Saturday, May 9, 2020

The Former Caffe Cino - 31 Cornelia Street

photo by Costar Group via
In 1794 a short lane was opened on the land of Robert Herring, beginning at Herring Street and running northeast.  It was named for Herring's granddaughter, Cornelia.  The family began selling building plots on the street in 1819 and it slowly filled with frame homes and stores of working class families.  Irish immigrants Patrick and Bridget Hart lived in the house at No. 31 in the 1860's.  Bridget died on July 18, 1866 and her funeral was held in the humble dwelling the following afternoon.

The two houses next door, at Nos. 29 and 29-1/2, were still standing in 1900, a good example of the types of homes that once lined the one-block long street.  from Early New York Houses, (copyright expired)

In 1877 builder Banjamin Warner completed a replacement structure on the site of the old Hart house for Michael Maloney.   It appears that Warner acted as the architect as well, most likely drawing inspiration from style books.  Four stories of red brick sat upon a cast iron storefront base.  Although the building's simple unadorned stone lintels and sills and a bracketed metal cornice did nothing to set it architecturally apart from scores of similar buildings going up around the city, it was nonetheless a noticeable upgrade along the block.

The store became home to the grocery run by Ellen Maloney (quite possibly a relative of Michael).  Working class tenants moved in upstairs, including the Gould family.  Charles M. Gould ran an awning store and William made his living as a clerk.  They would remain at least through 1880.

Other tenants included William Allen, a printer; policeman George Daring; William Kuster and William Lawrence, both drivers of horse-drawn trucks; and John Hyles, a laborer.

By 1905 a saloon was in the ground floor.  James Hogan worked there as a waiter.  The gritty and sometimes dangerous personality of Cornelia Street was reflected in his arrest on May 31 that year.

Carl Kuehn had just left the Yorkville Bank on 83rd Street and Third Avenue and was waiting for a street car when Hogan "jostled him and gave him a shove," according to The Sun.  Hogan identified himself as a police officer and asked Kuehn why he was loitering.  Before he could reply, three other men rushed in.  Two held his arms while the others wrestled his satchel from him.

As they fled, Kuehn yelled for help.  Detective Sergeant Sullivan was able to overtake just one of the fugitives--James Hogan.  At Police Headquarters, according to The Sun, "The police readily recognized him as an old offender.  They said that he had recently served two years and a half in State prison and that his picture was B 775 in the rogues' gallery."

Prohibition did not slow down the business in the saloon.  It was owned by Maria Coutourier in 1929 when Prohibition Agents caught up with her.  On March 20 the New York Evening Post listed thirteen "night clubs, speakeasies, and restaurants charged with selling liquor."  The most attention-grabbing was the Swannee Club, run by Evelyn Nesbit, the former showgirl who had carried on the much publicized affair with architect Stanford White which resulted in his murder.  Included on the list was Maria Coutourier who faced the possibility of her establishment being padlocked for one year.

No. 31 Cornelia Street would not have attracted any attention nor earned importance were it not for Joe Cino.  He arrived in New York from Buffalo in 1948 at the age of 16.  After working two jobs, he opened the Caffe Cino here in December 1958.  

Greenwich Village was the epicenter of the Beat Generation and Joe Cino joined in with a score of other coffeehouses in  staging poetry readings.  They unintentionally morphed into plays.  Nearly half a century later, on December 7, 2011 The New York Times journalist Steven McElroy explained "Joseph Cino didn't set out to be a pioneer.  He began presenting plays at his Cornelia Street cafe on a whim, as an offshoot of the poetry readings that expressed his desire to create a place where artistic types would want to spend time."

Budding playwrights struggled to find a venue where their works could be seen, and little by little Caffe Cino became it.  The actors, writers and production crew all pitched in to create handbills, scenery and props.  Unknown writers who would become household names presented their early works here--playwrights like Lanford Wilson, Robert Heide, Sam Shepard, Tom Eyen, Doric Wilson and H. M. Koutoukas.

The exterior of Caffe Cino suggested the funky decor inside.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Importantly, Caffe Cino was the first Off-Off Broadway theater in Manhattan.  An article in The Sun in 1977 would recall "the Movement that would come to be known as 'Off-Off Broadway' was born in a Greenwich Village coffeehouse.  The theatrical guru who started it all was Joe Cino, a charismatic would-be dancer."

In an article in the New York World-Telegram and Sun on January 13, 1966 Leonard Harris wrote "About the only places in this city where a playwright can have his work put on for peanuts are those two beachheads of off-off-Broadway, Ellen Stewart's Cafe La Mama...and Joe Cino's Caffe Cino."  He mentioned that Caffe Cino "has a coffee-shop menu with a $1 minimum."  Also important to note is that Caffe Cino was the first venue where gay-themed plays were staged.

In reviewing Tom Eyen's The White Whore and the Bit Player on February 2, 1967, The Times theater critic Dan Sullivan offered a glimpse inside.  "It is a long, narrow coffeehouse with layers of avante-garde posters plastered collage-fashion on the walls and enough twinkling lights strung around the ceiling to decorate a forest of psychedelic Christmas trees."

Lanford Wilson's The Madness of Lady Bright opened in June 1964.  The New York Post's critic Jerry Tallmer noted "Playwright Wilson obviously has a certain sure talent under good control in the present instance in any case."

A very young, very unknown Bernadette Peters rehearses for Dames at Sea as playwright H. M. Koutoukas watches.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
Two years later the Caffe Cino put on what would arguably be its best-remembered production--a 30-minute spoof of 1930's Hollywood musicals called Dames at Sea.  The playbills were hand-written by the entire crew, including 18-year old unknown singer Bernadette Peters.  Magie Dominic recalled in the 2006 book Return To The Caffe Cino, "Dames at Sea played to packed houses for two months.  The room was officially full when two people were seated on top of the cigarette machine.  It was the longest run in Cino history."  She added "Eight weeks later a producer moved it to a large theatre, Carol Burnett saw it, invited Bernadette on her show and the rest is history."

Donna Forbes hoofs a number in a bare-bones stage in the 1966 Dames at Sea, photo by Conrad Ward 
In trying to keep up with the schedule his theater demanded of him, Joe Cino became addicted to amphetamines.  Following the death of his life partner, Jon Torrey, on January 5, 1967 of a possible suicide he grew increasingly depressed.  According to some reports Cino was high on an LSD trip on March 30 that year.  He inflicted serious wounds to his arms and stomach with a kitchen knife.  He died three days later at the age of 35 on Jon Torrey's birthday.  Cino's friends made a vain attempt to keep the theater open, but it closed the following year.  

Playwright Robert Patrick called the Caffe Cino "Grubby, glorious, historical, hysterical, dazzling, dirty, creative, destructive, the top, the bottom, the beginning."  Playwright Edward Albee (who spent much time at Caffe Cino although none of his plays were staged there), recalled "It was so exciting and so necessary and fed so many people."  Magie Dominick said simply, "The Caffe was Joe's gift to the world."

The space was taken over by the restaurant La Tulipe; which was replaced in 1991 by Po's.  Its pristine decor could not have been more different than Caffe Cino.  The New York Times described it on January 2, 1994 as having "a rural country feel and is attractive in a spare kind of way.  Each table is set with a single votive candle, salt piled in a dish and a wooden pepper grinder." 

Po's remained for more than 25 years, replaced in 2017 by The Drunken Monkey, "a bar/restaurant inspired by colonial British India."

photo via LPC Designation Report
There is no hint today that the well-maintained building was once home to a ground-breaking social and theatrical venue; but its historical importance cannot be overstated.


  1. Thank you for the thrilling background on the building. Your readers might be interested to know that I had a plaque with Joe's image on it put on the building in 2008, but it was later stolen. Here is a video of the unveiling of the plaque. P.S. You mention me in your article in the sentence "Actor Robert Patrick called the Caffe Cino 'Grubby, glorious, historical, hysterical, dazzling, dirty, creative, destructive, the top, the bottom, the beginning.'" I am not an actor, but rather a playwright.

    1. Thank you for the wonderful additional information, and please accept my apologies for misidentifying you. Corrected!

    2. Oh, thank you very much. I just thought you might be confusing me with the other Robert Patrick, the popular actor who played the Liquid Metal Monster in "Terminator 2." :) Oddly enough, the only photos of me in the Cino are of moments when I pinch-hit by filling in for absent actors.