149 Second Avenue

149 Second Avenue
149 Second Avenue

What’s not to love about the charming Greek Revival house at 149 Second Avenue, a throwback to another era in the life of the East Village? The house is the oldest building on its blockfront, Second Avenue between East 9th & East 10th Street, and one of the only early houses on the avenue to  retain its original stoop and escape being “tenementized” (heightened and converted to house multiple families) during the era of heavy immigration to the neighborhood in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The house certainly seems quaint compared to its surroundings, but a closer look reveals quite a grand home for its day.

149 Second Avenue

Built in 1849 for Joseph Kornichon when Second Avenue was a prime residential thoroughfare, No. 149 is nestled between tenements that might have replaced it years ago. Today, The Holy Basil restaurant occupies the parlor floor.  Researching this building as part of our survey of all the buildings in the East Village yielded quite a few fun and interesting surprises.

149 Second Avenue is the oldest building on the block

The New York Times tells of a ball held there in 1885. “A Ball in a Nobleman’s House,” from January 21, 1885, told, “Sir Roderick Cameron, the nobleman-merchant, sent out 450 invitations to the ball he gave in honor of his daughter last night, and fully 400 guests rolled up in carriages to the family home at No.149 Second Avenue, amid the old-fashioned aristocracy of Stuyvesant-square.”

It is lovely to imagine the house as the article describes it – “The hallway of the house was decorated with flowers, and the dancers in the drawing room glided beneath an evergreen bower.”

Detail in the foyer recalls its early days as grand townhouse

First floor hallway detail

The Times revealed another entertaining little nugget pertaining to the house.  An article entitled, “The Old Woman’s Chair,” from February 23, 1897, tells of an elderly woman, Katherine Nash, who resided at 149 Second Avenue with a relative.  Upon admittance to Bellevue Hospital for emphysema, Nash refused to part with a beloved rocking chair she had brought with her all the way from Killarney, Ireland twenty years earlier.  On her way to the hospital, “The driver of the sick wagon objected to taking the chair, but he quickly gave way before the verbal onslaught of the little woman, deciding to let the attendees of the hospital have it out with her.”  Upon arriving at the hospital, “…despite the objections of clerks and attendants, and doctors, who had only red-tape regulations to fortify them,” the chair remained in Nash’s possession.  Having installed herself in the rocking chair in order to prevent its removal, Nash ultimately proved victorious as the beloved chair was finally “installed by her bed in the ward to which she was assigned.”

Interior Detail of 149 Second Avenue

Sometime in the late 1890s, the building became the home of the House of the Holy ComforterKing’s Handbook of New York City wrote that the hospital was founded in order “…to provide a free home for the care of destitute Protestant women and children of the better class suffering from incurable diseases.”  The House of the Holy Comforter was in fact the only free home for incurables in the city at the time. But in 1915, it moved uptown to 196th Street, as 149 Second Avenue proved no longer sufficient to house the facility.

The parlor floor

Perhaps the most well-known establishment to occupy the building was the famous beat poet reading space/coffeehouse, Cafe Le Metro, located here from 1963-1965.  Among the famous poets of that era that were known to have frequented Le Metro were Allen Ginsberg, Diane di Prima, Peter Orlovsky, John Weiners, Amiri Baraka, and William S. Burroughs.

Grand parlor floor windows

In 1964 Le Metro became the center of a landmark First Amendment battle.  Terrence Diggory writes in The Encyclopedia of New York City Poets, that “…after attending a reading by poet Jackson Mac Low, a city license inspector issued a summons citing the New York Coffee House Law of 1962 – a law prohibiting the presentation of ‘entertainment’ without a costly cabaret license.”  Diggory emphasizes, “If the city had won, it would have effectively shut down the small (and unlicensed) neighborhood coffeehouses that gave voice to many of the era’s most important poets.”

In 1965, the poetry readings moved to St. Mark’s Church due to conflict between Le Metro’s management and the writers associated with the UMBRA workshop.

Dining at The Holy Basil today, one can still muster a vague sense of what the building must have been like in its heyday – the grand scale of the parlor floor has not changed much – and bask within a slice of East Village history.

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Ilana
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Ilana Kohn is a research intern at GVSHP

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6 comments on “149 Second Avenue
  1. Ilana ellery kurtz says:

    Do you have any historical information regarding 240 East 6th Street, a.k.a. 101 Second Avenue?

    Thank you.

    • Ilana Elizabeth says:

      Yes we do! No. 101 Second Avenue was built in 1880 by architect Julius Boekell. Originally, it had a store on the ground floor and housed four families above (one on each floor). If you click the link below you can see original permits for the building (if you can decipher the 19th Century handwriting!)

      http://www.gvshp.org/_gvshp/preservation/east_village/doc/101-2nd-ave.pdf

      • Ilana Ellery Kurtz says:

        Dear Elizabeth,

        Thank you for this great info! Yes I do live in this building. Would you know if any original architectural drawings or plans might exist somewhere that I could look for?

        Again..my sincere thanks.
        Ellery

  2. Ilana Cynthia Anderson says:

    I grew up at 149 second my Mom has a rental agreement from 1944 leasing the whole third floor
    too her and I born and raised there from 1945-1965 when I got married. I have fond memories. Of
    living there.When I was growing up on the Second Ave it was a very interesting time of the
    early fifties and Sixties . I have pictures of the Aptarment from the late Forties.

  3. It would be amazing to see the building sixty years ago. The establishment looks extremely forgiving in its’ luxurious finishings! It’s hard to find the right place to live but Townhouse-Therapy has done a great job by focusing on bringing townhouses and brownstones back to life. It would be worth it to check out the website.

  4. Ilana Doug Knowlton says:

    Hi – thanks for this. Wondering about who had the address 149 or 151, circa 1972. I believe there was a vegan restaurant there called “The Beautiful Way.” Any info on that business, or photos of it?

    Thank you. (my daughter’s mother worked there)

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