Places that Matter

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206 Bowery

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Sally Young
Sally Young
206 Bowery, exterior, photo by Molly Garfinkel
The last surviving Federal-style row house on Bowery
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Place Matters Profile

The Bowery, one of New York City’s oldest thoroughfares, extends north from Chatham Square in Chinatown to Cooper Square at the nexus of the East Village, NoHo and Greenwich Village. It has housed a vast cross-section of cultural and religious groups, and has supported both high and low culture, as well as every entertaining manifestation in between. The corridor roughly corresponds to a Native American trail that was used by the Munsee and the Algonquin-speaking Lenape before European colonists settled the area in 1625. Ever since the Dutch began building bouwerijs (diversified farms) in New Amsterdam, the Bowery has hosted almost every architectural style and typology that can withstand a temperate climate. Unfortunately, whether monumental or vernacular, over the past several decades, many of the Bowery’s historic structures have been demolished, and much of the street’s historic character has been irrevocably replaced with insensitive modern development.

206 Bowery is one of the oldest, and last, Federal style row houses on the Bowery. The modest two-story, three bay building has a gambrel roof and a pair of gambrel dormers. As of 2011 a restaurant supply store is located in the ground floor storefront. 206 was likely erected around 1807 as part of a group that included the structures at 202, 204 and 208 Bowery. In the early nineteenth century this lower portion of the Bowery contained residences and commercial enterprises, most notably a plethora of butchers who held stands at the Fly Market. Around this period, John Brown and his wide Lydia lived in number 206 and operated John Brown’s Porterhouse from 208 Bowery.

By 1815 the Bowery, which was formerly a suburb of New York City, was fully incorporated into the burgeoning metropolis, and subsequently, both activity and settlement along the route intensified exponentially. By the mid-nineteenth century, the proliferation of drinking establishments contributed the Bowery’s increasingly debaucherous reputation. Gangsters and politicos alike deployed their respective (and frequently overlapping) troops to mark out turf in the Bowery’s various saloons and inns. The Bowery also offered family-friendly drinking establishments like German beer gardens, where children and parents could mingle, eat and relax. The Bowery Theater, which opened in 1826, was famous for its minstrel shows, and as the birthplace of Vaudeville. The street soon became the city’s first entertainment district, hosting Yiddish theater, dime museums, dance halls.

However, after the Civil War, the Bowery’s regulars began to resemble their environment, as their five o’clock shadows blended with permanent one cast by the 1878 opening of the Third Avenue Elevated. Not coincidentally, the Bowery Mission opened a year later. From 1880 to 1913 Tammany’s Big Tim Sullivan, who controlled crime from Fourteenth Street to the Battery, operated his headquarters from 207 Bowery, just across the street from the little house at 206. 

After the turn of the century, the Bowery area was drastically altered by significant infrastructural developments. The Manhattan Bridge opened in December 1909 and Kenmare Street opened onto the Williamsburg Bridge in 1911. By the second decade of the twentieth century, the Bowery was associated with diamonds and kitchen supplies, and at mid-century, the street was a haven for artists who began to repopulate local loft and performance spaces, thereby continuing the corridor’s long tradition of incubating creativity.

The area also made headlines during the 1950s and 1960s as a site of urban renewal experimentation and contestation. Throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century, many of 206 Bowery’s contemporaries and neighbors were taken down. In May 2011, the preservation community lost a significant battle with the demolition of 35 Cooper Square, another of the Bowery's pre-Civil War Federal-style house. Despite the yeoman’s work undertaken by the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors and the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, the developer who purchased the historic property declined to incorporate it into his development prospectus. However, the Bowery is eligible for National Register Historic District Designation, and architectural historian Kerri Culhane is currently researching and developing the nomination. Hopefully 206 Bowery will be able to hold out until the Bowery’s historic district is officially listed. Until then, both the building and the street will remain vulnerable.