This week, we continue our series of deep dives into the histories of storied addresses.
Death! Destruction! Dutchmen! The history of one intersection in the East Village features murders, kidnappings, and a few famous names. Now the Spotted Owl Tavern occupies ground level at the northwest corner of Avenue A and 13th Street, the latest in a long line of bars at that location. There’s been a watering hole in that space (well, a saloon or maybe a bierpalast or a nightclub) for over 125 years, exempting, legally speaking, the unfortunate period between the 18th and 21st amendments.
At eye level outside, an oval window protected by some intricate cast iron sparked my curiosity about the building’s past. The window floats alone in the middle of eight feet of a flat grey wall, with no relation to any symmetry or balance of the architecture. Inside, its ledge holds dusty curios and holiday decorations.
But before we get to the gang stabbings or the quacks or the Socialists, we need some context.
The Lenape people had been in the area for about three thousand years. Then the Dutch came and essentially, um, encouraged them out — at least those who hadn’t yet died of disease or starvation. Then the British invaded. Huzzah!
Pieter/Petrus/Peter Stuyvesant was the last Dutch director-general of New Netherland before he surrendered the land to the English in 1664. To ensure a peaceful transition, the Brits gave Stuyvesant a massive and swampy tract of land: between 23rd and 6th streets and 4th Ave and the East River. Stuyvesant happily retired on his bouwerij –– the Dutch word for farm — dotted with rolling hills, natural ponds, and plenty of room to breathe. It might as well have been Mars to the inhabitants of the East Village today. But that’s how it lasted for a while.
Don’t believe me? Check out the 1769 Ratzer map below or the New York Times article about it.
Seeing the rapid growth stemming from the town of Manhattan, the Stuyvesant family decided to develop their land. Naturally, they would cultivate around the paths already used throughout their sprawling property. You can see the beginnings of that plan above. In 1811, however, the NYC Commissioner in 1811 had different ideas.
For the two years before the bold plan for the development of Manhattan, John Randel Jr. and his merry band of surveyors traipsed around the island looking for hills to raze and ponds to fill. He was 20 at the time and guided by an unfortunate belief in “spiritual transformation through mathematics” and “egalitarianism through uniform geometry,” as Marguerite Holloway writes in her biography of Randel. An only slightly modified version of Randel’s plan erased whatever orchards and farm layouts the Stuyvesants had at the time. The sole arboreal survivor was a pear tree that became famous in its own right, as the “oldest living thing in New York.” It lasted on the corner at 13th and 3rd Avenue until a cart crashed into it and killed it in 1867, at age Really Old. No word on the fate of the horse.
Below, you can see the difference between the Stuyvesant’s plans and that of Randel.
Our building would have been at the intersection of Nicholas William and Cornelia Streets instead of its bland current address of 211 Avenue A. But the family didn’t lose all the fights. In this interactive map, you can see how the orginal commissioner’s plan called for the demolition of all of Stuyvesant Street. (That was the rear of our block.) The street survived, but only as a three-block fragment of its former glory. And then that once bustling thoroughfare became the dividing line between the inherited estates of Peter Gerard Stuyvesant and Nicholas W. Stuyvesant, the sons of yet another Stuyvesant.
Ole Nick lived in the middle of his estate in his family’s mansion that was built before the Revolutionary War. Such old world stateliness was no foe for Randel’s kind of gridded, reckless progress, however. In 1829, Nicholas Stuyvesant ceded that portion of his estate to the Street Committee of New York. The mansion was soon demolished.
It must have been a stressful time as Nick died a few short years later in 1833. His widow, Catherine Livingston Reade, and all of her children decided to divide the estate and sell chunks over time. The children were Peter, Nicholas William Jr., John Reade, Gerard, Robert Reade, Joseph Reade, Catharine Ann, Helen, and Margaret Livingston Stuyvesant. Our building belonged to his son Peter, not his father Peter. It’s confusing.
One of the last familial owners of Block 441, Lots 35-38 was the future 16th governor of New York Hamilton Fish, Nicholas William Stuyvesant’s nephew. Hamilton’s father, also Nicholas, was a revolutionary war hero and friend of Alexander Hamilton. Named after him? No idea. Check out this family tree for help mapping it out.
Nicholas Fish and Elizabeth Stuyvesant’s granddaughter, Edith Stuyvesant Dresser, married into the Vanderbilt family and eventually spawned Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt. That eccentric heiress moved to Paris in 1936, dyed her hair pink, and changed her name to Nilcha. But that’s a story for another time.
Because now we get to focus on the flurry of characters who lived in our building and possibly looked through our window. In the mid 19th-century, the sheer number of German immigrants earned the neighborhood the name Kleindeutschland, or “Little Germany.” By 1855, this area of Manhattan was the third largest “German” city in the world.
In the 1880 Census for our plot, however, you can see an influx of Irish as well. Let’s meet a few of the tenants. William Busch, birthplace Bavaria, claimed his profession as “Lager Beer Saloon.” (Couldn’t find the connection to Adolphus Busch, the German immigrant beer magnate in St. Louis, other than German-ness and lager beer.) One apartment over, Flanagan Martin, birthplace Ireland, listed his profession as “Huckster.” On second thought it might have been his wife Fanny who spoke with the census worker. Either way, I hope all three got past the language barrier to share a few laughs over a pint.
The best part is, grabbing a beer would have been very easy to do. Remember, 211 Avenue A seems to have always had a drinking establishment on the ground floor. (Now it’s actually two bars, The Spotted Owl Tavern and Laundry Service.) That may be what drew, in 1896, the Monroe Eckstein Brewing Company to expand from its main operation. Or maybe they just wanted out of Staten Island.
Either way, that was likely the grog that gang leader Tony Souvehan drank when he went to the 1890s iteration of the bar. The papers just call it Sol Wijucker’s saloon. We know this because, well, gang members hung out there and shot each other.
A bit north of the territory Tony Souvegan’s Blue Row gang had claimed, a separate Rag Gang held the area between 31st and 42nd streets. A frightened 1890 edition of The Press tells how the Rag Gang were “particularly active in robbing people who pass through the streets, in house burglaries, in piracy, and in knocking out policemen.” Cops usually stayed away, but foolishly brave cops got beaten or shot.
In 1898 Joseph Mahoney, alias “Red Manny,” was the Rag Gang leader. He made the short walk from his home to the saloon 211 Avenue A. Then, with what must have been a Al-Capone-meets-John-Wayne snarl, he ordered “the best drink in the house, see!” Immediately he was recognized. Souvehan and other members of the Blue Row gang “asked Mahoney to treat them, but he declined,” the New York World reported.
If Red Manny thought demanding a free round was bad manners, he likely felt similarly about the various stab wounds he left with. But he survived to return the very next night. Along the way he bumped into Officer Michael Haggerty and asked the policeman for company, as “there might be trouble.”
And, even though this time Mahoney did buy a round for everyone in the bar, a fight broke out anyway. After getting smashed over the head with a bottle, Mahoney drew his pistol and shot Souvehan’s friend, Robert Crowley, in the gut. Officer Haggerty, realizing that there had indeed been trouble, chased Mahoney down the street. In the struggle Haggerty got shot in the hand but managed to detain Mahoney until help arrived.
When he found Crowley survived, Mahoney told reporters “I’m sorry he ain’t dead! The trouble with that gun is that it’s only a thirty-two. If it had been a thirty-eight it would have been different.” In the following investigation, the saloonkeeper denied there had been any kind of fight.
A few years later, in 1902, New York City tried to clean things up. The Health Department fined Charles Seidenberg, resident of our building, $50 for selling adulterated milk. That’s about $1,500 dollars in today’s value for adding plaster of paris and powdered chalk to get a more than natural mileage out of a gallon of udder juice. This wasn’t long after the swill milk scandal that killed nearly 8,000 infants in the city. Apparently cows fed with residual mash from nearby distilleries and kept in squalid conditions produce milk of less than appealing quality.
The New York Times described swill milk as a “bluish, white compound of true milk, pus and dirty water, which, on standing, deposits a yellowish, brown sediment that is manufactured in the stables attached to large distilleries by running the refuse distillery slops through the udders of dying cows and over the unwashed hands of milkers . . . ” Charles definitely should have known better.
Twelve years later, a different Charles — tenant Charles Gone — got sent to the infamous penitentiary on Blackwell’s (now Roosevelt) Island. The armed 17-year-old robbed a bar only two blocks away from home. That briefly held payload of $33 landed him four years and eight months behind bars and cost him a $1,000 fine. What he couldn’t pay he had to make up in time served, one day for each dollar. The maximum sentencing was handed down by Judge Otto Rosalsky, a prominent member of the rapidly growing Jewish community.
Just after that, Mrs. Maria Tanebianco, the 73-year-old wife of a chandelier maker, was beaten senseless in her apartment and robbed of $1,000 in jewels, worth about $252,899 in today’s money. It was the third of a similar string of robberies in what was becoming a rough neighborhood.
It’s a good thing that the Socialists arrived in full force in 1918 to clean things up. The building served as one of three headquarters for the Socialist party of the 14th Congressional District. To “enliven” the spaces, New Yorker cartoonist Art Young donated a few of his pieces. The very biased New York Call brandished the “steaming, bubbling, active, thoroughly alive” socialism of the district. In 1918, the newspaper, lauding the district’s female canvassers, could truthfully call women citizens “voters” because New York State had amended its constitution to give women the franchise as of Jan. 1 of that year.
The Socialist candidate for Congress Scott Nearing lost to Republican Fiorello LaGuardia in that race. Nearing wrote an essay in which he was critical of American participation in World War I and was subsequently arrested under the Espionage Act. The rest of his life is pretty amazing, but unfortunately that all happened elsewhere.
Over the next few years, our building’s tenants continued down their unfortunate paths. You can blame the fractions within the Socialist Party, but obviously people stressed about Prohibition in 1920. On that note: say goodbye to our friends at the Monroe Eckstein Brewing company.
During this time doctors were allowed to “prescribe” alcohol. Naturally, that created a boom in quacks. In 1923 Ottorius Menmoli, of 211 Avenue A, was arrested for practicing medicine without a licence. The New York Tribune described how Menmoli offered three different diagnoses for Ida Heidelberger and was brazen enough to accept payment each time. “On one occasion Menmoli tapped the lung of his patient to draw water, but drew blood.” That “oopsie” led to poor Ida’s death at only 20 years old.
But you didn’t need a doctor to find an escape. On June 2, 1925 a patrolman found a hat and coat in the center of the Manhattan Bridge just after midnight. Inside the pocket, a note signed Bernard Piasecki, 211 Avenue A:
To my wife: “I am leaving the world on a long delayed trip forever, but some day we will meet again. I was a failure in the world and I am leaving it as I had nothing to love but you, my son and mother. God bless you dear and the same to my son and mother, and all I have loved. I remain your loving husband” — BERNARD PIASECKI.
Turns out his mother never accepted his new bride. After he got laid off, the stress was just too much.
Just before Prohibiton’s end in December 1933, a reporter followed city officials as they walked the neighborhood to forcefully evict what were known as Home Relief Bureau Cases. That was an aid system set up after the Great Depression. Unfortunately, it wasn’t perfectly regulated and led to discretionary evictions. The Daily Worker detailed counted seven evictions, one of which was 211 Avenue A. The two children in the house were “chased into the street” before the furniture was removed and the house padlocked. The reporter called each case “a tale of extreme need and suffering.”
This was five months after a famous eviction of artists at Paradise Alley, only two blocks away. Those evictions led to riots.
But three cheers for more beers. Turns out the return of booze relaxed things a bit, at least from the lack of violent headlines related to the building. That changed in 1974 at one of those wonderfully seedy East Village bars your parents warned you about, the Mongoose Club. Manager William Harvey was arrested for his role in a kidnapping ring. In William’s defense, he admitting kidnapping “dope pushers and underworld characters.” I wonder if his victim “Fat” Steven Monsanto would agree with the characterization.
After a few more iterations (Mongoose Club couldn’t cut it without William, it seems), the bar became the Boysroom until 2007. Though it wasn’t a strip bar, it got fairly frisky. One particularly amusing Yelp review: “if you think shaking your package in my face or on top of my drink is going to get you a tip, think again.” It was a pretty raucous space in the gay party scene. Current bar lore whispers that the owners changed the exterior wall to make way for a “secret” side door. I imagine to do so they had to move an old window. There it is!
More recently, in 2013, the building sold to the Kushner Corporation at 666 Fifth Avenue, as part of a $128 million, 17-building deal.
Regardless, poor Jared can’t seem to manage the stress of NYC real estate and his multimillion dollar mortgages. He sold his flagship 666 Fifth Avenue and our lovely building has been wracked with complaints and violations recently.
Hopefully he manages to keep it standing for another 150 years. I can’t wait to hear the stories of the people looking through our window.