Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Max Siegel's Art Deco 90 Seventh Avenue So. and 307 Bleecker Street

The building angles back to the nearly-matching Bleecker Street side.  

In the first years of the 19th century John Holdron lived in a wooden house on Herring Street, next door to the Ryder Family house where Thomas Paine boarded in 1802.  More than a century later, in 1931, things in Greenwich Village had significantly changed.  Herring Street was now Bleecker Street; in 1917 the city had gouged out a wide swatch of property steps away to create Seventh Avenue South; and the Great Depression continued to spread a pall over the country.

That year, undaunted by the financial crisis, the Allenad Realty Corporation purchased the site of the Holdron house, the abutting building at No. 307, and the properties at Nos. 88 and 90 Seventh Avenue South.  Max Siegal was hired to create two matching facades for an L-shaped building.

The principal of Max Siegel Associates, he was listed as an architectural engineer.  And so it is possible that it was one of his associates rather than he who was directly responsible for the handsome Art Deco designs.  

Completed within the year, the nearly identical elevations featured wide storefronts at street level, and two floors of vast, multi-paned openings on the second and third floors.  

It was most likely the Depression which prompted Siegel to execute the striking Art Deco decorations in contrasting colored brick and cast concrete.  Brown brick against tan created the impression of piers and panels  An Art Deco zig-zag band below the second floor openings and Aztec-inspired decorative blocks were made of concrete instead of carved stone or terra cotta.  The cost savings did nothing to detract from the handsome design.

The ground floor became an A & P Grocery store, above which was an office and a showroom.  On the third floor were two "housekeeping apartments," a term that meant they included kitchens.  Only a year later Siegel was back to convert the second floor to a "dancing and meeting room and cabaret."

That space was home to The Vagabonds, described by the New-York Evening Post as "a little group of serious culturists who foregather nightly."  The organization of poets had been founded by Joe Vallon (a "lineal descendant of Fancois Villon but better fed," said the Post) in 1926.  It moved into its new home on September 1, 1932.  Non-members normally paid 25 cents admission to poetry readings, which included coffee and cake.

Howard Cushman of The Evening Post reported "Last night, though, was something special--they'd let you in free if you presented an original poem at the door and read it later.  Some poets read five or six original poems, but they only got one piece of cake."

Joe Vallon explained why the "dancing and cabaret" license was necessary for a poetry club.  Beginning September 16, he told reporters, The Vagabond would host "a radio band for dancing."  Cushman ended his article with his own stab at poetry writing:

How odd to think that poetry
Should bud above the A. & P.

The Vagabonds were still here in 1935, although by now it appears the club had changed its name.  On July 23 that year the New York Post announced "Josef Vallon, secretary of the Patrons of Poetry, asks that all persons who write poetry get in touch with his organization through him.  His address is 88 Seventh Avenue South...where poetry recitals are held every Monday night."

Within two years the second floor had been taken over by another historical and literary group, the Thomas Paine Society.

Socialist Appeal, December 4, 1937 
In the 1950's the second floor space was home to the Tamawa club.  The Democratic Party political club was one of the several remnants of the old Tammany clubs, even using a Native American name as the old Tammany groups had.  In 1957 the young lawyer Ed Koch was recruited as a counsel for the club.  He was promised by his friends that Tamawa was undergoing reform.

The Bleecker Street elevation is nearly identical to the larger, Seventh Avenue side.
According to Jonathan Soffer in his Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City, "But after a few months at Tamawa, Koch realized that the prospect of a reformed Tammany was an illusion."  After several months, Koch resigned.

Change came to the building in 1984 when a renovation resulted in an "eating and drinking place" on the ground floor."  It became home to the jazz club Sweet Basil, founded in 1974 by Sharif Esmat.  Already well-known, the club would become legendary.  In addition to its live performances, jazz albums were recorded here, including Cecil Taylor's Iwontunwonsi, the Jean-Michel Pilc Trio's Together: Live at Sweet Basil, and McCoy Tyner's Live at Sweet Basil.

The club offered dinner and weekend brunches.  While an evening here would be memorable, it could also be pricey.  In 1986 the cover charge was $10 (more like $23 today) and there was a one-drink minimum.   Nevertheless on April 18 that year The New York Times cautioned "reservations are a must."  Three years later New York magazine noted that the cover charge at "this small, dark club," was now $15.

The club closed in 2001; but its co-manager and music director, James Browne, announced his intentions to purchase the building and "reopen a new club called Sweet Rhythm."  

Close by, at the corner of Grove Street and Bleecker, The Pink Tea Cup restaurant had been a neighborhood destination since 1955.  It was forced to close in January 2010, but Lawrence Page, a "neighborhood savior" as described by Eater New York, purchased the rights to the name.  He did not have to look far for a new location.

In October 2009 Sweet Rhythm had closed its doors for good.  Page issued a press release on May 13, 2010 which began "New York City is 'getting its soul back' this summer in the heart of the West Village."  It called The Pink Teacup "one of New York City's oldest southern culinary institutions" and announced its opening at 88 Seventh Avenue South was scheduled for June 2.

The venture, however, failed.  In 2012 the women's apparel and accessory retailer WiNK announced it had acquired the space, along with the second floor.  The Bleecker Street side became a retail store and the Seventh Avenue South side a related cafe.  A press announcement touted the configuration as "the first location to integrate the sale of apparel and accessories, with home furnishings, art and coffee."

But the recent history of the site caused Eater New York to include the address in an article on July 7, 2013 entitled "Can A Restaurant Location Be Cursed?"  Maybe.

On February 23, 2016 The New York Times' food columnist Florence Fabricant reported that Suprema Provisions had opened here.  The store, she explained, "houses a cafe, wine bar, salumeria and grocery under one foot."  A month later, on March 21, Fabricant advised her readers that those seeking proper sardine forks could find them here.

photo via StreetEasy .com

The upper floors--where poetry was read and Ed Koch worked on political legal problems--is today a sprawling duplex apartment.  

photographs by the author


  1. I noted that you said it was most likely the Depression which prompted Siegel to execute the striking Art Deco decorations, in contrasting coloured brick and cast concrete. But the Depression struck all over the city and I would have hoped that Deco emerged far more often than it did.

    1. The comment referred to the inexpensive materials, not the style. I was apparently not clear. Sorry