Saturday, August 2, 2014

Marie's Crisis Cafe -- No. 59 Grove Street

photo by Alice Lum
In 1787, four years after the Treaty of Paris had ended the American Revolution, Thomas Paine was in Paris.  With France on the brink of its own revolution, he expected at any moment to be taken away on account of his outspoken opinions, most notably concerning the royal execution.

He later wrote “My having voted and spoken extensively, more so than any other member, against the execution of the King, had already fixed a mark upon me.”  Paine had good reason to expect the worst.  While in Paris he wrote The Age of Reason--a work that would result in his anti-Christian reputation.  Six hours after finishing the manuscript he was arrested.  By the time he was released from prison in 1802 he was aged and sickly.

He sailed to New York City where lived in a wooden house on Herring Street (later part of Bleecker Street).  Racked by strokes, he was feeble and confused and rarely left the house.  There finally came the time when he needed further care.

G. Vale, in his 1847 biography Thomas Paine, noted “That, when Thomas Paine’s sickness increased on him, and boarding house attention was scarcely sufficient, Madame Bonneville took a small house for him, May, 1809, in Columbia street, and there she attended on him till his death.”  The house was a little back building behind the dwelling that faced the street.   Only a few weeks later, on June 8, 1809, at around 9:00 in the morning, Paine died.

At the time Greenwich Village was a sleepy hamlet of mostly small wooden houses.  The little dirt road known as Columbia Street ran through farm property.  But that would soon change.  The 1822 yellow fever epidemic caused hundreds of New Yorkers to flee north from the city to the wholesome air of the village.  Roads were extended and paved, and a building explosion changed the face of the little community.

Columbia Street was widened, straightened, and renamed Grove Street in 1836.  In the process nearly 20 feet of the property of No. 59 Grove Street was taken for the roadway. The main house was demolished; but the little wooden house where Thomas Paine had died survived for another three years.  In 1839 attorney William A. Thompson demolished the little building and had five matching Federal-style brick-faced homes erected, including No. 59.  The speculative three-story homes were intended for middle class families.

In 1864 David Thomas Valentine wrote about the wooden building where Thomas Paine had died in his Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York.  “Mrs. Maria Thompson had that frame house taken down or removed, and a block of five brick buildings each three stories in height and 20 feet in width, erected on the North side of Grove street, the most Easterly house in which block is No. 59, and it covered the site of the back building in which Thomas Paine died."
The properties were put in Thompson’s wife’s name.

No. 59 became the home of F. W. Williams “writing-master.”  Williams proudly proclaimed himself a Member of the Meridian Lodge, No. 42, Independent Order of Odd Fellow.  The lodge was located nearby at the corner of Hudson and Grove Streets.

In summer in 1841 Williams became seriously ill.  He was given a tonic, “Dr. Thorp’s Carminantia,” and seemingly underwent a miraculous recovery.  The recovered and grateful writing-master wrote a lengthy letter to the editor of the New-York Daily Tribune which appeared on September 12, 1842.

He wrote in part “I know the flattering testimonials which sprinkle the pages of the daily and weekly papers, in puffing some new nostrum, do so burlesque the science of medicine, and unfold the cupidity of the arch necromancer, who would palm off upon the public his new edition of old nostrums as his own invention—but which, were really invented in the good old leaden age of ignorance, long since exploded by the light of science—that they are calculated to set down any thing like a specific in the light of deception.”

This medicine, he stressed, was nothing of the kind.  “I am no medical man; I know not the modus operandi of Dr. Thorp’s Carminantia; but this I do know,--that, whereas I was once at the verge of the grave, and wasted to a skeleton, but now I am as fleshy as in my most healthy days; and in proof of this, I can name many respectable and scientific witnesses.”

Williams invited disbelievers to his house.  “To those who may be scrupulous, please to call at my residence, No. 59 Grove-street, and I can advance ample testimony of respectable witnesses, though my present appearance would seem to contradict the possibility that I am the identical man who, a few weeks ago, was expected to settle all earthly accounts.”
Only close inspection reveals the surviving details of the 1839 house -- photo by Alice Lum

In 1850 William M. Doughty and his wife of 18 years moved into No. 59 Grove Street.  Doughty was the steward of the steamboat Troy.  Two years later he was dragged into the messy divorce proceedings of the famous actor Edwin Forrest and his wife Catharine.  Mrs. Forrest’s complaint accused “Edwin Forrest has been guilty of infidelity, and conducted improperly” from 1837 to 1850.

Doughty testified that he knew Forrest and “Miss Clinton,” who was clearly not the actor’s wife.  He told the court that in 1843 he “saw them on board a steamboat together as I was going from here to Troy—in a night boat; they came together in a carriage, locked arms; they occupied the same stateroom together, adjoining mine; she spoke to me before they retired and I answered her.”  Victorian readers of the New-York Daily Tribune must have gasped when they read on January 15, 1852, “I heard, afterwards, a little noise; heard Mr. F. kiss her.”  Doughty said that in the morning the bed in Forrest’s state room “had the appearance of having been slept in.”

By 1874 the house was home to William Bertam.  Bertam was up extremely early on the morning of April 26 that year.  While walking along Eighth Avenue at 3:00 a.m. “he was startled by the breaking of glass, and looking around, he saw a man in the act of carrying off a quantity of liquor from Charles Gerken’s liquor store, at No. 42 Eighth-ave,” reported the New-York Tribune the following day.

The thief realized that Bertam had seen him and fled—but to little avail.  Bertam found a policeman who arrested Thomas Butler of No. 136 West 17th Street.  When the prisoner could not make the $1,000 bail (understandably, considering it would amount to about $20,000 today), he was sent to jail.

A succession of residents would come and go in the Grove Street house in the 1890s.  In December 1893 Fletcher E. Edwards was living here when he was appointed clerk in the Post Office.  Edward W. Zimmermann was in the house for at least three years—from 1895 through 1898.  He was a maker of “household furniture” and an officer of the Fifth District Republican Association.   In 1899 John Dunnell died in the house on September 19, at only 28 years of age.

Following the turn of the century No. 59 Grove was home to the Pfeiffer family.  Loretta A. Pfeiffer was just 19 years old when she was found unconscious on the doorstep of the widow of former North Bergen, New Jersey Police Chief Sullivan on August 4, 1905.

After Loretta and her fiancé, Nicholas Montry, had enjoyed the day at Little Coney Island they were waiting for the street car on Hudson County Boulevard.  Two men approached, impersonating police officers.  The New York Times reported that they”threatened her with a cell if her companion did not pay $5.  While the girl’s escort, who lives in Jersey City, went to get the $5 the men and the girl disappeared.”

The Evening World, on August 5 reported that others returning home from Little Coney Island “saw a well-dressed young woman apparently asleep on the stoop of the Sullivan home.  The idea of a refined young girl sleeping out of doors in such a lonely and unsafe locality moved one of the party to try to arouse her. He found she was limp and unconscious.  The Sullivan household was aroused and the girl carried into the dining-room.

“Ordinary methods of resuscitation proved fruitless, and Mrs. Sullivan applied a bottle of strong ammonia to the girl’s nostrils.  A fleeting moment of consciousness resulted.”

Mrs. Sullivan asked Loretta “Who are you?  Where is your home?”

“The name came in an inaudible whisper, but Mrs. Sullivan caught the words ‘Grove street;’ before the girl shuddered, lapsed back into unconsciousness and died.”

Dr. Helstern had already been called and he came to the conclusion that Loretta had simply been scared to death.  Newspapers across the city ran the sensational and tragic story.  The Evening World’s front page headline read “Girl Held Up By Two Thugs Dies of Fright.”

The house was home to Sarah Brady until her death on October 1, 1913.  It was quickly purchased and resold by Joseph Muhling.  On October 16 the following year The New York Times reported that he had sold the house to Vincenzo Cesareo.  “The buyer will occupy,” said the newspaper.

Greenwich Village had, by now, filled with immigrants.  The Cesareo family would stay in the Grove Street house for several years.  When Vincenzo transferred the title to his wife, Eugenia, in 1915 the couple held a $4,750 mortgage on the house.

Amazo Cesareo was a photographer and that same year the family had a scare when the 43-year old was burned in a subway train explosion.  Amazo was on the uptown Broadway subway train on July 31, 1915. As the train approached the Manhattan Street station just after 5:00 in the afternoon a switchbox exploded in the car in which he rode.  The train came to a halt in the tunnel and passengers panicked, fearing fire or electricity.

One passenger Albert F. Ritter, a 22-year old clerk who was in the same car escaped the train when a guard pried the doors open.  He ran down the flight of stairs to Broadway with his straw hat ablaze and his coat smoldering.  Amazo Cesareo was treated for burns by Dr. Padula of Knickerbocker Hospital.

Two years later, on May 5, 1917, the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide noted that “Professor Eugene Cesareo rented 59 Grove Street to A. Paganini at a yearly rental of $650.”  Paganini’s monthly rent for the 3-story house would translate to about $925 a month today.

But the end of the line for the little brick house as a family home was on the horizon.  In 1920 it was sold by Casco Traders and by the following year had been converted to a two-family dwelling. 

In 1922 the Greenwich Village Historical Society was organized and among its first projects was fund raising “to place a memorial tablet on the house at 59 Grove Street, occupying the site of the earlier dwelling in which Thomas Paine died in 1809,” said The New York Times on February 18, 1923.  The members of the Society felt that “too much public attention had been given to the cheap Bohemianism prevailed in certain parts of the neighborhood and that, as a result, many New Yorkers were getting the idea that tea houses with uncouth names and countless gift shops were the chief elements of interest in the section.”

A plaque on No. 59 Grove Street, it was felt, would direct attention to the historic aspects of Greenwich Village and away from the tawdry night life.  On June 9, 1923 the plaque was unveiled.  The Times mentioned that “the publisher of the ‘Crisis’ and the ‘Rights of Man’ died 114 years ago” on the site.

The bronze plaque was affixed to the building in 1923 -- photo by Alice Lum
A message from President Harding was read to the crowd, speeches were made, and then the flag-draped plaque was unveiled by Juanita Clivette, “the Sappho of Greenwich Village,” who read the poem she had written for the occasion.

“The tablet was designed by Mrs. Samilla Jameson Heinzmann, a member of the society,” reported The New York Times.  “It is an artistic piece of work, showing an admirably executed portrait of Paine in the centre, with the faint outline of a map depicting America above, and at the sides maps of the British Isles and France.”

Ironically, while the ladies of the Greenwich Village Historical Society wanted to turn attention away from the “uncouth” places of business; the lower level of No. 59 Grove became a speakeasy.  On January 4, 1929 Federal Inspectors O’Brien, MaAuliffe and Quinn launched a raid on No. 59 Grove.  In reporting the raid The Times quoted Police Commissioner Grover A. Whalen who called the speakeasy a “breeding place of crime and a menace to the health and morals of the community.”

In 1931 the upper floors were converted to apartments and four years later Marie Du Mont took over the lower level, opening the Crisis, with a nod to Paine’s pamphlet of the same name.  The bar/café became a favorite watering hole for Village bohemians.  Finally in 1957 Marie purchased the building from Amelia Dello Joio.

photo by alice Lum

Eight decades after its opening, Marie’s Crisis remains one of the popular destinations for Greenwich Village night life; renowned for its sing-along piano bar and the fascinating WPA mural behind the bar.  The long-surviving club has perhaps overtaken the Thomas Paine connection as the historic interest of the somewhat abused 1839 house.

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