By Brian J. Pape, AIA, LEED-AP
In the 17th Century Wouter van Twiller operated a brewery here before this tiny street was laid out in the early 19th Century. The first documented mention of Gay Street appeared in the Common Council minutes of April 23, 1827. Gay Street was widened in 1833. 1820s period houses on the west side were demolished and replaced by working class Greek Revival homes with stables behind them that served some of the wealthy homeowners of Washington Square. Squeezed between Christopher Street and Waverly Place, the only lots with a Gay Street address are #12 (three and a half-stories ca.1925), 14 and 16 (three-stories ca.1910) on the west side, and #9, 11, 13, (three-story rowhouses ca.1899), #15 & 17, (three-story apartment houses ca.1910) on the east. All other buildings along the street have other street addresses.
The little houses sat essentially unnoticed on the arcane street. Throughout the 19th century and into the early parts of the 20th, the picturesque street was home, mainly, to black residents. On May 10, 1903 the New York Times reported that “A couple of colored artists, Messrs. E. Hawkins and S. O. Collins of 11 Gay Street announce an exhibition of their work at that address…”
Yet despite its hidden location and plebian roots, Gay Street became the setting for many New York happenings. In the mid-1920s playboy mayor Jimmy Walker leased an apartment for his mistress, Ziegfeld Follies showgirl Betty Compton, in No. 12. Later, puppeteer Frank Parris lived there—where he created his Howdy Doody character.
Next door, at No. 14, author Ruth McKenney shared the basement apartment with her sister Eileen in 1935. Details of their life on Gay Street were integral to her novel My Sister Eileen. A few days before the subsequent Broadway play of the same name opened in 1940, Eileen and her new husband were killed in an automobile accident. The grieving Ruth, who had moved to No. 18 in 1936, never saw her play. In the basement apartment that she had lived in with her sister, community activist David Ryan was killed by an accidental fire on Christmas Day, 2003.
The controversial self-described “radical lawyer” William Kunstler lived across the street at the 19-foot wide No. 13 (his family are still the registered owners). Kunstler became famous for his defense of the “Chicago Seven” and, later, for such divisive clients as the Black Panther Party, the Weather Underground Organization, Jack Ruby, and the 1993 World Trade Center bombers.
Our well-known friends Robert Heide and John Gilman were celebrating the 1995 publication of a Greenwich Village guidebook with a TV interview while sitting on 13 Gay Street’s stoop when Mr. Kunstler came out to join them in singing the Wonderful Town songs by Leonard Bernstein.