Thursday, April 4, 2013

Bill's (Gay Nineties) -- No. 57 East 54th Street

photo by Alice Lum
As the Fifth and Madison Avenue area became the most exclusive residential neighborhood in Manhattan in the second half of the 19th century, developers erected rows of broad, comfortable brownstone residences along the side streets.     One such group lined the northern side of East 54th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues.

The handsome Italianate residences were four stories tall above deep English basements.  Clad in brownstone they stretched three bays wide and boasted grand carved entrances surmounted by arched pediments sitting on scrolled brackets.   Heavy stone newels and carved railings graced the tall brownstone stoops.

Among the identical homes was No. 57 which became the parsonage of the Presbyterian Memorial Church on the corner of 53rd Street and Madison Avenue.     In 1879 the house was home to the young and idealistic Hollis Burke Frissell.  Just 28 years old, Reverend Frissell had just been appointed Associate Pastor, having graduated that spring from the Union Theological Seminary.

With young Frissell in the house was the charismatic and talented pastor Reverend Charles Seymour Robinson and his wife, Harriet Church Robinson.  Robinson was a prolific hymnist and writer.  In 1862 he published his first volume of hymns, “Songs for the Church,” followed by his 1865 "Songs of the Sanctuary” which sold more than 500,000 copies.  While in the 54th Street house he would write several other works, including “Laudes Domini—A Selection of Spiritual Songs Ancient & Modern for Use in the Prayer-Meeting” in 1884; and in 1888 he wrote “Studies in Mark’s Gospel” (he did not take all the credit for this work, saying in his Preface “Two dear friends have aided me in the drudgery of mechanical preparation.”).  Other non-musical books were the two-volume “Memorial Pulpit,” Short Studies in the New Testament,” and “Studies of Neglected Texts.”

Robinson came from a long line of religious men in America.  He was a direct descendent of Puritan John Robinson of Leyden, whom The New York Times referred to as “pastor of the Pilgrims.”   Charles Robinson had been pastor of the American Chapel in Paris for two years, starting in 1868, until the war between France and Germany caused his return to the States.

On the evening of September 10, 1891, the house was the scene of what The New York Times called “A charming home wedding.”  The Robinson’s daughter Mary Louise, was married in the drawing room to Franklin Gaylord, the son of General Augustus Gaylord.  The newspaper remarked that “The house was prettily decorated with flowers and potted plants and was thronged with the friends of the young couple.” 

The Sun made note that Robinson himself conducted the ceremony with a headline reading “A Venerable Presbyterian Clergyman Officiates at his Daughter’s Wedding.”  The article described the drawing room as being “decorated with smilax and golden rod.”

In 1893 Hollis Frissell left his post (the Presbyterian Memorial Church had been renamed Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in 1883) to become the principal of Virginia’s Hampton Institute which The New York Times described as “the school for negroes.” 

Leaving his comfortable life serving one of Manhattan’s well-to-do white congregations, he turned his attention to the downtrodden.    In 1937 Lance George Edward Jones would say “No man brought more light to the forgotten people of the state, black and white.”

Robinson, too, would change roles.  He left the Madison Avenue church to become pastor of the 13th Street Presbyterian Church, “accepting no salary because of the financial weakness of the church,” said The Times.

No longer the church’s rectory, by 1899 the house was purchased by the esteemed real estate attorney George Forrest Butterworth.  A partner in the firm of Strong & Cadwalader, “one of the leading firms of the New York Bar,” according to “Universities and Their Sons,” he moved in along with his wife, the former Alice Crawford, and son, George Forrest Butterworth, Jr.

Towards the end of the century the stone balustrades and newels of No. 57 (left) had been replaced with handsome brass fixtures -- photo NYPL Collection
Butterworth apparently shared the house or leased it to the family of Major Clement C. Moore, grandson of Clement Clarke Moore, for a short period.    When Major Moore died on December 15, 1910, he left an estate of just over $1 million to his wife, Laura, and three sons.  The fortune was derived mostly from real estate dating back to the family’s country estate, Chelsea, which was divided up and sold in the early 19th century.

George Forrest Butterworth -- "Universities and Their Sons" 1899 (copyright expired)
Within the year Laura, in ill health, left the house on East 54th Street and moved into the Hotel Buckingham with two of her sons.

Alice Butterworth gave a luncheon for 32 guests on April 24, 1914 in celebration of the engagement of George Junior to Isabel Imlay Baird.   The drawing room where Mary Louise Robinson was married 23 years earlier was now decorated with pink roses and carnations and pink sweet peas filled the dining room.

On October 5, 1916 the happy couple was married in St. Bartholomew’s Church.  Although they moved into No. 129 East 82nd Street after their honeymoon, they soon returned to the Butterworth house on 54th Street.  

Two years later the couple had a son and another baby was on the way.  On Saturday night, March 29, 1919 Isabel went into labor.  Complications arose and after the birth of a little baby girl, Isabel died the following morning.

George Junior was remarried two years later to Eva Horner, the daughter of the Bishop of Asheville, North Carolina.   Records show the Butterworth family stayed in the 57th Street house until the end of the 1920s; although conflicting reports maintain that Bill Hardy opened a speakeasy downstairs in 1924.
photo by Alice Lum

By 1931 the block was no longer a quiet residential street.  The house was now owned by the 57 East Fifty-fourth Street Realty Company, Inc. and in 1933 it was converted to a “restaurant” according to Building Department records.  Bill’s Gay Nineties tried hard to recreate a carefree Victorian saloon atmosphere and the post-Prohibition nightclub became known for its piano bar.  In 1936 The New Yorker magazine remarked “Well, Bill’s Gay Nineties, 57 East Fifty-fourth Street, makes a specialty of the eternal collegiate who wants to bawl out the tenor to ‘A Bicycle Built for Two.’”

On the whole the Midtown restaurant/nightclub spent three-quarters of a century drawing little undue attention to itself.   The most remarkable exception occurred on the evening of May 27, 1937 when four Hollywood types on the town created a melee.

“Three men were injured, one of them seriously, and seven persons, including a woman, were under arrest…after a street brawl in front of Bill’s Gay Nineties night club,” reported The Times.

“Men and women in evening clothes disappeared into a quickly gathered crowd of more than 100 onlookers as the brawl developed into a free-for-all of slugging fists, with one man laid out on the sidewalk unconscious.”

It all started when Hollywood scenarist and journalist Adele Rogers St. John walked into the club with her husband, publicity director Patrick O’Toole; Daniel (Don) Higgins, a publicist for Columbia Broadcasting System; and radio commentator William Wright.  When the party was told there were no tables available a confrontation broke out.   Wright was taken to Bellevue Hospital with a fractured skull and O’Toole was treated for injuries to the face.

While Bill’s Gay Nineties operated downstairs, the top three floors remained a single-family home until 1983.  Then each floor was converted to an apartment.

Irish-born Noel Tynan purchased the house in 2003 with Anthony Kearns, a member of the Irish Tenors.  Bill’s Gay Nineties had become, after 70 years, a sort of time capsule now run by Barbara Bart Olmsted.  Convinced that the antiques and relics in the bar were part of its history and concerned that they would be lost to progress, Tynan offered to extend Olmsted’s lease for 10 years if she would sell him the memorabilia; thereby preserving the atmosphere of the bar.

Stylish brass railings replaced the carved stone late in the 19th century -- photo by Alice Lum
Instead, Olmsted filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in November 2011 and, in March 2012, Bill’s Gay Nineties closed.   Salvation came in the name of John DeLucie and his Crown Group Hospitality.  The owner of the Crown on the Upper East Side and the Lion in Greenwich Village attempted to acquire as many of the vintage accessories as possible.

Renamed Bill’s 90's, the bar-restaurant is a bit tidier and posher than the old watering hole.   Long ago the Victorian details were sliced off the fa├žade; but the once-proud residence hangs on with its capsule of Manhattan nightclub history in the basement below.


  1. A brief "plug" for the new incarnation of the restaurant: I've eaten there twice and both the food and carefully preserved atmosphere are superb.

  2. it is not on 57th, you may want to change the headline of this post...

  3. The address is correct. 57 E, 54th street.