Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Miraculous Survivor -- No. 177 West Broadway

photo by Alice Lum
The block of West Broadway between Leonard and Worth Streets, now lined with loft and commercial buildings, was far different in 1803.  The residential district of the expanding city had reached this far north and attractive brick homes were appearing.  It was around this time, certainly not much later than 1805, that the two-and-a-half story house at No. 177 West Broadway was completed.

Historian Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel writes that the dwelling was, most likely, constructed by carpenter Lawrence White.  Its Flemish bond brickwork was distinguished by handsome brownstone lintels with layered keystones above the openings.  The completed house with its one or two dormers perched on the simple cornice would have been one of several near matching homes on the block.

Change came quickly to this section of Manhattan and by 1807 the elegant residential neighborhood of St. John’s Park had been developed a few blocks north.  As the city continued to expand, residents fled northward ahead of the tide of commerce.  St. John’s Park was essentially abandoned to business by 1869 and the quaint little Federal homes on West Broadway had been converted for commercial purposes.  No. 177 had, by now, been altered for around three decades.

Commerce in the former house was, perhaps, a bit shadier than that of its neighbors.  The address was reportedly a disorderly house for some time—the polite Victorian term for a brothel.

Towards the turn of the century America was swept with a Colonial Revival fever that resulted in neo-Federal and neo-Georgian churches and homes.  It would climax with stylish mansions like that of Andrew Carnegie, and the high-toned Knickerbocker Club on Fifth Avenue.  It was most likely this architectural trend that resulted in a nearly-seamless full-floor addition.  Sometime around the early 1890s the attic level was raised to a full third floor.  The architect copied the sills and lintels and applied a simple wooden cornice appropriate to the period.  He stopped short of matching the Flemish bond brickwork.

More interesting than the astonishingly-sympathetic alteration is that the little house was still there at all.  Commercial structures had replaced nearly all the Federal homes in the area; but somehow No. 177 clung on. 

For many years Martin Mayer (sometimes spelled “Meyer”) ran his restaurant from the ground floor.  The area now bustled with salesmen, messenger boys, and deliverymen; making it a perfect location for his small business.  It was one of two restaurants Mayer operated in the area.

Martin Mayer’s respected image in the neighborhood resulted in his name being used—inappropriately—by ex-City Chamberlain Charles H. Hyde   He was facing trial for swindling a client in 1911.  Israel Tilden, a law student and clerk, applied for a change of venue, claiming that Hyde was so hated locally that he could not receive a fair trial.  To support his application Tilden presented the court with an affidavit alleging that local businessmen had disparaged Hyde, assumed he was guilty, and called him unflattering names.  Among the men listed was Martin Mayer.

The problem for Tilden and his client was that at least a dozen of the men learned of the affidavit and told reporters they had never made the remarks attributed to them.

On December 27, 1911 a New York Times reporter visited Mayer in his West Broadway restaurant.  The man who previously had not held an opinion in the swindling case had one now. 

“Hyde is like the other crooks that can get away with it.  I never heard of this fellow Hyde until several of my neighbors dropped in to ask me what I knew of the case,” he snarled.  “I am a very busy man.  I have another restaurant to run as well as this one, and my work takes all of my time.  I would not discuss the case with a stranger even if I was familiar with it, and I am sure I would not call anybody the names I am supposed to have called Mr. Hyde.”

Mayer was still operating his restaurant here in the 1920s.  The success of his business was reflected in the amount he pledged in support of a civic improvement project in 1923.  Mayer, along with many of his neighboring businessmen, was firmly in favor of demolishing the Sixth Avenue El in favor of constructing a subway.  He pledged $118,000 that year towards the plan—about $1.5 million in today’s dollars.

photo by Alice Lum
The little brick house survived through the 20th century with relatively few changes.  In 1973 the ground floor was converted for “packing and shipping” for a single tenant with offices upstairs.  In 1992 the street level became home to Urban Bird where scores of colorful parrots squawked and bred.  The store’s owner, Nancy Chambers, lived upstairs.

Romance and subsequent parenthood for the parrots came to an abrupt end in March 1993 when the nightclub Renegayde opened in the adjoining building.  The thunderous music and pulsing vibrations disturbed the tender ambiance of the parrots’ love nests and the eggs stopped coming.

“It was immediate—they stopped completely,” Chambers complained to Bruce Lambert of The New York Times a year later.  It was a major problem for the breeder; meaning she was forced to purchase her chicks.

Urban Bird eventually left, succeeded by the pet supply store Pamper Ur Pets which remains there today.  One of the last surviving structures from the 1802-1805 period in Tribeca, No. 177 West Broadway was considered for landmark designation on June 26, 2012.  The building’s owner, Shiloh Company LLC, sent its attorney to oppose the designation.  Valerie Campbell argued that the structure was heavily altered and did not consider the 110-year old third floor addition historic.  The Landmarks Preservation Commission agreed.  Chairman Robert B. Tierney said that the alterations “tipped it away from designation.” 

But formally designated or not; No. 177 West Broadway is indeed a landmark.  A miraculous survivor, it is the last relic of the neighborhood’s residential days two centuries ago.


  1. 200 plus years of surviving in an urban commercial zone with typical alterations one would expect but not landmark worthy? The facade elements are all there. Thank God Landmarks Chairman Robert Tierney is finally being replaced after years of misguided demolitions throughout this city. The new Chairman, cannot be anymore toxic to NYC preservation efforts than Tierney has been.

  2. My thoughts exactly!