Looking Up: West 3rd Street
The Looking Up series of posts explore the unique architectural and historical stories that can be discovered when we raise our gaze above the sidewalk, the storefront, and the second floor.
In this week’s edition of Looking Up, we’re casting our gaze skyward on West 3rd Street to recall what was once up there – a maze of elevated train lines blocking the sky. For many years during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, several streets in the Village were situated under the shadow (and rumble) of elevated rail lines along Second Avenue, Third Avenue, Ninth Avenue, and others. The Sixth Avenue IRT line was developed in the 1870s and emerged from downtown, traveled up West Broadway, turned west at West 3rd Street, and then turned north again for its run along Sixth Avenue up to 59th Street. Much of this stretch of West 3rd Street where the line curved west was just included as part of the new South Village Historic District, landmarked by the city last December.
These several blocks of West 3rd Street, though obscured by the elevated train line (which was razed in 1939, immortalized in the poems of e.e. cummings, who lived nearby), played a role in much of the dynamic history of the South Village.
As we recently posted on Off the Grid, this area of the South Village was once one of the only places in the world with an open and visible concentration of establishments catering to the LGBT community. The Historic District report notes this, telling us for example that the rear house of 133 West 3rd Street “in the 1890s was known as the Golden Rule Pleasure Club, a male brothel that was investigated by the crusading clergyman Charles Parkhurst.” Other sites mentioned include a variety of bars and dance clubs, such as: Tony Pastor’s Downtown at 130 West 3rd Street (1939-67), The Ernie’s Restaurant/Three Ring Circus, 76 West 3rd Street (c. 1940-62), The Music Box, 121 West 3rd Street (c. 1950-72), Mona’s, 135 West 3rd Street (c. late 1940s-early 1950s), Tenth of Always, 82 West 3rd Street (c. 1968-72), among others.
Before 82 West 3rd Street was the Tenth of Always, it housed the former Cinderella Club, where from the 1930s to 1950s jazz giants like Billie Holiday and Thelonious Monk performed, and Mae West hung out in the audience.
In addition to music, the street and its elevated train figures prominently in several works of visual art from John Sloan the noted ‘Ashcan School’ artist who for a time set up a studio around the corner from West 3rd Street in the Varitype Building on Sixth Avenue.
Though today much of the south side of West 3rd Street remains somewhat intact architecturally, much of the north side has been transformed by NYU. The Edgar Allen Poe house at 85 West 3rd Street (though Poe died before the el was built) was destroyed and then “recreated” for incorporation into a NYU Law School tower. From Bobst Library, to the Kimmel Center, to the Law School building, the north side of the street now has a distinct institutional character.
In the mid-1980s, NYU also constructed the Filomen D’Agostino Residence Hall across the street on the south side (at 110 West 3rd Street), which the report notes, was a “massive 14-story Post Modern style residence hall for law school students and faculty [that] replaced numerous smaller structures.”