The City in Transition: The Bowery

(L-R): Bowery Poetry Club, New Museum, Fruit Stand at Bowery and Grand.

Fran Leadon

On Sunday, May 10, I set out to photograph the Bowery for the upcoming fifth edition of the AIA Guide to New York City (Oxford University Press, 2010). I had just re-read Low Life, Luc Sante’s 1991 social history of 19th-century Manhattan and was curious to walk the Bowery’s length, from Chatham Square in Chinatown north to Cooper Square, and see what had changed since the Guide‘s last edition in 2000. I knew that the infamous old McGurk’s Suicide Hall had been torn down in favor of a new project by Arquitectonica, but I was curious to see what else was still there from the old days, and what was being built that was new and interesting.

De Bouwerie had originally been an Indian trail, then a bucolic lane winding through the farms, but it had become virtually synonymous with skid row by the 1850s, mythologized in comics and dime novels (and later in films) as a seedy district of flop houses, brothels, vaudeville theaters, and pawn shops. Today, little of the old skid row Bowery remains. The southern end of the Bowery is mostly discount jewelry outlets, Chinese jitneys (Fung Wah Bus at 139 Canal), and electronics stores. I passed a vacant lot at the corner of Hester Street, where the Music Palace Theater, reportedly designed by McKim, Mead & White, was recently demolished. Known in its later years as the Chuan Kung Theater, it was the last of the neighborhood’s Chinese language cinemas. Covered with sheet metal and murals, who knew a McKim, Mead & White building lurked underneath?

The Lighting District starts as the Bowery crosses Grand Street, and the Restaurant Supply District begins in earnest just north of Kenmare Street (Chairs! Tables! Stools! Dishes! Pots! Pans!). Colorful, wordy signs are the main feature here, but there are some architectural treasures as well, notably two landmark banks: Stanford White’s 1895 Bowery Savings Bank, just north of Grand, and Robert Maynicke’s 1898 Germania Bank, at Spring Street.

I began noticing more and more hipsters as I walked north, and new modern buildings began appearing in quick succession: Keith Strand’s skinny condo at 195 Bowery, SANAA’s stacked mesh New Museum, and the shiny glass boxes of Arquitectonica’s Avalon development on both sides of East Houston Street. In the midst of all the new glass and steel, I noticed the Bowery Mission, at 227, still soldiering on, helping the homeless since 1879.

Just to the east of Bowery and East 1st Street, surrounded by the Avalon development, I peeked into Extra Place, a notorious little alley, formerly cobble-stoned and garbage-strewn, now paved and cleaned up (but still empty). Extra Place is just outside the back door of what used to be CBGB’s, at 315 Bowery. That renowned club closed in 2006, and while the building is still there the energy is not. Across the street is the Bouwerie Lane Theatre in Henry Engelbert’s old Bond Street Savings Bank at 330 Bowery. (Much recent building behind the theater on Bond Street, but that is another story.)

Further north at East 3rd Street is the fritted-glass and steel Cooper Square Hotel, swelling at its middle, by Carlos Zapata, and finally the buildings of Cooper Union, including the main 1859 building by Frederick A. Peterson facing Cooper Square, and an exciting new building behind it by Morphosis, all peeling steel scrims, just nearing completion. At Cooper Square the Bowery disappears, splitting into Third and Fourth Avenues, so I caught the IRT at the Astor Place station, crowned by Rolf Ohlhausen, FAIA’s replica cast-iron kiosk.