The sagging little building at 392-393 West Street has one of the most deeply varied and checkered histories in New York.
In 1796 the Newgate State Prison opened along the river in the small, rural village of Greenwich. It was a grand building, designed by Joseph-Francois Mangin, architect of New York City Hall. During the day inmates in the great Georgian-style prison were taught to manufacture shoes, spinning wheels, nails and other household goods that could be sold for revenue. At night they attended classes in Latin, mathmatics and reading.
By 1825, however, the prison was losing money and an inspector noted conditions filthier than any he had ever seen outside of the notorious Washington DC city jail. A state legislature sent a commission who reported insolence and idleness among the inmates. A new prison was authorized to be built in Ossining, New York and by 1829 the State abandoned Newgate.
|from the collection of the New York Public Library|
Partly because of the more convenient Jefferson Market, the Greenwich Market was never successful. In 1848 the City closed the market and authorized its demolition. George Munson jumped at the opportunity and purchased two sections, Nos.392-393 West Street for $1,550. A boatbuilder by trade, he enclosed the structure and renovated it as a business, adding a second floor with a rear outside staircase and entrance on Weehawken Street.
Munson lost 392-393 West Street to foreclosure in 1864, and it was purchased by Edmund Terry, a Brooklyn lawyer. Terry continued to lease it to the Littles for another three years. In the years after the Civil War, additional taverns appeared along West Street. James A. Mulqueen, who operated the tavern from 1883 to 1907 fought the competition by adding a pool table.
The riverfront neighborhood was, at best, seedy. The New York Police Department described the area around Mulqueen's tavern in 1902. "It has at night been the resort of outcasts, drunkards, dissolute people, and a dangerous class of depredators and petty highwaymen. ... Protection from these evildoers has been chiefly asked by seafaring people whose craft are moored to the docks along the North River front, and ... by the officers and men of the ships of the White Star, Cunard, Leyland, and Transatlantic Lines, and also by dock watchmen and patrons of the ferry lines."
William (Billy) F. Gillespie took over the lease for the saloon in 1909 until Prohibition closed him down in 1920. Bouncing back, he opened Billie's Original Clam Broth House which remained highly popular until 1925. During the same time, the West Village neighborhood changed from "the resort of outcasts, drunkards and depredators" to a highly desireable residential enclave.
|from the collection of the New York Public Library|
Yet the little, block-long Weehawken Street managed to retain its charm. In 1934 The Villager called it "the almost forgotten thoroughfare" and "still picturesque."
The Terry family sold 392-393 West Street in 1943 to George Hunt, a retired mariner. After a two-year renovation, Hunt moved in. He told The Villager in 1945 that he "bought it cheap... but I fixed it all up inside, reinforced it and everything." From here he sold items needed by the dockworkers and shipworkers such as canvas gloves, work clothes, and tobacco. He owned the building only until 1946.
As the neighborhood continued to change and the waterfront traffic ceased, 392-393 West Street changed too. From the 1970s through 1999 it housed gay bars and then a pornographic video store. Then in 2006 it was purchased for $2.2 million by Jean-Louis Bourgeois, described by The New York Times as "an architectural historian, advocate for environmental rights and 21st-century hipster."
It seems that almost daily another luxury high-rise glass-and-steel condominum rises on West Street where once tall masted schooners docked and horse-drawn drays crowded the road. Yet by some miracle, 392-393 West Street, where Rosanna Little poured stout ale for 19th Century sailors, still stands.
photographs by the author
I am a Manhattanitte who moved to Savannah about a year ago. I love your blog, and I am so happy to revisit my beloved home and discover new places. New York City always reinvents itself, and its history is fascinating. Thank you.ReplyDelete
Thanks for the compliment! Readers like you are what makes this worthwhile!ReplyDelete
I used to live at 116 Perry Street in the 90's (right above of the apt. Frank Serpico lived in), and I loved walking down these tiny side streets (like Charles Lane). It's great to hear the story of this rare remnant of the Greenwich Market days. Thanks.ReplyDelete
I was wondering if you happen to know the name of the Little's tavern.
sorry to say I have never been able to find the name of the tavern run by the Littles. Would be interesting to find that.Delete
Thanks anyway... and who knows, perhaps it never had an official name. It appears a lot of taverns of those days simply went by their local nickname, much like the nearby "The Green Door."ReplyDelete
Great blog by the way. I am working on my own historical project and many of your posts have offered a nice supplement to my own research. Thanks!
I have been curious about the house with the blue door on West St. b/w 10th and Christopher. Was it connected to the house on Weehawken St. around the corner? Fascinated - morendetmore please! Thanks!!ReplyDelete
I don't understand your question. Isn't the house with the blue door the subject of this post?Delete
Yes it’s the same house just a different entranceDelete
So the Newgate prison only stood from 1796 to 1825? Waa it on the very same site of the market. I have seen the little building on west st but never pictures of the prison.ReplyDelete
The prison was slightly north of the market area, I believe.Delete
I know this post is old, but I was driving by this building tonight in a cab and I just noticed it for the first time. If we are to believe Wikipedia, Jean Louis deeded it to a non-profit. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Louis_BourgeoisReplyDelete
The post above is correct. Mr. Bourgeois, the son of artist Louise Bourgeois, is very interested in Native American issues, and wishes to have this building serve as a cultural center for the Lenape Ramapough tribes, a federally unrecognized group in and around Mahwah, NJ.ReplyDelete
Loved this piece. I grew up in Inwood but am always facinated by these types of stories and history of NYC. I live in NC now but NYC will always be home.ReplyDelete
Every Friday night all of 1980s - 392 West Street - Sneakers bar - how I miss the Regan era -ReplyDelete
This is indeed a forgotten gem of old New York with the requisite seediness that imparts it's rich history. These wood survivors buildings are so few now but delightful to explore.And the history of the west Side is always so interestingReplyDelete