John Barrymore’s Rooftop Lair at 132 West 4th Street
I love I Hate Hamlet. How could I not have known all these years that Paul Rudnick wrote the play while living at 132 West 4th Street, in the very same apartment where none other than John Barrymore lived for several years?
In fact, Barrymore was living in the 1839 Greek Revival row house while preparing for, and ultimately performing in, Hamlet on Broadway which opened on November 16, 1922. This was to be his defining role, and in fact, he has even been called history’s “definitive Hamlet.” So how could Rudnick NOT have been inspired to write his wonderful comedy-drama while living it that remarkable space?
In case I Hate Hamlet is not familiar to you, here’s a brief synopsis:
“Set in John Barrymore’s old apartment in NYC, the play follows successful television actor Andrew Rally as he struggles with taking on the dream role of Hamlet, dealing with a girlfriend, and playing host to the ghost of John Barrymore, who, clothed as Hamlet, has come back to earth for the purpose of convincing Rally to play the part. Real estate agent Felicia Dantine convinces Rally to stay in the apartment and hold a seance.
Barrymore proves to be very convincing (challenging Andrew to a sword fight in the middle of the loft), and Andrew decides to play Hamlet. But when a Hollywood friend shows up offering Andrew a new role in a television pilot, with a potentially large salary and fame, Andrew is forced to choose between Shakespeare, whom his girlfriend loves, or television, where he is loved by millions.”
More about the place itself: In 1917, when Barrymore moved in, the building had a distinct bohemian chic—it had been remodeled by the architect Josephine Wright Chapman, considered one of the most important female architects around the turn of the 20th century. John rented the top floor penthouse of the building. He remodeled the apartment as a Gothic retreat, which he nicknamed “the Alchemist’s Corner.” It included Gothic elements including gold wallpaper, fake wooden beams, monastery-inspired ironwork, and stained glass windows. The most famous aspect of his dwelling, however, was a garden oasis which he built atop the structure.
His aerie consisted of a cottage, a reflecting pool, a slate walkway, and several cedar trees. Over 35 tons of soil were brought in to build his rooftop paradise which eventually caused the roof of the building to collapse under its weight.
I should note here that in 2013 GVSHP successfully got this house and its surroundings landmarked as part of the South Village Historic District.
Sadly, the garden has long since been removed, but the cottage Barrymore built remains standing to this day.