Monday, April 25, 2011

Montparnasse on Skid Row -- No. 222 Bowery

photo by clocktowertenants.com
The Bowery in 1884 was a mixed bag. As the recreation area for Little Germany, it teemed with German beer halls and music halls. There were impressive bank buildings and respectable retail stores during the daylight hours. But it was also home to “disorderly houses” – the polite term for brothels – and saloons. Shady characters and sailors loitered in doorways after nightfall.

In an effort to salvage the souls of young men adrift in this sea of vice, the Y.M.C.A. established the Young Men’s Institute at 222 Bowery. The association was intended to afford "opportunities for physical and mental development, social recreation, and special industrial instruction to young men of moderate means,” as reported by The New York Times.

Designed by Bradford Lee Gilbert, the official architect to the New York, Lake Erie and Western Railroads, it was completed in 1884 – a robust red brick Queen Anne style building with terra cotta and granite trims. The Architectural Record and Guide admired it as “spirited and picturesque” while The New York Times called it “an attractive four-story structure, with a front of brick stone, and iron.”

An exuberant date cartouche in terra cotta is framed by a terra cotta pediment - photo by clocktowertenants.com
Visitors entered a large reception room with a large fireplace and built-in “chimney corner seats.” Here were newspapers, writing tables and upholstered chairs and settees. The walls were of no-nonsense plaster with wood trim.

Also on the first floor was the gymnasium “furnished with all the requirements of a good physical training place, including plenty of pulling and rowing weights, dumb bells, Indian clubs, climbing ropes, inclined and horizontal ladders, spring board, striking bag, two horizontal bars, two pair of parallel bars, and several substantial mats to prevent bruises from falls,” according to The Times.

A locker room with tub baths and showers adjoined the gym, as well as two bowling alleys.

The second floor contained the wood-paneled library, outfitted initially with 800 books which the boys were allowed to take home, and a 500-seat auditorium. Above were the classrooms where classes in penmanship, free hand, architectural and mechanical drawing, bookkeeping and “the trades” were taught.

Concerts, lectures and readings were offered in the auditorium and activities (which smack of today’s after-school programs) were organized including a glee club, an orchestra and a debating club.

The facilities were open to young men “of good character” between 17 and 35 years old who could pay the dues. A year’s membership cost $4 and a gymnasium membership was another $3. Classes cost 50 cents per term.

A year after the building opened, fire broke out in the Brush Electric Illuminating Company at 204-210 Elizabeth Street. The grease-soaked floors and supplies of stored paraffin resulted in a major conflagration which threatened the Institute. When the young men realized the danger and began to panic, Superintendent C. H. Sage rallied them into a fire-fighting brigade. By the time they reached the auditorium the lead in the stained glass windows was beginning to melt and the windows, bit by bit, fell apart.

Using “the standing fire extinguishing apparatus”, the boys fought the flames that burst through the destroyed windows, setting fire to the furniture.

When Engine Company No. 9 finally responded, they vented the roof by smashing the stained glass skylight in the dome. When it was over the young men had saved the building, which sustained $22,000 in damages; however the once-beautiful art glass windows and dome were gone.

In January 1889 the Institute had 650 members and a daily attendance of about 280 boys, with another 348 young men attending classes. By now the number of courses offered had increased to include carriage drafting, steam engineering, vocal music, physiology and first aid. A year later 13,065 young men attended the 37 free entertainments.

Taking its cue from the pleasure gardens that attracted the city’s well-to-do, the Institute installed a Roof Garden in the summer of 1891. Furniture was brought up, along with electric lights, and here the young members could escape the insufferable heat for a while. “Members read and play chess, or smoke lying at full length on the skylights,” reported The Times. “It would not be a roof garden if there was not something to drink there, and a large water cooler supplies Adam’s ale of superior quality and in unlimited quantity.”

The first year a piano was hoisted up to the roof garden to supply music to the boys; however after a short time in the weather it was just an empty hull.

Times had changed by the Great Depression years and in 1932 the Bowery was the seedy, last stop for alcoholics, the homeless and others down on their luck. The Y.M.C.A. left the building, which became home to small manufacturers and loft space.

The story of the red brick building should have become uninteresting at this point. But as the Nazis stormed into Paris, Cubist and non-figurative abstract artist Fernand Leger escaped to New York where he took up residence in a part of No. 222 until his return to France in 1945. Before long muralist and abstract painter James Brooks moved in. Then artist Wynn Chamberlain.

In 1959 abstract painter Mark Rothko took over the old gymnasium to work on his murals. That space was passed on to Abstract Expressionist painter Michael Goldberg in 1962.

The Victorian building intended for young men of good character had become a meeting place of the hip generation of poetry, literature and art. On April 24, 1965 The Times said “A vision of Montparnasse replacing Skid Row glimmered Thursday night around 222 Bowery when Wynn Chamberlain, the painter of conventional people unadorned by clothes had 130 friends up (six flights) to hear William Burroughs and Mack Thomas read their own fiction.”

Burroughs moved in. And Gysin, whom New York Magazine called “the artist’s artist among the Beats.” Gysin’s lover, artist and poet John Giorno, lived there as did artist Lynda Benglis. William Burroughs called his apartment “the bunker” and tagged the door buzzer with that name rather than his own.

Others who came and went, visiting the artists and poets, were Allen Ginsberg, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Blondie.

In 1997 Burroughs died and Giorni, who still lives at 222 has preserved “the bunker” exactly as he left it.

The times are changing once again for the Bowery, however. The first floor of No. 222 is home to Green Depot an eco-friendly housewares store. Little by little the apartments are being leased at market rates and the vestiges of the Beat Generation are flaking away.  The red brick building, however, holds an important place in 20th Century art and literary hisory.

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