Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The 1917 No. 92 Grove Street

The building's position facing Christopher Park assured sunlight and fresh air -- photo by Alice Lum

For three violent days in July 1863 New York City was terrorized by what became known as the Draft Riots.   To augment troops fighting the Civil War, a new law had been enacted to draft men into the army.  But corrupt practitioners focused on the working class—primarily Irish immigrants—while the wealthy bought their way out of service.

What started as a protest against the draft quickly disintegrated into a bloody race riot with innocent blacks being strung up from lampposts, shot and stabbed.  As the rabble headed towards normally-quiet Greenwich Village the daring owner of No. 92 Grove Street took action.  A number of local black citizens were hidden in his basement as the rampaging mob swept the streets.

No. 92 was a tidy, three-story Greek Revival home built several years after its nearest neighbors.  Because it faced the open, triangular park formed by Christopher, Grove and West Fourth Streets, and because the lot next door at No. 94 was undeveloped, its owners enjoyed ample sunlight and air. 

The brick-clad residence was home to respectable middle-class residents for decades, including Mary E. Wright, a teacher in Primary School No. 16 in 1875.

By the time World War I erupted in Europe, Greenwich Village had changed.  It was the center of bohemian culture in New York, drawing artists, musicians and writers to its quaint streets.  Bistros and coffee shops cropped up in artsy basement spaces as did modern apartment buildings that replaced aging houses.

In 1915 No. 92 (left) still survived.  Millionaire socialist James Graham Phelps Stokes was living at No. 88 (right) and his sister, Helen Olivia Phelps Stokes, was in the middle house at No. 90 --photograph from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In 1916 the Cozine-Warren Company initiated plans for an up-to-date apartment on the site of No. 92 and the vacant lot next door.  Architect Andrew J. Thomas was commissioned to design the six-story structure that was completed in 1917.  The architect used variegated brick on the upper five stories.  His straight-forward approach to fenestration resulted in an understated arrangement of windows and fire doors at each level.  Two double-hung windows flanking French doors opened onto Juliette balconies on the top four stories.  To the right, normally ungainly fire exit doors opened onto metal fire escapes which, because they matched the width of the window groupings, provided a visual balance to an otherwise asymmetrical design.

photo by Alice Lum
To support it all Thomas provided a Mediterranean-inspired base.   A Doric arcade of graceful windows and two flanking doors—one the building’s entrance the other the service access to the basement—provided an Old World touch to the already-scenic street.

photo by Alice Lum
The design was well received and in 1918 the American Institute of Architects awarded Cozine-Warren a medal in the category of apartment buildings six stories or under.

The building filled with a variety of tenants.  William W. Norton was one of the first tenants.  He was Assistant Paymaster for the United States Army; and W. W. Taylor was a steward of the New York Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1918.

The new No. 92 Grove Street is seen towards the left.  The two 19th century buildings at the near corner would soon be gone. --photograph from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

One of the building’s most outspoken and visible tenants in the early years was Mrs. Marion Booth Kelley.  While it was largely women who managed to twist the government’s arm in enacting Prohibition, Marion Booth Kelley was not one of them.  The Chairman of the Campaign Committee of the Women’s National Republic Club, she was vehemently anti-Prohibition; or as the newspapers deemed her, “a wet.”

When public protest against Prohibition gained national attention in 1926, Marion was ready to make her feelings known.   At a meeting of the Club on November 2 she announced “The large affirmative vote on the prohibition referendum is an encouraging protest on the part of the people of the Empire State against the corruption, hypocrisy and the train of evils following in the wake of the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act.”

Marion Booth Kelley lived in the building (center) when this shot was taken in 1928.  A tall apartment building is under construction at the corner of Grove Street and West 4th -- photo NYPL Collection

The resolute Kelley would travel to Albany, Washington DC and throughout the East Coast rallying support in her campaign for years.  No doubt firmly behind her cause was May McCabe who also lived in the building.   On June 20, 1930 The New York Times reported on the arrest of Irving Robin, a 33-year old seaman whom the newspaper deemed a “bogus bootlegger.”

“Robin, an ex-convinct, is charged by Miss May McCabe of 92 Grove Street with inducing her to pay $805 for several cases of weak port wine and water represented as liquor,” reported the newspaper.

Earlier that year Marion Booth Kelley had ranted against the results of Prohibition saying that it took “the liquor traffic out of the hands of lawful agencies and put it into the hands of lawless, unregulated and irresponsible groups.”

By August 1933, with repeal of Prohibition clearly in sight, Marion had risen to the position of legislative chairman of the New York State Division of the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform.  She had firmly established herself as a force to be reckoned with and had the ear of the Albany lawmakers.

While Marion Booth Kelley was busy fighting Prohibition and May McCabe was discovering she had been taken by a bootlegger, Sidney Joseph Perelman was living in the building.  On July 4, 1929 he married Laura West, the sister of novelist Nathanael West and the newlyweds immediately moved in.

The witty and brilliant writer would be a contributor to The New Yorker for nearly half a century, and was scriptwriter for the Marx Brothers.  He was responsible for their films “Monkey Business” and “Horse Feathers.”

A friend of the equally witty and rapacious Dorothy Parker, S. J. Perelman described himself as “button-cute, rapier-keen, cucumber-cool and gall-bitter.”   Years later the editor of The New Yorker, William Shawn, called him a “master of the English language and no one has put the language to more stunning comic use than he did.”

A virtuoso of language and comedy, he wrote the stage version of “One Touch of Venus” in 1943 and collaborated with Mike Todd on the zany 1956 film “Around the World in 80 Days.”

By mid-century another noted writer was living here.  Lucien Carr made his living as a United Press reporter; but his influence went far beyond journalism.  In 1976 Aaron Latham, writing in New York Magazine said “The father of the Beat Generation was not Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsburg or William Burroughs.  It was Lucien Carr.  He was the one who brought the others together.  He was the one the others revered.  He was the one the others expected to change America.”

Parties in the Carr apartment were legendary.  One guest at a New Year’s Eve party in 1956 remarked “The Lucien I met was a thirty-one-year-old man…who got up every morning and went to an editing job and had an awfully nice wife and two towheaded little boys in blue pajamas who came and said good-night to everyone at the party…That was the extent of the wildness of the evening, which probably would have been much less subdued, everyone agreed, if Jack [Kerouac] had been there.”

Indeed, Kerouac spent much time in the Carr apartment, staying for weeks on end sometimes.  He called it the most beautiful apartment in the city and described it in his Desolation Angels.  “A small balcony overlooking all the neons and trees of Sheridan Square, and a kitchen refrigerator full of ice cubes and coke to go with ye old Partners Choice whiskey-boo.”

One of these little balconies was included in Kerouac's description -- photo by Alice Lum
While the Greenwich Village neighborhood has changed character through the past century, the building at No. 92 Grove Street—home to writers, political activists and regular New Yorkers-- has not.  

thanks to reader Karmijt Sangha for requesting this post


  1. I'd love to see floorplans. Have you run across any?

  2. Thanks. Looks like the apartments were subdivided. Too bad

  3. Thanks. Looks like the apartments were subdivided. Too bad

  4. Alex Haley had a writing studio in the basement apartment in the rear of the building. It is where he interview Malcolm X.