Channel 13’s latest installment of the online video series The City Concealed ventures into one of my hands-down favorite places in New York: the old Fulton Ferry Hotel rooms hidden above the South Street Seaport Museum (and several tacky mall shops) on Schermerhorn Row, Fulton Street between Water and South.
The row of warehouse buildings and countinghouses, which date from 1811 to 1849 (they were built in sections, one at a time, eventually extending 600 feet into the East River), were landmarked in the late 1970s and partially restored in the early 1980s, when the seaport area was redeveloped for commercial tourist purposes. At least on the ground floors: the upper rooms remained largely untouched, as they had been for much of the twentieth century.
The ground floor of the South Street end of the Row had long been home to a restaurant called Sloppy Louie’s, which operated from 1930 to 1998. The restaurant, and the old hotel above, featured prominently in one of Joseph Mitchell’s most famous New Yorker essays, “Up In the Old Hotel” (1952). According to Mitchell, Louie Moreno liked knowing that his restaurant occupied space built by the nineteenth-century merchant Peter Schermerhorn; it made him feel a tie to Old New York. Mitchell’s piece starts out with a deliberate echo of Melville’s Moby-Dick:
Every now and then, seeking to rid my mind of thoughts of death and doom, I get up early and go down to Fulton Fish Market. I usually arrive around five-thirty, and take a walk through the two huge open-fronted sheds, the Old Market and the New Market, whose fronts rest on South Street and whose backs rest on piles in the East River. At that time, a little while before the trading begins, the stands in the sheds are heaped high and spilling over with forty to sixty kinds of finfish and shellfish from the East Coast, the West Coast, the Gulf Coast, and half a dozen foreign countries. The smoky riverbank dawn, the racket the fishmongers make, the seaweedy smell, and the sight of this plentifulness always give me a feeling of well-being, and sometimes they elate me. I wander among the stands for an hour or so. Then I go into a cheerful market restaurant named Sloppy Louie’s and eat a big, inexpensive, invigorating breakfast–a kippered herring and scrambled eggs, or a shad-roe omelet, or split sea scallops and bacon, or some other breakfast specialty of the place.
I won’t spoil the essay; all you need to know is that its main event takes place when Mitchell and Sloppy Louie himself pull themselves up a dumbwaiter into the old, abandoned hotel rooms above — several of which remain intact today, preserved ruins belonging to the South Street Seaport Museum but only rarely opened to the public.
One of my great regrets in life is that I moved to the seaport neighborhood three years too late for breakfast at Sloppy Louie’s. I did get there in time, though, to witness the market in action. (It moved to Hunt’s Point in the Bronx, after many delays and much foot-dragging, in 2005, after having inhabited its spot at the seaport since 1822.) I took a group of students there early one November morning in the fall of 2004, and it looked and smelled just like it had to Mitchell half a century earlier. Our tourguide was the Museum’s historian, Jack Putnam, who can recite whole chapters of Moby-Dick from memory and who narrates the City Concealed segment in a dapper bowtie and some amazing fuchsia socks:
I’ve also been lucky enough to take students on flashlight tours through the old hotel a handful of times in the last five or six years. Along with the small hotel rooms, some with wallpaper still peeling in multiple layers and dust caking in the corners, the space in the upper floors of Schermerhorn Row includes equipment used to sort and bag coffee beans coming off the ship and other evidence of the buildings’ many functions in the nineteenth century. My favorite part of the whole experience, though — and an aspect that didn’t make it into the segment — is the graffiti, much of it left by hotel residents, sailors, and workers in the countinghouses and coffee plant. A lot of it has Irish content, some of it complains of the bosses or pokes at the competition, but the best parts are the most juvenile: sailing vessels drawn onto the wall with someone’s name alongside them, the way a middle-schooler today might doodle a fantasy hot-rod; or an enormous cock, also (if memory serves) with a name attached. Maybe it was too much for Channel 13; we can only hope the Museum decides to preserve it as part of the planned permanent exhibit.