining area in the backyard. Rosenfeld had to remove the outdoor structure after the Buildings Department deemed it illegal.
Al fresco dining or not, nothing seemed to stop Café Boulevard’s upward trajectory. “In a short time the place became renowned,” another issue of Town & Country proclaimed in March 1904. Rosenfeld renovated, expanded and brought the prices up. The café had morphed into yet another “large modern restaurant.” Yet, the establishment remained anchored to old practices. On a Sunday evening in the summer of 1900, Rebecca Israel, a “quiet, neatly dressed” girl hoping to enjoy a meal, walked into Café Boulevard. “Unfortunately, there would be no six-course dinner for Miss Israel that night,” Michael Lesy and Lisa Stoffer commented in their book Repast: Dining Out at the Dawn of the New American Century, 1900-1910. In line with the customs of the time, Rosenfeld had a strict policy against serving unescorted women. Israel had to leave, but decided to fight back. She sued Rosenfeld for discrimination, basing her argument on the State of New York’s civil rights bill of 1895. In 1903, after various appeals, her case was dismissed.The rave reviews of the restaurant made no mention of Café Boulevard’s discriminatory practices. Instead, the Where and How to Dine in New York guide preferred to rhapsodize over its red marble dining room, paprika chicken and “Tokaj” wine. Only a year after the book’s release, Olah would bring the dark note of tragedy under the high ceilings and dome light of the establishment. That case too would soon be forgotten. But the curtains had yet to close over the dramatic act of Café Boulevard. Enter: Evelyn Nesbit and the “Cafe Boulevard incident,” as newspapers named the episode. That time, journalists could not just let go.
Nesbit was a popular model and showgirl, known above all else for her legendary beauty. Illustrator Charles Dana Gibson immortalized her handsome features in his Gibson Girl series. She was also at the center of an infamous murder case that shook the country’s high society at the onset of the 20th century. The story was the perfect mix of insanity, jealousy and passion, seemingly made to capture an audience’s imagination. In 1906 Nesbit’s rich, abusive and obsessive husband, Harry Thaw, killed the architect Stanford White on the rooftop of Madison Square Garden. The man, who designed the Washington Square Arch and the original Pennsylvania Station, belonged to a generation of architects who would redefine New York’s architectural landscape in a permanent and iconic way. The group also included Emery Roth, designer of buildings such as the San Remo and Warwick Hotel. He also happened to oversee the renovation and expansion of Cafe Boulevard that Rosenfeld commissioned in 1907.
After White’s murder, Nesbit recounted in court the circumstances that had led to the architect’s demise. She had accused White of raping her at 16 and–the source of Thaw’s rage–later becoming her lover. Nesbit stood by Thaw at the murder trial, but by 1908 the two were said to be ready to part ways. Newspapers reported that witnesses had seen Nesbit (by then Mrs. Thaw) dining unescorted at Café Boulevard with banker E.R. Thomas. “This incident, it is said, had furnished Harry Thaw and his devoted mother with the excuse they had been waiting for to rid the family of the younger Mrs. Thaw,” the Chicago Tribune reported. Both of the involved parties issued denials, even though journalists spent days verifying the accounts of various witnesses who had identified both Nesbit and Thomas.
By the time of the incident, a jury had declared Thaw not guilty on account of insanity and sentenced him to incarceration for life in a hospital for the criminally insane. In 1913, he escaped the hospital. Police apprehended him in Canada in 1915 and he was extradited back to the United States. A new trial found him not guilty and no longer insane. After his release, Thaw announced his intentions to divorce Nesbit, on accounts of desertion. Nesbit married her dancing partner a year later.
After the “Cafe Boulevard incident,” controversy continued to plague the establishment The prestigious free-thought group Sunrise Club, founded by Edwin Cox Walker, would hold regular meetings and heated discussions in the space. Legendary anarchist lecturer Emma Goldman would often be in attendance, often drawing crowds with her talks. On the evening of December 6, 1909, members of the club gathered to discuss whether women should be allowed to vote. One Mrs. Owen Kildare spoke about the importance of solidarity among women and condemned the use of violent methods in the fight for suffrage, The New York Tribune reported a day after the event. A navy captain said “he had heard of the women called the Sufferinettes” but he did not think the time was ripe yet for women to vote.But times were changing, in more than one way. In 1913 Rosenfeld left the place and moved his restaurant to a new location on Broadway. 156 Second Avenue began operating under new management and with a new name: Café Boheme. On May 22, 1914, a group of 500 women gathered in the restaurant. No men were present. “There were writers, artists, women of wealth, a few suffrage leaders, and women interested in labor movements and philanthropy,” the New York Times recalled. They were all there to meet a feisty 82-year-old lady clad in dark clothes, with ruffles around her neck and wrists. Her bright eyes twinkled behind gold-rimmed glasses. “The agitator,” her detractors would call her. At Café Boheme, Mother Jones spoke for almost two hours. “I don’t believe in the rights of women or the rights of men, but human rights,” she said. “No country can rise higher than its women, and I don’t need to see the mother to know what she is. I can tell when I see the man she has raised. And there are not as many good mothers as there should be.”
Celebrity guests, however, did not bring the new restaurant durable success. The building changed hands again, this time to the Poughkeepsie Savings Bank in 1915; the Stuyvesant Square Realty Company subsequently acquired the property and announced plans to replace the old Ransom house with a six-story apartment building with elevator. It was the beginning of the end. “Wreckers had torn down the staircase with a soul and laid bare its secrets in their work on the old Café Boulevard, at Second Avenue and Tenth Street, which is being razed,” the New York Times lamented that November.
For years after the demolition, 156 Second Avenue lost the allure that had drawn bohemian crowds a few decades before. Where once stood Ransom House, the new owners erected a tenement building. The sole attractions were a millinery shop and a woman’s clothing store that for a while occupied the ground floor. Only a young and hopeful mind could have seen the promise behind the bricks.
In 1950, Abe Lebewohl, a 19-year-old Polish Jewish immigrant arrived in New York to chase the cliché of the American dream. Working hard at a Coney Island deli, he saved enough money to buy a tiny luncheonette at the corner where Café Boulevard once stood. The Second Avenue Deli opened for business in 1954, a family-run operation with Lebewohl at its helm. The proud patriarch was later killed in a robbery; in 2006 a lease dispute forced the remaining members of the family to relocate to 33rd Street (the Chase Bank branch subsequently took its place). Until then, the deli delighted hordes of customers with its knishes, kugels and an entire room devoted to Molly Picon, the darling of the Yiddish theater scene.
After World War I, Yiddish culture had flourished on Second Avenue. Between the 1920s and the 1940s, establishments such as the Orpheum and the Yiddish Art Theater bestowed a new identity–and the “Jewish Rialto” nickname–upon the neighborhood. For a while the area pullulated with writers, actors and artists; restaurants and cafes provided the ideal setting for intellectual conversations. By the 1970s most of the theaters had shut down or abandoned their Yiddish roots, but the area continued to be emblematic of the Jewish Lower East Side, Ronald Sanders wrote in his book The Lower East Side.
Lebewohl contributed significantly to maintaining the memory of the Yiddish theater’s heyday alive. The “Yiddish Walk of Fame,” a series of star-shaped plaques he embedded in the sidewalk outside The Second Avenue Deli, remains visible today. The composition commemorates the most important figures of the Yiddish theater, including Picon.
A longtime friend and customer of Lebewohl, Picon was a comic actress with a penchant for tomboyish characters and quick-witted replies. “You have a theater named after you?” she once told actress Helen Hayes. “Big deal. I have a room at the Second Avenue Deli.” With its kosher delicatessen, Lebewohl had succeeded at reawakening the exuberant and jovial soul that at animated that corner of Second Avenue and 10th Street at the turn of the 19th century. Still, something had changed. Decades after Clara, Olah, Nesbit and the suffragists, drama and struggle had given way to joyfully heaping portions of corned beef and pastrami. Women could eat alone or in company, whenever they pleased. When Chase Bank moved into the building, it certainly lost whatever remained of its bohemian charm. But at least now a woman could run the branch office. Or even the whole company.