Sunday, August 20, 2017

314. Bond Street: Gentility, Murder, S&M and Art

Reading at Jefferson Market Library, 425 Avenue of the Americas (near West 10th Street), on Sunday, October 8, 2-4 p.m.  I will read excerpts from my novels and New York stories, sign books, and take questions.  Books will be available for purchase.  I'll be glad to see a friendly face or two.

Dark Knowledge: Release date January 5, 2018, but copies now available from the author.  Adult and young adult.  A fast-moving historical novel about New York City and the slave trade, with the sights and sounds and smells of the waterfront. More excerpts to come.

Browder - Cover - 9781681143675-Perfect - 2
The back cover summary:

New York City, late 1860s.  When young Chris Harmony learns that members of his family may have been involved in the illegal pre-Civil War slave trade, taking slaves from Africa to Cuba, he is appalled.  Determined to learn the truth, he begins an investigation that takes him into a dingy waterfront saloon, musty old maritime records that yield startling secrets, and elegant brownstone parlors that may have been furnished by the trade.  Since those once involved dread exposure, he meets denials and evasions, then threats, and a key witness is murdered.  Chris has vivid fantasies of the suffering slaves on the ships and their savage revolts.  How could seemingly respectable people be involved in so abhorrent a trade, and how did they avoid exposure?  And what price must Chris pay to learn the painful truth and proclaim it?


         New York is a city that is, and always has been, in flux, each neighborhood going through periodic transformations, for better or for worse.  No street has undergone more radical changes than Bond Street, which runs from Broadway on the west just two short blocks in NoHo to the Bowery on the east, one block north of Bleecker Street.  (NoHo, by the way, is a fairly recent coinage designating the area north of Houston and south of Astor Place, between Broadway and the Bowery, a skinny district squeezed in between the West and East Village.)

         In the 1830s Bond Street was the most elegant residential street in the city, desirable above all because it led nowhere, stopping at Broadway on the west and at the Bowery on the east.  A quiet side street, it was lined with red-brick Federal and Greek Revival row houses.  The Federal style had low stoops, and roofs sloping toward the street and sprouting twin dormer windows.  The Greek Revival style had a projecting cornice at the top, white marble trim, and an entrance fronted by a low stoop and flanked by pilasters meant to give the house a “classical” look.  The houses had a tasteful, neat appearance, stylish but not ostentatious, and in front of each were two trees that gave the street a leafy, shady look.

         The residents of Bond Street were merchants, doctors, lawyers, judges, bankers, Congressmen, an occasional affluent clergyman, a mayor, and widows – in short, the city’s very solid upper middle class.  Among them were trustees of this and directors of that; the president of the New York Historical Society; a South Street merchant who sent fast-running packets to course the seven seas; and a distinguished physician who, unlike most of his colleagues, clung to the time-honored but dubious practice of bleeding.  (It is said of the doctor that he once summoned his wife from a dinner table thronged with guests to an adjoining room where, over her piteous protestations, he bled her, being convinced that she was about to suffer a stroke of apoplexy.)  Julia Ward Howe, author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, was born at her banker father’s home on Bond Street, and General Winfield Scott resided there while a major general and second-in-command of the Army, prior to harvesting laurels of glory in the Mexican War. 

         But in nineteenth-century New York the population doubled every sixteen years, prompting a steady expansion in the only direction possible – uptown, or northward -- on the cigar-shaped island of Manhattan.  In this ever growing, ever changing metropolis, no residential enclave preserved its peace and calm for long.  On Bond Street the first subtle sign of decay was the presence of “fashionable” boarding houses run by widows in need of income (no Social Security back then), who termed their boarders “guests.”  Soon afterward came the unmistakable dread sign of decay: dentists’ offices.  After that, elegant shops and hotels invaded the neighborhood, and residents decamped uptown to the high-stooped brownstones of Fifth Avenue and Madison Square.  Further deterioration came in the form of tailors’ and shoemakers’ shops, a trunk store, and a dancing school, and by 1851 Bond Street was considered “plebeian,” harboring no less than seven dentists.  Among the residents thereafter 
were a minstrel, a journalist, a harbor master, a carter and, at some cost to the neighborhood’s diminished respectability, an actress.  Stoops and entryways were demolished, to be replaced by storefronts, and later in the century old houses once graced with gentility resonated with the click of typewriters and the whir of sewing machines.

File:49 Bond Street.jpg
49 Bond Street, a Greek Revival house built circa 1830 and altered 
in 1882 to become a library, and altered again in 1919 to house 
stores and lofts.  Now a mix of commercial and residential use.
Beyond My Ken
         Scandal as well afflicted the once exclusive street.  On the morning of January 31, 1857, a youth employed by Dr. Harvey Burdell, a successful society dentist, arrived at Burdell’s residence at 31 Bond Street and found the dentist sprawled dead on the floor of his office in a pool of blood, his face black, his tongue protruding.  The boy ran screaming from the room and alerted all the house’s boarders, who were then at breakfast.  The police were notified, and a doctor summoned from his nearby residence.  Examining the body, the doctor concluded that Burdell had been strangled with a cord or other binding, and his body stabbed deep fifteen times.  Since the walls of the hall were likewise splattered with blood, it seemed likely that the victim had struggled with his assailant.

File:Dr. Harvey Burdell...four days before the murder; The Opening of the Burdell Murder Trial, The Jury (NYPL Hades-165431-422966).tiff
Dr. Burdell (above), and the opening of Mrs. Cunningham's
trial.  From an unidentified contemporary publication.

         Suspicion fell on Mrs. Emma Augusta Cunningham, a widow and the dentist’s former housekeeper and lover, with whom he had had a stormy relationship.  He had leased the house to her, and she resided there and rented the upstairs rooms to boarders.  At the coroner’s lengthy inquest Mrs. Cunningham threw herself on the open coffin and cried, “Oh, I wish to God you could speak and tell who done it.”  She then claimed to have quietly married the dentist, which would make her his heir and let her provide for her daughters.  Servants and boarders testified that Burdell had feared for his life, and that Mrs. Cunningham had boasted of having a halter around his neck, so that he had to do her bidding.  The murder immediately became the talk of the town, and the dentist’s funeral at fashionable Grace Church on Broadway was attended by more than 8,000 people.

         Mrs. Cunningham and a boarder named John Eckel, a tanner who may have been her lover, were indicted, but only Mrs. Cunningham was tried; the courtroom was packed.  Her daughters testified that she had been with them on the night of the murder, and her lawyer argued that a woman of 39 afflicted with rheumatism could not have committed such a brutal crime.  Burdell, it turned out, had a less than savory reputation, having often traded his dental services for sexual favors from prostitutes.  Given the lack of incriminating evidence, Mrs. Cunningham was found not guilty.  She then produced a child that she claimed to have had by Burdell, a newborn that she had in fact obtained from Bellevue Hospital.  Since the Bellevue doctor involved had notified the district attorney, who then raided her house for evidence, it is possible that this was a scam arranged by the D.A. to entrap her.  When the Surrogate’s Court ruled that she could not inherit Burdell’s substantial estate, Mrs. Cunningham left the city.  Eckel is said to have ended his days in prison, but Mrs. Cunningham later returned to the city under another name and died here in poverty in 1887. 

         The murder was never solved, and for well over a century the descendants of both Harvey Burdell and Mrs. Cunningham disowned them and let them rest in unmarked graves that happened to be only a few hundred yards apart in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.  Then, in 2007, at the urging of an amateur historian obsessed with the case, two sparkling granite headstones were installed, with an inscription on hers: “May God rest her troubled soul.”  Though we’ll never know for sure, it seems likely that Eckel committed the murder at her instigation.

         By the end of the nineteenth century Bond Street was irretrievably commercial, with many old houses demolished to make room for cast-iron or brick-fronted loft buildings housing light industry.  Bond Street’s width attracted manufacturing tenants, since the narrow streets of SoHo and other neighborhoods admitted much less light.  In the 1930s whole swaths of the remaining old houses were demolished.

         Following World War II industry moved out of the area to find cheaper land beyond Manhattan that was better served by highways, and many lofts fell vacant.  But where rents are low and space is available, artists are sure to follow.  By the 1960s they were moving into Bond Street’s spacious lofts, and since it was illegal to live there, they often had to hide their mattresses in the morning.  New legislation in the 1970s legalized residential loft tenants, and the pioneering artists were soon joined by legions more.

         In the 1970s the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe moved into a fifth-floor studio in an old industrial building at 24 Bond.  Fascinated by the S&M world, he invited men there for sex, drugs, and photography, “photography” meaning their posing for his Polaroid; the result was a corpus of work drenched in sensuality, often graphic and controversial, but rendered with true artistry that the world would in time come to recognize.  Besides male and female nudes (for he did females too), his work included still lifes of flowers that brought out lushly and suggestively their innate sensuality.  But this was the age of AIDS, and his freewheeling life style doomed him; diagnosed in 1986, he died of AIDS three years later. 

File:Gene Frankel Theater 24 Bond Street.jpg
24 Bond, with the Gene Frankel Theater at ground level.
Beyond My Ken

         In the year of his death, 1989, the Gene Frankel Theater, where I had taken playwriting lessons years before on MacDougal Street, moved into the ground floor at 24 Bond, promoting a mission to nurture living playwrights and artists and revive NoHo as a cauldron of LGBTQ art and ideas.  (Interesting, since I remember Frankel, a genius director and teacher, as somewhat scornful of gay people in theater.)  Further consecration of the building has since come in the form of gold statuettes adorning the wrought-iron and brick façade, the contribution of artist and longtime resident Bruce Williams, who wanted to brighten with a touch of fantasy the otherwise heavy industrial look of the neighborhood. 

The uptown (north) side of Bond Street, from Lafayette Street to the Bowery, in November 2007.
But where, oh where, is that "wow factor" building at 40 Bond?  Were both of those old buildings
fronted by rows of columns sacrificed?  No sign of other recent constructions either.
GK tramrunner229

         Today the signs of gentrification on Bond Street are unmistakable: morning dog walkers, antique stores, a photo lab, restaurants, and luxury housing as well.  Once again after all these many years, Bond Street as a residential enclave is “hot.”  In 2003-2008 an eleven-floor luxury housing building was built at 40 Bond.  Hailed as an architectural masterpiece designed for "effortless luxury living," and taking the "wow factor" to a whole new level, it features a spaghetti-like ground-floor adornment, an aluminum tangle meant to mimic graffiti.   (The affluent future residents were presumed to want a touch of street art.)  In 2016 a tenth-floor four-bedroom apartment in the building sold for $14.5 million, at the time a record for NoHo.  Such architectural joys are possible because the NoHo Historic District, designated in 1999, ends at Lafayette Street on Bond; from there to the Bowery it's fair game for developers.

File:40 Bond Street.jpg
40 Bond Street, a huge glass box with street-level spaghetti.  
Beyond My Ken

Unique on Bond Street: a cast-iron factory building built in 1879-80, with a mansard 
roof (1-5 Bond).  Mansard roofs were all the rage in the 1860s, often being added onto 
an existing building topped with a cornice, a feature reproduced here.
Silas Berkowitz

         Bond Street today is a curious mix of architectural styles, ranging from commercialized Federal to Screamingly Modern.  The trend is definitely upscale, but with occasional throwbacks to an earlier era, like the D & D Salvage Corporation, a dealer in scrap metal on the ground floor at 51 Bond, a Federal-style house with Greek Revival elements that was built as a private residence circa 1830.  The original stoop and Greek Revival doorway were removed in 1916 to accommodate lofts and offices, but the building still has the Federal-style dormer windows and retains its nineteenth-century look.  Next door is a trendy delicatessen, and above the delicatessen an extension of Billy Reid, a luxury clothing designer whose main store is across the street at 54 Bond. How long can a scrap dealer, established in 1953, resist gentrification? Time will tell.

D & D Salvage Corporation at 51 Bond Street. 
Silas Berkowitz

         By way of contrast, at the northeast corner of Bond and Broadway there looms an impressive five-story red-brick building with sandstone trim in Victorian Romanesque style, with rounded arches over the windows.  Built in 1873-74, it housed the Brooks Brothers clothing store from 1874 to 1884, and small manufacturers thereafter.  Today it is home to a self-proclaimed "new center for high performance living" with "heroically scaled studios" and "expansive fitness floors" -- namely, Equinox Bond Street, a "luxury experience" gym in "one of downtown Manhattan's hottest neighborhoods."  So on Bond Street today luxury fitness is in, scrap metal is out.

File:670 Broadway Brooks Brothers.jpg
Broadway and Bond Street today.
Beyond My Ken

         Visiting Bond Street recently, I noticed that even today its short length, going only two blocks from Broadway to the Bowery, gives it a relative tranquility that contrasts with the roaring traffic of the nearby thoroughfares: Broadway, the Bowery, Bleecker Street, and Houston.  Tranquility, yes, but alas, there are no trees.


All books are available online as indicated, or from the author.

1.  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World (Mill City Press, 2015).  Winner of the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  All about anything and everything New York: alcoholics, abortionists, greenmarkets, Occupy Wall Street, the Gay Pride Parade, my mugging in Central Park, peyote visions, and an artist who made art of a blackened human toe.  In her Reader Views review, Sheri Hoyte called it "a delightful treasure chest full of short stories about New York City."

If you love the city (or hate it), this may be the book for you.  An award winner, it sold well at BookCon 2017.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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

2.  Bill Hope: His Story (Anaphora Literary Press, 2017), the second novel in the Metropolis series.  New York City, 1870s: From his cell in the gloomy prison known as the Tombs, young Bill Hope spills out in a torrent of words the story of his career as a pickpocket and shoplifter; his brutal treatment at Sing Sing and escape from another prison in a coffin; his forays into brownstones and polite society; and his sojourn among the “loonies” in a madhouse, from which he emerges to face betrayal and death threats, and possible involvement in a murder.  Driving him throughout is a fierce desire for better, a persistent and undying hope.

For readers who like historical fiction and a fast-moving story.


For two new LibraryThing reviews of Bill Hope: His Story, go here.

3.  The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series, tells the story of a respectably raised young man who chooses to become a male prostitute in late 1860s New York and falls in love with his most difficult client.

What was the gay scene like in nineteenth-century New York?   Gay romance, if you like, but no porn (I don't do porn).  Women have read it and reviewed it.  (The cover illustration doesn't hurt.)

For Goodreads reviews, go here.  Likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Coming soon: The Banana and Me: the Cavendish, and how the CIA made sure we'd keep on eating it.  

©   2017   Clifford Browder

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