Then&Now: An Overlooked Christopher Street Gay Scene

By Brian J Pape, AIA

The June 1969 rebellion against police harassment by the patrons of the Stonewall Inn, at the eastern end of Christopher Street, helped to launch a national gay rights movement and make Christopher Street the social and cultural center of New York’s lesbian and gay community. Today, almost all of the attention to the historic gay scene is focused on the east end of Christopher Street, but there is another important area of Christopher Street that deserves attention: the west end.

THEN: This stretch of West Street, looking northeast from its Barrow Street intersection, represents several phases of construction spanning a century of development (from 1830 to 1938) along Greenwich Village’s Hudson River waterfront. The architecture illustrates the area’s long history as a place of dwelling, industry, and commerce, much of it maritime-related, and is a rare surviving example of this once typical development pattern on Manhattan’s west side waterfront. On the far right in this 1929 photo, at the corner of Christopher Street, is the Keller Abington Hotel, with the Christopher Hotel to its left. The tallest buildings were the Keller and Bell Labs (now Westbeth) in the misty far-left background. The City of New York reserved the block of West Street between Christopher and West 10th Streets, left-center in the photo, as the site of the Greenwich (Weehawken) Market house after they sold off the Newgate State Prison grounds in 1829. A 1902 newspaper article referred to the piers between Houston and West 14th Streets as “The Farm,” stating that “for years, especially in fine weather, it has at night been the resort of outcasts, drunkards, dissolute people, and a dangerous class of petty highwaymen.” By the 1920’s, the area was called “a street of hotels.” The area with long-established waterfront taverns, losing the rough seamen and longshoreman patrons by the 1960’s, had become a nucleus for bars catering to a gay clientele (those bars that remain still draw nice crowds). The abandoned piers, especially at Christopher Street, became sites for clandestine rendezvous. Credit: NYPL Digital Collections photo from 1929 by Percy Sperr.

 

NOW: On this recent photograph, looking northeast from West and Barrow Streets to the Weehawken Street Historic District, we highlight the histories that once occupied this waterfront scene at the west end of Christopher Street. Credit: Brian J. Pape, AIA.

#1: 150 Barrow Street (384 West Street), built as the 6-story Knickerbocker Hotel in 1897-98 by architect Julius Munckwitz, was landmarked in 2007. From 1911-1929 it was the New Keller Hotel, then it became the Keller Abington from 1929 to 1993, at which time the city transformed the hotel into a Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotel for the indigent. Keller Bar, which occupied the West Street storefront (c. 1956-1998), was reputed to be NY’s oldest gay “leather” bar. Owned by the estate of William Gottlieb since then, it is finally undergoing complete restoration work for residential mixed use, complete with the iconic “hotel” corner sign. Will a Keller Bar return?

#2: 180 Christopher Street (387 West Street) was built as the Hotel Christopher prior to 1920. Remodeled as the Bailey-Holt House of supportive housing by New York City’s HIV/AIDS Service Administration (HASA) in 1986, it was the nation’s first residence for people living with HIV/AIDS. 

#3: 388-390 West Street (14 Weehawken Street) was built as a one-story commercial corner building for Benjamin Gottfried in 1937; it became West Beach Bar & Grill (c. 1970-80) and then Badlands Bar (c. 1983-91), both bars catering to a gay clientele. It has been an abandoned eyesore since 1992. 

#4: 391 West Street (8 Weehawken Street): this five-story neo-Renaissance tenement (ca. 1902) was built for Solomon Lent; the ground floor commercial space was first a men’s furnishings store. Waterfront Bike Shop has operated out of here for many years now. 

#5: 392-393 West Street (6 Weehawken Street): Jane Jacobs wrote of this wood structure in her 1963 book: “The quaintest building in the general popular view, the old wooden building (392 West Street) is not the oldest. This is apparently the remnant of the City Market erected in 1834” (an open wooden shed once covering most of the block). The earliest documented liquors/saloon business (c. 1849-1867) in the historic district was here. Choo Choo’s Pier (c. 1972), then Sneakers (c. late 1970s-99), were bars catering to a gay clientele here. It is now used for storage.

#6: 394-395 West Street (2-4 Weehawken Street): built as three-story brick multiple dwellings (c. 1848), with commercial ground floor use, is now under William Gottlieb ownership. Charles Chabal’s Bar (c. 1950-60) and Sea Shell restaurant (c. 1960-76) preceded the Ramrod Bar (c. 1976-80) which catered to a gay clientele. Currently, Bongo bar is the tenant.

#7: 396-397 West Street (305 W. 10th Street): north of 10th Street, this three-story neo-Renaissance Holland Hotel (ca. 1903-04) was built for restaurateur/saloon operator Albert A. Adler, later named the Clyde Hotel. The Peter Rabbit (c. 1972-88), catered to a gay clientele. The Antica Venezia Restaurant, which occupied the ground floor under William Gottlieb’s ownership until Storm Sandy ruined it, is abandoned now.

#8: 185 Christopher Street (13 Weehawken Street): built in 1837 as a warehouse, it was enlarged in 1871 to be a three-story tenement building. The O’Neil family operated it as O’Neil’s Hotel and Saloon (c. 1912-1920), then as a boarding house. The Dugout Bar (c. 1985-2006), and now the Rock Bar (c. 2007), are bars catering to a gay clientele on the ground floor.

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