Saturday, November 17, 2012

The 1850's "Muffin House" -- No. 337 W. 20th Street

Its original use as a foundry most likely accounts for the building's extra-wide frontage.  The decorative cornice has been lost.
When Samuel Bath Thomas left his home in England in 1874 the Chelsea region of New York City had already become a vibrant, mixed neighborhood.    Half a century earlier the once-rural family estate of Clement Clarke Moore had been cut into building plots as the streets and avenues invaded the property.

By now row houses, churches and businesses lined the avenues and side streets.     The westerly location of Chelsea near the Hudson River, still north of the established business district and many blocks from 5th Avenue, kept property values affordable.  Yet it was also near enough to the Broadway hotels to be advantageous to businesses serving those establishments—like a commercial bakery.

Along with his personal effects, Samuel Bath Thomas brought his most valuable possession—a muffin recipe.   Thomas’s muffin was totally unlike anything American breakfasters were accustomed to and it would lead to his fortune in his new country.

In 1880 Thomas opened his first bakery at No. 163 9th Avenue.     He sold only to commercial establishments, possibly to the discontent of passersby who smelled the aromas wafting from the bakery.   He advertised delivery “to hotels and restaurants by pushcart.”

Before long the demand for Thomas’ English Muffins was such that a second bakery was necessary.  Thomas opened the branch location just around the corner at No. 337 West 20th Street.  What would seem to be a rather surprising spot on an otherwise quiet residential street directly across from St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, was most likely a shrewd move.

The existing brick-and-brownstone building had been built a decade before the Civil War.  A foundry was once housed in the lower levels which would have necessitated large brick ovens.   It was nearly a custom fit.

Thomas renovated the existing building and, perhaps with deference to the neighbors and the church, only slightly altered the Anglo-Italianate street level.  It was possibly at this time that the pressed copper cornice above the first floor was added.    

In the basement massive brick ovens stretched back underneath the garden.    From here the Thomas bakery produced the tasty English muffins for decades.

When Thomas died in 1919 his family took over the bakery, later selling the business.   Eventually the West 20th Street location was abandoned and the former bakery became, like the upper floors, apartments.  The great brick ovens under the garden were walled off and forgotten.  In 1952 there were two apartments per floor and any memories of Thomas’s baking operation in the basement were long forgotten.

Then around 2005 Mike  Kinnarie and Kerry McInerney purchased their duplex apartment—the first floor and basement--in the building which was now a co-op.   In July 2006 Kinnarie was in the process of some home improvement and removed an old radiator on the first floor.  In the process some floorboards were pulled loose.

In the darkness below he could see bricks and what appeared to be a door or perhaps a window.  In an act of urban archeology, Kinnarie cut a section from the basement bedroom wall and aimed a flashlight beam into the darkness.  There were Thomas’s ovens—an arched grotto-like brick structure bearing the black scars of years of intense heat.

The co-op at No. 337 West 20th Street has been christened The Muffin House.   The mid-19th century building draws little attention by its unexceptional architecture.  Yet underneath the garden are remnants of a most interesting page of New York and culinary history.

photographs taken by the author


  1. Are there any photos of the bakery?

  2. As a neighbor I've known this story but the foundry part always perplexed me. A foundry in the middle of an upper middle class block?

    1. Remember that the upper middle class status of the block did not happen overnight. Most of the earliest homes west of 8th Avenue were modest and 9th Avenue was filled with industry. The more affluent houses of this block came along after the Civil War; more than a decade after the foundry was established.

    2. I used to live in this building in the 1990s, and moved out in 1999. Somehow we knew about the ovens in the basement, I’m not sure how. It was also a pretty modest neighborhood, fairly untouched by development till the end of that period. I believe that whole strip of 10th Avenue, going down to the building that became Chelsea Market, was once filled with food stores and dairies. There used to be a very good butcher around the corner on 10th Avenue, run by a man who had taken it over from his father, and one block up around 21st was a deli and sandwich shop that had once been a dairy. Chelsea Market itself used to be the Nabisco factory, and I think the train tracks that became the Highline used to run from there to the building that’s now Dia Beacon, where the boxes were printed. So having a muffin factory on 20th Street doesn’t seem so strange.

  3. I'm the Kerry McInerney mentioned above. We located a picture of one of Thomas' horse drawn carriages out in front of the building. We framed it and it's hanging in the ground floor hallway that stretches from the front door to the courtyard, opposite the apartment. We aren't there anymore, but I believe the picture is. I should have a digital copy saved; I'll see if I can locate it.

    The oven is huge - probably 4 1/2 feet high and 20 feet deep, all brick, with a cantilevered ceiling. It takes up much of the space under the courtyard between the main building and the carriage house out back. The Thomases people came with an urban archeologist from Columbia and validated the whole thing. And sent us a nice basket of English muffins afterwards. :)

    1. Thanks for the great additional information! Very interesting.

  4. Sure! Here's the article from when it was first found:

  5. And here's the photo of the delivery carriage Kerry mentioned:

    Regards, Michael Terman of the Carriage House

    1. That's a great find, Michael. I don't think it is the picture Kerry speaks of (not that you suggested it was), because that does not look like the front of the building, but it is great to see the carriage. It may just be a random shot of the carriage making a delivery. Very rural looking. Imagine NYC once looked like that?