This week, we continue our series of deep dives into the histories of storied addresses.
The imposing façade of 434 Lafayette Street, one of the remaining buildings in the historic Colonnade Row, evokes an earlier, more prosperous time. Its Corinthian columns, tall and grandiose, are wrapped in a protective mesh to prevent disintegration. The marble, extracted in Westchester County and cut by convicts at the Sing Sing correctional facility, continues to decay under the sun.
Many can imagine a storied past, but few would suspect that this site once housed an amusement park, the most coveted residential building in all of New York City, the offices of a prominent religious weekly, and one of the first off-Broadway theaters. Today, it is the Astor Place Theater, where the Blue Man Group got its first theatrical run in 1991, and has been performing continuously ever since.
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The earliest land records indicate that Richard Perro of Bergen County, New Jersey, owned a farm in the territory framed by present-day East 4th, East 8th, Broadway and Lafayette. Upon Perro’s death in 1767, the remaining members of his family—his widow, Anne; his son, John; and his two daughters, Rachel and Elizabeth—divided the farm into four parts. John, being the only son, inherited the first lot, described as “fronting upon and bounded by the highway on Bowery Lane.”
John Perro kept the land for another two years and then sold it to John Brandon. Two years later, Brandon sold it to Jacob Sperry, a Swiss physician credited with the development of the first botanical garden in New York City. The land would stay within the Sperry family until Johann Jakob Astor, a merchant who arrived to the United States in 1783 from Southwest Germany, bought the lot for the impressive sum of $22,500 in 1804.
Astor, who anglicized his name to John Jacob, leased the site to Joseph Delacroix, the creator of the Vauxhall Gardens in New York City. In 1806, Delacroix relocated his famous gardens to the Bowery and for the next 21 years, the Vauxhall Gardens became “a very popular resort in which diversified entertainments were given, including balloon ascensions.” Modeled after the eponymous pleasure garden in London and a precursor to the modern amusement park, the Vauxhall Gardens attracted many visitors, many of whom came to see “the most spectacular Fourth of July fireworks.”
The patriarch of the Astor family, however, had a more ambitious project in mind. Once Delacroix’s lease expired in 1826, Astor commissioned the construction of a street in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette, the French general who led the Americans to victory during the Revolutionary War.
Lafayette Place sliced through the Vauxhall Gardens and would soon house yet another monument of gratitude to the marquis: La Grange Terrace, a dazzling row of nine townhouses named after Lafayette’s country estate in France. Construction began in 1831 and ended two years later. Experts debate whether Colonnade Row—as the gargantuan building on Lafayette Place was later known—was the work of Alexander Jackson Davis, a New York architect, or Seth Geer, a contractor and developer from Albany who may have hired Robert Highman, an Albany-based architect, to design the rowhouses.
Michael Rayhill, a Pratt graduate who wrote his thesis on Colonnade Row and recently offered a conference titled “Holiday Traditions in 19th Century New York” at a private residence in Colonnade Row, believes that it was a collaboration between Davis and Geer. He mentioned Ithiel Town’s—Davis’s partner at the architecture firm Town and Davis—trip to Europe and the inspiration he drew from the unified terraced residences at Regent’s Park in London. Town brought the concept of the colonnade to a city that was eager to express its grandeur through its architecture. “Colonnade Row was the poster child for what this new New York wanted to be,” Rayhill said.
Built in a Greek Revival style, Colonnade Row was one of the first buildings to boast an indoor plumbing system with hot and cold water. The monumental building rapidly attracted the crème de la crème of New York society. Astor made it his official residence and bequeathed “the house and lot on Lafayette Place” to his estranged daughter, Dorothea Astor Langdon, upon his death. The Gardiner family—proprietors of Gardiner’s Island off the coast of East Hampton in Long Island—were also among its notable residents. Shortly after their secret wedding at the Church of the Ascension, Julia Gardiner, “the most dashing belle of the day,” and President John Tyler, the “first president to be married in office,” welcomed their guests at the Gardiner mansion in June 1844. Even the writer Washington Irving, who wrote “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” took up residence in his relative’s home at 33 Lafayette Place for many a winter season.
The city’s changing fortunes would eventually bring the downfall of Colonnade Row, but its descent came more quickly than anyone could have expected. By the 1860s, Colonnade Row lost appeal as commercial ventures on Broadway encroached upon its once fashionable residential cul-de-sac at Lafayette Place. Seeking more exclusive real estate, wealthy residents, including an elderly Astor, moved uptown. This exodus signaled the area’s demise as a tony enclave, but it ushered in an era of unprecedented urban development for the next century.
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A career in civic engineering presumably led Marshall Hubert Mallory of Watertown, Connecticut, to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. Although he did not lose interest in the field—he filed patents for many designs, including a garment retainer, a collar button and, more prophetically, a theater stage—Marshall abandoned such plans the day he graduated college in 1865. With a newly issued passport in hand, he set out to travel the world, but not before he revived a defunct religious publication with his older brother.
The Rev. Dr. George Scovill Mallory was born in 1838 and graduated from Trinity College in 1858. He obtained a degree in theology from the Berkeley Divinity School in New Haven in 1862 and was ordained immediately after. Three years later, he was invited to take charge of the Connecticut Churchman, an Episcopalian weekly that had been out of print for 60 years. Along with his brother, who would become the publisher of the Churchman, the Mallorys established the Church Press and set up their printing offices in Hartford.
But the Connecticut days of the Churchman were numbered. A fire in its headquarters would force Marshall and George to change course. In 1876, a year after he received an honorary doctorate in Sacred Theology from Hobart University, George bought the lot at 47 Lafayette Place—the easternmost townhouse in the row—for $30,000. The Churchman had found a new home in New York City.
And then, disaster struck again. On the afternoon of Nov. 14, 1879, a boy rushed to the Engine No. 33 firehouse on Mercer Street to inform the captains that the circus—Lewis B. Lent’s “New York Circus” at 728 Broadway—was ablaze. Police officers and fire department officials flocked to the site and later ascertained that “the fire had originated in an L-shaped building in the rear of No. 47 Lafayette-place,” right behind the offices of the Churchman. No deaths were reported, but Miss Fogarty, one of the many female employees working at the Churchman when the fire broke out, slid down a rope to safety, which left her with “terribly lacerated and burned hands.” The brothers would lose $60,000 worth of equipment—about $1.3 million in today’s money. The itemized list of damages states that the goods were “fully insured.”
Yet another tragedy would visit the Churchman with the apparent suicide of the janitor’s wife, Annie Braessner, a woman who had “shown signs of mental derangement.” Nonetheless, the Episcopalian weekly thrived. It was as comprehensive in scope as any newspaper of the day: the Churchman published letters to the editor, essays written by prominent reverends, event recapitulations and announcements. The Churchman company even printed the “Manhattan Series,” a collection of New York City-themed souvenir postcards with accompanying text, “secured from early literature and from other sources after long research and in consultation with writers of authority.”
George would edit the Churchman until his death in 1897. “As a critic, he was acute and judicious, and nothing escaped his penetrating discernment,” read a full-page obituary published in the March 13 edition of the Churchman. He could not have foreseen that 15 years later, another man of equally penetrating discernment would bring the New York chapter of his beloved publication, which became one of the most important religious publications in the United States, to a close.
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Silas McBee grew up in Lincolnton, a small city outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. An Episcopalian layman with a penchant for religious architecture—he drew up plans for a quadrangle in his alma mater, the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee— McBee succeeded George Mallory as the editor of the Churchman.
At the time, Lafayette Place was bustling with movement. In 1893, a proposed extension of the street, which ran between Astor Place and Great Jones, was approved. In 1902, William E. Finn purchased the westernmost part of Colonnade Row—the former site of the Colonnade Hotel—and demolished five of the nine townhouses that Geer had built. Two years later, John Wanamaker paid a million dollars (roughly $26 million in today’s dollars) for the plot of land and in 1906 declared his intention to build a three-story arcade with 14 stores and 60 offices. By then, Lafayette Street ran from City Hall to Astor Place and 47 Lafayette Place would henceforth be known as 434 Lafayette Street.
Meanwhile, the Churchman continued to circulate, and McBee gained further recognition in the city’s important religious circles. The Brooklyn Herald described him as a “very forceful speaker and an authority on Church Law” when it advertised his conference at the Church of the Messiah on Jan. 15, 1905. He became an influential editor who held a variety of posts within the Episcopal community including vice president of the Brotherhood of Saint Andrew, the oldest religious organization of the Episcopal Church.
With President Taft’s blessing, McBee joined John R. Mott, the general secretary of the World’s Student Christian Federation, on a “Bible-promoting” trip to Europe and the Near East in January 1911. The two men spread the Christian gospel at various European universities and attended the federation’s 10th annual conference at Robert College, a private high school in Istanbul, Turkey. McBee even had an audience with Tsar Nicholas II with whom he discussed plans to strengthen ties between Russia and the United States.
Upon his return, McBee published An Eirenic Itinerary: Impressions of Our Tour With Addresses and Papers on the Unity of Christian Churches. In the “Introduction,” he writes that his trip was “one in a long series of efforts, covering many years, to know the mind and genius as well as to understand and to feel the spirit of the dismembered sections of Christendom.”
Yet, McBee’s efforts to unite Christians around the world did not play as smoothly within the Episcopal congregation in New York City. Dissatisfied with its “editorial policy” and more specifically with McBee’s writing—he had criticized the Trinity Corporation’s decision to close St. John’s chapel, a small parish in Trinity Church, in 1910—wealthy Episcopalians set out to buy the publication and effectively lock control of the content in 1912.
Roland Mallory, Marshall Mallory’s nephew and the vice-president of the Churchman Company, denied any rumors about potential changes in management, but Marshall agreed to sell the Churchman. He and McBee retired in 1912 and McBee would go on to found and edit the Constructive Quarterly, “a journal of the faith, work, and thought of Christendom,” the following year. Episcopal laymen bought the Churchman and offered the editorial position to Rev. Edward T. Sullivan, the rector of Trinity Church in Newton, Massachusetts.
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History doesn’t remember Helen Tamiris as forcefully as some of her contemporaries like Merce Cunningham or Agnes DeMille, but Tamiris, who at one point led her own dance company, became the chief choreographer of a New Deal initiative known as the Federal Dance Theatre. The decision to join was not a hard one. As she wrote in a letter, “the knowledge of being wanted by the nation, paid for by the nation along with other artists and arts of our country, meant a true coming of age.”
The federal venture, started in 1936, lasted a short three years until conservative members of Congress objected to the provocative nature of some of its productions. That brought Tamiris to the basement of 434 Lafayette Street, which she converted into a studio theater, and where she reopened her school.
Dance recitals soon followed, and on April 20, 1941, she premiered her “Liberty Song,” a work inspired by music and lyrics from the American Revolution. Her production was so successful that Tamiris credits it as her entry point into the “commercial field”; it caught the eye of John Roy, the director of the legendary Rainbow Room in Radio City, where almost a year later, Tamiris would début at that venue with “American Themes.”
A ballet in four parts, each named after a song from the revolutionary era—“What a court hath old England,” “My days have been so wondrous free,” “Bunker Hill,” and “Ode to the Fourth of July”— “Liberty Song” was revolutionary in the world of dance and a classic iteration of American themes. A decade later, Tamiris admitted to Walter Terry in an interview that “‘Liberty Song’ had to me a kind of joyousness in the truth of what wonderful thing independence is.”
Tamiris didn’t witness 434 Lafayette’s transformation into a theater, but she laid the groundwork for the many off-Broadway productions that were to follow.
Nearly twenty years later, on Jan. 12, 1962, Dermot McNamara, an Irish actor and producer of the Irish Players, wrote to Peter Reidy, the Commissioner of Public Works, with an urgent request. McNamara desperately needed the commissioner to approve plans for the construction of an off-Broadway theater at 434 Lafayette Street in time for the opening of a new play in the spring. “The entire project will loose [sic] its value to us if we are not able to proceed soon,” he wrote.
That June, Warner Willcox of New Rochelle, the owner of 434 Lafayette, sent a letter to the Department of Buildings declaring his intention to build a theater in the basement of his property. On Mar. 5, 1963, he filed a final certificate of occupancy and three weeks later, “Call it Virtue”—a play based on Luigi Pirandello’s “Man, Beast, and Virtue” —premiered at the “pleasant” Astor Place Playhouse. In October, the actor Philip Bruns performed the role of “Mr. Simian” in Sheppard Kerman’s eponymous production. The New York Times theater critic Lewis Funke called it “a play of significant meaning” and it won its protagonist the Obie Award for Best Distinguished Performance in 1964.
In 1965, the newly established Landmarks Preservation Commission landmarked 434 Lafayette Street, in addition to the three remaining townhouses of the original Colonnade Row. The report describes the ensemble of buildings as “one of the treasures of our architectural heritage” and “a superb example of civic-minded planning.”
That same year, Bruce Mailman and his partner John Sugg bought the Astor Place Playhouse and its adjacent lot and built the Astor Place Theater. Mailman—who owned the Saint, a legendary nightclub that catered to the gay community, and the New Saint Mark’s Bath, a bathhouse that the City of New York shut down over public health concerns about the spread of AIDS—produced many off-Broadway shows at the Astor Place Theater, including the provocatively titled “The Dirtiest Show in Town.” A satirical comedy featuring nude actors and actresses, the show brought its director, Tom Eyen, “his first significant commercial success” in 1970.
For 26 years, the Astor Place Theater has exclusively hosted the Blue Man Group’s award-winning show. In 1991, the New York Times wrote in its first review that their tricks “bring an element of untrammeled infantile sensuality, the pre-verbal joy of goo and finger painting, to the theater.” Since then, the brainchild of Chris Wink, Matt Goldman, and Phil Stanton has expanded to other American cities such as Boston, Orlando, Chicago, Las Vegas; toured the world (they performed in Tel Aviv last August); and reached more than 35 million spectators. In July 2017, Cirque du Soleil bought the Blue Man Group as part of a plan to “diversify its productions and expand globally.”
Pete Simpson, the longest-running Blue Man in New York—he has been with the group since 1996 and currently works as a Blue Man trainer—said that he feels “honored” to perform at a storied venue like the Astor Place Theater. Simpson admits that there is not enough talk about what was in the theater prior to the Blue Man tenure and credits the “formidable impact” of the show as one of the reasons why the Blue Man Group and the Astor Place Theater are “entwined as one.” When he was training, Simpson found a program for a “Mump and Smoot,” a show featuring two Canadian clowns that Simpson reads as a “foreshadowing” of the Blue Man Group’s arrival. “Before, there was A.R. Gurney, and Israel Horvitz and all these playwrights,” Simpson said. “And suddenly there’s this turn towards performance art and clowning just before Blue Man got there.”
Simpson, who works frequently in experimental theater, attributes the timeliness of the show to its cultural influences (from Charlie Chaplin to Buster Keaton), its resonance (he mentioned that less than half of the original production has changed over its 26-year run), and the blend of “acting work” and “clown work.” He cites the words of a critic to summarize the ethos of the production. “No matter when you see it, Blue Man is going to be ahead of the curve, it’s always going to seem post-everything,” he said.