Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The Soon To Go 1889 O'Rourke's Hotel - 162 11th Avenue

The building, with its colorful history, awaits demolition.
In the last decades of the 19th century the waterfront along Eleventh Avenue in the Chelsea neighborhood was gritty at best, dangerous at worst.  The sailors who came and went on the commercial ships and the longshoremen who worked the docks haunted saloons and lived in meager rented rooms.

In 1889 a four-story brick hotel was completed at the northeast corner of Eleventh Avenue and 22nd Street.  The neo-Grec style structure boasted no architectural exceptions.  The  most eye-catching elements were the earred stone lintels of the openings.  The cast metal cornice with its decorative swags was ordered from a foundry catalog.   A saloon occupied the ground floor.

Metal letters affixed to the facade announce O'Rourke's Hotel.  At the left is the New York Port Society's Mariners' Church.  photo by Berenice Abbott
For decades the rough-edged stevedores and seamen came and went through its doors.   Crime around the hotel most often involved fist fights, prostitutes, and drunkedness.  But the State paid close attention to this and similar hostelries on election days.  Some transients, like sailors, were easily bribed to place illegal votes.  Every year poll agents reported on the number of "hotel votes"--there were 9 in 1910, for instance, and 13 in 1913.

An unlikely tenant in 1906 was Martin Fay, a retired police officer.  That year he received a pension totaling $661.29; or about $18,700 today.  It was apparently a temporary arrangement, for he does not appear here before or after that year.

In 1943 the ground floor space was described in city documents as a "restaurant."  The upper floors contained eight furnished rooms each.  That restaurant, however, was still a bar, variously called Joey's, Slavor's or Catch 22.  Patrons, however, called it "the Bucket of Blood."  The nickname reflected the often violent behavior of the drunken longshoremen and sailors.  Around mid-century a sign hung over the bar that read "Management is not responsible for women left overnight."

Little had changed to the hotel's appearance on March 12 1929 when this photo was taken.  The Mariners' Church, too, survived.  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library.

It was not all violence and drunkedness at O'Rourke's, however.  According to an owner, Alan Frank, there were Thanksgiving dinners "served to the salts upstairs at little or no cost."

But change is inevitable in Manhattan, even in the meanest of neighborhoods.  By the last years of the 20th century the shipping industry was gone from the West Side.  As The New York Times journalist Alan Feuer noted on April 7, 2005, "West 22nd Street, from 11th Avenue to the West Side Highway, has been transformed from warehouse space to art galleries, from auto body shops to coffee bars.  Where once there were stevedores, there are now Italian tourists.  Well-heeled women walk expensive-looking dogs."

The former saloon had become a trendy bar, called Open, by 2001 and the second floor was home to The Proposition, an art gallery around the same time.  By the time Feuer wrote his article, the ground floor was  being renovated to a sleek bar called Opus 22 Cafe and Lounge.

The club was the scene of a violent event on May 23, 2006, reminiscent of the Bucket of Blood.  Just before midnight, as one event ended and another group was coming in, a bouncer dealt with a patron who refused to leave.  A fight ensued, which spilled onto the street.  The bouncer pulled out a firearm and fatally shot the patron in the chest.  The Times reported that he "then shot three others before fleeing the scene."

There were only four aged men still living in the upper portion at the time.  Their 10-by-10 foot rooms cost them $300 per month.   They secured their doors with padlocks when they left.

Their landlord, Alan Frank, who allowed them to stay as an act of kindness, told Alan Feuer, "The cruel twist is that these guys were left here living among the yuppies and the galleries.  All their haunts have disappeared.  The coffee shop.  The old Mexican restaurant.  The little drugstore."

One tenant, 71-year old George Ullrich, put it simply.  "Places change, but people don't.  People just get old."
The former Victorian saloon front was sleekly modern when Opus 22 moved in.  photo via CityRealty
In the meantime, the lower two floors continued on within the new reality.  The their 2013 book Art on Sight: The Best Art Walks in and Near New York City, Lucy D. Rosenfeld and Marina Harrison noted, "The West Chelsea restaurant B.E.S., at 559 West 22nd Street at 11th Avenue, functions as a gallery as well as an eatery."

But one of the last remnants of the West Side's maritime history was soon slated to go.  Luxury residential buildings had been creeping up the West Side Highway for several years, giving it the nickname Starchitect Row.

On March 8, 2017 plans were filed to erect a 12-story, 13-unit residential building on the site.  CityRealty noted the following day "The structure will be topped by a duplex and a private roof terrace."  It is now just a matter of time for O'Rourke's Hotel.

photographs by the author


  1. Looks like it may live on. Did not become part of Related's development. I assume the tenants had some leverage. Need a saloon operator to re-open O'Rourke's

  2. My granduncle Hugh Harvey Died in his sleep in one of those 8 rooms in 1955. I'm glad the building wasn't demolished as I'd like to visit it one day .

  3. My dad owned that building for years until he passed and we sold it in the late 90s. Many great memories there

    1. Whi was your dad? Was his name joe?

  4. My dad passed awaybin the staircase in 1990