Wednesday, April 29, 2020

From Picture Frames to Debbie Harry - 266 Bowery

photo by Rob Oliver
In 1832 dry goods merchant Daniel C. Boughton lived in the two-and-a-half story Federal style house at No. 266 Bowery between Prince and Houston Streets.    Within a decade it had been converted for business, with Holdridge & Co.'s drug company in the ground floor.  Among the items it marketed to pharmacists and direct users were the Dinner Pill, a "means of exterminating disease and promoting health," and "Dr. Taylor's original and genuine Balsam of Liverwort."

By 1847 George W. Vroom operated his "oyster cellar" under the store and the following year Millington & Brother's umbrella factory was in the rear building, numbered 266-1/2.  Eventually the company took over the store in the main house, as well.

American Advertiser, 1851 (copyright expired)

Around 1866 Charles Wilatus and his wife, Augusta, purchased the building.  Augusta opened her millinery shop in half of the store along side of Millington & Brother. 

On March 26, 1870 The New York Times entitled an article "Serious Fire in the Bowery" and reported "At 9 o'clock last evening a fire was discovered on the first floor of No. 266 Bowery, in the umbrella and parasol store of F. S. Millington & Brother, who also occupied the upper floors of No. 266 1/2.  The stock of Millington was entirely destroyed, and the building, which is a two-story and attic, was very seriously damaged."

On January 6, 1874 Charles Wilatus sold the property to a "Mr. Mullaters" for $40,000--just over $925,000 today.  Years later real estate agent Edmund C. Price recalled in court, "I remember in the year 1874, property No. 266 Bowery, which is south of Houston street--it is one of the small houses...There was a very good house on it."  Mullaters, he said, replaced it with a new building which was "certainly adapted for dwelling purposes...the house was fitted up with all the modern improvements.  Mr. Mullaters was a wealthy man."

The new Italianate style structure was four stories tall, faced in red brick above the storefront.  Interestingly, Augusta Wilatus moved her millinery shop back into the store, remaining at least through 1879; and by that time she and her husband had repurchased the property.

Augusta and Charles sold it on July 20, 1880 to Henry Waters, a real estate developer and builder who moved into one of the upstairs apartments with his wife.  The following year he enlarged the rear extension by raising it one floor.  

By now the Bowery neighborhood had greatly changed from the residential street it was in 1832 when Daniel C. Boughton lived quietly here.  In his 1882 New York by Sunlight and Gaslight James Dabney McCabe, Jr. wrote:

[The shops] are devoted mainly to retail stores of the cheap order, one peculiarity of which is that about half the stock is displayed on the sidewalk.  Soda fountains, peanut and fruit-stands impede the progress of the passers-by at every step, and street-vendors of all kinds hawk their wares along the entire course of the street.  The Bowery is crowded day and night with a motley throng...The street is a paradise of beer saloons, bar-rooms, concert and dance halls, cheap theatres, and low-class shows.

In 1882 Waters sold the building to Isaac Rosenfeld.  It was a move that irritated his wife and he bought the property back on December 29, 1882, giving Rosenfeld a $26,300 profit in today's dollars.  Waters later explained in court, "I afterwards repurchased the same property, because I made a good deal of money, in that store, and I was very sorry for selling that property...I paid all his expenses to get the property back, to satisfy my wife."

Mrs. Waters would be placated for less than a year, however.  Although they continued to live in the building and Waters to run his business here at least through 1887, on October 1, 1883 he sold the 16-foot wide "store and tenement" to John A. McLaughlin.

Waters and his wife were gone by August 1888 when McLaughlin leased No. 266 to Jacob Berlinsky, who opened his frame shop, J. Berlinsky & Brother, in the store, and moved his family into the upper portion.  

Jacob Berlinsky changed his name before 1894 when he renewed his lease as Jacob Berlin.  The frame shop, now J. Berlin & Brother, remained in the space until the turn of the century.

Around 1900 John J. Mensching, a mortgage and insurance agent, purchased the building and moved his office in.  He partnered with S. Urbach in 1902 in Curtin's Transfer & Storage Co., which also operated from the address.  The firm was one of several throughout the city which picked up luggage from hotels and transported it to railroad depots, and vice-versa.

One of the company's employees, John Barrell, suffered a horrifying accident on Christmas Eve 1907.  The New-York Tribune reported that he "was fatally injured in trying to prevent a horse which he was driving from running away at Dey and West streets...The animal fell on top of him and crushed him so badly that he lived only an hour."

By 1912 Max Jorrisch ran the Jorrisch Pawnbrokers Sales Store, Inc. in the ground floor and lived upstairs.  He remained until around 1919 when the New England Incandescent Supply Co. operated here.  That March Hardware Dealers' Magazine called No. 266 "the smallest hardware store in the world."

The New England Incandescent Supply Co. was more of a housewares store than a traditional hardware store, however.  In 1920, for instance, homemakers could buy the Apex Electric Suction [vacuum] Cleaner here.

The Great Depression brought an even worse reputation to the Bowery, which became known as Skid Row because of the down-and-out derelicts that lined its sidewalks.  Nevertheless, by 1948 the John DeSalvio Association and the headquarters of politician Louis F. DeSalvio were here.

Born in New York City, the son of district leader John DeSalvio (who also boxed under the name of "The Legendary Jimmy Kelly"), DeSalvio was first elected to the New York State Assembly in November 1940.  He would serve in the Assembly for 38 years and was still listed at the Bowery address as late as 1964.

Around the time DeSalvio's headquarters moved in the ground floor had become home to Globe Slicers, a peculiar combination of retail liquor store and restaurant equipment supplier.  (The equipment store remains minus the liquor business.)

In the 1970's the second floor apartment was home to Debbie Harry, lead singer of the band Blondie, and her boyfriend, band guitarist Chris Stein.  The location was conveniently close to CBGB and music club opened in 1973.

Blondie in the second floor apartment.  photo by Chris Stein from Making Tracks: The Rise of Blondie (1998)

Blondie met and rehearsed in the apartment and various members would sleep there after long nights or performances.  Harry and Stein, who had to share a bathroom with other residents, paid $300 a month for the less-than-upscale rooms.

At the same time designer Stephen Sprouse lived on the top floor.  Born in Dayton, Ohio, his fashions in Day-Glo graffiti-print designs eventually sparked a movement.  He is credited with pioneering the "downtown punk" style.

Stephen Sprouse and Debbie Harry photographer and original source unknown
The 21st century saw change happening on the grungy Bowery.  On both sides of the block between Prince and East Houston Streets sleek modern apartment buildings have risen.  Yet, for the time being at least, No. 266 remains unchanged.

many thanks to ready Rob Oliver for suggesting this post.


  1. I am unfamiliar with the requirements for fire escapes in NYC. Why does 266 Bowery not require one when it is apartments over a retail business? The buildings on either side appear to have the same arrangement and both have fire escapes. Surely it is not voluntary.

    1. I'm not sure. If they are floor-through apartments the fire escapes may be on the rear.

  2. Debby Harry lived at 113 St. Marks Place (top floor) when she moved to NY in 1965.

  3. Fire escapes in the rear. Jesse Chamberlain and Randy Gun of the Necessaries moved into 266 soon after Debbie and Chris moved out.
    The Necessaries built a soundproof rehearsal space in the rear of the first floor.
    Richard Lloyd (Television) lived in the first floor space not occupied by the rehearsal space as a sub tenant for a while.