Saturday, June 15, 2024

The Incredible History of 220 West Houston Street


Charles S. Holt incurred the wrath of his neighbors in 1842.  The enterprising "tallow chandler" manufactured soap in the rear yard of his home at 58 Downing Street.  On October 22, 1842, the Mourning Courier reported that he "was tried for a public nuisance, in boiling stinking and rotten meats on the premises occupied by him, No. 58 Downing street, for the purpose of extracting the grease therefrom."  Holt moved his family into the house and store nearly directly behind, at 53 Hamersley Street and established his soap factory next door at 51 Hamersley Street.

Holt remained here at least through 1847.  By 1851, the house and factory were occupied by the Nichol & Merklee iron foundry, run by George F. Merklee and John Nichol.  The upper floors of 53 Hamersley were rented out.  Among the working class tenants in 1853 was James Riley, a seaman.

In 1854, John Nichol partnered with George B. Billerwell and the business was reorganized as Nichol & Billerwell.  The foundry moved east to 33 Hamersley Street, while the firm's offices remained on the ground floor of 53 Hamersley (renamed and numbered 220 West Houston Street in 1861) at least through 1868.  (Interestingly, for one year, in 1863, John Nichol occupied a room upstairs.)

In the rear yard was a secondary house.  In 1855, it was home to Mary Carniaux, a widow; Dennis Farrell and William Nelson, both tailors; and jockey Patrick Tenney.  Ellen and James Tenney, who lived in the main house, were most likely Patrick's parents.  James was a carman and Ellen was a dressmaker.  Also living in the main house were Catherine, the widow of Thomas G. Smith; and carpenter John A. Jones.

Despite what must have been tight conditions, when a respected policeman died in January 1870, his funeral was held in his rooms.  On January 15, the New-York Tribune reported, "The funeral of Se'rgt. O'Connor took place from his late residence No. 220 West Houston-st., at 10 a.m. yesterday, and was largely attended.  The coffin was borne upon the shoulder of the deceased's immediate friends, members of the force, and a platoon of the Twenty-eighth Precinct followed the remains to St. Patrick's Cathedral."

James M. Clark opened his wheelwright (wagon and carriage repair) shop on the ground floor in 1879.  He remained for a decade, after which it became the headquarters of D. I. Christie & Co.  David I. Christie owned the stables next door, as well as livery stables throughout the city and even in Paterson, New Jersey.

At the turn of the century, the neighborhood around 220 West Houston Street was part of what newspapers called the "Italian colony."  Living here in 1904 was Francesco Bagnasco, a waiter.  Early on the morning of October 12, he was found by police on the sidewalk at Macdougal Street and Minetta Lane "almost unconscious from the loss of blood," according to the New-York Tribune.  A long cut had been slashed on both cheeks with a cross carved under them.  One of the policeman thought they "were the work of some Italian secret society."

Collier's magazine said Bagnasco "refused to say where the assault occurred or who were his assailants."  Detectives followed a blood trail "for more than a mile through downtown streets, to the Italian colony east of Broadway, and finally to the door of a tenement house at No. 159 Elizabeth-st.," reported the Tribune.  "They learned nothing there, however."

D. I. Christie remained here at least through 1915.  In 1930 the ground floor was converted to a restaurant, the second floor to a social club, and the third to an office.  In 1963, the Lodge Restaurant, run by Vincent H. Petti, occupied the ground floor and the Knickerbocker Council of the Knights of Columbus was on the second floor.  It remained through 1969, after which a much different tenant moved in.

 A luncheonette occupied the ground floor in 1941.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

The space became the 220 Club, run by Sal "Sally" Maggio and Jesse Torres.  In his 2014 The Life & Music of Lou Reed, Jeremy Reed describes the 220 Club as, "one of the most famous of the transgender/gay nightclubs of the early seventies," noting,

The 220 Club...was the principal venue for the transgender crowd, a distinction later shared by its upgrades, the Greenwich Pub, Sally's Hideaway and later Sally's II.  Sally's partner, Jesse Torres, a femme queen also, was a significant glam attraction at the 220 Club, dragging it up as hostess manager.

A regular at the 220 Club was musician and songwriter Lou Reed of the The Velvet Underground.  According to Will Hermes in his Lou Reed - The King of New York, the songs Sally Can't Dance and Ride, Sally, Ride were, "likely a wink to Sal 'Sally' Maggio."

A trip to the 220 Club had its risks.  Patrons were routinely mugged or worse.  On December 6, 1977, The Villager reported, "At 3:30 am on November 27, a male resident of Long Island was standing in front of 220 West Houston Street when seven men jumped him, assaulted him, taking $300 in cash, credit cards, and wallet."  Three months later, on January 12, 1978, the newspaper reported, "a Queens resident was reportedly robbed of $3,050 by a couple in the bathroom of the 220 Club, an after hours club at 220 West Houston Street."  The article said, "the victim was apparently confronted by the woman who propositioned him and then was joined by her male accomplice.  Both escaped."  Numerous, similar crimes were reported throughout the 1980s.

The Ganymede Gallery opened here in 1992.  That year in April, it presented "Men by Women," which The New York Times described as "art about men by eight women."  Three months later, an exhibition of photographs by "fifty people living with HIV/Aids," according to New York Magazine, was staged.

In the summer of 1994, Toukie Smith, sister of designer Willi Smith, opened the restaurant Toukie's here.  Jane Freiman of Newsday said, "If her cooking is as tasty as Willi Wear's clothes were timeless, I'll be a fan."  Smith was also known as "a model, an actress and a significant other of the actor Robert De Niro," mentioned Florence Fabricant of The New York Times on September 14.  Smith donated a portion of the profits to the Smith Family Foundation, which benefited people with AIDS, "and honors her brother Willi Smith, the designer, who died of the disease in 1987," said Fabricant.

Toukie's was replaced by Bar Cichetti in 1998, which made way for Brooklyneer in 2011.  Ironically, by 2013 the second floor-- once infamous for after-hours drug and alcohol use--became home to the Midnite Group, an Alcoholics Anonymous organization.

many thanks to reader Jason Kessler for suggesting this post
photographs by the author
no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to


  1. Knights of Columbus (not Nights); and Midnite AA Group (not Midnight - it's just the way they spell it, go figure)