There once was a nice, little, Southern-styled restaurant called the Brothers Bar-B-Cue at 228 W. Houston Street. It was a homey, honky-tonk place. They served decent ribs and gave you a free basket of hush puppies to snack on when you sat down. And the space was curious, a crooked building with an entrance on both Houston and in the back on Downing Street. It made for a nice before-or-after place to grab a bite after a movie at Film Forum across the street.
And then it closed down. Brothers Bar-B-Q moved to a bigger space across Varick. Eventually, that closed as well. The old space stood derelict for months. Then years. The old signage remained. The windows grew dirty, the facade forlorn. Nothing happened. Then, recently, things got so bad that they just boarded up all the windows and doors on both the Houston and Downing sides.
What's going on here? The building, which is not landmarked, dates at least back to the 1890s. There used to be factories in the upper floors. It appears to belong to one William Gottlieb.
Back in February 2008 there was a complaint filed with the Department of Building that there was an "ILLEGAL CONVERSION COMMERCIAL BLDG/SPACE TO DWELLING UNITS" going on. The DOB took a look and found "WORK W/O PERMIT. WORK NOTED: AT 5TH FLOOR APT ERECTED FULL HEIGHT PARTITIONS. TO CREATE 4 CLASS 'B' APTS. WORK 100% COMPLETE. REMEDY: OBTAIN PERMITS OR RESTORE TO PRIOR LEGAL." CONDITIONS.
Then I found this, which appeared to explain the mystery a bit. Gottlieb died back in 1999 and left behind him a tangled estate of dozens of buildings, mostly in Greenwich Village.
Gottlieb was a strange man. A lengthy article in the Times said "Gottlieb was heavyset and invariably dressed in wrinkled pants and an old golf shirt, which some people suspected he seldom changed. He wore big, black-framed glasses and carried a pendulous chain of keys. During the 1970s, Gottlieb used to outfit his orange Volkswagen Thing with loudspeakers and drive it through the Village, blasting disco music. Later on, he trundled around in a green station wagon with a busted heater and a broken window, sometimes stopping to offer lifts to his tenants.... Bill Gottlieb never married or had children. Friends say the passion of his life was not money, but ownership. “He was a collector of buildings,” one associate says."
Gottlieb learned the cardinal rule of his eccentric business style from none other than Harry Helmsley, for whom he worked early on as a leasing representative for a Helmsley-owned brokerage firm: "Never sell." Gottlieb got a lot of his properties on the cheap, when the City was going bankrupt in the 1960s and '70s. And he never sold. Neither have his heirs.
He died suddenly, and, soon after, his family started bickering over the estate. Inheritance taxes were a big problem. "Ultimately, the family was able to work out a settlement with the I.R.S. over the estate-tax bill. The assessment, which stood at $50 million in 2004, is being paid in installments over 15 years." Could this be why 228 W. Houston stands idle? All I know is, last night, the lights on the upper floors were on.