02 May 2007

Barrymore: Botanist

A number of Greenwich Village buildings evoke the bygone bohemian atmosphere of the neighborhood, but few do the trick for me the way 132 W. 4th Street does. John Barrymore lived in this now charmingly dishabille townhouse around 1918, when he was still a young men; a drunk and a waistral already with one divorce behind him, but a man with promise and, when put to the test, drive.

He lived on the top floor; his landlady was a patient soul named Mrs. Juliette Nicholls. She had not wanted the actor with the bad rep, but was persuaded and soon let him have his way with the upper climes of the building. What did having his way mean? Well, Jack had a touch of the interior designer in him. He hung wallpaper, laid carpets, converted doors into mirrors, flung taffeta all about.

And that was just the start. He covered the skylight with saffron chiffon, built a bay window (which would seem to be the window on the top floor in the picture below) painted the walls gold, lit candles to age the walls and furniture, covered a baby grand piano in gold brocade topped with a bronze pheasant, and littered the floor with books, bottles, paints and brushes, old guns, maps and dolls.

Then he took to the roof. He carted in five tons of topsoil from Long Island, planted cedars, wisteria, cherry trees and grapevines, and installed a working fountain and beehives. He called the whole thing The Alchemist's Corner. It's hard to imagine today. Apparently, few people were allowed into his sanctum, one being his brother Lionel.

After he moved out, the building flooded. That would be Barrymore in a nutshell: poetic beauty intertwined with comic disaster.

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