Friday, June 24, 2016

The Alabama House -- Nos. 219-221 Bowery

By the end of the Civil War the Bowery had changed from an upscale street of brick-faced homes.  Businesses, music halls and biergartens replaced them one-by-one as the influx of immigrants changed the street's personality.

In 1867 the building at No. 221 was shared by a tobacco store and a “store and range warehouse.”  Already the neighborhood was the center of Manhattan’s German immigrant community.  James D. McCabe described it in 1883 as “the paradise of beer saloons, bar-rooms, concert and dance halls, cheap theatres, and low-class shows…The population of the street is largely German, and at night and on holiday occasions the Bowery constitutes the favorite resort of the pleasure-seekers of this nationality.”

By at least 1876 William H. Jackson owned both Nos. 219 and 220 Bowery.  In 1889 he demolished both and commissioned James E. Ware to design matching multi-purpose five story structures.  The 43-year old architect designed various buildings, but would become best remembered for his developing of the “dumbbell plan” of tenements.

The completed structures were essentially Renaissance Revival; but Ware liberally splashed them with Romanesque and Queen Anne elements.  Queen Anne made its appearance in the terra cotta frieze below the ambitious cornice and the two-story faceted bays above the cast iron storefronts.  Their angled windows now only provided dimension, but captured wisps of breezes in the summer months.  Romanesque Revival appeared in the top floor arcade, the rounded bullnosed brick corners of the upper floors, and the unique pilaster capitals—a marriage of Corinthian and medieval ornament.

The majority of the four upper floor space in both buildings (soon purchased by Nathaniel H. Lyons) were operated as the Alabama Hotel.  James McCabe had noted that “All along the street you her the sharp crack of the rifles in the shooting-galleries.”  One of these was the Zettler Rifle Club, which moved into the slightly wider, southern portion of Jackson’s new building.  The club installed a shooting range and club rooms in its space; while tenants of moderate income lived in the rest of the building.

Ware's pilaster capitals were unique.
Among them was Traugott Hampel who had come to New York from Manheim, Germany, at the age of 22--the same year the Alabama House was finished.  He found a job as a janitor in a school in Hoboken, where he met Sophie Klehrmunt.  After Sophie was hired as a servant in a Lexington Avenue house, she left Traugott.

Heartbroken, he moved to New York to be near her, working at a variety of jobs.  His worried family finally convinced him to return to Germany.  Once there, his father set him up in business and arranged a courtship with a young woman.  In 1891 a wedding day was set and a house for the soon-to-be newlyweds procured.  And then in February a letter from Sophie Klehrmunt arrived.  In it, according to The New York Times “she pretended that she had reconsidered her decision” and “Traugott hurried back to America.”

He got a job in a picture frame factory on Rivington Street, around the corner from the Alabama House.  But now that she had lured him back, the fickle Sophie changed her mind again.  After three months of what The Times called “tiffs,” the lovelorn Traugott could take no more.

The 25-year old put a pistol to his skull in his room at the Alabama House on May 9.  He left a slip of paper which read “Lived, loved, and suffered—God protect my loved ones.”

The Zettler Rifle Club held annual shooting contests in its indoor range.  No small events, they lasted for days.  On February 24, 1892 The Sun reported that they would begin “on Sunday, March 27, and continued for two days following.”  Cash prizes were awarded to the best shots and the contests were open “to all comers.”  The names of a few of the winners that year, such as Schmitt, Engle, Hecking, Tropp and Zettler, reflected the German make-up of the club and the neighborhood. 

The Rifle Club would remain at No 219 Bowery at least through 1894.  But by then the Bowery’s reputation was degrading from German music halls and bright lights to one of crime and vice.  Perhaps the first hint of the change came on October 22, 1893 when 22-year old resident Frank Smith was arrested for burglary.  His name would be among the first of a very long list of shady Alabama House residents to be arrested over the decades to come.

On the ground floor Michael Lyons ran his Lyon’s Restaurant at No. 221, while Julius Schulz opened a saloon in No. 219 in 1895.  When the Zettler Rifle Club moved out, the Alabama House used the combined address of 219-221 Bowery, as reflected in the 1899 voter census.  By now it was no longer described as a hotel, but a “lodging house.”  The distinction was important.  Unlike hotels or boarding houses, a lodging house supplied no amenities other than sleeping accommodations.

The crooked characters who stayed at the Alabama House were epitomized by 33-year old Max Goesche.  In September 1901 the nation went into mourning after the assassination of President William McKinley.  In New York City donation boxes appeared in saloons, grocery stores, schools and shops to collect money for a fitting memorial. 

Goesche had already served six and a half years in Sing Sing for robbing express wagons.  Now, on December 8, he was arrested for robbing a McKinley memorial money box in a saloon at Delancey Street and the Bowery.  Police had been searching for the thief after he had robbed “a number of the memorial boxes in different sections of the city,” reported The New York Times.

Fred Murray lived here in 1903.  The 34-year old swindler preyed on rubes visiting the city and on May 8 he found another one.  The Sun reported that Charles Hingston of Lynn, Massachusetts was sightseeing at the Aquarium and “fell in” with Murray.  Con artists like Murray often worked with an accomplice and his was waiting.

The Sun explained that “Murray induced him to go to a saloon at 300 Canal street, owned by Leon Chavaney.  There they played some game of chance and Hingston lost $110.”  The rigged game netted the crooks the equivalent of over $3,000 in 2016 dollars.

Another tenant, Max Semel, was arrested on October 14, 1905 for passing bad checks.  At the time blank “bank checks” were available in the lobbies of banks to be filled out and cashed against depositors’ accounts.  They were convenient for respectable account holders; but unfortunately they were equally convenient for crooks.

After Semel foolishly tried to cash a second phony check in Philip Kohn’s saloon on Ludlow Street he was nabbed.  He told the judge “I don’t know how many I have given.  It was so easy that I just couldn’t keep from it.”  He explained how the scheme came to him.

“I was sitting out in Tompkins Square one day this summer thinking how I could raise money enough to go to Coney Island when I happened to think of getting a check cashed.  I got hold of a blank, wrote a check for $4 and took it into a saloon.  They gave me the money right off the bat.  I thought that looked pretty good.”

When arrested he had three check books, each originally containing 100 blanks.  There were only 25 left.  “Semel said he guessed he had got money on pretty nearly every check that had been torn out,” reported The Sun.

By now missions had cropped up all along the Bowery as reformers tried to rescue the down-and-out men and “degraded women” here.  In October 1906 The New York Times described the neighborhood around the Alabama House as “the red light district.”  The following month The Holy Name Mission used Lyon’s Restaurant to feed Thanksgiving dinner to 150 men.

Earlier that year an incident involving an unnamed house painter who was staying in the Alabama House was indicative of the dangerous and sordid environment of the Bowery.  Late on the night of October 7 he ran into Emma Wilson, a street walker well known to police.  According to her later, she “walked along the Bowery with him until they came to The Star,” a saloon at the corner of the Bowery and Hester Street.

About half an hour later her husband, William Wilson, known in the neighborhood as “Yaller,” walked in.  According to Emma, her companion “left her.”  Around 5:30 in the morning a policeman found Yaller’s lifeless body “propped against the door of ‘The Star,’” according to newspaper reports the following morning.  He had a mortal stab wound on his left side, near the heart.

Police deduced that Emma and her husband worked as a pair; and when Yaller tried to extort money from the man, he responded with a knife.  Despite Emma’s insistence that she knew nothing of the attack, she was arrested.

In March 1920 Michael F. Lyons sold the building to Joseph H. Schwartz.  The New York Times got the date slightly wrong when it reported “The building has not changed hands since 1888;” but noted that it housed the “famous Bowery restaurant…long known as Lyons’s restaurant.”

The restaurant became home to Alexander Wagner’s “coffee house.”  William O’Neill sat down on the morning of February 5, 1911 and ordered beef stew and a cup of coffee.  When the 82-year old got his bill of 13 cents, he refused to pay.  The stew had cost 10 cents, and the coffee three cents.

Wagner had the elderly man arrested.  He explained to the judge that he felt the meal was worth 12 cents, not 13.  The magistrate told him “You had better pay it.”

“Yer bet I won’t,” answered O’Neill.

“You won’t, eh?”


And so the judge fined him three dollars.  Since he only had 60 cents in his pocket, he was sent to jail for three days.

Meanwhile, the tenants of the Alabama House continued to be hauled away for various crimes.  In 1912 Carl Williams was arrested for burglary, as was Alfred Fodel.  The following year Herman Kasman was captured for robbery and in 1914 David Weinberg was sentenced for burglary.

Interestingly, when Joseph A. Schwartz sold the building in May of 1916, the purchaser was William H. Lyons.  The Lyons family regained the property as part of its Lyons Hotel Company holdings.  Despite the respectable sounding name, the Alabama House only got worse.

With America’s workforce depleted by World War I, the Government took action to fill the estimated one million unskilled job openings at factories “engaged wholly or in part in war work.”  The Government opened agencies empowered to “conscript” unemployed men “for the army of toil” as described by The Sun on August 2, 1918.  One of these was established at No. 221 Bowery.

Alabama Hotel “guests” were on the target list for the agency.  On June 28 that year the New-York Tribune pointed out that “Loafers, ‘lounge lizards,’ dancing men and kindred Broadway and Bowery folk will be labeled as such.  There will be no false branding of industrial material on the part of the Federal and State employment bureaus.  An official of the former said yesterday that the Federal bureau would register the goats as well as the sheep, and would help the goats as much as they could.”

With the advent of Prohibition, at least one Alabama House inhabitant found a new source of income.  The Times reported on March 8, 1931 that 50 prohibition agents “descended upon the Bowery and lower east side yesterday shortly after 1 P. M., [and] raided twenty-two places where ‘smoke’ or colored alcohol was said to have been sold.”  Among the 26 bootleggers arrested was Fred Anderson, caught with two gallons of colored alcohol.

In 1948 the Alabama House was converted to “cubicles”--up to 67 per floor--where down-and-out “Bowery bums” could sleep.  Each contained a locker and a bed.  It now was what was commonly known as a flop-house, with its office on the second floor of No. 219.  The ground level spaces remained a store and a restaurant.

As it had done in 1906, the Holy Name Center again used the restaurant here to provide holiday meals for the homeless.  On Christmas Day 1948 it passed out 3,000 tickets for chicken dinners at the Fuerst Brothers Restaurant.

In 1967 the Lyons Houses owned about a dozen Bowery “lodging houses.”  The organization made a rather startling announcement that year.  The New York Times reported on August 6, “The Alabama Hotel in skid row area is being converted for use by artists.  The 80-by-20-foot studios, where derelicts used to sleep, will rent for about $175 a month.”  The newspaper noted that the Alabama had already been closed and the cubicles stripped out.  The conversion was completed in 1968, resulting in artists’ studios on the second and third floors, with two apartments “with artist in residence” on the fourth and fifth floors. 

Skid Row became better known as the Restaurant Supply District in the last quarter of the 20th century.  Advance Kitchen, Inc. was in the building by 1984; followed by Chair-Up, Inc., suppler of restaurant seating.

As Chair-Up laid plans to relocate to Delancey Street in 2016, work began on cleaning out the ground floor and basement for a potential tenant.  A mystery arose in March when workers discovered a cache of weapons from the World War II era in the basement.  Included was a hand grenade which necessitated a response from the NYPD Bomb Squad.

James E. Ware’s structure has suffered significant abuse over more than a century and a quarter.  Channels have been cut through the assertive cornice for fire escape access, nothing survives of the storefronts, and the metal elements are rusting.  And yet the handsome design still commands well-deserved attention.

photographs by the author

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