For quite some time there has been a Building For Sale sign on 791 Broadway, a nondescript khaki-colored tenement just below Union Square. The sign recently came down. I fear the building might be next.
Passersby might notice the building for its more interesting signage, gold letters that spell out United Orthopaedic Appliances, Co., Inc., Est. 1907. It reminds me of the type of business you might find in the New York City dreamed up by Ben Katchor, a world filled with accordion strap factories, shoe tree manufacturers, and rebuilders of malted mixers. After a hundred years of fabricating and fitting prosthetic devices, United moved out of 791 and was acquired by another company.
But 791 has another claim to fame. It was the last home of New York City's unofficial poet laureate Frank O'Hara.
Frank at 791 Broadway in 1963
According to O'Hara's biographer Brad Gooch, Frank moved here in 1963, into a floor-through loft for which he paid $150 a month. Gooch writes, "'It was quite grand and kind of Uptown,' says Patsy Southgate of the clean and roach-free space divided into two good-sized bedrooms at opposite ends of a large livingroom with two fireplaces and a shower." The walls were covered with paintings by Frank's friends--Alex Katz, Fairfield Porter, deKooning, Frankenthaler.
The building became an almost communal haven for artists. Elaine deKooning had a studio above the orthopedic shop, and the top floors held dancers and sculptors. Frank threw parties here, with John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and many others. When he wasn't socializing, he watched westerns on his black-and-white TV and wrote poems, but only occasionally. Mostly, at 791 Broadway, Frank O'Hara drank. The contents of his refrigerator, says Gooch, had been "winnowed down to a bottle of vodka, a bottle of vermouth, and some olives for martinis."
At this time, his poems began to publish in earnest. It would have been to this address that copies of Lunch Poems were sent from City Lights. And it would have been here, on a muggy Friday morning, that he packed a bag for a weekend in Fire Island where he met his death under the wheels of a beach taxi.
At 791 in 1964, by Mario Schifano
Now that the For Sale sign has come down from 791, a new sign has appeared: KEEP OUT-- BAITED AREA. This is always a bad sign for a building. It usually means the place is coming down. While I can't find a demolition permit online, the windows, bare and abandoned looking, also seem to indicate that no one is home and they're not coming back.
When the building is gone, will Frank's ghost remain? A languid figure on the sofa, the racket of TV gunfire in the room, smoking a Gauloise and writing:
the country is no good for us
to bump into
or fall apart glassily
there’s not enough
the wind now takes me to
and I see it rising there
greater than the Rocky Mountains