By Brian J Pape, AIA, LEED-AP
1896 witnessed a new building inaugurated at 156-168 Bleecker Street, a full block long and wrapping the corners at 187-191 Sullivan Street and 187-201 Thompson Street, that replaced a row of formerly fashionable houses called Depauw Row. The double-height recessed limestone on the entrance and lobby features a modillioned cornice supported by scrolled brackets, a frieze sculpted with “Mills House No. 1,” and a broken pediment cartouche decorated with the initials “DOM” for owner/founder Darius Ogden Mills. Mills was a banker and philanthropist particularly concerned in his retirement years with the problems of housing certain elements of the (white) urban poor. He emphasized that his hotels were run efficiently, so as to make a modest profit for investors, and also “[not to offend] the pride or praiseworthy independence of those I serve.”
Mills House No. 1 was the prototype of the philanthropic hotel movement, one of a number of similar residential hotels established by moral reformers as safe, clean, and wholesome alternatives to the city’s supposedly licentious rooming houses, transient hotels, and the like. At a time when more single men than ever were migrating to New York City, Mills intended to keep single men away from women and families in the crowded tenement districts.
With clean rooms, restaurants, laundry facilities, lounges, and interior courtyards, it was considered “a palace at twenty cents a night,” according to Scribner’s Magazine. With no income limits, a frugal man with a relatively decent-paying job could save for other things too.
Meals cost 15 cents, and were considered excellent faire. Mills House hotels were closed during the day to encourage residents to seek work or be at their jobs. The residents were required to pay in advance, and could not gain entry after midnight. If they arrived drunk at the hotel, they were refused entry even if they had prepaid.
Mills House No. 1 was conceived as a wholesome residential hotel for working-class white men but, eventually, it became, ironically, desirable for gay men (of all ethnic groups) because they could live and socialize undetected more easily. In the latter half of the 20th century the Village Gate nightclub and Top of the Gate performance venue played host to a number of LGBT notables.
Mills had commissioned Ernest Flagg, a young architect who published ideas about low-cost urban housing on 100-foot-wide lots incorporating central light courts. Flagg is credited as the architect/builder of Mills House No. 1, basically a large tenement with commercial ground floor leased spaces. The 11-story Italian Renaissance Revival Style structure of brick with quoins of limestone at building corners features a primary facade divided into two wings by a central light court. The light court and south yard setback enabled each room to have a window, required by the 1879 Tenement House (old) Law. The 1,554 tiny 20 cents/night rooms were 7.5 by 6 feet or 5 by 8 feet. Each had only a bed with a mattress, two pillows, a chair, and a clothes rack; the walls stopped about a foot below the ceiling, allowing air flow but no acoustic privacy. There were four toilets and six washbasins on each floor (for 162 rooms) and bath facilities only on the ground floor. Annex buildings were erected on adjacent lots, with architect Ernest Flagg again designing 183 Thompson Street, ca. 1897, and with J. M. Robinson in charge of 183 Sullivan Street, ca. 1907. This was also the first of three model residential Mills hotels for single working men (Mills House #2 by Flagg, at Rivington and Christie Streets, has been demolished, while No. 3 by Copeland & Dole, ca. 1907, remains at 485 Seventh Avenue).
After Mills’ death in 1910, a family trust operated the hotels until 1949. When #1 was sold it became the Greenwich Hotel (for men), and by the 1960s it became the first hotel in New York to be called a “welfare hotel.” By the 1980s, after earlier attempts to develop artists’ studios, then a gut renovation and a renaming to The Atrium (retaining the light courts), the building was converted to a housing cooperative of just 194 apartments, including some furnished suites available for short-term rental. Since the original sponsor defaulted in the late 1980s, the successor still owns many of the units; and the co-op, called a “condop,” has loose rules. The building has a doorman and live-in superintendent. Because of the low owner-occupancy percentage, new owners may find it very difficult to get financing, making it effectively an all-cash co-op, or rental. Studios are listed on StreetEasy at $2,795 monthly, unfurnished, and $3,195 monthly, furnished; a one BR (26 x 18) unfurnished is listed at $3,450. A far cry from $0.20 a night/$6.00 a month!
Notable commercial tenants have included the Village Gate (1958-1993), and the off-Broadway Village Theater. (Le) Poisson Rouge was located there prior to 2008. Chess Grandmaster Nicolas Rossolimo had his chess studio at 191 Sullivan Street in the 1970s.
Over the years, historic storefronts were remodeled, including new light fixtures, security cameras, entrance doors, cornice edges, and sign band. Today, a CVS Pharmacy occupies the east storefronts, with LPR, a nightclub since 2008, located below it. Li-Lac Chocolates is west of the main lobby, next to Cookie Dough Shop and Mogee Tee Shop. All four historic facades have been preserved, predominantly, in their original design features, including basement openings with historic iron grilles.
An LPC public hearing proposed designating all four facades as an individual landmark in 1966, but the owner objected. In 2013, this area and the building were included in the South Village Historic District.