Walking on the Bowery near Rivington Street the other day, the signage caught my eye.
Painted on glass panels were vintage-looking ads for restaurant fixtures—including the very old-school “bar benches” and “coffee urns.” (Does anyone use the term coffee urn anymore? Somehow I imagine it’s too morbid for Starbucks.)
The signs were on the ground floor of 219-221 Bowery, two unusual and conjoined late 19th century buildings with five floors of decorative panels, bays, and pilasters.
Numbers 219-221 are within the boundaries of the Bowery’s restaurant supply row, which sprang up in the middle of the 20th century, reports a 2004 New York Times article.
But numbers 219-221 are also located along the Bowery’s skid row, which became infamous in the 20th century, when Bowery was most often paired with the word bum.
These twin buildings with the mysterious kitchen-supply signs once housed a notorious Bowery flophouse called the Alabama House, later the Alabama Hotel.
The Renaissance Revival/Queen Anne structure was built in 1889 and designed by James Ware—the architect who interestingly also invented New York’s signature dumbbell tenements.When the Alabama was built, the Bowery had already become a dive district with a shadowy elevated train (at left, looking up Grand Street) and cheap bars, dance halls, and theaters from Chatham Square to Cooper Square.
The Alabama joined a long list of lodging houses where for a dime (or less) a night, poor men could lay their heads (at right, another flophouse) through much of the 20th century.
By 1960, the fee for a room was still a relatively low 80 cents a night.
That year, it was announced that the Alabama Hotel, as it was now called, would be converted into artists’ lofts. “Bowery Hotel Where Derelicts Slept Being Converted to Artist Studios,” the Times headline read.
Now, more than 50 years later, the men who slept there are phantoms, just like the faded painted restaurant-supply signs.
[Fifth photo: MCNY, 1908 X2010.7.1.4022; Sixth photo: Jacob Riis, 1895, MCNY 22.214.171.124; Seventh photo: New York Times 1967]