Saturday, February 25, 2017

From Horses to Grace Jones and Andy Warhol--76 Wooster Street

It is possible that the house at No. 76 Wooster Street, between Spring and Broome Streets, always had a shop on the first floor.  As early as 1844 the "provisions," or grocery business of John Field & Co. shared the building with carpenter Isaac Ward, who lived at 192-1/2 Varick Street.

Shortly following the end of the Civil War the entire neighborhood around the converted house was transforming into a vibrant commercial district.  Highly instrumental in replacing old dwellings with modern business structures was M. & S. Sternberger.  On February 9, 1894 The Record & Guide mentioned "M. & S. Sternberger are great believers in the future of New York realty, and specifically business property."

By the time of that article the developers had produced several structures in the neighborhood, often using the services of architect Henry Fernbach.  Among their first collaborations had been the remake of No. 76 Wooster Street, in 1871.

The small-scale project would pale in comparison to other Fernbach buildings like his lavish Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue, co-designed with Leopold Eidlitz and completed in 1868; his Central Synagogue on Lexington Avenue, finished just a year after the Wooster Street building; or the cast iron faced New York Mutual Life Insurance Building in Philadelphia, completed in 1873.

The contract for the work was given to builder Sam Cochran.  Construction began on June 5, 1871 and was completed less than three months later.  Fernbach did little to disguise the building's residential beginnings.  A scar of header bricks above the second floor windows suggests an earlier cornice and the raising of the former attic floor to a full story.  M. & S. Sternberger wasted no money on the no-nonsense conversion.  While other downtown buildings at the time featured cast iron bases; early photographs reveal the first floor piers were of brick.  A simple wooden cornice graced the eave line.

By 1880 Solomon Jessurun and two of his five sons (both of whom still lived in the family home at No. 335 West 50th Street) leased the building.  Jessurun, who had arrived in New York from London in 1848, listed his business as "agent."  He dealt in real estate and managed the properties of wealthy owners like the Van Ness family.

His sons' businesses could not have been more different.  Albert Jessurun was listed in directories as an "olive" dealer in 1880 (changed to "produce" in 1883); and Elias dealt in "rags."

In 1871, the year that No. 76 was renovated, Daniel Tyrrel was living at No. 41 Bedford Street.  He was listed as a "carpenter and builder of office cabinet-work" with his shop located at No. 57 Elm Street.  In 1886 he leased the Wooster Street building and spent $150 on "new openings, beams."  It was possibly at this time that the enlarged second floor window with its heavy block and tackle was installed. 

Advertisements for William A. Dawson's sign shop cover the upper floor of the building in 1898.  A note on the back of the photo reads "showing an old three-story house made over for business." photo from the collection of the New York Public Library

Tyrell sublet the ground floor to William Markle, who operated an "express" company.  Horses and drays--delivery wagons designed to transport heavy loads--would had been housed here.  Upstairs William A. Dawson took space.  Having started his business in 1873, he advertised it as "makers of signs of all kinds" as well as "house, store and office painting."

Decades earlier, in 1860, Daniel Tyrrel had hired John Sweeney to work in his carpentery shop.  When the Civil War erupted, Sweeney left to serve.  When he returned in 1866 Tyrrel rehired him; although Sweeney's military service had left its scars.  Court papers later noted he was "somewhat injured from the happenings in the battlefield; his eyesight was seriously affected, and he had a painful wound in one leg."

He stayed with for Tyrrel for eight years until his failing eyesight made work impossible.   With no income and rapidly going blind, Sweeney took to peddling pencils on the streets.  Tyrrel never forgot his former employee and, later The New York Times remarked "Whenever Sweeney would go into the carpenter's shop he was sure of several dollars for a few pencils."

Someone realized that blind veteran was most likely eligible for a soldier's pension and urged him to apply.  He was approved and received a check with back pay.  Oddly enough, as the payments came, he deposited them into the Seaman's Bank for Savings, refusing to use the money and relying only on his pencils for income.

On October 31, 1891 he came to Tyrrel's carpenter shop on Wooster Street and asked for a $10 loan (about $270 today).  For security he handed Tyrrel his two bank books, which showed savings of nearly $1,000.   He left with Tyrrel's son, who accompanied him to a nearby saloon for a drink.  Nearly a decade later, on October 4, 1900, The New York Times reported "Sweeney left the saloon then, and from that day to this not another trace of him has been found."

For nine years Daniel Tyrrel held the bank books in safe keeping.  Now, at the turn of the century, the aging carpenter's once-thriving cabinet making business was struggling.  But in order to access Sweeney's bank account, he would have to prove the man was dead.

A court case began in April 1901 during which Tyrrel described the condition of his business.  "I do not employ any men now," he said.  Instead, he handled the commissions personally.  "The last man I was working for was Baxter, who keeps [a store] at Wooster Street, between Broome and Grand streets.  He is a drygoods man.  I worked about a day for him...He paid me five or six dollars for two men's work."

Tragically for Tyrrel, who was deeply in debt, the courts ruled in favor of the bank in 1903; saying that there was no proof that John Sweeney was deceased.

The little brick building would be a component of another court case two years later.  Tyrrel had leased the building from millionaire Pierre Lorillard Ronalds, who owned vast amounts of Manhattan real estate.  The Evening World described the elderly man saying "in his days [he was] a noted club and sporting man."

Ronalds and his wife had been separated for years.  She lived in London where she was close friends with the royal family.  In 1886 good friend, Gustavus A. Blake, died while visiting Ronalds in his country home in Bartow, New York.   Ronalds took Blake's daughter, Elizabeth, into his home.  She never left.

When the 71-year old died in 1905 The Evening World noted "It appears that beside the servants in the Thirty-fifth street household Miss Blake and Mr. Ronalds were the only members."  She told reporters that their relationship was "nineteen years of daughterly devotion."

That devotion was profitable.  Between November 1901 and December 1904 Ronalds transferred the deeds of multiple properties--including No. 76 Wooster Street-- amounting to about $1 million in value to Elizabeth (more in the neighborhood of $27.5 million today). 

Pierre Lorillard Ronalds  The Evening World, October 26, 1905 (copyright expired)

Only when their father died did his two children, Reginald Pierre Lorillard Ronalds and Mrs. Fannie T. Ritchie, discover the transfers and they were quick to respond.  They suspected that Elizabeth's dabbling into Spirituality was partially behind the transactions.

Before the will could be probated the siblings sued.  Reginald claimed his father "was mentally incompetent to understand their meaning" and that "he was forced into the transaction by coercion of a psychic nature on the part of Mrs. [sic] Blake."  The Evening World wrote "Sensational as it may seem, Ronalds asserts that Miss Blake terrorized his father by representing this gift to her as the distinct command of his deceased relatives."

Elizabeth feigned shock.  When a reporter visited her on October 25, 1905, she exclaimed "The man who was supposed to have felt toward me as a brother has caused me the cruelest sorrow a woman can bear."  She explained "The property that Mr. Ronalds deeded me was his gift in recognition of my filial affection."  The World said "Here Miss Blake was so disturbed that she buried her face in the Oriental pillows and sobbed hysterically."

Elizabeth N. Blake -- The Evening World, October 26, 1905 (copyright expired)
The case was solved when ownership of the properties were returned to Reginald and Fannie, with a lump sum payment of $2,350 to Elizabeth and a trust fund of $200,000 "the income of which was to be paid to her during life."  After Elizabeth Blake's death in 1925, the remainder of the fund reverted to Reginald and Fannie.

It was Fannie F. Ritchie, who lived in London, who received ownership of the Wooster Street property.  Following her death it was sold in 1941 to the Anthony-Mary Corporation.  Assessed at the time at $9,500 (about $153,000 in 2017), it was described as "a three-story converted stable."

As the Soho neighborhood changed from industrial to trendy, the ground floor of No. 76 Wooster became Wings restaurant in the early 1980s.  The space where horses and wagons were housed now served Nouvelle-American cuisine like breast of duck with honey, and tenderloin of beef with truffles.

Wings was followed by singer Grace Jones's restaurant La Vie en Rose.  The minimalist interior included just one wall decoration--Andy Warhol's portrait of Jones.  As the restaurant prepared to open in September 1986, her partner Jean-Yves Lascombes promised "It will be a chic underground."

Twelve years later, as Manhattan reeled under the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic, the Babylon restaurant prepared to open in the space.  A pre-opening benefit dinner was held on May 12, 1998 for the Irvington Institute for Immunological Research.

The term Soho was, by now, synonymous with contemporary art.  And so it was not surprising that No. 76 Wooster Street became home to an art space, frequented by the likes of Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Julian Schnabel.  In October 2011 Yoko Ono borrowed it to stage "Gimme Some Truth, The Artwork of John Lennon," an exhibition of Lennon's artworks and songs. 

In 2015 the newly-formed Soho Arts Club took over the space with intentions of recreating an artist space like the one Warhol and Haring had enjoyed.  The wooden cornice is gone, the windows are replaced, and little remains to remind the passerby of the little building's non-glamorous history.

photographs by the author


  1. Whatfun Wings on Wooster was. I was a coat check girl among the many celebrity guests and awesome cuisine. Jam packed every night and the beautiful cosmetic pink lighting was genius. After work, off to "the Continental" on 25th Street and the West Side, or the Mudd Club. These were very fun times.

  2. I'm glad to see other people who remember Wings restaurant at 76 Wooster. My buddies and I DJ'd a party there in June 1983. I loved the soft pink neon lighting inside the place. The whole inside was lit up in pink.

  3. Wings was my second waiter job in Manhattan…where I learned more about life than food. Ah, pink.