Some things never change about New York City life; New Yorkers’ social lives have seemingly always hinged on the restaurants and bars in their neighborhoods. Aside from the very lucky few, most of our apartments are too small to serve as gathering spaces. In fact, many New York apartments don’t have living rooms or common spaces at all. And so we take to the neighborhood watering hole instead. New Yorkers use corner bars, cozy restaurants, and inviting coffee shops to do their socializing, their relaxing, and their thinking. And although the prices may be a bit different, the same was true a hundred years ago in the Village, when bohemians were carving out a neighborhood all their own. And one woman at the forefront of that scene was Polly Holladay.
Polly was an radical and an anarchist born in Evanston, Illinois. When she moved to New York, she quickly fell in with her free-thinking peers in Greenwich Village. She established a restaurant in the basement of 137 MacDougal Street, where the Liberal Club, another popular incubator for artists and intellectuals, also operated. Polly’s Restaurant would move locations twice before eventually closing, but it never left the heart of the Village. In true bohemian fashion, the restaurant didn’t even have a formal name – when the New York Times got hip to it, they referred to it as “The Basement.” But locals knew to call it “Polly’s Restaurant,” and they flocked there in the first decades of the 20th century to discuss art, science, politics and revolution.
The food was nothing special, but that wasn’t the point. Polly’s was one of several bohemian-owned businesses in the Village where residents felt free, and encouraged, to express themselves. Groups like the Heterodoxy Club, established by Marie Jenney Howe, formed and held meetings there. The Heterodoxy Club was a forum for women to discuss and develop tactics of progressive feminism, and was an early leader in feminist, lesbian and bisexual culture. To be a “Heterodite” as they were called, a woman was simply “not orthodox in her opinion.” Polly, and the other bohemians at the restaurant, certainly fit that bill. And several other sites on and around MacDougal catered to early LGBT culture – check out the South Village Historic District designation report (the first report to have a dedicated section to LGBT history) and an Off The Grid post which mentions MacDougal Street and the Heterodoxy Club.
Unfortunately, we know more details about Polly’s business than we do about her life. I wasn’t able to find any photos of the beloved restaurateur, and there is little information about how she spent her time when she wasn’t serving up cheap food and good conversation. In 1910, she’s listed in the census as living with her mother at 507 West 111th Street. And in 1930, she turns up as head of household at 561 Hudson Street – a building that still exists in our neighborhood today. Her occupation in that 1930 census is listed as freelance writer, but I wasn’t able to dig up any of her written work.
Although she’s flown under the radar of history, Polly and her restaurant clearly made an impact. When the Heterodoxy Club moved their meetings to the Greenwich Village Inn, several menu items were listed as “à la Polly.” That’s a big honor to bestow on someone whose menu was well-known for being plain, simple and affordable. But as I mentioned earlier, the food was not the focus. Polly Holladay provided a haven for Villagers to do exactly what they came to the Village to do – live progressive, innovative and radical lives outside the norms of society.
Unfortunately, the building that first housed Polly’s Restaurant is no longer with us. 137 MacDougal was part of four addresses, from 133 to 139, with immense ties to Village culture. Most notable was 139 MacDougal Street, the famed Provincetown Playhouse. Despite great effort on the part of GVSHP and the community, and the fact that the building was determined eligible for the State and National Registers of Historic Places, in part because of the former presence of Polly’s Restaurant, New York University demolished almost the entire building, from 133 to 139, to build more office space for its law program.
Although the original building no longer stands, Polly’s legacy certainly speaks to a Village mentality and spirit that still makes the neighborhood so special today.