Mad Men’s Village People
This Sunday, the Season 6 premiere of Mad Men will transport us back to late 1960s New York. Along with the characters’ backgrounds, props, and costumes, locations play a big part in shaping the tone of the show as it moves through one of the 20th century’s most storied decades.
Set primarily in the corporate world of Midtown’s sleek Modern skyscrapers, the series also takes us from time to time to the counterculture scene of Greenwich Village.
A lot has already been said on other sites about the scenes in which these locations are featured, so we thought we’d talk a bit about the history of the buildings themselves. We’ll try to keep things as spoiler free as possible.
In Season 5, Peggy Olson and her boyfriend Abe Drexler meet for dinner at Minetta Tavern on the corner of MacDougal Street and Minetta Lane. This makes sense since Peggy’s character – despite being an up-and-coming copywriter at Sterling Cooper – makes a connection early on with the Village and Bohemian life. Her rise in the ad world doesn’t stop her from forming a relationship with Abe, a Jewish freelance writer. See historic 1960s images of this area in a past Off the Grid post.
Who knows what might have been going on at the Cafe Wha? that evening, located across the street and visible in the photo above. This would have been around the time that Jimi Hendrix was “discovered” there in 1966. A few years earlier, Bob Dylan moved to New York and gave his first performance here, and Peter, Paul, and Mary – among others – also performed here.
People are often surprised to discover that this area is not within the Greenwich Village Historic District since they consider this the heart of the Village. It’s actually not in a historic district at all, though it could be very soon with the recent announcement that the Landmarks Preservation Commission will move ahead with considering an additional part of our proposed South Village Historic District.
From Minetta Tavern, you can see the former basement location of the Gaslight Cafe at 116 MacDougal Street. In Season 1, Don Draper and one of his mistresses, Midge Daniels, come here to see her friends perform. It’s an amusing scene considering ad exec Don’s character contrast to artist Midge and her Bohemian friends.
The Gaslight opened in 1958 and, therefore, would’ve been pretty new to the scene when Don and Midge went there in 1960. Who knows – if Midge was able to convince Don to go back a few more times, they might have seen any one of these now-famous names known to have performed there: Bob Dylan, Ray Bremser, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, LeRoi Jones, or Jack Kerouac. Some historic photos of the cafe can be found here.
Although the Gaslight is long gone, the pre-law tenement that once housed it is part of the potential South Village Historic District mentioned above.
Okay, a bit of a spoiler to those who haven’t seen the series yet: after Don and Betty’s divorce, Don chooses the Village to call home in Season 4. In this era, many row houses that had originally been built to house single families were the affordable apartments of artists and other young people. Don, as a successful partner at his firm, decided to live in the large apartment house at the corner of Washington Square West and Waverly Place.
Facing Washington Square Park, the apartment building is within the Greenwich Village Historic District. When Don was living here, the district didn’t exist yet, but research was underway and it was eventually designated in 1969 (read more about early preservation efforts in the Village). Known as 29 Washington Square West in the report, the 16-story building features Neo-Gothic style detailing and was constructed in 1928-29 to the designs of Gronenberg & Leuchtag.
Given Don’s cutting edge image at work, we wonder if he might have considered living in the Butterfield House a bit further north on 12th Street? A Modern thru-block apartment building that sits partially within the historic district, the Butterfield was completed in 1959. Read more and see some great 1960s advertisements that Don’s contemporaries created in our past Off the Grid post.
Speaking of the Butterfield, just across the street is the beautiful Italianate style row house at 42 West 12th Street. Revealed as Joan Holloway’s apartment in the early 1960s, it is one of six houses built in 1860 by Frederick P. James, senior member of F.P. James & Company, a banking and brokerage firm on Wall Street. Characteristic of the Italianate style, the home features a high stoop, an elaborate door surround, and full-height parlor floor windows with segmental-arched windows.
Based on Joan’s driver’s license, she likely lived on the top floor (apartment 4C). She might have been living here when the building turned 100 years old in 1960. According to the designation report, this building and its neighbors were “the last word in elegance” when they were built. Joan clearly had good taste!
Over in the East Village, Harry Crane meets up with his former co-worker, Paul Kinsey, at Ratner’s on the ground floor of 111 Second Avenue in Season 5. Ratner’s survived in this location for more than 50 years and was emblematic of the strong Jewish presence that once existed here. This building is now located within the newly designated East Village/Lower East Side Historic District. Built c. 1928 as the Saul Birns Building, the designation report describes its style as “Art Deco/Modern Classical” and mentions that Mr. Birns also owned the Atlantic Talking Machine Company, which sold record players.
You can read a lot of great information about the former Ratner’s spot on Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York.
Ending on a humorous note, one of Mad Men’s newest characters is the off-beat Mike Ginsberg who mentions his “connection” to a famous East Village figure during his first interview with Peggy. When she asks him why he put that he was related to Allen Ginsberg on his resume, Mike says that he’s the most famous Ginsberg there is and they have to be related somehow. Off the Grid has covered extensively on this famous Ginsberg and here is one post to get you started.
We couldn’t list every mention of Mad Men’s Village spots in this post, but if you have some to add we’d love to hear from you!