Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Finding Nighthawks, Part 3

For days now we've been searching for Edward Hopper's Nighthawks diner. We discovered that it was not on the MTA property at Mulry Square, as popularly believed, nor did it exist on the other possible prow-shaped corners in the area. Just as I'm about to call it quits, a clue turns up in a 1950s Land Book.


1930s Land Book

At the Municipal Archives, you use Land Books to determine the block and lot numbers of the building you seek, then match them up with the tax photos on the microfilm. In these Land Books, here and there, a business is described in a word or two. The Land Book from the 1930s makes no mention of a diner anywhere at Mulry Square. But the updated 1950s Land Book shows a new addition.


1950s Land Book

In Block 613, Lot 62, on the corner where 7th Avenue South hits Perry Street, the 1950s mapmaker has drawn a rectangle and written the word DINER.

Sometime between the late 1930s and the 1950s, a diner appeared on the southwest corner of the Mulry Square triangle. Hopper painted Nighthawks in 1942.


close up of Mulry Square, 1950s

Excited to at last be on the verge of solving this mystery, I quickly locate the microfilm and scroll to the tax photo at Block 613, Lot 62. My eyes are bleary by the time I get to it, but all I see is the Esso gas station on the northernmost corner of the triangle. I check and recheck my numbers. I scroll back and forth, again and again. Nothing.

There is no photo on that microfilm showing the southwest corner--no photo of the spot where the mapmaker wrote in "DINER." The Esso station occupied Block 613, Lot 59—not Lot 62. Maybe someone screwed up the lots. Maybe the photo is missing.

I think, with an irrational tinge of paranoia, "Maybe someone removed the photo. Maybe they don't want us to know the truth!"


1933: SW corner of Mulry Square, no diner yet

I go to the 1980 tax photos, hoping the mystery diner will still be standing in those 30-year-old shots, but whatever diner was there at mid-century has already been demolished and replaced with the building that today houses Empire Szechuan Village.

In the 1940s and 50s, people coming out of the Village Vanguard would have looked right at the diner. They might have crossed the avenue to go in for a late-night bite. But lost between photographic documentations, the diner at 613 - 62 remains a ghost to us.


Southwest corner of Mulry Square today, Google

I hit a wall. The missing photo of Block 613, Lot 62 puts me in a foul, defeated mood. I go back to the drawing board. But nothing in the New York Public Library's 1930s photos, nothing in the Municipal Archives' 1940 and 1980 photos, and nothing standing today looks like a good match for Hopper's Nighthawks diner.

The one photographed restaurant in the Mulry Square triangle is a castle-shaped burger joint attached to the gas station on the northeast side--so very not Nighthawks.


NYPL, 1933

Could the Nighthawks inspiration have been the mystery diner at Block 613, Lot 62 behind the Esso gas station? Possibly. If the diner was built in time, Hopper might have decided to paint it in 1942 because it was new. He may have been attracted to the novelty of it. If only I could find some further evidence of its existence.

After my trip to the Archives, I go online and search for images of that corner. I come up empty, but I do find a Certificate of Occupancy from 1942. It states that a one-story commercial building went up in this spot, Block 613, Lot 62, also known as 173 7th Ave. So. The date of completion was February 26, 1942, the year Nighthawks is dated. But was it the Hopper diner?



Trying to fit the dates together, I dig through my bookshelves for Gail Levin's biography of Hopper. There she tells us that the painting was begun in December 1941, three months before the date on the Certificate of Occupancy for the mystery diner.

It's possible. The diner at Perry and 7th may not have been open for business, but it was standing when Hopper made his sketches.

Right? I'm not sure of anything at this point.



I look back at the 6 prow-shaped corners, at the paper print-outs and notes I took from the Archives. I zoom in on the photos from the NYPL. What did I miss?

Could the Nighthawks diner have been in the narrow wedge that is today's West Village Florist? Could it also have been that little vanished slice behind the Loew's Sheridan theater? Yes to both, if Hopper took some liberties with the facades. And the backgrounds.


Christie's

In the charcoal studies for Nighthawks, you can see that the background is quite vague, messy pencil scribbles with details that appear and disappear from sketch to sketch. As Teri Tynes noted in an email to me, "Some people think Hopper essentially spliced in his Sunday Morning painting for the background."

We know that the woman in the diner is Hopper's wife, Jo. The brick buildings in back probably came from another painting. Maybe the diner, too, is a composite.



There is more evidence for this explanation than for any other.

In the Hopper biography, Levin tells us that a Vogue interviewer discerned that the diner was "based partly on an all-night coffee stand Hopper saw on Greenwich Avenue...'only more so.'" Hopper said, "I simplified the scene a great deal and made the restaurant bigger. Unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city."

Partly. More so. Simplified.



As the truth becomes clearer, I am finding it difficult to bear this idea that, outside of Hopper's imagination, there was no Nighthawks diner at all.

Certainly, there was something of substance among those many triangular corners. I look through my muddy print-outs of the tax photos. Here’s a familiar-looking wedge. There’s a glassy corner. And that’s a background of dark bricks. The curved window may have belonged to that grocery store or that bakery. The cornice might have come from this shop that sold wines and liquors.

After all the searching, I know only one thing for sure: The Hopper diner never stood at Mulry Square’s northern tip. Until a photo of the lost diner at Perry and 7th appears, we have to assume that the Nighthawks diner stood everywhere, that it came from every possible corner, from bits and pieces of the city, the large and lonely city that Hopper's art holds for us.

And that should be the end of our story. It's poetic, a bit tragic. But I'm still not satisfied. More evidence is out there. Stay tuned for one last gasp in a final coda...

Go to Finding Nighthawks: Coda


*Thanks again to blogger Teri Tynes and singer/songwriter Don Everett Pearce, who emailed me with links to photos, quotes, and their own guesses, all of which helped put this whole thing together.

Read:
Finding Nighthawks Part 1

Finding Nighthawks Part 2

51 comments:

Melanie said...

One of my favorite paintings--I was thinking that Hopper created the diner along with his people in it-to resemble something in his neighborhood--I really appreciate your researching this because I am a big fan of Hoppers and sometimes find myself taking a photo with the same feeling of isolation and desolateness this one seems to show.

EV Grieve said...

Brilliant work.

And I'm smelling a TV mini-series out of this! The Hunt for Nighthawks. Who are we casting in the lead, Jeremiah?

Anonymous said...

The burger joint with castle walls is a vintage White Castle...

Teri Tynes said...

This is beautiful writing. I thought my heart was going to leap out of my body.

Five and Diamond said...

LOve it. (Links to your blog series should be placed on the Nighthawks Wikipedia page.)

VisuaLingual said...

Believe it or not, I've been on the edge of my seat, waiting for the mystery to be solved. Does no one have a grandparent or other elder they can ask about the neighborhood, in case there's something you're missing from looking at the archives?

Anonymous said...

Well done bub. I think you may be right. Composite.

esquared said...

i wish i could've done the research and investigation myself. that's probably more exciting than finding out the exact location of the diner.

perhaps one of the allure of nighthawks is that the viewer places the location of the diner wherever he/she wants it based their personal experience, mood, attitudes and knowledge; that’s the beauty of viewing nighthawks, it’s where one wants it to be.

superb piece and work, nonetheless.

Anonymous said...

thank you for all of this!
(the castle burger joint, of course, is a White Castle)
Joe

Anonymous said...

Question: I'm looking and looking and looking at the painting. How exactly was it determined that the diner is on a 'prow-shaped' corner? It looks like it could be a regular 90 degree corner to me. In fact, I have always assumed it to be a regular corner. The curved window of the diner definitely creates an effect, but I see nothing to argue that it is specifically a 'prow-shaped' corner.

Goggla said...

You've kept me captive all week with these installment mysteries. I even tuned in early today because I couldn't wait for part 3. Great work!

Anonymous said...

I thought it was pretty common knowledge that the corner of Greenwich Ave and Jane St were the inspiration for the painting. Diner would be where Harry's Burrito's is now. Check out Google Maps Street view and you can basically create the painting yourself. i took pix on that corner 8 years ago for some Hopper research I was doing.

Andrew Fine said...

Just great stuff! Still perplexed. I will save my secret til after part 4, long after, since I haven't figured it out yet!

Zach said...

Nice work. Kind of disappointed to find out though as I always liked to picture the diner still there when I walk by that corner.

Jeremiah Moss said...

thanks for all the great comments. i love how much people love this painting and the moods it evokes. i think esquared is right--the diner probably is in the eye of the beholder.

at the risk of beating a dead horse, i have one final installment tomorrow. and a lost diner will, kind of, sort of, magically appear.

VillageVintage said...

I live on Perry Street. One of my re-occurring dreams is going through The Nighthawk's kitchen door and entering into creative bliss on the other side.

What about the space that is currently Two Boots? It does have that prow shape modern look to it.

I can't believe somebody else is more obsessed with this than me!

Jeremiah Moss said...

interesting. i've never dreamed about Nighthawks, but i do have a recurring dream about finding a room in my apartment that i never knew was there. sometimes, it's an entire wing. but i think this dream is often dreamed by people who live in small New York apartments.

Anonymous said...

Amazing research. I work in commercial real estate brokerage and live on Waverly and West 11th. This info is fascinating on both professional and personal levels. Excellent work- Bravo!! Don't feel defeated. I think you've enlightened many people who are grateful for your diligence.

Bank said...

Hi -- I think the diner was where Bennie's Burrito's is now, at 113 Greenwich Ave and Jane Street. The background buildings there are a plausible bunch. Can you check it out, Jerimiah? The Diner doesn't really need to have been on a prow-shaped block, it's more about the angle from which Hopper painted...

NYC taxi photo said...

very nice. and i agree that it was fascinating to delve deep and then also to realize that he was a painter who was painting familiarity, but not specificity. sure there must have been a place, but how many differences would it have from the painting? and then maybe not seeing it would leave us more dreamy and optimistic than when we find it and we see nothing like the dream he rendered.

Jeremiah Moss said...

hey Bank, the Benny's Burritos spot doesn't say Nighthawks to me. the prow shape of the corner is important and Benny's is a 90-degree angle. but, you know, who am i to say, really? if you see Hopper at Benny's, it could be.

like NYC Taxi and others say here, in various ways, the diner was everywhere and nowhere.

everettsville said...

If the diner in the painting never actually existed, apart from some restaurant that sparked Hopper's imagination, then it makes sense that the little triangle at the top of Mulry Square would become the legendary site in our imaginations.

It's like a child who sits his imaginary friend at the only empty seat at the dinner table. It works because there's nothing there.

Mike N said...

Great work, but it's amazing that 1942 might as well be 500 BC in terms of the ability to find the photo of a street corner in New York City! It was only 70 years ago! It's crazy to think that someone could've opened a business in this city sometime in the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and dedicated their whole lives to it... only to have no record of it today. Zero, zilch, not even a vocal record? Not even someone's memory? It's insane!

mdavidthomson said...

I had always assumed that the Nighthawks diner was a fictional location. Before living in New York I imagined it was in Midtown somewhere, just round the corner from Grand Central.

After moving to NYC, whenever I've walked past the block that The Riviera Cafe is on at 7th and West 4th, just south of where you were looking.

Not that I think Hopper painted that block in any way, but it does evoke that part of town... but emptier.

Now... the really important question is... which movie theatre did he paint "New York Movie" in!!!?

David said...

Great detective work, Jeremiah, and a tale told in a compelling way! As a painter inspired to paint purely from my exposure to Hopper, it was interesting and fun to explore with you. The ending, while disappointing, is not surprising; he so often pulled ideas together from multiple sources and combined them with his vivid, theatre-fueled imagination. Thanks for sharing!

Hiren Patel said...

Excellent work Jeremiah. I remember hanging a poster of Nighthawks in my college dorm room at Cornell many years ago and wondering if such place existed. Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

Well done!! I could read a whole book on this like the lost Caravaggio.
Part of me wants to find it, the other doesn't. If its real you you know there is some photo in a box in an attic somewhere! Any chance that its not in Greenwich?

Jeremiah Moss said...

some wonder if it's on Greenwich Street...

Anonymous said...

A great piece, thank you.
Your research reminds me of another issue that is related to urban evolution. That issue is the demise of Mom and Pop business and its effect upon the social dynamics of communities throughout the US.

barry said...

i did my new york time a long time ago - lived for a while on bond street and brooklyn and nj - and still look back with love from oklahoma city where i originated which of course suffers the same plight as you talk about there
i loved the time's piece and did the facebook thing and now want to update a blog thing i did on nighthawks back then - here's the reference if you caare to glance: http://littlebluenews.blogspot.com/2009/09/Saturday-yesterday-began-for-me-as-it.html - i hope to do a redux on nighthawks soon
barry benefield

Dick Bloom said...

Your article evokes such memories. After briefly living and working in New York City during the summer of 1976, I returned to my hometown and found a job and an apartment in Center City Philadelphia. Center City is, of course, smaller and more intimate than Manhattan; in most respects, infinitely more charming and likely to catch an artist's eye. I had been a student of 19thc and 20thc art at Harvard and had become a fan of Hopper's and Homer's, but when I began to frequent the Rittenhouse Square district, I realized that the Dewey's, for decades a fixture across from the Warwick Hotel and one block east of the Square, could just as readily have been Hopper's model for "Nighthawks" as anything in Manhattan--if, that is, he substituted the streetscape of "Sunday Morning" as its background, one far more typical of Philly than New York with its red brick. Maybe the "Phillies" sign was more than an afterthought and actually a clue to the diner's existence, I wondered. Of course I didn't research the question as you have. But since the late 1940s we in Philadelphia have become increasingly aware of the historical significance of our magnificent architecture and I am happy to report that the diner in question, while alas no longer a "Dewey's" (gone the way of Horn and Hardart) is still a diner! (And by the way, the Phillies, unlike the Dodgers or Giants and like the cigars, are still the Phillies.) Come have a look at the 200 block of South 17th Street, Jeremiah. Did Hopper visit Philadelphia before "Nighthawks"?

Jeremiah Moss said...

not sure about philadelphia, but all the clues, from the artist and from people who knew the artist, say it was on Greenwich Ave in NYC. it's possible he took inspiration from another city, a memory, maybe even a dream.

who can know?

barry, i can't get your link to come through.

Art and Eats Along the Metro Gold Line said...

You may want to add another influence: Millard Sheets' "Beer for Prosperity" which bears an astonishing resemblance to "Nighthawks." Sheets painted it 9 years earlier than "Nighthawks". You can see it on the February 19th post of my blog www.artsandeatsalongthemetrogoldline.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

Just for fun. Nighthawks obsession is everywhere!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?gl=GB&hl=en-GB&v=MFz18zAjpGo

Helen Barbara said...

The missing diner: I missed a diner, too, when walking recently along the High Line wanting to eat lunch at the diner in my photo taken some months previously. It was no longer there! Vanishing New York? How about vanishing London? Coin Street Chronicles describes London's Vanished Old South Bank Area and its way of life -by an 80 year old lady, Gwen Southgate -amazing memoir.

lectrictic said...

Firstly, I do love how the 3 old buildings behind the garage in the '33 & today photos are still there!

I discovered Hopper in '79, in a remainders bin in a Marboro book store (former Automat I think) on w 57th. This was before I really became a museum-goer. I just thought 'this guy paints the way I would if I could paint.'

So I've been a Hopper fan.

At the Whitney (where else) a few years ago they had a small exhibit with only a few pieces, but a lot of study sketches, esp for the one w/the usherette in the theater... The display showed how obsessive this artist was about his main business, that of making images. It also quoted him, as I recall, about going to many different theaters and sketching detail after detail. Also, of course, poses and gestures of people, and composition possibilities.

I almost felt silly, as if I never considered the WORK a serious image producer would put into a commitment like a major painting! Of course, I knew but I didn't realize.

Gail Levin has a little book I have around here somewhere called 'Hoppers Places' where she photographed the sites of paintings that she could find. Few, if any, from the city, I think.

What's impressive, of course, is how Hopper transformed even the places that WERE real. You should dig book that up if you can.

I guess you now know you should have looked for more words before searching for the pictures! But it was fun.

Bronx raised & summers in the bungalow colonies, I absorbed some love for the old, the peeling, the rusting. The texture, which is how I feel Hopper.

Loved your article though. I love old maps & city photos. I wish I had YOUR job! So thanks.

Ted - Forest Hills

Jeremiah Moss said...

thanks for the tips. the sheets painting does look familiar!

ted, i wish i got paid for this "job." it's more a labor of love than anything else.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, for increasing my appreciation of "Nighthawks." Owing to the ubiquitous prints of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis as those populating the tableau, which I have always thought of as Hollywood kitsch, it has always been one of my least favorite Hoppers, and one of which I was dismissive. However, thanks to your article in the "New York Times", I look at it anew. Although, it was an ethereal creation, it now seems more real to me.

Grapefruit said...

Being a Hopper fan, I was drawn to your article in the NY Times and really enjoyed your wonderful article. Especially the last couple of lines - so beautifully put!

Rudy said...

Perhaps the "composite" was the interior layout of a diner with the exterior of a building that was never a diner and perhaps not even a one-story building--just large plate glass windows. I would also agree with the comment that the building does not appear prow-shaped, but rather a 90-degree building with a curved corner. The exterior setting if it is based upon a location would not have to be a T-intesection, but could be a 4-way—the building on the left across the street, could very well be a corner building.

Heather said...

Interesting. I never thought this looked like New York. Never even occurred to me until I read your NYT piece. Too much empty space. And too clean. Now I will see it differently.

Jeremiah Moss said...

honestly, it was one of my least favorite Hoppers, too, until this research. for the same reason you mention, Anon, the kitsch, the way people clamor around it in the museum, ignoring other pieces. i liked it as a kid, then it got tainted. but now it feels new to me, and i'm fond of it again.

Art Trip said...

How great was your quest to find the location of this painting. Love old NYC and always look around which tends to tag me as a tourist...

michele said...

great post! i got to your blog after i wrote about Hopper (a comment on it pointed to your NY times article).

i was hoping that this quintessential diner really existed...

http://micheleroohani.com/blog/2010/07/10/meeting-edward-hopper-the-quiet-american-in-lausanne/

meta said...

sorry for my english.
the bar of hopper was reality in a italian film of the 1975: profondo rosso (deep red). dario argento was inspired by the hope's paint, and realizated it for the film, the "blue bar", in torino. the location is a place without a bar, "piazzetta CLN".
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QM8JpKLmi3U
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vMk3XUUNNJ8
http://www.zontar.it/tag/argento/

Jeremiah Moss said...

thank you Meta, interesting to see it in Italy.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I only read Pt. 3. Have you considered interviewing an elder local even if they are not local anymore?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...
The burger joint with castle walls is a vintage White Castle...

Nope, it's a competitor "White Tower" burgers that spent plenty of time suing & counter-suing WC;
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Tower_Hamburgers

Eduardo C. Gallegos M. said...

the coffee shop does exist. it always has. everywhere. so in actuality, finding out that it literally didn't exit, as in the haunting painting does not matter to me.

Sergio said...

If you ever wish to return to your journey.. there may be one last spot for you to check.

Have you ever looked at the opposite corner of the block you last checked, of Perry & 7th? I was walking by the restaurant Wogie's recently, and had a vision epiphany... I googled to see if Wogie's was the original site of Nighthawks. Could only find this picture that might help:
http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-dyKy_-yNKpQ/TskmUMyc4MI/AAAAAAAAHeQ/tmsvBkMz6ik/s1600/wogies.jpg

laura said...

is possible that hopper made various sketches. these were done in different locations & used as reference. then he put it all together & did the painting. not everything is literal. but the last comment is worth looking into.