Before SoHo Was SoHo (Part I): The Lullaby of Broadway

And early view of Niblo’s Garden, at Broadway and Prince Streets,
ca. 1930 (image NYPL)

The corner of Broadway and Prince Street today.

Although this blog focuses on SoHo in the late-1960’s through the early-1980’s, I thought it would be interesting, from time to time, to look at what was happening in the neighborhood before SoHo was called SoHo.  Our neighborhood’s long history and many incarnations, from Native American territory to farmland to suburb to commercial center to red light district to industrial hub to art capital and finally to retail mecca, will remind us that, although some of us may miss the days before SoHo was a center for commerce, fashion, and gastronomy, it also wasn’t always a quiet, dirty, residential/industrial community filled with quirky creative-types living illegally in palatial, underheated dwellings.  As a matter of fact, far from it.

I was recently perusing the Bowery Boys blog and came across a post on Niblo’s Garden.  From the 1820’s until 1895, when it was demolished to make way for an office building, Niblo’s Garden was one of New York City’s premier “pleasure gardens,” venues where wealthy New Yorkers could find diversion and amusement, both indoors and out, before the advent of public parks.  It was located at the corner of Broadway and Prince Street and extended all the way to Crosby Street to the east and Houston Street to the north.  In addition to gardens, an open-air saloon, and an exhibition hall, in its heyday Niblo’s housed a 3,200-seat theater at which the first Broadway musical was performed and also at which P.T. Barnum made his show business debut.

On this same stretch of Broadway, one could also find the ultra-opulent St. Nicholas Hotel at Broadway and Spring Street.  The only remaining part of the building, which spanned the entire block to Broome Street, is now the site of The Puma Store and Lady Footlocker.

And finally, it bears mentioning that Tiffany & Co. was once located at 550 Broadway between Prince and Spring Streets where Banana Republic now resides, on the block between Niblo’s Garden and the St. Nicholas.  The Atlas clock in the image below is the clock that now adorns the facade of the Tiffany & Co. store on Fifth Avenue at 57th Street.

So although some of us lament the fact that SoHo has lost it’s edge and has become a playground for the rich and beautiful, we are also forced to admit that, what goes around, comes around.

Entrance to Niblo’s Garden in its later years, ca. 1865 (photo MCNY).

The interior of Niblo’s Theater (photo NYPL)

(See more images and listen to a great podcast about Niblo’s Garden
from The Bowery Boys.)

The St. Nicholas Hotel on Broadway between Spring and Broome Streets, built in 1854 (image NYPL)

The remaining portion of the St. Nicholas Hotel,
The Puma Store and Lady Foot Locker
at 521 and 523 Broadway today.

Tiffany & Co. at 550 Broadway between Prince and Spring Streets,
1850 (photo Curbed/Flickr)

Banana Republic at 550 Broadway today.

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6 Responses to “Before SoHo Was SoHo (Part I): The Lullaby of Broadway”

  1. mark gabor Says:

    The old photos of Broadway facades called to mind some indelible memories of a great old building that was the Grand Central Hotel, originally built in 1873. Around 1970, I believe, a dark, noisy atmospheric bar/restaurant opened there by the name of Art Bar — tho I think no one used that name, calling it simply Broadway Central.

    Though technically north of SoHo (673 Broadway, just south of W. 3rd Street), it was an instant favorite of the early Soho crowd — a blend of Fanelli regulars and chic NYC clubbers avoiding the bridge-and-tunnel trendiness of Max’s Kansas City.

    Wikipedia yielded the following meager reference to this high-energy nightspot:

    “The Grand Central Hotel, later renamed the Broadway Central Hotel, was a hotel at 673 Broadway, New York City…

    “In the early 50’s Bill Haley and The Comets Band was featured at the Broadway Central, where it played “Rock Around the Clock,” and rocked the house nightly…

    “On August 3, 1973, allegedly due in part to illegal alterations on a basement bearing wall, a section of the Broadway facade of the structure then known as the Broadway Central Hotel collapsed onto Broadway, killing four residents of the hotel. By this time the building had deteriorated into a welfare hotel, BUT IT HOUSED ART BAR, A SUCCESSOR FOR A BRIEF TIME AS A VENUE FOR THE ARTISTS AND SCULPTORS WHO HAD CONGREGATED AT MAX’S KANSAS CITY.”

    I remember the seductive menu (at that time) of the freshest, sweetest raw clams and oysters, and huge, juicy, sizzling grilled burgers. The drinks were generous (and numerous), and the atmosphere was electric.

    Anyone else remember one of the hottest, tho short-lived, artists’ haunts of that time?

    • Sean Says:

      Mark,

      Was “Art Bar” a different bar than “St. Adrian’s Company”, also housed in the Broadway Central Hotel?
      http://thisaintthesummeroflove.blogspot.com/2008/12/giving-up-ghosts-of-st-adrian-company.html
      Yeah, St. Adrian’s was a hip place during its short existence.

      I used to work at an after-hours house party down the block from the hotel, on the second floor of a loft building at 647 Broadway, and the neighbors were complaining about our noise.

      When the Bdwy Central collapsed, the Buildings Department used that as a pretext to shut down our joint, housed in a solid loft building, claiming, nonsensically, that the building might collapse due to the stress from, as the NY Times described it, “500 frenzied dancers”.

  2. Yukie Says:

    Jo, my good friend and Soho old-timer, just emailed me these links about SoHo once the theaters and hotels moved north to Union Square and the area became a red light district:

    A Well-Preserved Map to Perdition
    A 141-year-old guidebook to New York offers a glimpse into
    the nightlife of another time.
    (see the photo of the site of the oldest brothel in NYC, @ 105 Mercer Street!)

    http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/26/on-the-records-a-well-preserved-roadmap-to-perdition/?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=tha29

    The Brothel Directory
    (This is the first time I’ve heard the term “lady boarders.”)

    http://documents.nytimes.com/a-vest-pocket-guide-to-brothels-in-19th-century-new-york-for-gentlemen-on-the-go?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=tha29

    Map: Dens of Iniquity
    (I couldn’t actually access this map, but maybe you’ll have better luck…)

    http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/01/26/nyregion/gentleman.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=tha29

  3. SoHo Man Says:

    I miss all them Three Card Monty dealers everywhere up and down Broadway between Houston and Spring….thats what I miss! : )

  4. Before SoHo Was SoHo (Part II): Red Light Go! « The SoHo Memory Project Says:

    [...] in February, in my Before SoHo Was SoHo (Part I) post, I described the area during the early 1800′s, during its previous heyday as a commercial [...]

  5. Benjamin Feldman Says:

    Wonderful article ! My name is Benjamin Feldman, and I am an historian and author, also a volunteer archivist at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn where William Niblo’s family mausoleum stands. I am researching and writing his biography and will also be doing a short performance piece about him on Saturday October 6th from noon til 4:00 pm in connection with Open House NY at Green-
    Wood. I will perform at the mausoleum, which will be open for viewing. For further info about Niblo and a few corrections on your piece, take a gander at http://www.nibloandhisgarden@blogspot.com

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