Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Billy the Oysterman -- No. 11 E. 20th Street

When William Brady began construction of the three-story Italianate rowhouse at No. 11 East 20th Street in 1852, he was a little late to the party.  By now businesses were infiltrating the residential neighborhood between Madison Square and Union Square along Broadway.  No sooner had the brick-faced house been completed in 1853 than tax documents reveal that it housed small shops.

In 1865 the firm of Locke & Craige owned the building.  A year earlier U.S. Congress House Documents documented that the government had paid the firm $721.10 “for a site and building for a post office in the city of New York.”  With the money from selling its building, the company apparently bought No. 11 East 20th.

At some point around 1870 the building got a facelift with neo-Grec lintels over the openings, a pedimented cornice, and a two-story shop front.  By 1900 the neighborhood had become a major shopping district.  That year owner Sarah Hale Witthaus hired contractor James Waddell to install a modern storefront with expansive windows at the second floor.  It attracted a new tenant, furrier Robert Arnold.  On July 1, 1902 Fur Trade Review noted “Mr. Robert Arnold, importing and manufacturing furrier, has removed to exceptionally desirable premises at 11 East Twentieth street, near Broadway.”

The building was sold in 1906 to “an investor.”  Soon Arp Laue signed a 15-year lease on the building for an aggregate rental of $75,000.  The quiet existence of No. 11 East 20th Street was soon to change.

The following year, next door at Nos. 7 and 9, Holtz & Freystedt built an impressive 12-story Beaux Arts building.  The restaurateurs reserved the lower two floors for its French-inspired restaurant. 

In the meantime, German immigrant William T. Ockendorf ran his own restaurant on West Third Street.  Known as “Billy the Oysterman,” he started out small, opening an oyster stand in a basement at Wooster and West Third Streets.  Oysters sold for “a cent a-piece.”  Later he moved his restaurant with its sawdust-covered floors upstairs on West Third Street.  Later The New York Times would reminisce “’Billy the Oysterman’ became an institution known throughout the city.”

In 1910 the man who had started his new life selling oysters for a penny personally walked into the Albany Statehouse to incorporate his business.  He had big plans. 

A year earlier Holtz & Freystedt expanded its restaurant, breaking through the wall to No. 11.  The plan would be short lived, however.  By 1912, with business failing, Holtz & Freystedt abandoned the expanded space.  A year later it closed its doors for good.

As quickly as Holtz & Freystedt evacuated No. 11, Billy the Oysterman moved in.  The New York Times said “The present restaurant of ‘Billy the Oysterman’ offers a sharp contrast with the saw-dust covered floors of the earlier places  It has tiled floors, mounted fish on the walls and expensive furniture.”

The by time Billy the Oysterman moved into No. 11 (lower right) it was already squeezed between towering buildings.  The wall of windows at the second floor and the centered doorway can be seen.  photograph by Wurts Bros from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWW7A9LU&SMLS=1&RW=1366&RH=631

Billy the Oysterman took up the lower two floors and the top floor was leased to various businesses throughout the years.  Katz & Co., owned by Phil Katz, was here in 1915, according to The American Cloak and Suit Review; and Baumann-Marx Realty Co., Inc. had its offices in the building in 1918.

William T. Ockendorf died on January 20, 1914.  He had amassed an estate equaling over $1 million today “mainly accumulated in the oyster business,” said The Sun on February 1.  Ockendorf left the business to his three sons, George, Harvey and William. 

George Washington Ockendon, the eldest son, took on the sobriquet of Billy the Oysterman.  Like his brothers, he had a public school education and learned the business first-hand.  Despite his sometimes rough-edged demeanor, he was a consummate host.  The New York Times remembered on December 11, 1928 “With his brothers, he would personally greet the prominent guests.  Among those who came frequently were Governor Smith, Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney and leaders of sport, politics and the stage.”

Business flourished, requiring additional staff.  On a single day in 1918 two advertisements appeared in the New-York Tribune.  One read “Kitchenmen Wanted—No Sunday work,” the other simply said “Oysterman—No Sunday work.  Billy the Oysterman.”

George Ockendon not only had a large personality, he had a large physique.  The Sun took the opportunity to poke fun at Ockendon’s girth on April 5, 1919 following the auction of actress Marjorie Rambeau’s furniture.

“The big thud on Broadway’s consciousness occurred when Billy the Oysterman, who looks as though he carries a large part of the stock of his restaurant on Twentieth street concealed on his person, bought a huge mahogany chair, formerly the property of Grover Cleveland, with compartments that might be useful before prohibition sets in.  It was whispered that Billy went to the chair—or vice versa—not because he bid $23, but because he was the only one present who could fit its dimensions, Billy breaking the scales at something like 300 pounds.”

The newspaper’s mention of hidden compartments and Prohibition was somewhat foretelling.  The Ockendon brothers had no intention of letting Prohibition put an end to their selling alcohol.  The restaurant’s first brush with dry agents ended with a lucky break.  On April 23, 1921 The Times reported that “Policeman George Chaffers of the East Twenty-second Street Station said he had found three sealed bottles of whisky in a handbag in the apartment of Ockendon at the East Twentieth Street address.”

The policeman did not have a search warrant and Judge Thomas J. Nolan begrudgingly discharged George Ockendon.  Nolan was not happy.  “This testimony opens up another angle of the situation.  The policeman acting under orders is not to be criticised, but the orders seem to be absolutely contrary to law and repulsive to the Constitution.”

Jacketed waiters serve in the handsome downstairs room.  The staircase to the second floor dining room can be seen behind the oyster bar.  photograph Gas Logic magazine, June 1918 (copyright expired)

Billy the Oysterman would not continue to be so lucky.  George used the third floor and basement to warehouse liquor and established a “private bar” in his office for trusted patrons.  On October 24, 1922 Prohibition agents purchased drinks served by waiter Otto Seidt.  The following day they returned, this time with a search warrant.

Eight agents descended on Billy the Oysterman at noon and swarmed over the restaurant.  According to The Evening World later that day, “They discovered ten cases of whiskey and several barrels of bottled beer and ale of unauthorized but strongly verbalized authority.”  The New York Times reported “The total value of the seized goods at the current bootleg prices was given at $5,000” and increased the number of cases of whiskey to 25.

When the agents crashed into the private bar, according to The Times, “A patron…was about to place a glass of whisky to his lips.  The agent snatched it away from him and placed it with the other seized stuff.”

The Evening World said “The patrons of the place showed strong indignation.  Some were unhappy because ‘so much good stuff had to go to waste;’ others were incensed against the management because they had never learned that forbidden beverages were to be had in the place.”

According to the New-York Tribune “A crowd gathered and watched the agents load cases and barrels on a big warehouse truck.”  The newspaper provided a more detailed inventory of Billy’s stash.  “In the seizure were cases of wines, gin, whisky and cordials.  The beer alone was reported to be worth $5,000.  The liquors, including choice wines, were worth probably $5,000 more.”

By now Billy the Oysterman had taken over the former Holtz & Freystedt space as well.  The brothers--perhaps in part because they ignored Prohibition--were doing quite well for themselves.  The restaurant’s 1921 Profit and Loss Statement disclosed that George was earning $19,500 a year, and his brothers $12,000 each.  Those figures would equal about $240,000 and $150,000 today.  George’s salary was of intense interest to his wife, Florence, who began divorce proceedings in 1922.

Despite Federal raids, Billy the Oysterman continued on with relative normalcy.  The same year that agents made their noon raid, the Upholstery Association of America took over the second floor for its annual elections.  “Following the election of officers a beefsteak dinner and smoker will be provided by Billy the Oysterman,” announced The Upholsterer and Interior Decorator.

The Ockendons would not surrender in their battle against Prohibition. In 1926 the restaurant donated $50 to the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment.  And two years later George’s brother William got even with one government agent.

William was in the restaurant in June 1928 when undercover agents Palmer F. Tubbs and Samuel Kupferman ordered a drink.  When they were served, they identified themselves.  But Kupferman took William Ockendon aside and said he would “fix things up” for $500.  Ockendon paid the bribe.  Then immediately went to authorities.

On August 2 William Ockendon took the stand to testify as a witness for the Government before a Grand Jury.  In return for his testimony against the corrupt agents, he received immunity for the liquor sales.

George W. Ockendon died four months later in December, never to see the repeal of Prohibition.  The hard-edged and feisty restaurateur got the last word at least in one respect.  The divorce initiated by Florence was not yet finalized.  When George’s estate was filed he had cut her out of the will, leaving her a meager $500.

The title of Billy the Oysterman passed to William Thomas Ockendon, now the oldest brother.  The fame of the restaurant only increased.  In 1934 William Ockendon estimated he had sold 41,693,063 oysters; later putting the estimate into the context of a barrel a day—upwards to 1,400 oysters daily.  In 1935 Cole Porter wrote “A Picture of Me Without You.”  The lyrics included Billy the Oysterman:

Picture H. G. Wells without a brain
Picture Av’rell Harriman without a train,
Picture Tintern Abbey without a cloister,
Picture Billy the Oysterman without an oyster

William continued the family’s attention to fresh food and good service.  On November 19, 1934 his passion would nearly require that he be physically restrained.  The following day The New York Times wrote “An ultramarine-finned sailfish and a lean-jawed barracuda, both safely stuffed, stared fixedly last night from the walls of Billy the Oysterman’s…as the Society of Restaurateurs debated the merits of the table d’hote and the a la carte meal.”  The newspaper said “William Ockendon—Billy the Oysterman himself—was regarded as having struck the most telling blow”

The restaurant owners had come to decide whether offering limited menus of ready-made items would save them “from financial ruin.”  The very idea incensed Ockendon.

Standing before the association he said “I am 100 per cent opposed to the table d’hote meal.  I think it’s a joke—“  He was interrupted by an owner who said “It’s no joke; we use the same food for the table d’hote as the a la carte meal.  We—“

Now Ockendon interrupted in what The Times called a roar.  “There was never a roast chicken roasted at 11 o’clock to serve at 12 o’clock, that was good at 2 o’clock.”

When the debate between the two men verged on verbal violence, William Zelser of the White Horse Tavern “struck a conciliatory note.”  He soothed the men saying “There is room for both types of restaurant in this city.”

The Times ended its recap of the evening saying “Finally the echoes of the debate died away and the sailfish and the barracuda stared down upon empty tables and well-filled ash trays.”

Billy the Oysterman opened a second restaurant at No. 10 West 47th Street in 1938.  By now the restaurant was known nation-wide.  Forbes Magazine had commended two years earlier “Billy the Oysterman, like Oscar of the Waldorf, has become a national institution, foodwise.”

In 1938 the New York City Guide, published by the Federal Writers’ Project, listed the prices at Billy the Oysterman as “lunch from 85 cents, dinner $2.00.”  By 1946 when No. 11 East 20th Street was sold by the Fifth Avenue Bank of New York, the 47th Street location had become the main restaurant.  No. 11 was termed “a branch.”  Four years later Billy the Oysterman closed the 20th Street restaurant after nearly half a century of business.  The 47th Street operation closed in 1953.

A 1940s menu from the 47th Street restaurant mentions West 20th Street a "branch"

When William Ockendon died in October 1961 at the age of 80, The New York Times fondly reminisced of his passion for serving good food; and it brought up the heated debate of 1934.  “He once confessed that he himself was not fond of oysters and added that, perhaps, he had seen too many.  He was, however, a champion of the casual manner of dining and once lectured the Society of Restaurateurs on the beauties of the table d’hote and the evils of the a la carte fashions.”

The restaurant tradition at No. 11 East 20th Street continued when Miriam Novalle purchased the building in 1996.  She told a Times reporter ”I just want to be in the tea business.”  With Rhode Island restaurateur Hank Kates, she opened her tea shop, salon and mail order company called T Salon.

The centered entrance created in 1900 was moved to the side before the shop opened later that fall.  T Salon would remain in the space until the early 2000s.  It was replaced by ‘Wichcraft, a trendy sandwich shop that remains there today.  In 2009 owner Tom Colicchio expanded to the second floor, where dinner was now served with waiter service and wine.

Once a destination so well known that Cole Porter’s mention of it was universally understood, the little building at No. 11 East 20th is a bit sorry looking and mostly overlooked today.  Squashed between two towering buildings, it was the home of an important page of Manhattan’s culinary and social history, now forgotten.

photograph by the author


  1. This reminds me of "Lundy Bros." that use to be in Brooklyn. Use to go with my father all the time for oysters and clams. Miss it.