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.
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 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.
But the “gentle men, the sherry drinkers, the slightly unbalanced,” as a New York Times article described the denizens of the street at the time, would be shuffled elsewhere after 1967.
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.