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.
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.
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.”
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.”
Sometime in the late 1890s, the building became the home of the House of the Holy Comforter. King’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.
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.
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.