Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Unlikely Home of John Lennon -- No. 105 Bank Street


photo by Alice Lum
By the middle of the 19th century brick homes lined Bank Street near the riverfront.  Like its neighbors, the vernacular architecture of No. 105 reflected the middle-class status of its owners.  Trimmed in brownstone, it quietly stood three stories tall over an English basement and called no attention to itself.

As the century drew to a close, paper box manufacturer Louis Nolte lived here.  If the former residents of No. 105 Bank Street had lived in quiet anonymity for half a century, things were about to change.

No. 105 Bank Street, the second house to the left after the short garage, before several alterations.  The ironwork of the elevated freight train tracks that would become the High Line Park can be seen at the top of the photograph -- NYPL Collection
In 1891 Nolte’s brother, Frederick, died.  As a member of the Ancient Order of United Workmen, Frederick was entitled to a $2000 life insurance policy.  It was a considerable sum, worth over $40,000 today.  Shortly after his death, however, Louis and his other brother, Frank, broke the news to the widow that Frederick had dropped his membership.  The insurance money she had counted on to support herself and her child would not be forthcoming.

That being taken care of, Louis and Frank then amended the policy making themselves beneficiaries, and set off to the A.O.U.W.—of which Frederick was most definitely still a member at the time of his death.  The change in beneficiaries, the pair asserted, had been executed by Frederick in Louis’s office.

The brothers neglected to take into consideration that the date of the assignment was at a time when Frederick was seriously ill at home, unable to leave his bed, and was clumsily done in three different inks.

It took her three years, but Catherine V. Nolte uncovered the plot and on June 7, 1894 a grand jury “rendered a verdict for plaintiff…without leaving their seats.”   The widowed Mrs. Nolte had recovered her insurance money; now Louis Nolte had to face justice.

On September 27 Nolte was arrested by Detective Sergeant Reilly, charged with forgery and perjury.  The two separate trials—one for each offense—dragged on into 1897 and Louis Nolte’s name became synonymous with cold-hearted greed and deceit in the press.  Justice Patterson of the Supreme Court said “I think this is one of the most flagrant pieces of forgery ever perpetrated.”

The house was sold in 1903 at an executor’s sale, and again one year later.  Although much of Greenwich Village was home to Manhattan’s Bohemian arts community in the early 20th century; the neighborhood around Bank and Washington Streets near the river remained decidedly industrial.  In 1920 the house was renovated to accommodate an office and workshop in the basement, with one apartment on each of the upper floors.  The brownstone stoop was removed, erasing the last remnant of the single-family home.

But by the middle of the century the arts had reached Bank Street and in 1955 No. 105 was converted again.  Now an “office and art studio” occupied the basement and the upper floors were divided into two apartments each.

With a revival of American folk music sweeping America in the early 1960s, a new group called the Lovin’ Spoonful made Greenwich Village its base in 1964.  Among the four members of the group was drummer-vocalist Joe Butler.    The Spoonful signed with Kama Sutra Records in 1965 and immediately began producing original hit songs like “Do You Believe in Magic,” and “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?”

Painted white and with its cornice replaced by a brick parapet, the house is barely recognizable.  Lennon and Ono lived on the top floor. -- photo by Alice Lum
The success of the group enabled Butler to invest in Manhattan real estate—including No. 105 Bank Street.  In 1971 he would rent a two-room apartment on the top floor to his two most famous tenants:  John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

The singers moved in on October 16 that year.  They had been staying at the St. Regis Hotel on 5th Avenue as John’s second solo album, Imagine, was released.   Lennon had fallen in love with New York, introduced to its streets and neighborhoods by Ono; but the visibility of the hotel's 5th Avenue and 55th Street location made exploring and simply living like New Yorkers impossible.

The Bank Street apartment with its spiral iron staircase to the roof “garden” provided the anonymity the couple desired.  In the Village the celebrated couple was able to walk the streets and enjoy their privacy relatively unbothered.

 But life at No. 105 Bank Street was not all perfect.  While here John’s drug use deepened and he would spend days in the mostly-darkened rooms.   At the same time, the Immigration and Naturalization Service had ordered his deportation based on alleged Communist ties.  FBI head J. Edgar Hoover ordered the New York office to “promptly initiate discreet efforts to locate subject.”  The FBI, however, somehow listed his address as the St. Regis Hotel at 150 Bank Street.   Confused agents scoured the small Village street for an upscale hotel.

Lennon and Ono watch tv in one of their two rooms.  The iron, winding staircase to the roof can be see at left.  photo http://tittenhurstlennon.blogspot.com/
In the meantime, a stream of musicians and social activists climbed the stairs to the two room apartment—Jerry Rubin, Alan Ginsberg, actor and activist Peter Boyle, and Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale among them.    One visitor, however, was not welcomed.

While John and Yoko were at home one night in 1972, a former tenant burst through the door with accomplices and began robbing the apartment of artwork, the color television, Lennon’s wallet and his address book.  While Lennon grieved for his television set, he most wanted his irreplaceable address book back.  He let it be known that if it were not returned, the Black Panthers would be put on the case. 

The address book was returned.

The robbery unnerved the couple and in February 1973 John Lennon and Yoko Ono moved to more secure accommodations--their apartment in The Dakota.  The upscale apartment in the venerable building on Central Park West was a stark contrast to their two-bedroom walk-up in the Village.  Here, in 1980, Lennon was murdered by Mark David Chapman.

With John Lennon and Yoko Ono gone, No. 105 Bank Street returned to its former obscurity.  The much-altered house has blended back into the streetscape; a relatively forgotten and unlikely page of musical history.

many thanks to reader Don Cole for requesting this post.

1 comment: