In The Magazine

Ghosts of Grand Street

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

New York City reinvents itself so frequently that its streetscape seems at times like an urban pentimento, a reused old canvas on which wildly different incarnations of the city have been painted one on top of the other. Just peel back the top layer, the buildings seem to promise, and an earlier version of New York will be revealed.

For the family of Nate Korn, a lawyer, this kind of surprise revelation happened quite literally as they were restoring a 19th-century building in SoHo that had been in their family for half a century. Around 1961, Mr. Korn’s parents, Dorothy and Emanuel Korn, bought 125–127 Grand Street, a pair of adjacent, four-story brick buildings with cast-iron storefronts between Broadway and Crosby Street. The Korns owned an Army-Navy store on the corner, and needed space to stash their massive inventory of bunk beds, dummy grenades, and other Army surplus supplies.

In the half century since, SoHo has been transformed from a run-down, post-industrial district to a glamorous, world-renowned shopping destination where home buyers pay millions for lofts in 19th-century cast-iron buildings or apartments in condos like 27 Wooster, at Grand Street, the penthouse of which is in contract for $28.5 million.

Last summer the Korns listed 125–127 Grand for sale with James P. Nelson and Robert Burton of Cushman & Wakefield with an asking price of $25 million. But for the Korns, the payoff in restoring the buildings—two storefronts with six lofts upstairs—has been more than financial. When the façade of No. 127 was stripped of 18 layers of paint, the ghost image of a painted banner bearing the words “Grand Street Hall” appeared above the second-floor windows.

“It was one of those feelings of the hairs on the back of your neck sticking up,” Nate Korn recalled, “and you say, ‘My God, the building had a former life, and there it is, right on the façade.’”

The discovery sent Mr. Korn’s wife, Deborah Peacock, digging into period newspapers, which crackled with accounts of the tumultuous and long-forgotten goings-on at Grand Street Hall and 125 Grand: sword attacks, tense union meetings, cockfights, gatherings of indignant Irish organizations after a famous riot, a police raid to arrest girls for “exhibiting themselves” for artists, and a devastating fire witnessed by 30,000.

No. 125 Grand was completed in 1826, according to the city Landmarks Preservation Commission, with No. 127 built in a modified Greek Revival style nine years later. (It’s one of only two surviving period Greek Revival structures in the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District.) Both buildings were originally dwellings, but city records show that in the early 1840s a blacksmith named James Mulligan rented No. 125, apparently using it as his workshop. In 1844, Mulligan bought the building for $9,000, and three years later he purchased No. 127.

Around 1850, the assessed value of both properties soared while neighboring values remained more stable, suggesting that Mulligan’s structures were markedly improved if not replaced with new buildings entirely. It is possible that the brick dwellings were outfitted with their cast-iron storefronts at this time, as cast iron was then coming into vogue in New York and the formerly stable residential neighborhood was becoming more commercial.

In June 1850, an ad in Spirit of the Times magazine announced the opening of a billiard saloon called Grand Street Hall at 127 Grand, “fitted . . . up with everything for the comfort and convenience of billiard players.”

That same month, Grand Street Hall began appearing in the city press as the site of meetings of workers joining the city’s burgeoning labor movement. In March 1853, the hall was “crowded to suffocation,” according to The New York Herald, as waiters organized a union. At a subsequent meeting, the paper reported, an African-American worker from the Irving House promised, “on behalf of the colored waiters, a hearty cooperation with the whites.” When hundreds of waiters walked off the job after their employers refused them a raise from about twelve dollars a month to eighteen, Grand Street Hall was the striking workers’ rendezvous point.

Mulligan, the owner of 125–127 Grand, had a soft spot for charity. In 1855, the Irish Aid Society was formed at No. 125, with Mulligan as president, “for the purpose of forwarding indigent Irish emigrants from the over-crowded City to the wide West.”

But if progressive causes had a way of finding Mulligan, so did trouble. In 1846, he engaged in a bar brawl with Patrick McCarty, a rival blacksmith from Mercer Street. After Mulligan apparently snubbed his competitor by not inviting him to drink, The Herald reported, “McCarty took up a tumbler and threw it at Mulligan, inflicting a severe wound upon his right cheek; whereupon, the compliment was returned by throwing some four or five tumblers at McCarty . . . to the mutual injury of both parties.”

The brawling wasn’t always so localized. The Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish-Catholic fraternal organization, met at Grand Street Hall in July 1853 to draft a statement asserting their innocence in the recent Ninth Ward Riot on Independence Day, when 500 marching Hibernians had an altercation with a stagecoach driver that devolved into a bloody melee between Irish immigrants and native-born Americans. The openly nativist Ninth Ward police, the Hibernians charged, had rushed into the fray and battered only the Irish with their batons.

Mulligan’s Grand Street houses lay at a crossroads of luxury and degradation. In the 1850s, Broadway was transformed into a glamorous thoroughfare of commercial palaces fronted with cast iron, marble and brownstone. Brooks Brothers moved to the corner of Grand in 1858, followed quickly by the construction across the street of an extravagantly adorned edifice for Lord & Taylor. Hotels and theaters abounded as well. But some of the surrounding area was a red light district, while Five Points, the Irish-dominated slum notorious for its squalor and mayhem, lay just a few blocks southeast.

The most “sanguinary conflict” involving Mulligan’s buildings came in 1858, when The New York Times reported that a sword-wielding maniac named Teddy Tooley, a dancer at “a low place called the ‘Arcade Saloon,’ No. 127 Grand-street,” cut three men “in a most barbarous manner around the face and head.” Tooley then fled into “another den called the Grand-street House,” where Mulligan allegedly “did all he could to try to effect the escape of Tooley,” who was ultimately captured.

Mulligan, taking umbrage, wrote the Times to deny that he had helped Tooley and to protest the reporter’s characterization of his house as “a den, thereby reflecting not only on my character as a peaceable citizen, but also casting an imputation on my house, in which for the last thirty years I have carried on a legitimate and respectable business . . . [in] the arduous trade of horse-shoeing.”

Disaster struck in 1876, when a catastrophic fire ignited at 125 Grand and burned through the entire block bounded by Broadway and Grand, Howard, and Crosby Streets. Three firefighters died, crushed by the collapsing walls of the Continental Hotel, and at one point it was feared that the heart of the city would burn. Several occupants of 125–127 Grand sustained damage to their property: a restaurant, a cloth dealer, a hat manufacturer, a dealer in dress trimmings, and a fur company.

By the time the Korns bought the two buildings in the 1960s, 127 Grand had served both as a luncheonette and a grocery, and in 1970 the Korns converted the three top stories into artist’s lofts, renting them to the likes of Arturo Di Modica, creator of the bronze Charging Bull sculpture that has stood at Bowling Green since 1989. “The building was kind of scary, with very creaky floors,” said Leil Lowndes, a writer who moved into No. 127 in 1970 with Ken Dewey, an artist who created large installations in their loft. “And it was a frightening neighborhood, totally deserted except for Orthodox Jewish fabric shops. There were no street lights.”

Both buildings were showing their age, and the floors of No. 125 ultimately became so slanted, Mr. Korn said, that the old dog of one of the tenants taught himself never to lie with his body oriented north-to-south, because when he did he rolled sideways. To correct this problem as well as a structural issue that Mr. Korn said had destabilized the rear of No. 125, the Korns performed a major restoration of the building. As part of the work, they removed scores of bricks at the rear, cleaned and numbered each one, and returned them to their original locations.

“I could have abandoned this thing and sold it,” said Mr. Korn, who mortgaged his home to help pay for the restoration. “But I felt I had hurt it, and I wanted to put it back, almost in a moral sense. I’m really just a caretaker of an antiquity that was around before me and will be there after me.”


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