A historic find on the Bowery

In the landscape of downtown Manhattan, no street has been more thoroughly transformed than the Bowery.  Formerly a district of music halls, then the country’s roughest skid row — it featured prominently in Luc Sante’s book “Low Life” — the Bowery slipped between the historic preservation zones that protected other parts of downtown and became the place to build at scale.  Some of the results have been monstrous, others quite a bit better.

No one has taught me more about the history of the Bowery than Adam Woodward, who has an obsessive’s retention of detail about Federal-era construction techniques and a jeweler’s eye for the artifacts and ephemera that preserve the Bowery’s glory days.  He has been exploring the area for years and now may just have come upon his greatest find ever: the remains of the 18th century Bull’s Head tavern where George Washington established a temporary headquarters as the British withdrew.  The Lo Down reported the story a couple days ago; this is how the Times describes the discovery:

The joists were discovered by a photographer and preservationist, Adam Woodward, who suspects that structural elements of the Colonial-era tavern were used in the construction of the much larger beer hall, the Atlantic Garden. It reigned as “one of the show places of New York” from 1858 on, The New York Times said when it finally shut down in 1911.

But what about the tavern where Washington established his temporary headquarters in November 1783 as the British withdrew?

“The whole issue of whether the Bull’s Head was buried inside the Atlantic Garden was one of the great mysteries of New York,” Mr. Woodward said.

Until, apparently, the other day, when he got a look inside. He saw iron work from the 19th century and I-beams from later on. And then he saw a stairway to the basement, and headed down.

“At one point there was a distinct change in the building material, from cinder block to a brick-and-stone foundation wall,” he said. “I followed that wall and found myself at the front of the building, under the sidewalk at the Bowery, and looked up and saw what looked to me like 18th-century hand-hewn and hand-planed joists and beams with extremely wide floorboards right above them.”

He said, “I was thinking, I am standing in the cellar of the Bull’s Head.”

Exciting as the prospect is, demolition of the building (next to the domed building in the photograph below) is already underway so any effort to preserve — or at least study — this historic site needs to happen quickly.

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As a bonus, if you want to get a glimpse of the Bowery in its darkest days watch “On the Bowery.”  To anyone who knows the Bowery today this film looks like it was made in a kind of pre-history but, in fact, it was shot in the mid-1950s.  Made by Lionel Rogosin, it is a loosely scripted documentary that uses people actually living on the Bowery — no Hollywood make-up artist can replicate the soused and bloated faces of the alcoholics in this film — but crafts a narrative around them.  The story is rather threadbare; then again, so are their lives.

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