|Above the entrance is the spread-eagle figurehead from the schooner yacht America. photo Early New York Houses, 1900 (copyright expired)
The vast Elbert Herring “farm” stretched from The Bowery on the east, to Christopher Street to the West. Its irregular boundaries included a large chunk of what would become Washington Square. Herring Street, an important east-west road through the property would later be renamed Bleecker Street.
On April 13, 1784, just five months after the British left Manhattan, the Herring heirs divided the entire farm into parcels. Large sections went to various family members and within the next few years plots were divided and subdivided.
By the 1820s the grid of streets and avenues, on paper since 1811, was being laid across the former farmland and houses and stores were being erected. In 1826 Amity Street was opened, intersecting the already-existing Mercer Street, on land now owned by Gerard William Livingston.
Richard J. Wells purchased the still-vacant lot at the southeast corner of Mercer and Amity Streets in 1834, where he built his commodious residence. Unlike the elegant marble-trimmed brick mansions being erected nearby in the area past Broadway known as the Bond Street District; Wells’ home was a hulking wooden structure that recalled earlier styles. Two-and-a-half stories tall, it featured the gambrel roof and centered chimney fashionable half a century earlier.
Wells had been practicing law in New York since, at least, 1831. He also listed himself in city directories as a “public notary.” His time in the clapboard house lasted only about five years. He sold it for $13,000 in 1840 to John H. Coutant—almost $370,000 in today’s money.
Although Coutant listed himself simply as “gentleman,” he was by now the proprietor of the nearby Vauxhall Gardens on Lafayette Street. The pleasure garden offered refreshments and entertainment in that upscale neighborhood.
Although the former Wells house was briefly leased to a school, possibly the R. P. Jenk’s Select School for Boys; it was transformed to an inn when Coutant leased it to John I. Warden. Warden was described by New York historian William Smith Peletreau in 1900 as “a well-known character.”
The establishment, deemed a “saloon” by Peletreau, was named The Golden Eagle Inn. The name came from the impressive wooden figurehead mounted over the entrance. It originally adorned the schooner yacht America which made history on August 22, 1851 when it won the Queen’s Cup in the international race off Cowes, England. The victory, which shocked British and European yachtsmen, was instrumental in the creation of the America’s Cup races later.
Not long after the race, the yacht was sold to an Englishman. The New York Times later recalled “When built a golden eagle and a wonderful bit of scroll work adorned America’s stern. That was removed when she passed into British ownership, as her titled owner did not care for the screaming American eagle as a decoration. So the handiwork of American carvers of the old shipbuilding school was sold to an innkeeper of the Pickwickian type, who had it placed over the entrance to his 'Golden Eagle Inn.'”
The Mercer Street neighborhood was already noticeably changed by the time the Golden Eagle opened. A few years earlier, on January 4, 1846, a most unsettling incident occurred at the boarding house on the diagonally-opposite corner.
Assistant Police Captain Dennis discovered a bundle within the fenced side area, wrapped in newspaper and a black muslin shirt. Inside was what the New York Herald described as “the arm of a human being, apparently that of a female, from the appearance of the hand and fingers.” The newspaper said “also the blade bone was attached to the shoulder, bare of flesh.”
Several broken tree branches made it obvious that the body parts had been tossed from an upstairs window. The Herald was outraged at the incident and suggested this was part of a disturbing trend. “We hope the Coroner will strictly investigate this matter to-day—by examining the inmates of that house—for the utter regardless manner in distributing the limbs of our fellow creatures about the streets, has become alarming, and must be looked into.”
Golden Eagle Inn was not the only such establishment in the neighborhood—there were in fact several—but it was one of the best known. According to William Smith Peletreau, “In the days of its glory it was a favorite resort of Gen. Winfield Scott, Edwin Booth, John Wallack, and a host of men whose names are famous.”
The respectable patrons were attracted by the civilized behavior demanded by John Warden. Unlike the low-class lager beer and whiskey saloons where fights, robberies and women of questionable character were common, the Golden Eagle Inn insisted on propriety among its customers. A sign over the bar read:
Swearing, loud, boisterous talk, political, religious and exciting disputes will not be allowed.
The barroom was decorated with a collection of oil paintings and “curios.” On the bar was an oversized copper bowl filled with tobacco, free to the Inn’s customers. The Sun later described “The newspapers, always at the service of the patrons, gave to the place the character of a reading room, and every orderly person was encouraged to remain until the hour of closing. Acquaintances were easily made and grew rapidly, and as a consequence the same familiar faced could be seen nightly, often at the same identical tables.”
John Matthews worked in the Golden Eagle Inn in 1870, the summer that New York suffered through an unbearable heat wave. On July 27 The New York Times reported that the temperatures in the shade had hovered in the 90s the day before. “The distressing heat continued yesterday, and is having serious effect on the lives of the citizens. Heretofore the deaths have been confined to old men and young children, but from the returns of yesterday it will be perceived that young and middle-aged men are falling victims to the sudden mortality.”
John Matthews narrowly escaped having his name added to the list of victims of “sudden mortality.” Describing him as a “young man,” the newspaper said that Matthews “coming out of a cool room to sweep the sidewalk, was suddenly prostrated by the heat, and, after being partially restored, was carried to his residence.”
Rooms in the upper floors were rented. One married couple living here in 1873 decided to find a more permanent apartment. Their advertisement in the New York Herald on February 6 that year read “Wanted—By a young couple, two or three rooms for light housekeeping, near the Broadway line of cars, between Washington place and Thirty-fifth street; rent $25. Address J. C., Golden Eagle, corner Amity and Mercer streets.”
By the end of the 1880s the Golden Eagle Inn was an anachronism. The buildings of the 1830s had been razed and Mercer Street was lined with modern loft buildings. Amity Street was now West Third Street. In 1892 King’s Handbook of New York City wrote “The Golden Eagle Inn was another famous place. The building still stands, back of the Broadway Central Hotel. It is an old frame house, redolent with memories of the theatrical folk and politicians who frequented it half a century ago. But for the most part these ancient inns are only memories to the present generation.”
At the time of King’s description, the days of the Golden Eagle Inn were numbered. Charles Coutant sold the valuable property in 1893. On April 17 that year The Sun announced “The Golden Eagle Inn, at the southeast corner of West Third and Mercer streets, is soon to be torn down. It has been a tavern for more than half a century, but the transformation of the neighborhood has isolated it from the stream of profitable custom, and the land upon which it has stood so long is needed for a dry goods mart.”
The newspaper noted “the site of this old hostelry was once the heart of fashionable New York,” and listed the several other inns that had been located within a few blocks. The writer reminisced “These taverns, of which the Golden Eagle is an inconspicuous survivor, were established in imitation of similar homely resorts of conviviality and good cheer in England. They were staid and substantial.”
The article pointed out the stark differences between the cordial atmospheres of the inns with their modern counterparts. “The counters and tables were usually of mahogany. Pewter mugs were used for the favorite beverages, and extreme neatness characterized the whole establishment. There were no garish decorations in tiling or metal; the window panes were small, and a swinging sign with the symbol of the place painted upon it, swung usually over the front entrance.”
The writer sighed “The taverns are passing away. A few have lingered longer than the others, but ultimately, such are the existing conditions of life in this town, all, except those appealing to the custom of Englishmen, must go.”
Although The Sun deemed the closing of the Golden Eagle Inn “beneficial;” it noted “that fact will not prevent the old-fashioned person from grievously deploring it over their pewter toby.”
Within a month of the article, the Golden Eagle Inn had been demolished. Almost two decades later The New York Times thought back on the figurehead from the America that had surmounted the entrance. “The whereabouts of that bit of carving is unknown just now,” it reported.
Today the New York University’s Mercer Street Residence, a residence hall for law students, occupies the site of the old inn.