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My Old Kentucky Home on the Bowery

Kentuckians grow up with Stephen Foster. He wrote “My Old Kentucky Home,” our state song, and The Stephen Foster Story has been playing at My Old Kentucky Home State Park for over fifty years. Although “America’s first composer” was born in Pennsylvania and later lived in Ohio (albeit in Cincinnati, which is just across the river from Kentucky), he is by right of his music an honorary Kentucky boy and a part of the fabric of the state. I’d been taught his songs since I was old enough to learn — “My Old Kentucky Home,” of course, but also “Hard Times Come Again No More,” “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” and “Beautiful Dreamer.” They’re what we learned in elementary school music class when we weren’t mangling “Greensleeves” in accompaniment to a classmate awkwardly tooting it out on a recorder. I had no idea until recently that he lived — and died — just a stone’s throw from where I work now in New York City, on a block that is packed with New York history both glamorous and sordid.

30 Bowery — at the corner of Bayard Street, in an area known as Chatham Square — is a location of no consequence today, unless I reckon if you happen to live in the ugly, nondescript apartment building that occupies the space now. Flip back through the calendar, however, to round about 1826, and it’s a different story. Actually, let us flip back through the calendar further still, when the city of New York was centered around lower Manhattan and the area today known as The Bowery was the distant, semi-rural outskirts. Because of the open nature of the country, and because it was close to Collect Pond, the city’s (increasingly befouled) primary source of water, The Bowery (not yet known as that though — at the time, Bowery was called The Boston Post Road) became the epicenter of New York’s meat and tanning industries.

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The Bulls Head Tavern during the 18th century

At the center of it all, opened sometime around 1750 on the block that is now Bowery between Canal and Bayard Street, was The Bull’s Head Tavern, which because of its location became the de facto place for wheeling, dealing, and all stockyard-related business as the industry grew up around it. Before too long, The Bull’s Head Tavern was one of the most important places on Manhattan island, the last stop before entering the hustle and bustle of the city proper, and as Washington Irving described it, a place to “hear tales of travelers, watch the coaches and envy the more pretentious country gentlemen in Castor hat, cherry-derry jackets and doeskin breeches.” On November 25, 1783 — known since to Americans as Evacuation Day — General George Washington and his retinue paused for pints and planning before their triumphant return to the city from which they’d been forced to retreat in the earliest days of the American Revolution. Some 800 troops and camp following politicians gathered outside the tavern so that they might accompany the procession. The Bull’s Head continued to operate until the second decade of the 19th century. Henry Astor, the older brother of John Jacob and an accomplished butcher, took over the tavern in 1785. In 1813, with the draining of the now-filthy (actually, probably always filthy) Collect Pond, and as the city grew at a rapid rate, the upper class began eyeing estates and business opportunities along the Bowery. In rapid order, the old stockyards and tanneries were cleared to make way for more upscale residents. The Bull’s Head went with them, with the original property sold and the tavern relocated to what was now the outskirts of the expanding city — 24th Street. In 1826, The grand North American Hotel opened its doors, built partially atop or next to the ruins of the old Bull’s Head Tavern.

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The North American Hotel, later The Moss Hotel and the New England Hotel

The North American quickly became one of the preeminent hotels in New York City. The unusual make-up of the Bowery district made for an eclectic mix from all walks of life in the city. While the oldest and most conservative of the New York families eyed what would become Astor Place and points west (for their story, see our Beavers of Astor Place article), the North American served as sort of a nexus for well-heeled tourists, local political groups, Bowery actors (it was, at the time, the center of entertainment in the city), and New Yorkers of all stations in life who were looking for a proper evening’s frolic. For visitors from more economically segregated countries (and parts of America), the egalitarian nature of the North American Hotel crowds, where New Yorkers “of very different conditions and occupations were at ease with one another conversationally,” could be shocking. And the idea of actors and well-to-do theater goes patronizing the same establishment? Novel indeed! Through the 1830s, the hotel became a major meeting hall for the burgeoning workers’ rights movements, as well as other political activist groups. The Bowery Amphitheatre Circus was across the street, and both the Atlantic Gardens and the Bowery Theater were next door. The Bowery Theater was famously the home of legendary American actor Edwin Forrest, whose biggest role was the one he played in the infamous Astor Opera House riots that left dozens dead in a feud between competing Shakespearian actors. The Gardens quickly developed something of an infamous reputation thanks to their willingness to flaunt the law and serve beer on Sundays. However, when the police finally moved against the establishment, they determined that the beer was so cheap and watered down that it would take gallons to get a grown man drunk, and so they were not really violating the law. Or at least not the law that said you couldn’t serve beer on a Sunday. The Atlantic Gardens served as a popular watering hole and music hall for decades, opening in 1858 and closing in 1910 after more than half a century of rowdy fun.

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The Bowery Theater and Atlantic Gardens

In 1855, the storied hotel was sold and rechristened the Moss Hotel. By then, the nature of the Bowery had changed considerably. Although still the city’s major entertainment district, the streets had become increasingly dangerous. Large, violent gangs ruled over the neighborhoods of lower Manhattan, and in 1857 two of the city’s largest gangs — the Dead Rabbits and the Bowery Boys (whose headquarters was on the same block) — kicked off three days of violent warfare against one another outside the doors of the former North American Hotel. A couple months later, a second violent gang uprising took place, this time in opposition to the incoming chief of police and his refusal to hire Irish policemen. Although the changing nature of the Bowery scared some patrons away, it attracted others. And there was always the theater crowd. Daniel Moss eventually sold the hotel, and it was again renamed this time to the New England Hotel. In 1863, successful but struggling songwriter-composer Stephen Foster, who had moved to the city in 1860, took up residence in the hotel. Although much renowned, the life of a professional songwriter in the 1860s was one of near constant impoverishment, and Foster’s life was no different. It was a rocky year for New York, and one of the city’s most violent in its history as it was seized by the bloody Civil War Draft Riots. Amid the tumult of the city that year, Foster was still determined to make it, but his style of music was not as popular as once it had been, and the young composer sunk into a depression. Friends and family tried to lure him out of the city. His wife and child left him and returned to their home near Pittsburgh, and friends and family tried to convince the stubborn songwriter to abandon New York.

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Fun and frivolity inside Atlantic Gardens

But he was convinced, despite his hardships, that New York was worth sticking with. Foster’s most successful years as a songwriter had been during his time in Cincinnati and Pennsylvania, and many of his hits from that era were performed as part of what he considered upscale minstrel shows. Unfortunately for Foster, there was nothing like intellectual property or royalties at the time, so other than small one-time fees, he made almost no money off his music, which left him perpetually in a state of financial distress. Since minstrel shows were popular now in the Bowery theaters, it seemed reasonable to think that Foster might find success in New York. He formed a partnership with George Cooper, a man who specialized in humorous songs for music halls. But success never came Stephen’s way. On January 13, 1864, suffering from a fever, Foster passed out in his room at the New England, striking and shattering a ceramic basin which gashed him across the head or neck (accounts vary). Whatever the case, despite being sent to Bellevue for care, the wound proved mortal. Three days after being admitted to the hospital, Stephen Foster passed away. He was thirty-seven years old. As for the hotel, the changing nature of The Bowery eventually did it in. Sixty-five years after it first opened, the grand old palace closed its doors for the last time. The Third Avenue Railroad Company purchased the location, demolished the building, and erected in its place a brutish, unsightly power plant for its cable cars. In time, with the passing of New York’s cable car system, that building too was demolished, and in its place was built the dull, anonymous apartment building that now occupies the spot where once stood the North American Hotel, and before it the Bull’s Head Tavern.

In October of 2013, while doing a survey in preparation for a new construction project at what is now 50 Bowery, preservationist Adam Woodward discovered ruins that are the remnants of the historic Bull’s Head. What remains of the tavern was found in the basement of a building scheduled to be demolished to make way for a hotel and that had previously been a Duane Reade drugstore and a couple Chinese restaurants. Oh, and up until 1910, it had been the site of the Atlantic Gardens. Bad news perhaps for the developers, but good news for those of us with a taste for the relics and remains from when old New York was still young New York. Other than that subterranean archaeological discovery, little of the old neighborhood survived the city’s tendency to tear itself down and rebuild itself in a new image every couple of decades. The Bowery became Five Points became Chinatown. Still, I can stand on the corner of Bowery and Bayard, amid the bustle of Manhattan Bridge traffic and noise of Chinatown, close my eyes, and drown it all out with the sound of “Hard Times Come Again No More” on my music player. Then it’s a little easier to transform the bustle into rowdy Bowery crowds spilling out of the Atlantic Gardens. And then we might retire to a tavern of our own to raise a pint to George Washington, the Bull’s Head Tavern, the North American Hotel, and Stephen Foster, who had the memory of “My Old Kentucky Home” with him as he, like me, sought his fortunes in New York City.