In downtown Manhattan, it’s hard to walk more than a block in any direction without passing a site where in the past some significant artistic figure was born, lived, or died; or where some notable performance took place; or where some unforgettable musical or theatrical event was held. Be it the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue, site of the 1913 Art Show; or the Chelsea Hotel which until recently was known for taking in the likes of everyone from Mark Twain to Sid Vicious; or Judson Memorial Church, a home for creators such as Robert Rauschenberg and Sam Shepherd, among many more, for the past sixty-plus years.
And, New York being New York, it is as easy to go in any direction and walk past a site where the facility itself is long gone, but where the psychogeography lingers: the site of the house where Frank O’Hara lived, or CBGBs, or the old Fillmore East.
The Broadway Central/Grand Central Hotel stood at the southwest corner of Broadway and Third, a vast old Victorian place with mansard roof and grand marble staircase. Here, the National Baseball League was organized in 1876; here, “Gentleman Jim” Fisk, president of the Erie Railroad, was shot down on the grand staircase in 1872 in a quarrel over a soubrette. Like all hotels, over the years it saw its share of murders, suicides, regrettable wedding nights, and the like. Bought by the Manischevitz family in 1923, it was for many years a preferred site in town for kosher banquets and Jewish weddings. The Broadway Central Hotel, too, was where 11-year old Judith Malina first put on plays with her friends in the 1930s.
By 1970 the newly-renamed University Hotel became a welfare hotel; and in 1971, the Mercer Arts Center opened therein, featuring six small theaters (including The Kitchen, founded by Steina and Woody Vasulka) in which experimental films were shown and dramatic or musical performances staged; along with a boutique, a small restaurant, and Gene Frankel‘s acting school. Even as it became regarded as a prime nurturing ground for art, the hotel itself fell ever more into disrepair. In the first six months of 1972, there took place in its rooms and hallways 22 robberies, one homicide, three rapes, and five grand larcenies, among many smaller crimes. In November it was called a “squalid den of vice and iniquity” by the Attorney General. Of course, at the time you could have said the same about New York City in general.
Although a Buildings Department survey in February 1973 ascertained, according to the New York Times (Aug.10, 1973), that one load-bearing wall was buckling and that the hotel’s brickwork was “defective, bulging, out of bond and a potential hazard,” the owners made no repairs. At 5:10 PM on August 3 — before any of that evening’s performances had gotten underway –part of the building suddenly collapsed into the street, killing six. While the arts center was the one part of the building left mostly intact, it — like the rest — was quickly demolished. An NYU structure now stands on the site. The groups within dispersed throughout downtown. The Kitchen, whose name remains to recall the original space, moved to Wooster Street in 1974; under the same name, it continues in Chelsea to this day.