After visiting the Shore Theater, Mermaid Avenue, the Shore Hotel, and Henderson's Dance Hall building, let's wrap up the tour of doomed Coney Island (though that's not an exhaustive list) with a property not owned by Thor: the Herman Popper Building.
It was built by brewer Herman Popper and his brother sometime between 1890 and 1906, first as a distillery and then as a tavern, says Forgotten NY. According to historian John Manbeck, via the Brooklyn Eagle, Popper opened the tavern on Surf Avenue "to better serve the Irish bars that sprang up on Coney Island’s Bowery, joining the German restaurants. Victorians crowded the streets, lubricated by a 'growler' or 'bucket of suds.' Irish waiters, who doubled as tenors, served a brew with a 'Coney Island head' on the beer—more suds than liquid—to unsuspecting rubes.'"
Today, on the first floor where there was once a tavern, then a penny arcade, and more recently a Carvel ice-cream shop, there's a jumbled, cluttered flea market that looks like it's been there forever.
You walk down a narrow passageway, past stalls packed with used electronics--stereos and computers piled perilously atop each other; glass cases full of wristwatches; stacks of videotapes, books, clothes, and stuffed animals. A sign says "Bike Repair Shop," but I didn't see any bikes.
Since 1998, the Popper building has been owned by a Ukrainian art dealer who runs a gallery on the second floor called "Surf Art Exchange." (I heard someone lives on the third floor.)
Walking up the staircase, you'll find one wall covered in graffitied messages from around the world, in many languages. "This place is absolutely wonderful!" says one.
On the opposite wall, there's a drawing of a bearded man sitting in a chair, surrounded by Russian words. It might be a portrait of the building's owner.
I encountered the owner in the gallery. A big, gray-bearded bear of a man, he was shirtless, dressed in only a pair of red swim trunks, bending over a bright red-felt pool table in a room packed from floor to ceiling with dark, Eastern European oil paintings in gilded frames. It was one of those odd, New York moments--and a photo I wish I could have taken.
His billiards companion, another big-bellied Ukrainian man, was also stripped to the waist and barefoot in swim trunks. The owner took his shot, handed me his business card, then went back to the game. I stood and stared for a few minutes, awe-struck by the scene, before heading back down the stairs.
The Columbia Journalist has an excellent article about the owner. "One needs to be a kamikaze to open up an art store in this neighborhood," he said.
Will he ever sell the Popper building? He told the Journalist that "he would be delighted to sell the entire Surf Avenue building if he got a reasonable price for it. What would he do then? 'I don’t know. Maybe I would go to Saint-Petersburg and buy The Hermitage,' he answered.
In the City's Plan for Coney, a disastrous vision just approved by the City Council, the Popper Building has totally vanished.