The Bond Street area, in the 1830s, was one of the city’s two most exclusive residential neighborhoods. The blocks branching off Lafayette Street, from Bond Street to Astor Place, boasted some of the wealthiest citizens in New York. High-end homes were being constructed on the east side of the Bowery, as well; such as No. 64 East 7th Street.
Construction began in 1839 and was completed the following year. The wide red brick residence sat on a rusticated brownstone English basement. A cast iron balcony stretched the width of the parlor floor, accessed by two floor-to-ceiling windows.
Upscale Greek Revival residences saved their ostentation for the interiors. Here lavish parlors and dining rooms boasted exquisite mantels and plasterwork, and staircases spilled down to handsomely carved newels. The self-effacing facades merely hinted at the wealth and station of the residents within. But the architect of No. 64 gave a tantalizing clue to passersby in designing the entrance. The paneled entablature sitting on the brownstone pilasters was decorated with lovely groups of nuts and berries. The added touch signaled that the residents could afford the extra cost.
By the time the house was completed, the area was seeing an influx of German immigrants. In 1846 the Corporation of the United German Lutheran Church purchased three lots on East 6th Street where the Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. Mark was soon built. By the 1850s German was the most common language spoken in the Lower East Side, earning it the nickname Kleindeutchland, or Little Germany.
In 1880 the health of the church’s pastor, Rev. Hermann Raegener, began to fail. The congregation hired 26-year old Rev. George C. F. Haas as assistant pastor. The young minister boarded at Reverend Raegener’s home for two years until he was given the position of pastor of St. Mark’s.
It was either his promotion or his upcoming marriage to Dutch immigrant Anna Hansen that prompted him to find his own home.. For whichever reason in 1882 he moved into No. 64 East 7th Street. The ample size of the house proved necessary when not only did George’s sister Emma and Anna’s mother, Elizabeth Hansen, move in; but when their two children were born—George in 1888 and Gertrude in 1892.
As the turn of the century approached, St. Mark’s was a vibrant congregation. The attempt of the Germans to assimilate into the New York community at large was evidenced by its offering services in English on Sunday evenings starting in 1893.
George C. F. Haas was beloved as a pastor and leader of the German community. Well aware that his congregation consisted not only of successful merchants and businessmen, but also impoverished immigrant families; he and the ladies of the church organized outings, bazaars and entertainments to uplift their blighted lives.
Summers in stifling tenements could be miserable. In 1904 St. Mark’s Church chartered the side wheeler General Slocum for $350 for a day trip up the East River, across the Long Island Sound to a picnic grove on Long Island. On June 15, more than 1,300 passengers boarded the steamer which carried a crew of 35. Because it was a Wednesday morning and because children rode for free, the vessel was filled mostly with women and children. Nearly the entire Haas household—George and Anna, 12-year old Gertrude, Emma Haas and Elizabeth Hanson—were on board. Only 16-year old George stayed behind.
Unbeknownst to the party, Captain William Van Shaick had not practiced fire drills with his crew in years, as required by law. Life preservers and fire hoses had not been inspected since the craft was constructed 13 years earlier.
The ship pushed off from the 3rd Street Pier at 9:30 a.m. A band on board played carefree tunes and children ran about on the upper decks. By 10:00 it was entering the treacherous Hell Gate section of the river. It was at this point that onlookers on shore, attracted by the music, noticed smoke billowing from below decks and began gesturing wildly to those on board.
Suddenly the fire below decks reached a paint locker filled with gasoline and other flammable liquids. Pandemonium broke out as the flames erupted on the upper decks. Panicked passengers rushed for life jackets, most of which fell apart in their hands, the canvas fabric having rotted after years of exposure to the elements. The cork filling in the others had granulated over time, so when mothers laced their children into the vests and tossed them overboard, they watched in utter horror as the cork absorbed the water and pulled their children under.
George Haas later recounted “At that time most of the women and children were jammed in the rear of the boat, where the band was playing. Why the captain did not point the boat for the meadows I do not understand. He kept on, and the fresh wind from the Sound drove the fire back through the different decks with lightning rapidity.
“In three minutes from the time the fire started all the decks were ablaze…I was in the rear of the boat with my wife and daughter. Women were shrieking and clasping their children in their arms. Some mothers had as many as three or four with them. Our case seemed hopeless. Death from fire was to be escaped only to die in the water.”
Haas told how he became separated from his family. “With my wife and daughter I had been swept over the rail. The fire then looked as if it would devour us the next instant. I got my wife and daughter out on the rail, and then we went overboard. I was in such an excited state that I don’t remember whether we were pushed over or jumped.
“When I struck the water I sank, and when I rose there were scores about me fighting to keep afloat. One by one I saw them sink around me. But I was powerless to do anything. I was holding my wife and daughter up in the water as best I could, almost under the side of the boat, when someone, jumping from the rail directly above me, landed on top of us. My hold was broken, and we all went under together. When I came up my wife and child were gone.”
Nearby vessels rushed to try to help. Two fire boats, at least a dozen tugboats, ferries, a police boat—over 100 in all—hurried to the scene. George Haas was pulled aboard a tugboat. For most it was too late. Within a span of 15 minutes the General Slocum had burned to the waterline.
Of the 1,300 people on board, only 321 emerged from the water alive. It was the greatest loss of life in New York City until September 11, 2001. Around 5:00 that night George and his sister Emma returned home without their family members. The following morning the New-York Tribune said “The pastor was prostrated last night. Much of the time he was unconscious…With the exception of Mr. Haas’s son George, who did not go on the excursion, these two are apparently the only ones left of a large family.”
Two weeks later the funeral of 46-year old Anna Haas was held in the East 7th Street house. The Evening World said “It was rendered doubly pathetic because the bodies of the pastor’s daughter, Gertrude, his mother-in-law, Mrs. Mary Hanson, his sister-in-law, Mrs. William Dietmore, and her son Herbert, have not been recovered.”
“Because of the ghastly burns he received in the destruction of the Slocum, Dr. Haas sat behind a screen during the funeral services,” said the newspaper.
During the service, word came that the body of Anna’s sister, burned beyond recognition, had been identified by marks on the body. Her coffin was hurried to the Haas house and the service became a double funeral. Little Gertrude’s body was among the last to be identified.
|A police honor guard lines the steps of the Haas house on June 17, 1904. Two hearses, one for Anna and one for her sister, await at the curb. photo www.encyclopedia-titanica.org|
Among the telegrams and letters George Haas received were one from President Theodore Roosevelt,
Accept my profound sympathy for yourself, your church and your congregation.
and from Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany,
Being most profoundly affected by the news of the indescribably horrible catastrophe which has overtaken the Lutheran congregation, I command you to express to it my innermost feelings of sorrow.
Little by little the decimated German community moved north to the Yorkville neighborhood, abandoning Kleindeutschland where memories and grief were unbearable. On December 13, 1913 Morris Spielberg purchased No. 64 East 7th Street. George Haas would eventually move to Staten Island where he died on September 30, 1927.
In January 1916 Spielberg made renovations to the house. He commissioned architects Gross & Kleinberger to remove walls and install new steel beams at a cost of about $500. It was most likely at this time that the basement was converted to commercial purposes.
Socialism had already spread to the western world but the Russian Revolution of 1917 would be the introduction of Communism to many New Yorkers. By 1919 the store in the basement of No. 64 East 7th Street housed a stationery store. Behind it was a small print shop where Alexander Brailovsky ran his print shop.
Brailovsky was a Russian-born communist and he published his Russian language weekly newspaper Russky Golos (The Russian Voice) here. The paper was closely aligned with the Communist Party of the United States and printed pro-communist and anti-capitalist articles.
On September 16, 1920 stock brokers and bankers went about their daily routine along Wall Street when, exactly at noon, a horse-drawn cart packed with 1,000 pounds of dynamite and 500 pounds of metal, chucks of iron sash weights and other shrapnel, exploded outside of the J. P. Morgan & Co. building. There were 30 immediate fatalities and hundreds of injured. Six more would eventually die of wounds.
Witnesses told detectives that Brailovsky was seen laughing near Wall Street half an hour later. Two days later police entered the print shop on 7th Street and arrested Alexander Brailovsky. He was never definitively tied to the bombing; however police deemed it the first arrest of a true radical.
The Russky Golos was eventually taken over by Theodore Bayer. It would remain in the house, behind the retail space, until at least 1939.
By the 1960 the neighborhood was part of the trendy, beat generation area now known as the East Village. That year John Bosson and Paul Seidenatein opened the Four Steps Coffee Gallery—a combination coffee house and art gallery—in the basement. The short-lived business was taken over by Barron Bruchlos later that year as the Cart Wheel. The 28-year old hippie Bruchlos not only sold coffee in his bohemian shop, he sold peyote.
The New York Times described Bruchlos as “the bearded and barefoot operator of a Greenwich Village coffee shop” and said he “has been selling the drug to beatniks and college students for 50 to 70 cents a capsule. Some users get ‘highs’ lasting as long as thirty-six hours, he said.”
Bruchlos complained that he had been “pestered” by the Food and Drug people for about a year for selling the drug (in June that year they had seized 311 pounds and 145 capsules). The newspaper described the drug, obtained from a cactus plant, as having “a mild intoxicating effect and sometimes produces hallucinations and visions of vivid colors.”
The beatnik’s ongoing battle with the FDA would not last much longer. On December 6, 1960 he was found dead on the floor of the Cart Wheel. Police thought his death was most likely of natural causes.”
Six months later Les Deux Megots opened in the space. The Village Voice, in June 1961, announced “The Wednesday poetry readings at the 10th Street Coffee House have been moved to the Deux Megots Coffee House…All poets welcome to come and read every Wednesday, 8:30 p.m.” Named after the Café Des Deux-Magots in Paris, it was the iconic basement coffee house of the beat generation. At the café’s open readings, poets like Allen Ginsberg, Paul Blackburn and Peter Orlovsky read their works.
Les Deux Megots closed in February 1963. It reopened a year later as a restaurant. The Paradox was dedicated to the philosophy of Georges Ohsawa and his macrobiotic diet. The room was lit by candles, tea was free, and the food was inexpensive. Eastern spiritualism was as much a part of the place as was the food. It attracted New Age patrons like Yoko Ono, who also worked there for a time. Nevertheless, despite The Paradox’s focus on healthful eating, it received 15 Health Department violations in 1971.
In 2009 No. 64 east purchased by Lisa J. Fox who commissioned architect William Peterson to add a fourth floor. The remarkably sympathetic addition matched the openings, lintels and sills and added a reproduction cornice.
|A bold, beautifully grained Greek Revival mantel survives in one room. www.blocksy.com|
Throughout its remarkable life the George C. F. Haas house somehow escaped modernization. Within its walls three important stages of East Greenwich Village history have played out.
photographs by the author
|The extremely sympathetic upper floor addition is evidenced by the subtle change in brick color.|
photographs by the author