By Benjamin P. Feldman
It’s hard work being poor, impoverished in our ignorance of those who came before us. We walk New York’s streets, eat in its cafes, but turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the giants who once walked the earth. Every so often though, the past rises up, through the cracks in the Belgian-block paving stones Crosby Street is quiet now, right by Housing Works Bookstore and Café. Once it resounded with bravos and huzzahs…
Standing at the cash register, I suddenly realized. I was in a place precious to me. I’ve been working on a biography of William Niblo, the once-famous tavern-keep and then creator of Manhattan’s best-known entertainment venue from its inception in 1828 until it closed almost seven decades later.
An Irish emigrant to New York in the earliest years of the 19th century, Niblo found work in David King’s tavern on Wall Street at Sloat Lane. In 1813 Niblo struck out on his own, taking possession of the former mansion of Tory sympathizer Frederick Phillipse at Pine and William Streets.
WILLIAM NIBLO has just received 70 prime Green Turtles; they are kept healthy and fresh in the crawl at the foot of Warren Street. Parties and Clubs accommodated with Turtle and Game dinners in the very first style. Soup of a delicious flavor available at 11 O’clock every day. Mutton broth and gravy soups available at the same hour.
One can hardly imagine the state of this flesh, in the days of no refrigeration, brought by horse and wagon over rutted roads and then ferry the 600+ miles from even the eastern-most parts of Kentucky to New York’s shores. But we’re not DONE, yet, even with the second course. Add, please: “A Raccoon, killed in Communipau [sic], very heavy. He is to be flayed and can be seen now hanging in the larder.” A giant swan, taken at Havre de Grace, Maryland rounded out the second course, while the third course offered game of all varieties, even reindeer tongues from Russia, pairs of canvas back ducks weighing in at 16 lbs. per pair, and Calipash and Calipee terrapins from the James River. The dessert course and beverages offered to wash down multitudes of pastries and tarts would put Sherry-Lehmann to shame.
Niblo prospered as a tavern keep and hotelier; his brother John operated Niblo’s Hotel at 112 Broadway, and William opened a second Bank Coffee House on the corner of Asylum (now West 4th) and Perry Streets in 1825 in the torrent of commercial development of Greenwich Village that ensued after the yellow fever epidemic of 1822 drove many lower Manhattan residents uptown to seek more permanent residences in what was then deemed a vastly more salubrious environment.
A second hotel in Harlem, serviced by a stage coach operated from the second Bank Coffee House, a pleasure garden by the East River, and manifold other catering activities supplemented Niblo’s income from his original Bank Coffee House, which he sold in 1828. Meanwhile, the resourceful fellow seized upon opportunities to provision public events, including renting a house for selling refreshments hard by the Union Course (near 75th Street in present-day Woodhaven, Queens) where on May 27, 1823, a crowd of 50,000 (including the then-governor of Florida, Andrew Jackson) assembled to witness a race won by American Eclipse (representing the Northern states of the USA) against Sir Henry (for the South). Niblo hired messengers to relay news of the event to his downtown Bank Coffee House, where results could be posted for all to see.
Niblo’s career as a theater impresario extended beyond his Garden, though. The infamous Astor Place Opera House riot occurred on May 10, 1849. With Niblo managing the facility, warnings of violence were cast aside with dire effects. Scores of innocent bystanders were killed and wounded in a fusillade from the New York State Militia called in to quell violence between supporters of English actor William Macready and the American Shakespearean Edwin Forrest.
Tragedy struck once again when Niblo’s beloved wife Martha died in 1851, childless. Hers was the first interment in the Niblo family mausoleum at Green-Wood Cemetery, where her parents, Niblo’s niece Mary, and Niblo himself were eventually laid to rest. Niblo is said to have visited his wife’s grave every day that he was present in New York City, and he frequently brought friends there to enjoy the pond along the edge of which the tomb sits, stocked with goldfish.
William Niblo lived in retirement for almost 20 years, but his name continued to adorn his theater in the Metropolitan Hotel until its demolition in 1894, after which Henry Havemeyer erected the huge loft building on the Broadway frontage that stands to this day.
It was at Niblo’s that the first American “musical” was staged in 1867. The Black Crook had a very long run and was revived several times there as well as being produced all over the country by many famous producers. Even after “legitimate” proscenium theaters moved uptown en masse to Union, then Herald, then Times Squares, Niblo’s Garden remained. The huge auditorium and adjacent rooms and dining facilities were rented out for entertainments, benefits, and religious society functions. Shown below is the theater’s entrance proudly stands, a few years before its storied Broadway run ended.
* Benjamin Feldman has lived and worked in New York City for the past forty-three years. His essays and book reviews about New York City and American history and about Yiddish culture have appeared in the Blotter, The New Partisan Review, Columbia County History and Heritage, Ducts literary magazine, and on his blog, The New York Wanderer. Feldman is the author of Butchery on Bond Street: Sexual Politics and the Burdell-Cunningham Case in Ante-bellum New York, and Call Me Daddy: Babes and Bathos in Edward West Browning’s Jazz-Age New York. A biography of Niblo is in the works.