The Significance of 35 Cooper Square

35COOPER-07.03.08-IMG_2762a-det2Tim Milk

Since 2002, architectural historian Kerri Culhane has worked with Two Bridges Neighborhood Council to document the history of the neighborhoods of the Lower East Side. In December 2010 she and Two Bridges received the New York State Preservation Award for Outstanding National Register nomination for the Chinatown and Little Italy Historic District. She is currently writing the forthcoming Bowery Historic District nomination, sponsored by Two Bridges Neighborhood Council and Bowery Alliance of Neighbors.

Formerly 391 Bowery, 35 Cooper Square was built between 1825-27, as one of four houses developed on the land of Nicholas William Stuyvesant. Stuyvesant was a direct descendant of the Dutch West India Company’s last director-general, Petrus Stuyvesant.

The development pattern north of Houston (then called North Street) remained very rural until the early 19th century. In 1811, a plan to establish a street grid north of the haphazard jumble of streets below Houston was mapped by surveyor John Randel. Third Avenue, branching off of the Bowery, was not built until the early 1820s. Stuyvesant’s four buildings were among the first ever built on this new road — the Bowery spur of Third Avenue. The 35 Cooper Square site is, therefore, an artifact of the most significant urbanization effort of New York, which left us with the grid system that now blankets the island.

The modest brick house at 35 Cooper Square would have been typical of its period, two-and-one-half stories, with a generous attic under a “peaked” roof lit by a pair of dormers. The defining architectural characteristics of the urban Federal era rowhouse include the form, most commonly two-and-one-half to three-and-one-half stories; gambrel or side-gable roofs featuring single or paired dormers; Flemish bond brickwork; and simple stone lintels. My recent research has identified at least 26 buildings dating to the Federal period still standing on the Bowery, of which only 12, thanks to minimal alterations, still clearly represent the era.

As early as 1864, we have evidence that the façade of 35 Cooper Square was clad in brownstone ashlar. A painting in the New York Public Library collection depicts the façade as brown. The current ashlar-mimicking stucco on the facade of 35 Cooper likely masks remnants of real brownstone ashlar below. Often stucco is used to repair brownstone that has been damaged or worn from weathering.

The Italianate style, which often featured brownstone ashlar, was popular during the 1850s-70s. The Cooper Union Foundation Building (1853-59), a magnificent brownstone edifice, may have inspired its modest neighbor at 35 Cooper Square to update its look to reflect the fashion for brownstone of the period.

Research by local artist, community activist, and Bowery Alliance of Neighbors member Sally Young, tells us the occupational history of the building. The earliest evidence of the resident fruit seller, John Snider, comes from the 1833 City Directory. By 1850, Henry Marshall was the resident business owner, operating a porterhouse on the first floor until 1874. During Marshall’s tenure, the Marshall House, as it was known during the Civil War, was the scene of festivities, including sword ceremonies, celebrating the return of prisoners of war from Richmond. “A splendid collation, liberally provided by the worthy host, Mr. MARSHALL, was then partaken of, and a regular feu-de-joie of champagne corks was kept up during the evening by those assembled” (New York Times, March 23, 1862).

By the late 1890s, one of the buildings on this block of Cooper Square operated as a gay “resort” called Little Bucks, which is described in testimony of the Mazet Committee (1899) on corruption in New York City as being opposite Paresis Hall (392 Bowery). The building at number 35 is a candidate to have housed Little Bucks. It operated as a saloon and, shortly after the Mazet Committee report, was reclassified as a “hotel,” a ruse to get around excise laws.

Much later, between 1962 and 1965, Beat poet Diane DiPrima lived and wrote at 35 Cooper Square. With LeRoi Jones, the poet now known as Amiri Baraka, Ms. Di Prima produced several editions of their influential mimeographed journal, “The Floating Bear,” in the upper floors of the house. Ms. DiPrima recalled that the first Floating Bear edition published at 35 Cooper Square was #26, dated 1962, and guest edited by Billy Name, a regular visitor and part-time resident of the building. The offices of the New York Poet’s Theatre and the Poet’s Press, as well as Floating Bear, were housed at 35 Cooper Square during DiPrima’s residency.

Diane DiPrima left when the building was sold to Stan Sobossek, a painter, in fall 1965. Mr. Sobossek ran a bar and club here, beneath his painting studio. Indeed, evidence suggests that the building’s ground floor has functioned as some kind of neighborhood watering hole almost unceasingly, since the time Henry Marshall first occupied the building in the mid-nineteenth century until the Asian Pub’s recent eviction. This site connects the community to its past, but it is not just a relic. It is an important part of a varied and dynamic streetscape that, yes, will change over time. But there is no need, other than financial, for the Bhatia company to demolish this building. You cannot replace the history that the building represents.

This history is representative of the Bowery’s history as a whole, which itself tells the story of New York, coinciding with the period of dynamic transformation of the Bowery from a rural lane to the main business district in town, and from the pleasure district of the mid to late 19th century to the cultural center of downtown New York in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s.

If the Bowery’s development is a mirror of the history of New York, to lose these early artifacts is to be left with a distorted image of the city.

I’ll let Billy Name have the last word (from an email he sent to Sally Young):

“…the house looked dramatically rustic from the street and gave implications that it’s location near the bowery in lower manhattan may have once rang(rung?) to a different cultural bell. i seem to recall wooden broad plank floors and a very comfortable homey feeling from all the wood and open space and kitchen. and, as opposed to all the tenement buildings in it’s surrounds it actually looked and felt like it might be the perfect home for walt whitman . . . . i was privileged to work with diane when i was very young (20 years old in 1960) and to cross paths in her abode with a full roster of the ‘beat’ poets and many of the central avant garde cultural figures in the art scene of the day. it should be designated a historic site and have a nice bronze plaque on the front.”