Everybody Slept Here (2008)

New York's Best Historic Homes

SUBJECT — New York's Best Historic Homes
LOCATION — Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens

My day begins when I see an employee of Tic Tac Toe dusting a huge strap-on harness with a yellow featherduster outside of 161 West 4th Street, where BOB DYLAN rented his first New York City apartment (think "Positively Fourth Street" and the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan). The building now houses the exotic novelty wares of TTT and a cell phone store. Unlike Dylan's busy block—full of stores like "Cherry Boxxx" and "Birthday Suit"—the nearby Patchin Place exudes poetic serenity. The tiny, leafy, gated cul-de-sac (just off 10th Street between Sixth and Greenwich avenues), whose 10 houses were originally built for the working class in 1848, most famously sheltered poet E.E. CUMMINGS from 1923 until his death in 1962. (A plaque with lines from an untitled poem—"whatever sages say and fools, all's well"—is mounted at his former place, No. 4.) Patchin also housed—although neither is commemorated there—reclusive modernist lesbian saucepot DJUNA BARNES, who lived at No. 5 for 42 years, and EUGENE O'NEILL.

The West Village was also home to feminist prototype and Pulitzer Prize–winning poet EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY, who in the 1920s lived in what is known as the "narrowest house in New York" at 75 1/2 Bedford Street, a teensy brick number where now a little red plaque identifies the gorgeous Millay (named after St. Vincent's hospital) as the origin of the famous line "My candle burns at both its ends." The slim house was also, later, the home of JOHN BARRYMORE, MARGARET MEAD, WILLIAM STEIG, and CARY GRANT. And close by is MARK TWAIN's lovely rented townhouse at 14 West 10th Street, about which a more recent resident, actress JAN BRYANT BARTELL, wrote a book, Spindrift: Spray From a Psychic Sea, describing her 12-year experience being haunted there in the '50s and '60s. (She died, apparently, under mysterious circumstances before the book was published.) It is doubtful that Twain, the so-called "Belle of New York," did the haunting, although he is said to have started wearing his signature white serge suits while living there.

Over in the East Village, a plaque outside a customarily crummy onetime residence of ALLEN GINSBERG, at 170 East 2nd Street, reveals "Kaddish," a "mournful elegy for his mother Naomi, [which] was written in apartment No. 16." It felt appropriate to spy both cute boys and men in mandals entering and exiting, and it is also appropriate that the building, named the Croton, is flanked on one side by the Psychic Gallery and on the other by Flux, a leather store. A little further uptown, HERMAN MELVILLE spent the last decades of his life at 104 East 26th Street, where he died in obscurity in 1891. His former home, where he wrote Billy Budd, is memorialized in obscurity, because where his house used to be is a plaque—immediately adjacent to an office building's back door—sandwiched in between a Staples (on Park) and the protracted backside of the Armory (on Lexington).

Russian anarchist EMMA GOLDMAN ("If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution") lived on the sixth floor of 208 East 13th Street from 1903 to 1913 and also operated the printing presses for her magazine, Mother Earth, there. (She was deported in 1919.) The plaque on the building, which was erected by the company Radical Walking Tours, identifies Goldman, who once spontaneously, publicly horsewhipped her mentor, Johann Mast, at Cooper Union's Great Hall, as an "orator and advocate of free speech and free love." On the more politically conservative side, founding father ALEXANDER HAMILTON, the inventor of American capitalism, moved his family in 1802 to the then rural outskirts of New York City, to a house he called the Grange. The country home of Hamilton is now a landmarked branch of the New York Public Library, called the Hamilton Grange, at 503 West 145th Street in Harlem. The library opened in 1907, designed by the famous firm McKim, Mead, and White in Italian-palazzo style; where Hamilton once kicked back there's now a cute "Teen Library" room designated in shiny pink neon.

LOUIS ARMSTRONG lived in Corona, Queens, from 1943 until his death in 1971, and his modest two-story house at 34–56 107th Street, meticulously preserved, is now open to the public. Note his all-mirrored downstairs bathroom, which was profiled in a Times article on "Bathrooms of the Rich and Famous"; his master bathroom upstairs, with its well-worn commode, where the celebrated picture of him on the toilet with the slogan "Leave It All Behind Ya" was photographed; his wood-paneled den, where he kept his Jack Daniels, records, and 650 reel-to-reel tapes; and the master bedroom, where he died a day after his birthday. My tour guide described how he arrived sight unseen at his new house chosen by his wife, in a white neighborhood, nervous to even get out of the cab; how he offered to overlay his neighbors' homes in brick so that his would not stand out; how he used to stand on his den balcony in the morning and trumpet to alert neighborhood kids when he was back from the road.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of intriguing uncommemorated places where the famous lived: say, 454 West 20th Street in Chelsea, where JACK KEROUAC typed On the Road in a nondescript brick four-story; the elegantly run-down 662 Driggs Avenue in Williamsburg (right on the B61 bus line), where notorious perv HENRY MILLER spent the first eight years of his life before moving to Bushwick with his German immigrant parents; and the Astral apartment building in Greenpoint (on Franklin Street between India and Java streets), a giant orange brick structure with distinctive circular awnings that was built by Charles Pratt in 1866 to provide dockworkers with decent housing, and where MAE WEST, née Mary Jane West, was born and grew up.


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