Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Utah House

With all due apologies, this week's post is short on neon.  Neon diehards will find some neon news at bottom.  

The recent disappearance of my neighborhood bodega has opened a window into the ancient and somewhat sordid past of the corner of 25th Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan.  Last fall, when a 7-Eleven opened immediately next door to Kyung's Gourmet Foods at this corner, one couldn't help but wonder how long the family-owned deli-grocery would last.  Kyung's held-on for about six months before closing up and moving out this past March.  

Summer, 2012. (T. Rinaldi)

Placards heralding a new business appeared under Kyung's abandoned vinyl awning not long afterward.  The new tenant (remarkably not a bank or nail salon, but what looks to be an upscale version of its predecessor) soon set about gutting the space.  As workmen peeled away layers of old storefrontage outside, I eagerly tracked their progress, hoping (as sometimes happens) that they might unearth some long-lost neon relic of a previous occupant.

April, 2013.  Kyung's Gourmet Foods closed about six months after a Seven-Eleven opened next door. (T. Rinaldi)

Alas, no such luck.  Last week, the demo crew hit bedrock - actually brownstone, in this case, the old lintels that support the wall over the storefront.  "Too bad," I thought, and turned to cross the street last Wednesday night.  But wait - what was that?  Faded letters, painted on the masonry: old, flamboyantly-serifed letters, roused from somnolence like One-Eyed Willie's ghost ship after untold decades entombed beneath layers of sheetmetal, vinyl and fluorescent lights.  UTAH HOUSE, the sign said, where Kyung's had dispensed sixpacks and cigarettes until just a few weeks before. 

Utah House exposed, last Thursday (May 23, 2013). (T. Rinaldi)

Minutes later, back home, I punched the words into Google.  No dice - at least nothing salient (the Utah House of Representatives scrambled the returns).  Plan B:  This exercise, too, would have proved fruitless, but for the NYT's handy "sort by oldest first" feature.  From a series of old headlines, a sketch history of the Utah House emerged. 

UTAH. (T. Rinaldi)

The Utah House, it seems, was a watering hole, meeting hall and hotel that occupied the stout brick building at the northeasterly corner of 25th and Eighth for about seventy years, from the 1850s through 1910s.  A Times writer in 1880 described the premises: "Utah hall is a Masonic hall over the beer department of the Utah House."  Over the course of its long life, the Utah House hosted meetings of striking laborers, political parties, and fraternal organizations.  Some, like the American Legion and the Teamsters union, are still with us today.  Others, like the New York Hay Exchange and the "New-York Lodge of the Growlers," are clearly of a different era.

HOUSE. (T. Rinaldi)

What of the name?  In 1854, when the Utah House first crops up in the Times, the newly-minted Utah Territory was in the midst of a four-fold population boom (says Wikipedia), its numbers swelling from 10,000 to 50,000 in the span of just ten years.  A Times writer in 1880 speculated on a tie to the Latter Day Saints.  The goings-on at 25th and Eighth, however, tended to be a substantially less than saintly nature.  

At 2:30 on the morning of June 28, 1896, the Utah House witnessed the bloody end of one Thomas Thornton.  It seems that Tom had yielded to his mischievous instincts, robbing and assaulting a certain Charles Melander in the shadows of West 25th Street, after rendezvousing with his brother at the Utah's "beer department" earlier in the evening.  As luck would have it, the brothers Thornton quickly found themselves collared by New York's Finest.  Tom resisted arrest and got himself shot.  Said the Times: "he fell on his face dead. . . . 'Tom' Thornton was well known to the police.  He had been arrested several times for intoxication and three times of assault proffered by his wife."

The Illustrated London News' coverage of the 1871 Orange riots included this engraving, which shows the Utah House's painted sign in the same off-center configuration it bore last week. (Illustrated London News / Antiqua Print Gallery)

25 years earlier, the Utah House presided over one of the bloodiest episodes in the city's history.  The Orange Riots of 1871 left 60 dead after ugly confrontations between Protestant and Catholic factions of New York's Irish immigrant community.  As Catholic onlookers began hurling shoes, bottles, stones and bricks at a parade of Protestant "Orangemen" on Eighth Avenue, the police and national guardsmen opened fire. 

142 years later, all's quiet at 25th and 8th. (T. Rinaldi)

"The Utah House, on the north-east corner of Eighth-avenue and Twenty-fifth-street, is among the buildings which bear conspicuous evidence of having been chipped by the musket balls," reported the Times on July 13, 1871. "The scene was, in truth, a horrible one.  On the north-east corner of Eighth-avenue and Twenty-fourth-street, where the firing had been hottest, lay the bodies of eight persons who had been shot.  Four of them were apparently killed outright, two being shot through the breast, and one having the back and side of his head fearfully mutilated, as if several shots had struck him.  The other dead person was a woman, seemingly a servant, who had been drawn thither by the general excitement, and had not time to escape when the troops began to fire.  She had fallen on two dead bodies, and lay there with her hands stretched out and tightly clasped over her head, while from a rifle-wound in her forehead her life-blood was slowly oozing.  Of the wounded men, two had been struck in the legs, and another had his arm badly shattered, while one man was vainly trying to raise himself from the ground, whose whole face was covered in blood, while from a ghastly wound in his head his brain was protruding.  The sidewalk was drenched with blood, and the window-panes of the stores on either corner ... were shattered by the bullets."

Happily, the Utah House seems to have lived out the rest of its tenure in relative tranquility.  Its final appearance in the Times came under the headline "Chelsea Old-Timer Dead," on January 18, 1916.   "John S. Lockwood, 70 years old, a familiar figure in Chelsea Village since the civil war, was found dead in his room in the Utah House last night.  Death was due to natural causes.  In 1876 he was reputed to be worth more than $100,000.  Last night the 75 cents found among his effects in his room was believed to be all the money he had."  Lockwood, said the Times, was a Civil War veteran and one-time intimate of Tweed.  On hearing news of his death, a delegation of local political types "visited the hotel, identified the body, and said they would raise a fund to prevent Lockwood's burial in Potter's Field." 

The Former Utah House, c. 1980. (Municipal Archives)

What became of the Utah House after they carried old Lockwood off to the undertaker remains consigned to the shadowy depths of archival obscurity.  The window that brought this odd relic to light seems already to have closed: by Friday, a layer of fresh plywood already obscured the old sign from view once again.  With any luck it will remain there, safely entombed like so many other ghost signs in the strata of the city's commercial archeology, maybe one day to see the light of day once more.

• Frank Jump's Fading Ads of New York City (if you haven't already).


• In keeping with the theme of this week's post: a storefront remodeling in Williamsburg, Brooklyn has unearthed an ancient neon sign that once advertised a Treadwell Shoes outlet.  And, says the owner, this could be yours.  The tubes are gone but the embossed sheet metal is all there.  Interested parties should e-mail me for the owner's contact info. 

(M. Zawacki)

• Good news, for once, from Brooklyn: two of the borough's best old neon signs are undergoing fine restorations.  Stay tuned for more on the relighting of Circo's Pasticceria in Bushwick and the Long Island Restaurant on Atlantic Ave.

(T. Rinaldi)

• Good news and bad news, via James and Karla Murray: Nathan's finally reopened, just in time for Memorial Day.  But we have sadly lost the Olympia Florist up on Broadway and 158th street.

• An upstate downer: the Northern Dutchess Pharmacy in Rhinebeck has closed up shop, taking with it one of the village's two grandfathered neon signs. 

RIP: Northern Dutchess Drugs in Rhinebeck.  (T. Rinaldi) 

• Flynn's Bar and Grill - some long-lost east side neon brought to us by

• Via the Lost City blog, a glimpse at the vanished neon storefront of the Hankow Chinese Restaurant. 


• June 19, 2013, for the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative at the Neighborhood Preservation Center.
• July 22, 2013, at the NYPL / Mid-Manhattan Branch.

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