Sunday, October 11, 2015

201. Bedford Street: Greek Revivals and the CIA, and a badass granny selling Egyptian chandeliers.

     Recently I walked the whole length of Bedford Street, a quiet, tree-lined street in the West Village, part residential and part commercial, that runs in a southeasterly direction from Christopher Street to Sixth Avenue.  Walking it,  I discovered wonders great and small, though mostly small.  Let’s repeat that walk now and see what we can find.

     We’ll begin at the end, where Bedford  meets Christopher Street (yes, that Christopher Street) just opposite the Lucille Lortel Theater, a theater whose name invokes in me frustration and annoyance, as well as memories of leaving one of its very serious avant-garde productions convulsed in uncontrollable laughter, but that’s another story – really two stories -- unrelated to our walk today.  And by the way, why “Bedford”?  Presumably it is named for a Bedford Street in London, but no one knows quite why.

     The first stretch of Bedford Street, walking southeast from Christopher toward Seventh Avenue, is mostly residential.  At no. 113 on the right or south side of the street is a handsome Greek Revival house with a plaque telling us that it was built in 1843 for George Harrison, the saloon keeper at the nearby Northern Hotel.  (Saloon keepers in those days must have made good money.)  The plaque describes the house’s architecture, noting such features as the recessed doorway flanked by pilasters, which is typical of the Greek Revival style.  I love Greek Revival, its clean lines and elegant simplicity: a nice beginning for our walk.  And inside this handsome façade, an online real estate website informs me, the house even today, despite much renovation, retains its original custom wood, copper, and iron work, which is nothing short of miraculous, since landmarking preserves exteriors, but not interiors, of old buildings.  And what was its last listed price?  $5,950,000.  Which reminds us that charming homes on this tranquil street don’t go for chump change today.

     A little farther on, at the corner of Bedford and Grove Street, is a handsome old three-story frame house, a rarity today because the construction of new frame houses, seen as a fire hazard, was banned in 1866.  White with red shutters framing the windows, it was built in 1822 for William F. Hyde, a window sash maker, whose shop was located just across a yard in another old frame building, now a private residence, at 100 Bedford Street.  Mr. Hyde must have done well, for the city was growing rapidly, and demand for sashes for double-hung windows surely must have been in constant demand; also, the value of his property soared.  Originally a two-story house, in 1870 it added a third story and probably the Italianate-style cornice, typical of Greek Revival and brownstone houses.  I love coming this way at Christmastime, for each of the house’s 14 street-facing windows is adorned with a green wreath with a red ribbon, and if you peek in a ground-floor window on Grove Street, you can see a lighted Tiffany lamp that suggests a sumptuous interior.  I call this the Christmas House.  Whoever lives there lives in style.

    (An aside: Not everyone knows what a window sash is.  A window sash is the framed part of a window that holds the sheets of glass in place.  A double-hung window – the commonest kind of window today – has an upper sash positioned above a lower sash; the lower sash can slide upward until it is almost parallel with the upper sash.  The windows are operated with a series of counterweights in panels on either side of the window.  If the cords or chains holding the counterweights break, the sash they operate will come crashing down.  I know, because it happened to me.  On two separate occasions, single-handed, I actually replaced a broken cord with a chain, which involved removing the window from the wall, installing the chain, and replacing the window in the wall – an epic feat that I wouldn’t want ever to repeat.  Should you need to do this repair, don’t try to do it yourself; pay a professional whatever it costs and watch in wonder as they do it for you.)

     Just past Grove Street, at no. 95 Bedford, is an old four-story building with a ground-floor brownstone façade featuring what appears to be two wide-arched coach house entrances with double doors, and a smaller arched doorway originally leading, so I’ve learned, to the upper floors.  Above the two wide entrances are the engraved words J. GOEBEL & CO., and under that, EST. 1865.  And over those words there is a crest with what seem to be three crucibles flanked by ornamental curlicues.  (Not that I’m sure what crucibles are, or why anyone would need them.  Maybe I encountered them in a high-school chemistry class, but certainly not since, which injects a note of mystery.)  The façade above the ground floor is brick, rising to a boldly projecting cornice.  The building is an eye-catcher, but what is all this about?

     Accounts differ.  Account #1:  J. Goebel & Co., founded here in 1865,  manufactured crucibles, tongs, furnaces, and casting equipment, with the ground floor housing a stable.  But others tell it differently.  Account #2:  Herman Schade, a prosperous merchant in the plumbing business, built no. 95 as his stable in 1894, and perhaps leased the upper floors to tenants.   Julius Goebel arrived in this country from Germany around 1865 and, far downtown at 129 Maiden Lane, established a firm that imported a heat-resistant clay from Germany and used it to make crucibles.  Only in 1927 did the firm, now run by Goebel’s son, move into Schade’s stable, at which point the molded insignia was installed over the arched entrances.  The Goebel firm evidently used the lower floors for warehousing, shipping, and office facilities, while renting out the upper floors to tenants.

     So which version is to be believed?  The building dates from 1865 or 1894?  And the insignia from 1865 or 1927?  Various guides to the city present a conflicting jumble of facts, some even calling the building a former winery or brewery, and interpreting the insignia not as crucibles but as wine vats, and the curlicues of the crest as grape-vine tendrils, which is fanciful indeed.  So we’re on our own.

      I want to go with #1, because the insignia looks so charmingly old, so quaint.  And since you can’t really know a building unless you know the lives of the occupants, I imagine Herr Goebels to be a hard-working Teuton, beefy with a bushy mustache, who six days a week supervises his workmen making crucibles, quantities of which are dispatched from the ground-floor stable by wagons to satisfy a crying need for these mysterious items throughout the city.  Then, on Sunday, he takes his abundant family to a beer garden, where they spend the day feasting on Wiener schnitzel or Sauerbraten, clinking frothy mugs of nose-tingling lager beer, and, teary-eyed, singing sentimental songs of the Fatherland.  Not a bad life, all in all.

     Alas, it doesn’t hold up.  #2 is so well documented, so rich in detail, that I have to regretfully accept it, with the insignia dating only from 1927.  And plumbing instead of crucibles – what a comedown!  But either way, the building catches your eye.

     In 1945 poet Delmore Schwartz moved into a cold-water flat at no. 91, only a few doors away from Chumley’s, where he was soon immersing himself in alcohol.  Acclaimed early as a poet, he was haunted by the thought that he had peaked and was now in decline, which in some ways he was.  Drink and drugs would coarsen him, bloat him, and finally destroy him, a story that was repeated all too often among artists and writers in the Village.

File:Chumleys 86 Bedford St cloudy morn jeh.jpg
Chumley's today, alas.
     Chumley’s at no. 86, near the corner of Bedford and Barrow, was a famous speakeasy of the 1920s with two unmarked entrances, a front one with a peephole in Pamela Court, off Barrow, and a back one at no. 86, available if patrons, fearing a raid, needed to make a quick exit.  (Legend has it this is the origin of the expression to “86 it,” meaning to beat it in a hurry.)  In the bar restaurant’s rustic and woody atmosphere the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World) might be holding a meeting upstairs, planning nothing less than the overthrow of capitalism, while Edna St. Vincent Millay read her poetry downstairs.  Surviving Prohibition, Chumley’s, still unmarked by a sign, became a popular literary hangout frequented by the likes of Dreiser, Cather, O’Neill, Cummings, Mailer, Ginsberg, and Burroughs, the very thought of whom, all crammed together in one place, sends chills and thrills down the spine.  (It’s just as well it surely never happened; mayhem both literary and physical might have erupted.) 

     As the years passed, Chumley’s evolved yet again, becoming a meeting place for young professionals.  When my partner Bob and a friend visited it in the 1960s, it still had its two entrances, and they entered by the back door because, flanked by garbage cans though it was, they thought it “more picturesque.”  The interior still had its woody atmosphere, featured beer, not wine, and was frequented by a neighborhood crowd seasoned with a few visiting college kids.  In 2007 one of the interior walls collapsed, forcing the bar to close for a lengthy reconstruction.  Now it is finally about to reopen, but neighbors have brought suit to prevent it, feeling that their quiet residential neighborhood is already threatened by booze-dispensing enterprises, and fearing that Chumley’s reopening will attract “unwanted business.” 

     So here again, this time on Bedford Street, the familiar conflict looms: gentrification vs. commerce, tranquility vs. history, with the final decision not yet clear.  But one battle has already been lost: the renovated Chumley’s, following Landmarks Conservancy directives, has an arched door with a transom flanked by sidelights, set in a false stone-block stucco façade – all of it totally unrelated to the Chumley’s of history, architecturally inconsistent with the neighborhood, and to my eye just plain ugly.  Let’s hope that the interior still retains its rustic, woody charm.

     No. 81, an ordinary-looking residential building, has a unique and sinister history, for in 1953 CIA agent George White, a chubby, balding tough-guy veteran of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, rented an apartment here and, using a CIA bank account and a fake identity as an artist, outfitted the place with a two-way mirror, recording equipment, Toulouse Lautrec posters, and a well-stocked liquor cabinet.  His mission: “to develop drugs that would enable the CIA to discredit friends and foes alike, and that could be delivered clandestinely and kill without a trace.”  White was a curious choice for this assignment, being alcoholic and into kinky sex (he liked to be punished by women in stiletto heels), and also, with the full cooperation of his wife, into orgies, but he had worked for the OSS, the CIA’s forerunner, and had distributed marijuana-laced cigarettes to suspected enemy agents in New York during World War II, in hopes of getting them to talk. 

     Having set up his fake artist’s pad, over the next two years White lured unsuspecting victims – or should we say “subjects”? – to his apartment: aspiring actresses, young “hip” couples, even hoodlums, as well as men hooked by hookers whom he paid $100 a night for their service.  He then served his guests drinks laced with LSD and observed their reaction through a two-way mirror that let him view the guests without their knowing it.   “Gloria gets horrors … Janet sky high,” he noted in his diary.  Whether these experiments constituted legitimate research or simply let White enjoy himself sadistically at the expense of others isn’t clear.  In 1955 White and his operation were moved to San Francisco, permitting Bedford Street to resume its customary veneer of gentility.  Years later, reflecting on his career, White remarked:  "I was a very minor missionary, actually a heretic, but I toiled wholeheartedly in the vineyards because it was fun, fun, fun.  Where else could a red-blooded American boy lie, kill, cheat, steal, rape, and pillage with the sanction and blessing of the All-Highest?"  Let’s move on before I register disgust.

     Between Seventh and Sixth Avenues the street, hitherto primarily residential, becomes a mix of residential and commercial.  At no. 75½  is the narrowest building in the village, a three-story brick structure only 9½ feet wide built in 1873 on what was once the carriage entrance to stables in the rear.  Edna St. Vincent Millay lived here briefly in 1923-24, but before one conjures up visions of her penning her flaming sonnets there whenever she could steal time from her many lovers, one should take note that she lived there with her newly acquired husband, a middle-aged Dutch businessman and playboy.  Yes, it was an open marriage, but she and her complaisant husband weren’t there very much, since for their honeymoon they took a two-year trip around the world and then bought a farm upstate.  And what did the building sell for in 2013?  Only $3.25 million.

     Just beyond the skinny building is a row of six handsome Greek Revival  houses.  Behind the 1830s façade at no. 75, so a current real estate listing informs us, is a light-filled artist’s residence with a glass and steel room with an 18-foot ceiling and a limestone floor, a stainless-steel state-of-the-art kitchen, a dining room with a Japanese dining table “perfect for hosting either a Thanksgiving dinner or a Japanese tea ceremony,” and on the top floor a sky-lit artist’s studio.  Just the thing for a struggling young artist today.

Liza Sherman's antique store.

     Now we enter a stretch that I find less interesting, much of it commercial.  But at no. 37A, just beyond Carmine Street, we come to Liza Sherman’s antique store, with an outsized neon star in the window, and an article reporting that it had caused a sensation among her affluent clients.  Just why it should, I couldn’t imagine; to me it looked big and ugly – and useless too, since it would weigh down any Christmas tree it crowned, with the possible exception of the gigantic one in Rockefeller Center.  Peering through the window and open doorway, I saw a shop cluttered with chandeliers, furniture, and any number of objects I couldn’t even describe or identify.  Online research revealed some of the items on sale there:

·      Set of chairs made from washing machines, $660 per item
·      Cast-iron cage light with ribbed glass, $1,100
·      Polish multicolored bench, $1,200
·      Pygmy suit, $2,600
·      Venetian marble-top table, $2,900
·      French leather club chair, $4,600
·      Egyptian hand-blown chandelier with turquoise bell-shaped glass $7,800
·      19th century samurai warrior’s vest, price upon request

Very high prices indeed, and in the most unlikely, most unchic locale.

     When I lingered outside the shop, the octogenarian proprietor was nowhere to be seen, and maybe it’s just as well, given the Yelp reviews that I later found online.  Here, for a human touch this post has so far perhaps lacked, is a sampling of those reviews:

·      Liza the owner is an old snobby witch who will nickel and dime you when she snobbily thinks she's got great stuff -- when really it is just overrated and overpriced.  Oh it's also very moldy-smelling in the store.  I should have listened to my nose….  I have never been treated so badly in a store.

·      Avoid this store!  I thought I had stumbled upon a great little gem, but I actually found a rude proprietor and a lot of overpriced furniture.

·      Buy with caution!  I purchased a lamp for $1200 and found the exact same lamp online for $275.  I thought I bought an antique and not a mass produced lamp.  When I complained via email, Liza ignored me.

·      Do NOT buy from this woman!  She's rude, capricious, unresponsive, and her pricing is out of a control.  We purchased a very expensive Egyptian chandelier from her a couple of years ago that has never worked properly….  Let celebrities keep wasting their money here if they want to -- I'm out.

·      Rude, arrogant, snotty hag of an owner, who rolled her eyes and said condescendingly, "NOT cheap, my dear" when I inquired about the price of a lamp.  What a way to shoot yourself in the foot, lady.  The other reviews were right: it's a whole lot of reproduction stuff sprinkled with a few true antiques, but the woman is such a high-falutin' snot I'd never do a dime of business with her.

Spite makes for keen writing; it sharpens our wit, equips us with an armory of barbs.  I’ve never met the lady in question, but Yelp offers not one positive review.  I suspect that, having a devoted affluent clientele, she doesn’t need walk-ins from the street.  And to attract that clientele, she must radiate some kind of charm, or at least an aura of exclusiveness, of offering things rare and special, whether they really are or not.

     Online one finds a 2011 article with illustrations of Grandma's home, Grandma being the lady herself, seen in one photo dressed stylishly in black, white-haired, and surrounded by a rich clutter of objects.  The whole house (location unspecified) is richly cluttered with brightly colored antiques: signs, rows of mirrors, an inlaid chest, a chair suspended from a ceiling, clocks, a handblown glass chandelier, a furry bench at the foot of a queen-size bed, and very modern-looking chairs on a yellow-painted floor.  Commentary by what appears to be a granddaughter labels the house "a junk shop with a lot of cool junk," and says of Grandma's smiling photo, "she's pretty badass."  A cool granddaughter too, it would seem, and not exactly fawning.  The comments by others that follow the article range from "AWESOME!!!" to "Yuk," with remarks like "not a pastel in sight," "a fun person," "yah for granny balls," and, if the writer owned the house, "that whole mess of crap would go out and STAY OUT."  My final thought: I wouldn't want to deal with Granny personally, but she's her own thing, knows who she is and what she likes, and lives accordingly.  Bland she ain't.  And that I have to applaud.

     Next door to Liza’s shop we encounter a bold sign PSYCHIC and, dangling in the breeze, a smaller sign announcing SPECIAL READING / $10; in the window are crystals and what looks like a god of ancient Egypt.  So if you can’t afford Liza’s prices, right smack next to her you can get an insight into “past/present/future” for a mere ten bucks.

      Finally, and anticlimactically, we arrive at the very beginning of Bedford Street, where it meets roaring traffic at the intersection of Sixth Avenue and West Houston Street.  There’s a small Greenstreets park there, but it’s scant  consolation.  The last building on the south or downtown side of Bedford is a big brick box of an apartment building, with a skimpy side area guarded, on the top of a brick wall, by a row of menacing prongs curved outward to ward off possible marauders.  With this picturesque touch, we know that our tour of quiet, tree-lined Bedford Street has come to an end.

     Source note:  For information on Bedford Street I have consulted many sources online.  But I am especially indebted, once again, to John Strausbaugh’s The Village: 400 Years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues.  I recommend it to anyone interested in the history of the Village. 

     Yogi Berra:  This legendary Yankee baseball player died recently at the age of 90.  He was famous for his nonsensical utterances, which he insisted were said in all seriousness.  Here are some of my favorites:

·      When you come to a fork in the road, take it.
·      It’s déjà vu all over again.
·      Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t come to yours.
·      Never answer an anonymous letter.
·      90% of the game is half mental.
·      No one goes there nowadays, it’s too crowded.
·      Half the lies they tell about me aren’t true.

Lurking behind each of these is some intended meaning, but Yogi never quite managed to achieve it.  But this one, I insist, does have meaning as stated:

·      It ain’t over till it’s over.

And with this bit of wisdom, this post too is almost over.

     The Goodreads giveaway of a copy of my selection of posts from this blog, No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, ends on Monday, October 12.  So far, 201 people have signed up for the giveaway, and 82 have marked the book "to read."  If I do another giveaway, I’ll announce it.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

     Coming soon:  Hate: four shootings and a riot, and why I wish my music teacher had been buried in quicksand.  And after that, The Next Big Thing.  Suggestions as to what it might be are welcome, as are reviews of the book on Amazon.

     ©  2015  Clifford Browder


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