Gangsters and Artists on Great Jones Street
We often receive research requests here at GVSHP that ask a very particular question about a particular address in one of the Village historic districts. So when we received a request about 57 Great Jones Street, part of the NoHo Historic District Extension, we turned our questioner straight to the historic district report. But sometimes, the report is only a starting place for finding out what you need to know.
Our inquirer had recently been reading the book Gangs of New York, a history of organized gangs in New York City, originally published in 1928 by journalist Herbert Asbury. The book was the inspiration for the Martin Scorsese film of the same name. He read in the book that the headquarters for gangster Paul Kelly, the New Brighton Athletic Club, was at one point located at 57 Great Jones Street. He wanted to know if it was the same building—a perfect question for the designation report. (Designation reports for the all the Village historic districts and individual landmarks can be found on the resources section of the GVSHP website.)
The designation report states that 57 Great Jones Street was built between 1860 and 1868 for owner Benjamin Bailey. The architect is unknown. The report states that “the building appears as a stable on insurance maps in 1879, but there is no reference to this usage at the time it was altered in 1882 for John A. Dunn who operated a furniture store and auction house at 57 and 59 Great Jones Street until around 1901.” The report also contains information about two other famous names connected to the building. According to the designation report, the building was “owned by Andy Warhol Enterprise Inc. until 1990, [and] was the home of artist Jean Michel Basquiat at the time of his death in 1988.” The report helped us determine that the same building has been in place since the turn of the century, but not helpful in confirming that the building served as the headquarters of gangster Paul Kelly. Our next thoughts were that the designation report left it out, Mr. Asbury got it wrong, or the address for that lot changed.
We started with the address. A wonderful resource for determining whether an address has changed is old maps. The New York Public Library’s Map Division has plenty in its digital gallery. Their Atlases of New York City collection is perfect for determining addresses. We looked at the lot from the 1898 Bromley Atlas. Same address and same lot as today.
Next we looked to determine if any primary sources could confirm the Kelly relationship. The archives of the New York Times is an excellent source for locating people of any notoriety and for finding out about particular New York City addresses. A quick search for 57 Great Jones Street and Paul Kelly turned up several articles about the building and Kelly. One article, printed on November 23, 1905, states that “after a desperate fight in the rooms of the Paul Kelly Association, over the gang leader’s saloon, known as Little Naples, and formerly the Brighton, one man was killed and several others were wounded early this morning.” The article later mentions the saloon’s address as 57-59 Great Jones Street. Turns out, Mr. Asbury was right.
Please keep your information requests coming. We are eager to assist you in finding out more about the history of our Village buildings.