21 May 2009

Lost City's Guide to Tribeca

The recent news about the coming possible loss of Bazzini's nuts and dry foods store on Greenwich Street got me to thinking that it was time to take a tally of what history is left in Tribeca that lives and breathes and isn't just a handsome stone shell housing ritzy condominiums. Well, there isn't much. A lot of beautiful architecture. But few slivers of functioning history. So many of Tribeca's living landmarks, including El Teddy's and Montrachet, have died in recent years (and even they weren't of such phenomenal importance). And the nabe's days as an industrial and warehousing center, where New York went to get much of its foodstuffs, are well in the distant past. In other words, if you're looking for Old Tribeca, go to Hunts Point. For what's left, look here.

We'll start on Broadway and Chambers Street. The old headquarters of the New York Sun (the first one), which ceased publication in 1950, wouldn't be worth a mention if it weren't for those wonderful clocks latched to the north and south corners of the structure. Each bears the paper's name and its motto "The Sun Shines for All." The southern ornament is a four-sided clock; the northern one tells the temperature. Both were broken for many years, but recently have been in good working order much of the time. I hope they're never taken down.

DUANE READE: Walk to the block of Broadway between Duane and Reade Streets. Here stood the future pharmacy giant's first warehouse. That's right: it got its name from a couple of random streets. (A block north and it would have been called Thomas Duane, which still sounds like someone's real name.) Nearly 50 years after its founding, it's still got a stranglehold on the city.

ODEON: Walk north to Thomas Street and turn left to West Broadway. In Tribeca, 30 years is an eon for a restaurant. Odeon was the "21" Club of the 1980s, the joint where all the hip, hot, young writers hung out. You may not have thought much of McInerney, Ellis, Janowitz and the like, but theirs was a literary scene like we haven't seen since and probably won't see again. They were the Last of the Fitzgeralds. (Bookwriters don't generate social scenes anymore.) Logic would dictate that Odeon should have faded with the careers of its habitues. But somehow it's survived and thrived. Before Odeon came along, this was the old Tower Cafeteria.

COSMOPOLITAN HOTEL: Walk south to Chambers Street. Here is the boxy, spartan Cosmopolitan Hotel, favorite of young, visiting European tourists. It was once the Hotel Bond. According to some sources, this is the oldest, ongoing, extant hotel building in the city. The address has been used for that function since 1861, when the Civil War began.

BAZZINI: Go west on Chambers to Greenwich Street and travel three blocks north to Jay Street. Want to know what Tribeca was like a century ago? Imagine a hundred stores like Bazzini, warehouses selling of nuts, fruit, eggs, cheese and whatever along every street. None of them looked as nice and slick as this 120-year-old company; Bazzini stayed in business by converting its factory into a gourmet store. Recent reports are that current owner Rocco D'Amato wants to get out and call it quits.

STAPLES STREET: Walk a half block east along Jay to Staples Street. This narrow passageway runs two blocks from Duane and Harrison. (Duane Harrison!—another good name for a drug store!) Once, here is where you went to get eggs, cheese, milk—staples, in other words.

HARRISON STREET HOUSES: Walk north on Staples, turn left on Harrison and cross Greenwich. Here are a lovely set of beautifully preserve Federal house, dating from the early 1800s. Wouldn't you like to live in one of them?

TRIBECA GRILL'S BAR: Walk one more block north to the corner of Greenwich and Franklin. Robert DeNiro's vanity restaurant doesn't interest me, though the food's OK. What's interesting here is the bar, which used to belong to a better and far more famous restaurant: the one and only Maxwell's Plum.

WALKER'S: Walk to North Moore and turn right two blocks until you hit the corner of Varick. I've always had a bit of a problem with Walker's claim that it's one of the oldest bars in the city. What it is is an old building that's often been used as a bar since the 1890s. But not the same bar. And sometimes not even a bar: it was an Irish restaurant in the '40s, then a Spanish eatery in the '50s. Jerry Walker, who also owns the Ear Inn, brought the place bar to its original purpose in 1987. Oh well. In Tribeca, you'll take historical patina where you can't get actual history.

FOURTH PRECINCT, NYPD: Head up one block north to the corner of Varick and Ericsson Place. This Renaissance Revival building is the 4th Precinct of the NYPD. Used to be the 1st precinct. The facade says both 4th and 1st.

ST. JOHN'S LANE: Look across from the precinct house, to the block bounded by Hudson, Varick, and Laight Streets and Ericsson Place, and heave a sigh. This was once St. John's Park, a private park as elegant as Gramercy Park, surrounded by red brick Federal row houses and anchored by St. John's Chapel. It died in 1866 when Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt bought the park and constructed a freight warehouse for the Hudson River Railroad. The Holland Tunnel was then built in 1927. A little further east is a small alley called St. John's Lane—all that's left to remember the area's bucolic past.

AT&T HEADQUARTERS: Take Ericsson east to Sixth Avenue between Walker and Lispenard. An immense Art Deco gem, completed in 1932, with a fantastic lobby, if you can find a way to see it. The guards aren't that friendly. AT&T is long gone.

CAPSOUTO FRERES: Walk back to Greenwich, go five blocks north (right) to Watts and turn left one block. Nice restaurant. Been around about 30 years. But it's in this survey for two reasons. One, it's housed in one of the most beautiful buildings in Tribeca, a neo-Flemish beauty done up in hues of orange and gold, built back in 1892 when someone apparently thought that this grimy neighborhood of warehouses deserved a lovely building. Two, there's an old wooden phone booth in the basement, near the bathrooms.


Asis One said...

No word on the Ghostbusters firehouse on North Moore and Varick? There are a lot of articles out there about the townhouses on Harrison Street, you'd be surprised how much they originally sold for.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Addresses that were used as movie setting really aren't of much interest to me. I file that under "fake history." It aggravates me how tour buses and walking tours vapidly focus on where in New York various movies and TV shows were filmed, as if the diner where the Seinfeld characters hung out is more important than where Washington was sworn in.

Anonymous said...

It's the First precinct currently, not the Fourth.

Lex said...

"A block north and it would have been called Thomas Duane, which still sounds like someone's real name."

I'm bet you've got a subliminal memory of the old Dallas Cowboys' running back, Duane Thomas.


Anonymous said...

St. John's Park died because the landowner Trinity Church wouldn't sell the rowhouses, but only give 99-year leases. The well-off wanted to buy, not rent, even then.

Bonnie Slotnick said...

The "ATT building" (aka the Walker-Lispenard Bldg, originally constructed for Western Electric) is one of three great downtown "communications landmarks" by architect Ralph Walker's firm. The others are the Barclay-Vesey building (140 West St., just north of Ground Zero, now called The Verizon Building) and the Western Union Building at 60 Hudson St.
I worked in the photo archive at the successor architectural firm for a while, and the construction photos of these projects were fantastic to look at.

Terry said...

I'm still reeling from losing Chumley's and Zito bread in the Village. Bazzini's would send me into a spiral of depression....

Unknown said...

One thing you missed was the original American Express stables in the area:
Built in 1866 and expanded in 1898, 157 Hudson St. originally housed the stables of the American Express Company, back when Amex made its money by delivering packages and telegraphs via stagecoach.

Anonymous said...

Not sure Capsouto Frere's is coming back. It was undone by Sandy and I wonder if the family has lost its interest in starting over. Really miss it.