It’s been about three weeks since photos first surfaced indicating that remnants from the Revolutionary War-era Bull’s Head Tavern might still lay below 50 Bowery, a demolition site just below Canal Street. Here are the latest developments.
Last month, local resident Adam Woodward touched off a media flurry after sneaking into the building and capturing photographic evidence suggesting a major historical discovery. The images, depicting axe-cut beams on the lower level of 50 Bowery, were seen as possible evidence of 18th century construction materials — a tantalizing clue that parts of the Bull’s Head might be buried below a nondescript commercial building. After being alerted to the situation, the Landmarks Preservation Commission spoke with the property owner and furnished a list of approved archaeological firms prepared to conduct a site survey. But a commission spokesman told The Lo-Down that the agency lacked jurisdiction to require a survey. The owner, Chinatown banker and developer Alex Chu, has not responded to media inquiries.
In recent days, however, Wellington Chen of the Chinatown BID, told us he spoke with Chu about the situation not long after the story first came to light. According to Chen, he agreed to hire one of the archaeological firms, to forward its findings to the Landmarks Commission and to follow the commission’s guidance as to how any potential artifacts should be removed. That survey, several sources have indicated, was underway, although we’re told the Landmarks Commission has not yet received a report. Meanwhile, demolition is moving forward at a quick pace, as you can see from the photo posted above (it was taken yesterday).
The office of City Council member Margaret Chin reached out to the property owner, who’s planning to build a 22-story hotel on the site. We’re told that Chu, president of Chinatown’s East Bank, has not been receptive so far. Chin has indicated she wants to see any artifacts discovered at 50 Bowery protected. While the city has little leverage in this particular case (it’s an “as-of-right” project), Chin believes the property owner should, at the very least, provide information to the surrounding community not only about the possible retrieval of artifacts but also about the hotel project. Local preservationists are also working behind the scenes. David Freeland, a historian and author who’s been advocating for preservation, prepared a report that was apparently forwarded to the archaeological firm evaluating the site.
In the report, Freeland acknowledged, there is “some speculation as to whether or not the cellar with its axe-cut beams… is indeed a portion of the Bull’s Head.” Much of the uncertainty stems from fuzziness as to whether the tavern was torn down in 1826 to make way for New York Theatre or whether it was “altered and repurposed as the Atlantic Garden, most famous of New York’s 19th century beer halls.” Old accounts placed the tavern at 46-48 Bowery, but “thanks to digitized availability of early American periodicals,” he concluded, it’s now clear the Bull’s Head was located next door, at 50 Bowery.
According to Freeland’s research, the New York Theatre (later called the Bowery Theatre) was built on 46-48 Bowery, while the tavern continued to operate from the neighboring parcel, re-branded at various times as the Morse Hotel and the New York Theatre Hotel. In the report, he detailed other evidence, as well:
…We can trace the history of 50 Bowery visually: a rendering of the structure, from 1826 (at the time of the New-York Theatre’s construction) resembles the first known photograph of the Atlantic Garden, taken around 1858. The similarity is even clearer in a lithograph of the later Bowery Theatre, which opened after the original New-York Theatre was destroyed by fire in 1828: the building next door, number 50, contains four dormers placed above a line of five second-story windows. The dormers, windows, and keystones are all visible in the 1858 Atlantic Garden photo, taken when the newly opened beer garden was sharing space with a purveyor of “stoves & ranges.” … In 1929 the Atlantic Garden space was converted to retail, and new façades built for both the Bowery and Elizabeth Street entrances. Still, renovations did not efface the core structure. Thus what remains today at 50 Bowery is, according to a careful interpretation of records, permits, notes, and photos, an extensively modified version of the original Bull’s Head Tavern. However, it’s what survives below ground that counts. The 1929 Bureau of Buildings alteration permit specifies that “cellar is to be dug on Elizabeth Street only.” Because the Bowery cellar was untouched during the last major alteration, it may well be a time capsule, offering rare perspective into a world that threatens, like so much of early New York, to slip away from us. As a next step, the cellar’s inspection by an archeological historian will be of the highest importance, for New Yorkers and Americans of all generations.
Alex Chu is awaiting Buildings Department approval for the hotel project, a process that has already taken several months. It’s a longtime family dream; Chu’s father spoke of the proposal way back in 1986. He was quoted in a New York Times, article titled, “Mining Chinatown’s Mountain of Gold.”