Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Nighthawks Revisited Again

The owner of the recently opened Classic's Cafe at Greenwich Street and Christopher is convinced that his restaurant was the original diner in Edward Hopper's Nighthawks painting. Fiko Uslu says he has proof. He's so sure of it, he's renaming the restaurant "Nighthawks."

Not so fast.

NY Post, attempted reconstruction of "Nighthawks"

Back in 2010, I went on an exhaustive search for the original diner. Digging through the Municipal Archives, through tax photos and Land Books, my research proved that the diner was not at Mulry Square as widely believed. Still, I kept searching, checking out every possible corner in the vicinity. In the end, I came to the conclusion that there was no Nighthawks diner--except in Hopper's imagination, a scene cobbled together from bits and pieces around Greenwich Village.

I wrote about my search in an Op-Ed for the New York Times, and later interviewed Whitney curator and Hopper expert Carter Foster, who agreed with my conclusion. “Hopper was a synthesizer,” Foster told me, adding that he believed the distinctive curved glass for the Nighthawks diner was inspired by the prow of the Flatiron Building.

The matter seemed put to rest. But there's just something about the Nighthawks diner that keeps people hoping.

Since publishing the news of my search, I continue to get emails from New Yorkers who insist that the diner is really on this corner or that. They tell me about a triangle-shaped restaurant or a flower shop on one street or another. They send photos. They want desperately to believe that a moody old diner with a curved window, shaped like the prow of a ship, once stood in Greenwich Village and that Edward Hopper painted it exactly as it was in real life.

I understand the wish. I wanted it to be real, too. But all the evidence is against it.

Going back at Classic's Cafe, the latest contender for the title of "Real Nighthawks Diner," it does have some of the qualities--a (sort of) triangular shape, a rounded corner--and it's located on Greenwich Street (though Hopper said the diner was inspired by a structure on Greenwich Avenue).

Google Maps

I thought I'd have to go back to the Municipal Archives and dig through microfilm for the 1940 tax photo of this building, but the NYPL's digital collection saved me the trip. Here is a photo of the cafe's building in 1941, just one year before Hopper dated his painting:


While there might be a restaurant in the space, it bears almost no resemblance to the Nighthawks diner. The window is not of a single, curving piece. There is no "prow," but a pair of recessed doors, just as Classic's Cafe has today.

NYPL zoomed in

There are many, many buildings shaped like this in Greenwich Village. And there were many more back in 1942--that also contained restaurants. Some of them may have provided Hopper with a flicker of inspiration, but none of them were the Nighthawks diner. That's the story I'm sticking with--unless the owner of Classic's Cafe can produce real proof. Until then, Mr. Uslu, tell your landlord to hold that rent hike.

The more compelling question, at this point, is: Why do people keep insisting it was a real place? What is it about Nighthawks that we just can't let it go?

Follow my entire search for Nighthawks here:


Anonymous said...

I don't know who is dumber. The landlord or the owner. I have lived across the street for the past 15 years In the Post article, the owner says that the wooden bar has been there since the 40's. Um, I saw it being built b4 Charlamagne opened. They closed and Classics just took over their space. Didn't change a thing inside. Also, now the owner wants to rename it and the landlord wants to hike the rent. Stupid.

r1zr1z said...

2 Cents Worth from an Architect:

The diner seems to be a single storey space, or project out from the building above. You can see the building across the street above the sign.

Based on this alone, the Classic Cafe cannot be the same building.

The windows shown in Nighthawks are well nigh impossible to build, even with today's technology. The long straight window is a HUGE piece of undivided glass, almost impossible to fabricate and almost impossible to get to the jobsite intact. (Even harder in the 30's) The one visible interior column is much too slender to support the weight of the roof above. There would have to be huge lintel (beam) above the straight window to support the load of the roof.

My vote goes to the "imaginary building based on several prototypes" theory.


10:41 a.m. said...

One thing real and true about Classic's Cafe is that it used to be a porn shop/bookstore. Maybe, instead, they should rename it to that porn shop's name (no recollection on what it was), to pay "homage" to, much like the developer of 5Pointz trademarking that name and name the condo development as such, and authentrificate the seedier past of Greenwich Village.
Also much like that boutique condos in DC naming it after the homeless shelter before it.

marjorie said...

I like your bigger question: What's with the obsession with Nighthawks? I understand it from businessmen who want to capitalize on a famous painting for their own moneymaking purposes. But I think regular folks are obsessed because the painting itself is so compelling. The diner is the one brightly lit spot on a dark and lonely corner. The people inside are each alone, yet they're together. It's a microcosm of city life, for good and for ill. The ambivalence is lovely and sad and stays with you.

Anonymous said...

It was called Harmony and I've been in there and there was no hidden old wooden bar inside

John K said...

To follow up on Marjorie's point, I think "Nighthawks" indelibly captures and evokes something we consider to be essential about modernity and urban life. It embodies this essential truth in its composition, its tone, its color palette, and in the total image itself.

It conveys something that those of us who have lived in cities and spent time in them during the night hours, especially after hours, know to be true. Even those who haven't, the painting still conveys this truth powerfully.

Yet for many of us it's not enough to appreciate the painting. We know Hopper lived and worked in New York City, in the Village. Our empirical and nostalgic urges lead us to want to find the original diner, the prototype or template on which this iconic painting is based, as if there's always a direct correlation between life and art.

But often there isn't, even with realist art like Hopper's. It is not documentary, though it looks as if it could be. Yet the emotional reality and truth is as valid and powerful today as it was when Hopper painted it. Perhaps even more so now that so much of the world he lived in is being whited out, by hyperwealth and power, before our eyes.

Giovanni said...

That spot was called Danny's Bar, then The Village Stix, later the Harmony Bookstore. Here's a pic of the Harmony, maybe, just maybe...

The Harmony Bookstore

Anonymous said...

Why the obsession with Nighthawks"?
Granted the owners of such a space if it existed would wanted to capitalize on the fame. However the real issue is why the general public is obsessed with it. Winslow Homer is a quintessential American painter of the American landscape. Of his paintings, Nighthawks is such an American image of American life in a very American piece of architecture. It is a scene that has resonance with our lives and experiences aside from being a great composition. It is right there beside American Gothic as one of THE iconic American paintings.