St. Mark’s Place: Hardly a Saint in Sight
Allison B. Siegel returns with another epic Lower East Side history. As urban historian, preservationist and educator, Siegel focuses on 18th through early 20th Century NYC, bringing her penchant (and obsession) for history and adventure to everything that she researches. This time, it’s the richly entertaining story of St. Mark’s Place.
Do you love grit and grime with equal parts pastoral splendor? If so, St. Mark’s Place is the place for you. Allow me to explain.
St. Mark’s sans 8th street, which is, well, stupid (far be it from me to mince words) is a historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The entire neighborhood seeps with NYC historic and cultural significance. Perhaps one day 8th street will join its sisters. Either way, I’m covering all of St. Mark’s, 8th street included.
Let’s get right to the point – the historical district resides in the Lower East Side. I’m told I am a so-called “purist” when it comes to the original boundaries, so yes, the East Village is part of the broader LES. St. Mark’s extends from St. Mark’s Place (8th street) to 11th street, 3rd Ave. to A. One of the oldest streets in NYC is crammed in there named after Dutch Director-General Pieter Stuyvesant. Stuyvesant Street runs true east/west while the Commissioner’s Grid of 1811 that transects it does not, but it remains a reminder of what was.
See that A? It stands for Allison’s mother. I know, I know, you don’t believe me, but here’s what: in the 70s the woman who gave me life lived right there ^ in the neighborhood that gave me more than a few good stories to tell.
Before she was my mom, Ellen was a delicate Yeshiva darling turned bell-bottom rocking, platform balancing, long hair ironing, war protesting hippie.
And in the 70s, St. Mark’s was the perfect place to be a hippie. It is actually where Underground Uplift United (“UUU”) had their store, and launched the “Make Love, Not War” movement (founded in Chicago) with posters and buttons. Another little known fact about my mom is that while she may have chosen the most historically prestigious street to live on while rocking her UUU button, the decade in which she chose to do so? Not so prestigious.
It happened one night, while entering her walk-up – some fool actually had the audacity to try and mug her.
Now most of you do not know Ellen and so I’ll just say this – my mama is one tough, er, cookie.
Ellen–0, Mugger–2 to 6 in the Tombs.
And so it goes. St. Mark’s shaping me before I was even born and while at first glance, it may appear that I am adopted, this effortlessly elegant woman and I do have quite a bit in common. Cheers, Mom!
From the National Register Historic District Nomination:
After slavery was outlawed in New York in 1827, many former slaves settled in several black enclaves, including that near the Bowery, another in Greenwich Village and still another in the growing slum area that came to be known as Five Points while Lafayette Place and St. Mark’s Place developed into some of the city’s most fashionable 3 addresses. Seeking to take advantage of this boom, Petrus Stuyvesant began to subdivide his property in the 1830s and sell lots for development in the 1840s…By the 1850s, the population of New York soared, due primarily to an influx of European immigrants as well as newly-freed African-Americans who were drawn to Manhattan because of the availability of jobs.
Also in the 19th century, St. Mark’s and the rest of Kleindeutschland gave us German meeting halls, German shooting clubs, and German music halls. As time marched on, heaps more history came with it! We are going to span the centuries folks! It’ll take however long it takes you to read this to get from the 18th century to 2012.
Let’s you and me take a little trip. You know you love to time travel.
Starting at the very core – Gentleman and Ladies - St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery:
Various sources revealed that the land Saint or St. Mark’s stands upon was once part of Pieter (Peter) Stuyvesant’s bouwerie which he bequeathed to Petrus Stuyvesant, his great-grandson, at 2nd Ave. & 11th St. Bowery meaning “farm” in Dutch and Stuyvesant Street, the path through Stuyvesant’s land.
Bowery: a street once synonymous with derelicts, flophouses, prostitution rivaling only that of the Tenderloin. And now? The one and only Bowery Boogie. Save your questions about the Bowery, my friends. I’ll probably write an entire book about it, but at some point soon, you’ll be able to read my take here.
Petrus began dividing his land into lots by 1789. He sold the land where the church stands to the Episcopal Church for a whopping $1 in 1793. The church was completed in 1799. From the LPC designation report, the main structure was built by the architect/mason John McComb, Jr. in the late Georgian style. It is the second oldest church edifice in New York, on the oldest church site still occupied by a church, erected 1795-99, steeple 1829, porch 1858. Other notable architects such as my personal favorite, James Renwick (Two words: Smallpox Hospital; Two more: St. Bartholomew) and Ernest Flagg designed and oversaw construction of the Parish Hall and Rectory, respectively.
You can read more about the architecture and the like here.
From the St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery website:
Welcome to St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, the oldest site of continuous worship in New York City and the second oldest church in Manhattan. Not only is the St. Mark’s campus a beautiful collection of buildings and burial grounds, its unique and interesting history is quintessential New York. The site is officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was designated a New York City Landmark in 1966.
I’ve spent countless hours meandering the grounds with my trusty blue mini-Mag-lite. Several other ghost hunting enthusiasts and I annually convene in the cemetery on All Hallow’s Eve, lighting candles at the Dia de los Muertos altars while searching for our founding fathers. A lady should never reveal too much at once, so what we found I’ll save for a post about hauntings on the Lower East Side. This will give you time to purchase the nightlight you’re going to need after reading what I’ve experienced. Trust that.
Beekman, Fish, Tompkins, and other notable New Yorkers are buried on the site including two Mayors of New York City and Daniel Tompkins, Vice President of the United States.
In 1803, Petrus had a house built for his daughter Elizabeth and her new husband, Nicholas Fish. Nicholas would become Lieutenant-General Nicholas Fish of Revolutionary War fame and close friend of Alexander Hamilton (lots more on surname Hamilton coming up).
They gave birth to a boy who would become Governor (and the U.S. Secretary of State & Senator) – Hamilton Fish, the great-great-great-grandson of Pieter Stuyvesant. The house he was born in and occupied for a better part of his life is now known as the Hamilton-Fish or Stuyvesant-Fish House still standing brilliant in brick splendor at 21 Stuyvesant Street – landmarked and on the NRHP.
Just in case you were wondering, 19th century New Yorkers didn’t have much of a creative naming convention.
The Fish descendants did naught to defy convention. There was another Nicholas, then Hamilton II, III, and IV. Apparently, that got boring so that went back to ye ol’ faithful – Hamilton Fish IV’s son was named Stuyvesant.
Given the likes of Apple and Blue, I think I’ll stick with Hamilton.
Hamilton Fish was named for our next house’s occupant’s father and U.S. founding father, Alexander Hamilton. The Hamilton-Holly House at 4 St Mark’s Place was built in 1831 and was home to Alexander Hamilton’s son, Colonel Alexander Hamilton. It is a Federal style, Flemish bond beauty with dormer windows and a landmark designation. Check it out in great depth by clicking here.
Heading back to the Fish family, Elizabeth Fish married Daniel LeRoy and they have a house here too aptly named the Daniel LeRoy House. It was built by the same architect, Thomas E. Davis, who built the Hamilton Holly House (and Arlington Hall which I’ll delve into below). It is a Greek Revival structure at 20 St Mark’s Place constructed in 1832 and is also land marked and listed on the NRHP. YIPEE! Sorry, couldn’t help myself there.
Honestly, this just makes so much more sense now.
First my mom, then I used to live on 2nd Ave. and 11th Street. St. Mark’s was mecca to me…the record shops (see above), bootleg cds, Kim’s video (now further up on First Avenue), skateboarding, Manic Panic, tattoos, piercings, smoke shops, the Gem (Gladys, Etta and Miriam) Spa egg creams, bootleg mixtapes, and of course Trash and Vaudeville, Search and Destroy etc…I was a teenager in a teenage dreamland gazing up at windows that had stared back for hundreds of years before my time.
But who am I to you? Maybe my experiences in St. Mark’s are not enough to draw you in. Let me present a list of some more recognizable names that, like me, personally know the the pull of this neighborhood throughout its ever-expanding history.
In no particular order representing no particular genre: Allen Ginsburg, Billy Joel, Joey Ramone, the New York Dolls, Basquiat, Emma Goldman, Lenny Bruce, Dee-Lite, Keith Haring, and Led Zeppelin. Plenty more on the St. Mark’s roster, but those are just some I thought you’d find interesting.
And without aging myself – it has been good chunk of time since my teenage days and this place still feels like home. I even accept that there’s a Pinkberry and that my favorite tattoo shop re-opened as an Ed Hardy theme park (Don Ed Hardy is a legendary tattoo artist to say the least; we all have Christian Audigier to thank and blame for sullying that great man and his work; once again I digress…).
Moving right along to 12 St. Mark’s Place: The German American Shooting Society Clubhouse. Built in 1888-89, the Deutsch-Amerikanische Schuetzen Gesellschaft was headquarters for 24 German shooting clubs. From King’s handbook of New York City: an outline history and description of the of the American metropolis, edited by Moses King, 1892:
12 St. Mark’s, a NYC landmark, today:
To the morons who defiled the building with graffiti and as a graffiti proponent myself – there is a place for everything.
Spray paint does not belong on historic structures. If you feel the need, first, have some talent, and second, take it to Queens version of the Five Points, Five Pointz. A friend, Meres One, runs the community site and you can spray all you want without destroying priceless buildings.
Now to Arlington Hall at 21 St. Marks Place. Built in 1833, this was the headquarters of the Arion Society, a German musical club from 1870 to 1887.
From Off The Grid:
19-23 St. Mark’s Place are an excellent example of how the East Village has changed over time from a wealthy merchants neighborhood, to a landing spot for immigrants, to the launch pad for numerous counterculture and artistic movements. Where else would one find a building which had been townhouses for wealthy families, a ballroom, a gangster hangout, a Polish wedding chapel, and a performance venue …?
January 6, 1914: Arlington Hall was the site of a gangland shootout between “Dope” Benny Fein and Jack Sirocco. Jews vs. Italians in typical LES mob fashion.
Benny began his, um, career as a pickpocket. Eventually, he joined Big Jack Zelig, the leader of the old Monk Eastman gang. They would both become part of the legacy of “Tough Jews“; a very different kind of founding fathers; those of the New York mob.
Granted, I have been called tough and I am a Jew, but I’ve never offed anyone, am not related to Bugsy whose last name is actually Siegelbaum, and I do not partake in illegal activities. Mostly. Thanks.
In the 1920s, Arlington Hall became a Polish community meeting hall and restaurant. By the 1960s, it would house a performance space called The Dom (The Polsky Dom Narodny; Dom is Polish for “home”). Andy Warhol, later in the 60s, turned The Dom into a nightclub where he would explode the underground the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. You may have heard of the house band there; The Velvet Underground.
Fun tidbit – my high school Ethics teacher is married to The Velvet Underground’s informal member, Rich Mishkin. Would you look at that!? I learned something in Ethics, Mrs. Mish!!!
EPI became The Balloon Farm at some point, though the date is unclear.
In 1967 (“the dates are fuzzy, probably something to do with the amount of LSD consumed.” Not my words or my theory. The owner of that quote has chosen to remain anonymous) the venue would change names (and hands) yet again.
Friends, there’s only one building in NYC that can boast Teddy Roosevelt as a speaker and the Grateful Dead as performers, and it is Arlington Hall.
I am an 80s baby dammit! I had the Sound Factory, the Tunnel, Limelight and Webster Hall (fine, that doesn’t count because so did everyone from 1886 on) but you people! YOU had the Fillmore East and The Electric Circus. I want a re-match, re-incarnation, re-birth, whatever.
Once again, my Dad:
I fell in love with Rock-n-Roll at the Fillmore West. At the Electric Circus, she and I would promise ourselves to each other. The Fillmore East, The Beacon and everything after was and is still how I keep that promise.
Ain’t he poetic?
Some of the performers at the Electric Circus were the Grateful Dead, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, the Allman Brothers, the Beatles. Blue Oyster Cult, Sly & The Family Stone….[Author's Note: it is hard to prove that many of the artists performed at the Electric Circus since this venue was short lived. The quote may be a melding of long ago memories, however, the Grateful Dead and Sly & The Family Stone are confirmed. Here are advertisements for the Dead & one for Sly from unknown media ads.]
And now 2012.
Do you like faux-Mexican food? Or cheap hair cuts? Good, ’cause Arlington Hall/The Dom/The Electric Circus/Exploding Plastic Inevitable/Arion Hall is now a Chipotle and a Supercuts.
Oops, sorry, I just face-planted into my keyboard.
Despair. Despair, I tell you. Hey, at least they didn’t tear it down.
At this point, I think we call this feeling brain overload. Historic houses and streets, founding fathers, music legends, legendary venues and mobsters? Knowing what else I know of St. Mark’s and how ridiculously rich the history is, do me a favor will you? Stay tuned for for a St. Mark’s Part 2-???
For now, my peeps, as always…
Ah, New York. My stunning and gritty, sparkling and filthy, tremendous, transcendent metropolis – you were forged by the keepers of secrets and those secrets I plan to find and reveal, one brick at a time. Bless up.