This week, we continue our series of deep dives into the histories of storied addresses.
The building on the corner of East Seventh Street and Avenue A is painted vibrant yellow and blue. Inside of Miss Lily’s 7A, the theme continues with patterns and colors that reflect a diverse crowd that keeps the place buzzing past midnight on weekends.
Older East Villagers know this as the corner where 7A Cafe, the beloved 24-hour diner, held court for nearly 40 years. But, of course, the building goes back even further than that; its deeper history includes a rather odd disappearance, a supposed abduction, and a couple of memorable melees.
In 1765, Philip Minthorne divided his fan-shaped, 50-acre farm amongst his nine children. By 1803, John Jacob Astor had purchased the portion of the property that includes the present-day 109 Avenue A. It remained in the possession of the Astor family for nearly 90 years.
When Astor’s descendants decided to sell the property, Solomon Stransky, an Austrian immigrant who accumulated a fortune in the dry goods business, saw an opportunity. He acquired it through an attorney working for the Astor family in April of 1891. Conveyance and census records show there was a building on the lot, with tenants, as early as 1848. In November 1852, the Mitchell family, which lived in the building, placed a notice in the Weekly National Intelligencer seeking information about a young woman named Penny Roan. Penny, a sister to the matriarch of the Mitchell family, had been expected to arrive in New York from Ireland a month earlier but had never shown up.
That wouldn’t be the last time a mysterious disappearance occurred on the corner of Seventh and A. At the start of the 20th century, Isabella and Henry J. Muller lived in the building and ran the Lincoln Tavern on the ground floor. Property records show that they also managed lodgers. But in the summer of 1903, the couple’s world unraveled. Around the end of May, the Mullers had in their employ a porter named Simon (or Samuel, as newspapers also had it) Gein.
Mrs. Muller could not help but notice the undue attention Gein was paying to her 15-year-old daughter, Dorothy, and had fired him. Gein found new employment as a bologna maker but stopped by the tavern to visit on June 14, a few weeks after having been let go by the Mullers. After he left, Dorothy suddenly announced that she was going to visit her aunt and left the building. When she had not returned by evening, Mrs. Muller reported her disappearance to police, telling the officers about her suspicions of Gein and his visit earlier that day.
Meanwhile, came a report that a man matching Gein’s description was spotted trying unsuccessfully to register at the Pennsylvania Hotel at Third Avenue and Ninth Street and that with him was a “little girl,” whom he described as his wife. The Evening Post reported that police tracked him down just after 4 a.m. on June 15 as he was walking into his boarding house, just a couple blocks south of the Mullers’ tavern. Once arrested, Gein denied any knowledge of Dorothy’s whereabouts, saying that he, too, believed she was going to visit her aunt.
Police arrested Gein on an abduction charge. At Yorkville Court, Mrs. Muller could not contain her fury. As the New York Evening World reported, she screamed at Gein, “If any harm has come to my daughter, God help you!” and worked her fingers “convulsively” as she “tried to get her hands on Gein.” Court officers had to intervene to protect the prisoner.
Detectives working the case believed that Dorothy would return once the drama died down, but there is no further known record of her existence.
To explain why Gein paid such close attention to Dorothy, and why she went willingly with him, Mrs. Muller cited “hypnotic influence” or “hypnotic control,” the Evening World reported. At the time, the practice had dark connotations and still hadn’t moved into the light of medicine and scientific research.
In 1891, ownership of the building passed from Stransky and his daughter, Emma, to Max J. Kramer of the Max J. Kramer Company, a building and realty firm. Kramer, a Polish immigrant who began his career as a carpenter at age 10, grew his company to the point that it owned 600 buildings throughout New York City. In 1908, his company built the seven-story structure that stands today at 109 Avenue A.
Kramer’s company managed the building only briefly before selling it in 1912 to Polish banker Ladislaus W. Schwenk, who also owned the building next door. Schwenk, however, went bankrupt two years later, forcing his bank to close. The newspapers carried the sad stories of one married woman with six children who lost her life savings of $400 and a single woman whose $800 on deposit was lost. A group of Polish congregants of a Roman Catholic church also lost their savings and blamed their pastor, the Rev. John Strzelecki, who was also a cashier at the bank. He had encouraged them to bank with Schwenk so as to support a Polish-owned local business. They stood outside the bank for hours, refusing to leave.
Schwenk’s bankruptcy put the building under the city’s control until George Koch purchased it in 1916. After that, came a succession of other Polish owners: Mathew Mierzwinski, then Sophie Czecklewski, and then Jeanette Witkowsky. In 1964, Witwkowsky sold the building to the Romash Realty Corporation in 1964, which owned it for the next 47 years.
Among the building’s tenants over the years from the late 1960s until 1980, were the University of The Streets, with its mission of breaking the cycle of poverty for adolescents through education, vocation and cultural programs, and the advocacy group, The Real Great Society, which former gang members formed in 1964. Others include a jeweler, a shoe store, a furniture showroom, travel agency, clothing manufacturer, daycare center and even a silk screening firm. In 2011, Park Corner Development bought the property and has remained its owner ever since.
In the mid 1980s, 7A Café opened its doors on the ground floor and became a neighborhood staple for nearly 40 years before it closed in 2014. It adopted its name from the intersection outside its doors. In the summer of 1988, a riot erupted over a new curfew imposed on Tompkins Square Park that spilled into the diner. A report in the New York Times said that a police officer not only pushed a waitress to the floor, but pushed the restaurant’s manager, Mariana Mollichelli, before kicking her, grabbing her by the hair and dragging her into the street.
Ten years later, Glen Mauser, another employee of the café, would be featured in the press. He represented the young artist class who inhabited the neighborhood in the 1980s and ‘90s, working as the establishment’s manager by day and as an alto saxophonist by night.
Today, what was 7A Café is the second outpost of a Jamaican fusion restaurant called Miss Lily’s. Not the kind that sells Jamaican patties for just a dollar or two, but a hip spot with a damn delicious weekend brunch and a healthy juice bar.
On a recent evening, as some friends and I drank white rum cocktails there and shaked our shoulders to Buju Banton and Sean Paul, I wondered just how much of the wildly colorful and eclectic decor belonged to the cafe that was here before. This much is certain: In a nod to the building’s most recent history, this branch of Miss Lily’s is called Miss Lily’s 7A.