|photo by Alice Lum|
|1894 print showing the Jefferson Market Courthouse in background -- NYPL Collection|
As the refined Greek Revival homes on Washington Square nearby began rising in the 1830s, Gay Street was widened, in 1833, demolishing the 1820s period houses on the west side. Working-class Greek Revival homes replaced them with stables behind that served the wealthy homeowners of Washington Square.
Mrs. Patton of 276 West 29th Street was brought to No. 12 Gay on August of 1855. After disembarking from an 8th Avenue trolley car with a baby in her arms, she had been knocked down and run over by a heavy express wagon. Mrs. Patton threw her baby out of harm’s way, but her body was run over by two of the wheels. Policeman Carpenter escorted the woman to her sister’s home on Gay Street. The Times reported that “During the excitement the driver of the wagon made his escape.”
|The little house at No. 12 Gay Street with Flemish bond brickwork and surviving Federal entrance details and ironwork where Mrs. Patton was brought in 1855, where Mayor Walker's girlfriend lived and where Howdy Doody was created - photo Atomische.com|
|Nos. 14, where Ruth McKenna wrote "My Sister Eileen," and 16 Gay Street in 1937 -- photo by Bernice Abbott|
Throughout the 19th Century and into the early parts of the 20th, the picturesque street was home, mainly, to black residents and on May 10, 1903 The New York Times reported that “A couple of colored artists, Messrs. E. Hawkins and S. O. Collins of 11 Gay Street announce an exhibition of their work at that address from May 11 to 15. They call themselves modestly enough art students, not artists.”
Yet despite its hidden location and plebian roots, Gay Street became the setting for many New York happenings. In the mid-1920s playboy mayor Jimmy Walker leased an apartment for his mistress, Ziegfeld Follies showgirl Betty Compton in No. 12, where Mrs. Patton had been taken in 1855. Later puppeteer Frank Parris lived here, where created his Howdy Doody character.
Next door, in the 1827 house at No. 14, author Ruth McKenney shared the basement apartment with her sister Eileen in 1935. Details of their life on Gay Street were integral to her novel “My Sister Eileen.” A few days before the subsequent Broadway play of the same name opened in 1940, Eileen and her new husband were killed in an automobile accident. The grieving Ruth never saw her play.
In the same apartment on Christmas Day, 2003, community activist David Ryan was killed by a fire.
While Ruth and Eileen McKenney were living two doors away, author Mary McCarthy took up residence in No. 18 in 1936.
Later, across the street, at No. 13, controversial self-described “radical lawyer” William Kunstler lived. Kunstler became famous for his defense of the “Chicago Seven” and later for such divisive clients as the Black Panther Party, the Weather Underground Organization, Jack Ruby and the 1993 World Trade Center bombers.
|Nos. 19 through 7 Gay Street in 1940|
The secretive little bent street is one of New York's quaintest and least known spots.