Lower East Side preservationists are buzzing this weekend about a potentially blockbuster discovery.
This photo, they believe, may offer proof that remnants still exist from the Bull’s Head Tavern, one of the most historically significant sites from 18th century New York City.
As we reported this past June, property owner Alex Chu is in the process of demolishing 50 Bowery, a building just south of Canal St. He’s awaiting Department of Buildings approval to begin construction on a 20-22 story hotel on the parcel. In our original story, we noted that 50 Bowery was the onetime home of Atlantic Garden, a culturally significant German beer hall and entertainment venue that opened in the 1860s. In the past few months, we have been in semi-regular contact with David Freeland, the author of “Automats, Taxi Dances and Vaudeville,” a book that details Atlantic Garden’s historical value. Freeland has long suspected that the demolition could potentially unearth a treasure trove — revealing important new details about the city’s past.
In the past couple of days, it appears, his hunch has turned out to be true. A local preservationist got inside the demolition site this past week and snapped quite a few photos, including the one you see posted above. In an email that began making the rounds Friday, he reported, “there is a small cellar under 50-52 (Bowery) with 18th century hand planed/axe-hewn joists and stone foundation walls.” It has always been thought that Atlantic Garden was built on the site of the Bull’s Head Tavern, which opened around 1750 and is believed to have served as George Washington’s headquarters in the Revolutionary War. In a plea to friends in the preservation community, the person who snapped the photo wrote:
My conclusion is that sitting under a few feet of flooring, stone and coal is a largely if not entirely undisturbed Colonial to post Civil War archaeological site in immediate danger of being destroyed. Mind you not just any Colonial site but arguably the most significant late Colonial – Revolutionary period site in Manhattan.
While the source of the photo acknowledges that he is not an expert, and that specialists will need to be called in to make a detailed assessment, Freeland and others are convinced he’s likely come across something of critical importance. “This is a major find,” wrote Freeland, “not only as the oldest built structure remaining in Manhattan and a glimpse into our Colonial and Revolutionary Era history, but as a prospective site for invaluable archeological research.”
Yesterday afternoon, we contacted Kerri Culhane, an architectural historian who wrote the successful application that led to the Bowery being added to the National Register of Historic Places. This is what she had to say:
Bulls Head Tavern and Atlantic Garden are really two of the most significant sites of their respective eras of New York City history, and it is amazing that they are built on top of one another and that there are some bones left. (An) archaeological investigation could tell a lot about the use and material culture of these places. There are plenty of historic sites claiming that Washington slept here, but in the case of the Bull’s Head Tavern we really do know that Washington at least had a drink there. Of course that is not what is most significant about the tavern– it is the association with the butchery trade that defines the Bowery for much of the 18th century…
After receiving the email, Culhane said she alerted the Landmarks Preservation Commission about the find, as well as a non-profit organization, the Professional Archaeologists of New York City. “The good thing about archaeology from a developer’s perspective,” she said, “is that it removes the historic artifacts and we learn from the site but it does not prevent construction from happening.”
The LPC previously signed off on the demolition project; the Atlantic Garden building was so drastically altered that it was not a candidate for preservation. But preservationists hope that the new discovery will be enough to persuade city or state officials to halt the demolition long enough for archaeologists to conduct historical research.
A sign outside 50 Bowery indicates demolition will be completed this month.