Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Frank's Last Place

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
there’s nothing
to bump into
or fall apart glassily
there’s not enough
poured concrete
and brassy
the wind now takes me to
The Narrows
and I see it rising there
New York
greater than the Rocky Mountains


Coffee Messiah said...

That's quite a history and rents were pretty darn good back then. Although in '71, I rented a 5 room flat (middle) in SF for $95.00.
Money went somewhere back then. Making $100. week, I felt rich, not so now ; (

Never saw "baited area" signs anywhere before. Is this a new thing?

Nice post!

Anonymous said...

Cheers for this, JM. I live a stone's throw from this building and have always been curious as to its backstory. Although I currently wince as I walk by, as right next to it is that gallery with inexplicable portraits of Lindsay Lohan glaring out at Broadway. Ugh.

A Kell said...

wonderful eulogy though I wish it were instead appropriate to say "wonderful background." I noticed this building and its For Sale sign all the time and wondered for a moment but never looked it up.

Jeremiah Moss said...

thanks--i love digging up a little history on these places we often pass and don't think much about.

and god, yes, those lindsay lohan portraits!

Ken Mac said...

fantastic post. Ben Katchor!

Anonymous said...

Wow, I used to go to United Ortho as a kid with my dad when he was being fitted (or was it repairs?) for his wooden leg. Change can't be stopped but it's always sad to see the old places and people fade away.

Anonymous said...

Lovely work as always Jeremiah. Thanks

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for this post. I once visited the poet Ron Padgett, and as we were walking on the other side of Broadway, he pointed and began, "See that building?"

Surgical appliances turn up in FOH's "Steps," a poem that precedes this apartment:

and even the traffic halt so thick is a way
for people to rub up against each other
and when their surgical appliances lock
they stay together
for the rest of the day (what a day)

Michael Leddy said...

Oops -- it was 90 University Place, an earlier FOH address.

Tony Renner said...

Great post.

Here's a link to one of the paintings I named in honor of Frank O'Hara after reading Brad Gooch's excellent biography.

Unknown said...

Wow, in 1963 a 2BR 1 bath floor-through loft was $150 a month. The apartments now at 791 Broadway start at $3,600 a month (

According to the US Dept of Labor Inflation Calculator($150 in 1963 has the same buying power as $1,123.06 in 2012. I'm not even sure if you can get a studio in this neighborhood for less than $1,200 now.