Friday, August 23, 2013

From Oleomargarine to Quentin Crisp--No. 36 East 3rd Street

photo by Alice Lum

Hubbard & Casey’s hardware business at No. 48-1/2 Exchange Place was apparently doing very well in 1835.  That year the owners, dealers in items like “grass sithes, corn sithes, and augurs,” according to the Journal of the American Institute, branched out into real estate development.

Hubbard & Casey began construction of five matching brick-faced residences that stretched from No. 30 to 38 East 3rd Street in 1835.  Completed a year later, they were built for financially-comfortable merchant class families.   Three stories high over an English basement, they were designed in the up-to-date Greek Revival style.  Heavy brownstone doorway enframements, Flemish bond brickwork and handsome iron fences featuring a Greek key band at the bottom and beautiful palmettes, or anthemion, along the top dignified the structures.

No. 36, along with the other houses in the row, saw a succession of owners.  But it is quite possibly Isaac Wiltz who made the residence stand out.  Wiltz owned and operated a restaurant at No. 351 Bowery in that heavily-German populated neighborhood.  He also manufactured and sold oleomargarine.

The foodstuff came about when Emperor Napoleon III of France offered a reward for a butter substitute that could be used by the military and the lower classes.  Developed by chemist Hippolyte Mege-Mouries, oleomargarine was first commercially produced in 1871.  Isaac Wiltz was no doubt one of the first to market the new product in New York City.

Wiltz was living at No. 36 East 3rd Street in 1886 and it was about this time that the house received a major facelift.  The Greek Revival façade had been out of style for decades.   Although the handsome fence was spared, the rest of the house was done over in the trendy Queen Anne fashion, including the stoop railings.
Before the late Victorian makeover, No. 36 was identical to its neighbor to the left -- photo by Alice Lum 

The once-simple door enframement suddenly gushed with decoration and modern double oak doors were added.  A peaked pediment was carried over to the lintels of the two parlor windows.   Tiny scrolled brackets were applied below the brownstone sills of the upper windows and decorative lintels, matching the parlor level without the pediments, were added.  The plain cornice was replaced with an ambitious bracketed affair with a sunburst pediment more expected in a retail building than a residence.

Fire fighter Frank Rusch was living here on March 14, 1914 when a terrifying blaze spread through a four-story boarding house at No. 63 East Houston Street.   As firemen arrived, Marie Sagone was trapped on the third floor.  The hallway was engulfed in flames and, seeing the crowd that had gathered on the street below, she tossed her 4-year old son Joseph out the window hoping someone would catch him.  A cigar dealer and bootblack, Gus Guraltalo caught the boy in his arms.

When she heard the cheers of the crowd, she kissed her 18 month old baby Rosa and dropped the infant from the window.    She too was caught.

Frank Rusch was among the first firemen to arrive and was responsible for leading no fewer than eight residents to safety.  The house was, according to The New York Times, “one of the oldest buildings in that section of the city, and was said to have been built nearly a century ago.  Some years ago this house was known as the ‘Morgue,’ because of the frequent deaths that occurred in a saloon conducted there.”

The marvelous wooden entrance doors were part of the 1880s updating.  The rope-carved molding is original.  photo by Alice Lum

By the second half of the 20th century the house at No. 36 East 3rd Street was operated as a single-room occupancy rental building.  In 1981 it would become home to its most celebrated and flamboyant resident—Quentin Crisp.

The 72-year old writer and actor arrived in New York from his native Britain in 1977.  His cutting wit and social insight led to his repeated comparison to Oscar Wilde.  In England the openly homosexual Crisp was ridiculed and even spat at on the street.  In New York he was treated as a star of sorts.

A year after moving to New York he did a one-man show at the Players Theater, “An Evening With Quentin Crisp” that won him a Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience.  The critic for The New York Times, Richard Eder, remarked “Despite his extravagances, perhaps because of them, there is nothing sectarian about Mr. Crisp.  Both in words and in his fussy, faintly self-mocking gestures, he asserts his identity.  But what he draws out of it is universal:  gaiety—in the original sense of the word, for once—and themes common to all of us: the need for courage and individuality, and the ground of tragedy on which they are exercised.”

Crisp loved New York and America.  He pointed out that on Third Avenue one afternoon, a passer-by stopped and said about his colorful outfit, “Well, my! You’ve got it all on today!” and they laughed together.   In England, on the other hand, he said “In London people stood with their faces six inches from mine and hissed, ‘Who do you think you are?’”

Crisp had the answer to that question.  “What a stupid question.  It must have been obvious that I didn’t think I was anybody else.”

His unabashed understanding of his sexual orientation made it central to his way of life.  He recalled an interview at the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square when he was preparing to emigrate to America.  “The man asked me, ‘Are you a practicing homosexual?’ And I said I didn’t practice.  I was already perfect.”

Quentin Crisp loved the East Village neighborhood and his single room at No. 36 East 3rd Street.   While living here he wrote “How to Become a Virgin” and “Resident Alien.”   Crisp was a notorious spendthrift who would never turn down a party or a free meal and whose close friends joked that he never offered to pay at a restaurant.  It was quite likely that thrift which kept him in his single rented room here, described by some as “squalid.”

The building’s most notable resident died on November 21, 1999 at the age of 90.  In writing Crisp’s obituary for The New York Times, Alex Witchel said “Mr. Crisp was a neighborhood celebrity known for his wardrobe of splashy scarves, his violet eyeshadow and his white hair upswept a la Katharine Kepburn and tucked under a black fedora.  His nose and chin were often elevated to a rather imperious angle, and his eyebrows were painstakingly plucked.  When he played the role of Queen Elizabeth I in Sally Potter’s 1993 film “Orlando,” Village residents bowed before him on the sidewalks as he passed.”

The one-room apartment was recreated for the one-man show about Quentin Crisp, "Resident Alien," in 2001.  Set designer Neil Patel worked with photographs as well as a videotape filmed while Crisp was still alive.  Patel did not pretty things up.  The stage apartment included the clutter of books, a bare light bulb and the rumpled bed.  Even the sound of scurrying mice was added.

In the 1990s the building became St. Joseph House run by the Catholic Workers.  Here meals for around 90 needy persons were served three times a day, seven days a week.  Sandwiches, tea and soup were the daily fare and three times a year, on Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, a special holiday breakfast was served to between 400 and 500 persons.

Today nothing remains of the 1835 interiors.  Converted to four luxurious apartments, the house where Quentin Crisp lived in near squalor now features glass walls, double-height ceilings and sleek, modern appliances.  In January 2012 the house was offered for sale for $5 million.

Outside, however, little has changed since the Greek Revival house got a Queen Anne makeover towards the end of the 19th century. 

photo by Alice Lum

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