Friday, April 12, 2019

St. Denis Down

In Jonathan Richman's song "Springtime in New York," there's a line that goes "When demolishing a building brings the smell of 1890 to the breeze." That's the smell you catch as you approach the destroyed St. Denis on Broadway and 11th Street. Only, in this case, it's the smell of 1853, the musty death of a great New York building.

I was fortunate to occupy the St. Denis, if only for a little while. It gave me peace and stability, and connected me to a deep and illustrious history. (I wrote about that extensively for the New York Review of Books.)

Now it's gone. Killed by greed.

Through the dirty plastic windows in the plywood wall, you can see the pile. The sturdy timbers that once held the place together. A pair of elevator doors suspended in open space. Bricks shaped and fired at the Hutton Brick Company up in Kingston.

(Though Hutton is often dated to 1865, 12 years after the St. Denis was built. Mr. Hutton once told a reader of the New York Times to keep the bricks for sentimental value. "They make lovely doorstops," he added.)

A few walls still stand, back toward the rear. This is where you can feel the ghosts, lingering in the murky shadows by peeling Ionic columns that might once have held up the ceiling of the fancy dining room.

They will also fall. The new owners want money and that means a glass coffin on top of this land, a miserable place to go and die.

I looked through every window, searching for remnants of the winding grand staircase, the mahogany banister gripped by the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Graham Bell, Ulysses S. Grant, Mark Twain, Sarah Bernhardt, Buffalo Bill Cody, P.T. Barnum, Susan B. Anthony, W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcel Duchamp -- and all of these people, and many more, and me. But there was no sign of the banister, no sign of the wrought-iron dragons that held it.

They must have sold it for salvage.

When I turned to go, I beheld my old view, the one I felt blessed to see each night when I walked out of the St. Denis. Grace Church in all its beauty. In April, a magnolia tree in full flower, like a snow-covered mountain touched by pink.

It will be someone else's view now.

Read all my coverage on the life and death of the St. Denis building here


Skipper said...

The Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade had an office in the St. Denis for 36 years. It's secretary-treasurer Moe Fishman was interviewed by journalists from all over the world about the Spanish Civil War and the Fifteenth International Brigade. On his way to work on the bus until he was 91 years of age, he enjoyed composing rhymes for the woman who met everyone in the lobby.
Georgia Wever, Friends & Family of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

John K said...

Jeremiah, thanks so much for the recent updates, and let me just say that although you're planning to write far less on this blog, please know that many of us appreciate all you've done to highlight the hypergentrification and negative transformation of NYC over the last two decades, and hope that you'll occasionally still blog here. Your book was and remains an essential, landmark text on this topic. It's sorrowing to see the physical destruction of the St. Denis, but the images you shared are, like the Vessel/Shawarma/Gutted Pineapple at Hudson Yards, emblematic of New York City, circa 2019.

Brian said...

Dear Jeremiah,
I am really sorry to read about such a difficult event that effected you so personally. I hope that seeing the St. Denis in ruins is a life event you were prepared for that you can witness with the ability to give you closure and move on to other opportunities. I know how some buildings are so vicerally a part of your mental and physical being that it is a traumatic event when you must leave it behind. Almost like a death in the family in impact that needs to go through a process of mourning.

Jeremiah Moss said...

Thank you John and Brian. I'll still be around, here and there.

DrBOP said...

I know this is no consolation, but I lived in the oldest city in Canada (Kingston ON) for 42 years, and lived in 9 different buildings mostly near or in the downtown area. Not one of these dwellings was newer than 1920; most dated back to 1880, at least.

Jeremiah, EVERY ONE has either been torn down or renovated beyond all recognition. And they were all gorrr-jussss....oak panelling....shipwright-built stairs and hidden doors (sooo cool)....16" 4" BC Redwood floors....pressed mahogany 4' by 2' panels of different nature scenes on the walls as one climbed THREE floors up.....stained-glass portico windows.....curved glass windows....etc., etc., etc.
I had to stop being a witness to the tear-downs after the second one. If I did emojis, it would be of a heart breaking right here..
The buildings they put up were similar to what you see in NYC....steel. plastics, glass and more glass. Bad enough, but only 6 floors allowed because of the Heritage Restrictions. But now they are waving our height restrictions....and the 26 floor stack-o-blocks begin.
I always warned that people visited our town to GET AWAY FROM cities full of Concrete Canyons. Now, they're putting up our own version. And they're lawyered up to make opposition hopeless. (Which I participated in.) It certainly was part of my decision to move away from there.
So, sorry, no consolation here. Simply that you're not alone, it's happening everywhere. Greed piggery is global.

Lucky Wang nyc said...

We haven't been back since we moved out.
It's a bit sad to see the pictures of the demolition. Thank you for posting.
We felt very lucky to get the our 350 sq ft space in 2002, because small, affordable retail spaces on Broadway are rare. We always felt so fortunate to see the magnolia tree across the street in Grace Church, perfectly framed by our display window, bloom every Spring.