This week and next, we present a series of longer pieces unraveling the histories of storied buildings.
Anyone who wants Veselka’s famous pierogies, borscht and blintzes on December 25 will just have to wait. For the first time in more than 60 years ago, Veselka, the 24-hour Ukrainian restaurant at 144 2nd Avenue will close on Christmas Day.
Google “best pierogies in nyc,” and what comes up first is Veselka. On weekends, there is typically an hour’s wait for brunch. Celebrities are regulars and scenes in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Train Wreck and Gossip Girl have given the restaurant standing beyond the East Village and its patrons from the Ukrainian and Polish community. And as diners sit and enjoy their meals, below their feet, the kitchen staff is hard at work in the building’s basement. Four Ukrainian and Polish women prepare thousands of pierogies per day and a Polish woman makes gallons of borscht, as she has been doing on site for more than 30 years. Others are prepping burgers, mac and cheese, and other foods while a pastry chef works on desserts.
Why the change this year? Most of Veselka’s large Ukrainian staff is Eastern Orthodox rite and celebrates Christmas in January (this season it falls on Thursday, January 7). So working “Christmas” has never seemed like much of an issue.
But as the demographics of the East Village have changed, so has the staff of Veselka and its customers. Fewer of the staff are Ukrainian now and many of those who are have spouses or partners who celebrate on December 25.
Tom Birchard, Veselka’s owner, opposed the closing. “I really like to give people who don’t have anywhere to go, a place to go,” he said. He wanted to stay open for people who don’t celebrate Christmas, and the extra earnings wouldn’t have hurt either. But too few were willing to work through the holiday. This is just one of the many ways—big and small—in which the history of Veselka and its location have mirrored the neighborhood’s story.
As it turns out, this has always been the case for whatever businesses or concerns have occupied the space at 144 2nd Avenue. With each East Village demographic shift, the building’s occupants have followed suit. Today, with the neighborhood at its economically most successful, Veselka is having a similarly good run.
But long before 144 became home to the city’s most famous pierogies, the land where Veselka stands belonged to one of the most prominent families in New York – the Stuyvesants. Governor Petrus Stuyvesant willed the land, then known as the Bowery Farm, to his son Nicholas.
The farm was divided among Nicholas Stuyvesant’s heirs but this plot at the corner of 2nd Avenue and 9th Street, stayed in the family until 1854. At that point, Augusta Stuyvesant sold it, along with the adjoining plot, for $6,950 to James Hart Jr., a “marble mantle manufacturer.” The deed contained an absurdly detailed list of conditions for the sale, including a promise that Hart and his heirs would not build or allow on their land any brewery, distillery, slaughterhouse, smith shop, forge, manufactory for the making of gunpowder or matches or soap or candles or varnish or glue or ink or turpentine. Other prohibited constructions were factories for tanning or preparing skins or hides or leather, or a bakery, sawmill, coalyard, manure deposit, horse market or cemetery. Just in case they hadn’t covered every possible option, they also added a line in the deed forbidding any other trade or business that may be “dangerous, noxious or offensive to the neighboring inhabitants.”
Hart respected the conditions of sale and used the land as a marble yard. But by the mid-19th century, 2nd Avenue had become one of the city’s most desirable addresses, with many of its wealthiest residents moving into the townhouses along the avenue. In 1860, Hart’s widow sold the plot for $5,200 and soon a large townhouse replaced the marble yard. One of the more prominent people to live in that house was Dr. Michael J. Messemer, politician, physician, and a New York City coroner. Messemer was adopted by his grandfather, the president of the German Democratic party in New York, who owned a lot of property in Kleindeutschland or “Little Germany” as the East Village was known at the time. With support from Tammany Hall, Messemer was elected to the highly paid positions of deputy coroner and coroner.
For most of his time at 144 2nd Avenue, Messemer lived in the large house with just his brother and a servant. When he moved down the street in 1884, The New York Times covered it. Crowds gathered as the deputy coroner’s curiosities, such as skeletons of a human, horse, monkey, cats and dogs, were loaded onto a cart. The reporter described living animals—presumably mutilated by medical experiments—that were also part of the move. These included a dog without a spleen, a cat with facial paralysis and a pigeon that kept flying in the wrong direction as one of the hemispheres of its brain had been removed. Messemer’s brother, Dr. Edward J. Messemer, continued to live in that house with his wife, children and servants up until the time of his death.
Towards the end of the 19th century, and particularly after the PS General Slocum disaster in 1904, many Germans left the neighborhood; Kleindeutschland faded away. This was also the time that many Jews who had left Eastern Europe moved to the Lower East Side. Among them were the Menschel brothers, who had emigrated from Austria. As the commercialization of 2nd Avenue was underway, the Menschels leased the building at 144. In 1914, Philip and Benjamin Menschel applied to demolish the townhouse and construct a commercial building. The centerpiece of the new three-story building was a 595-seat “moving picture theater” on the first and second floor. The newly constructed Casino Theatre was one of the at least six movie theaters along the lower section of 2nd Avenue.
The theater didn’t last very long. In 1928, the brothers began a complete overhaul of the building and in place of the theater came shops, offices, classrooms and a billiards parlor. After the conversion, some of the building’s earliest tenants were a stationery shop, the Greater New York Taxpayers Association, a Chinese art store, a school for Jewish children, and a restaurant with cabaret.
An incident in the 1930s thrust the building into notoriety. It was the days of the Great Depression and, on the second floor, there was a downscale all-night restaurant called Café Boulevard or “the Dutchman,” not to be confused with Café Boulevard at 156 2nd Avenue. In March 1937, after a gang of robbers stole $3,600 from the restaurant, Sam Kupperstein, the owner, asked the police to keep an eye on the place. A little after 3 a.m. on April 10, 1937, four men walked in and held up the Dutchman. Unluckily for the robbers, two of the men in the restaurant at that time were plainclothes detectives. The detectives and robbers exchanged fire; Detective Michael Foley was shot. So was a robber who escaped with the help of an accomplice. The two other robbers were arrested at the scene. The injured robber was arrested when he went to Gouverneur hospital for treatment.
The hold-up and shooting of a detective made headlines all over the state. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and the police commissioner went to visit Foley at Postgraduate Hospital. Within hours, he died of his wounds. The arrested men started naming accomplices to reduce their sentences. This led to more arrests. One of the men arrested, Isidore Zimmerman, was not at Café Boulevard that night but other accomplices accused him of supplying one of the pistols used in the hold-up.
The press nicknamed the robbers, who were all from the Lower East Side, the “East Side Boys.” A trial followed that the press covered extensively. During the trial, two of the suspects accused the police of beating and torturing them. Six men were found guilty of first degree murder, sentenced to death by the electric chair and sent to Sing Sing. “Robbery with a gun and murder are at last becoming unsafe in New York County,” proudly proclaimed Thomas E. Dewey, Manhattan district attorney (and future governor of New York and presidential candidate). But not everyone felt that way; a group launched a petition to commute the death sentences. They argued that the robbery was the result of the poverty gripping the city, an argument that must have resonated with the 35,000 people who signed the petition.
A few hours before five of the scheduled executions, Governor Herbert Lehman commuted the death sentences of Zimmerman and another accomplice. While in prison, Zimmerman continuously proclaimed his innocence. In 1962, Zimmerman’s lawyer finally proved the witness testimony against him was false. After 24 years of being wrongly imprisoned, Zimmerman was finally a free man. He sued the city but it wasn’t until 1983 that a court awarded him $1 million in compensation. In the final tragic twist to his story, he died 15 weeks after receiving the money.
During the 1930s and ‘40s, many businesses moved in and out of the building, including shops, cafes, and lunch counters. For a few months during the height of the Depression, the third floor was the headquarters of the Communist League of America where they printed their newspaper, The Militant.
After World War II came a wave of Ukrainian refugee immigration into the neighborhood. Wlodymyr Darmochwal was among the first to arrive. In 1954, he rented a small storefront at 144 2nd Avenue and called it Veselka, Ukrainian for rainbow. He sold candy, cigarettes, Ukrainian-language newspapers, anything the people in the neighborhood might need.
Once again, as the neighborhood’s demographics changed, the building had changes of its own. In 1959, after almost five decades, the Menschel brothers gave up their lease and moved on, leaving behind only an orange “M.B.” in a plaster medallion at the top of the building’s façade. As the East Village became largely Ukrainian, the diaspora community began efforts to hold on to their culture. In the Soviet Union, they had feared losing their culture to Soviet oppression. In New York, they feared losing it to assimilation. So Ukrainian immigrants formed the U.S. chapter of Plast, a Ukrainian scouting organization, to keep new generations in New York in touch with their culture and traditions. They set up an office on the third floor of 144 2nd Avenue. In 1964, the Plast Foundation bought the building and the land it stood on for $67,500. Plast became Veselka’s new landlord.
After the political refugees came the influx of artists into the neighborhood in the 1950s and ‘60s and for a time in the early 1960s there were performances of plays and dance in a small theater on the building’s second floor. After that, Plast also took over their space and the place quieted down, leaving the first floor as the only hive of activity.
In those days, a cheap steak restaurant, button store, repair shop, a Plast scouts uniform shop, and a credit union were some of Veselka’s neighbors in the building. As the East Village’s Ukrainian population grew, so did Veselka’s business. Darmochwal took over the steak restaurant and used that space to add a lunch counter to his store and began serving coffee, parties, soups, sandwiches, and their now famous pierogies. The entire lunch counter staff was just a few Polish and Ukrainian ladies who did everything: took orders, cooked, served the food, bussed tables and then washed dishes. At the time Veselka was almost exclusively catering to the local Ukrainian and Polish population.
When Darmochwal died in 1974, his son-in-law Tom Birchard took over the restaurant, initially continuing his father-in-law’s business model. But the neighborhood’s decline as the local drug and crime epidemic rose meant new troubles. Many immigrant families moved away. As the neighborhood descended from “working class down to welfare class, criminal class, drug addict class,” Birchard recalled, the restaurant’s phone booths became the spot for calling drug dealers. A local drug-addicted teenager robbed the restaurant a few times before he was caught. Once, a group of high schoolers and a man at the counter started picking up chairs, hitting each other over the head. Salt and pepper shakers flew across the restaurant along with the chairs, one of which crashed through a window and shattered the glass. The police came and arrested everyone but not before they had done a lot of damage.
To make things worse for business, construction began on the 2nd Avenue subway station planned for the corner of St. Marks. The sidewalk in front of Veselka was dug up and there was a trench in the middle of 2nd Avenue. When the city ran out of money, construction stopped but the street and sidewalk remained dug up. Businesses in the neighborhood struggled. “I came really, really close to going out of business,” said Birchard. “I came as close as you possibly could.”
Veselka’s business was also suffering because, with the changing demographics of the East Village, Birchard could no longer rely on just Ukrainian and Polish customers. In the middle of these financial struggles, he restructured Veselka; it had to change with the times and expand its customer base. Birchard hired a professional cook and introduced new inexpensive food items, starting with a $2 breakfast special of eggs, bacon, home fries, toast, coffee and juice. That decision helped Veselka survive its roughest days.
In the late 1970s, the city gave up on the idea of the 2nd Avenue subway, at least for the next 30 years. Construction crews restored the sidewalk outside the building and filled in the ditch in the middle of the street. Things stopped getting worse and then they got better, both for 2nd Avenue and for Veselka. In time, Veselka took over other stores on the ground floor. Over the course of the ‘80s, it stopped selling cigarettes, candy, newspaper and lottery tickets as it gradually transitioned from a shop with a lunch counter to a full-dress restaurant.
In 1983, 144 2nd Avenue seemed like a stable enough spot for Pamela Pier to open her handmade toy shop, Dinosaur Hill. Pier worked in a craft store in the same building before she started her own business, one of the only toy stores in the area at the time. The early days were also rough for her; she often had to deal with thieves and pickpockets and Dinosaur Hill had to replace its first sign because it was graffitied. But her business turned around towards the end of the 1980s. The shop eventually moved to the side of the building that opens on 9th street and she now has three times the space she had when she first opened. Today, Dinosaur Hill, Veselka and the Plast Foundation occupy the entire building.
It was 1990 when Birchard, with his son Jason, turned Veselka in to a 24/7 establishment. “I really do pride myself on staying open and being here for people,” said Birchard. After 9/11, the city asked all businesses in the area to close. Veselka stayed open. “And this place was full. People were coming in here and talking and getting over the shock,” he recalled. “It’s just comforting to get together with people in your community and just talk.”
These days, Veselka fills up with young professionals, college students, neighborhood shopkeepers, as well as tourists. And, of course, a new generation of Ukrainians. A room with large windows has replaced the phone booths and the dark back room. Displays of pastries and desserts have replaced the cigarettes behind the counter.
But there’s still a lunch counter like there was in the 1960s. And some of the faces of customers are the same as they’ve been for decades, like Patrick McDonald of Alphabet City, known as a “Dandy” of New York fashion. He started coming to Veselka in the 1970s on late nights after clubs, but only became a regular six years ago. He comes for the atmosphere, he said, for the attentive staff, the prices, and the split pea soup and bran muffins. And for the people-watching. He also loves that at any given meal he can see artists, techies, and rock stars enjoying Veselka’s food. “I’ve found my place,” he said.
Correction: The original version of this post was revised to correct the first name of Thomas E. Dewey.