Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Up In the Old Hotel

Graffiti dating back to about 1800 was found in the rooms upstairs.
South Street Seaport Museum's historian Jack Putman exploring upstairs.
Joseph Mitchel returned to the hotel in the '90s.
Louis Morino in the '50s.
A last look at the old hotel along water street.
The former Sloppy Louie's is now a dining room for the Heartland Brewery.
The Brooklyn Bridge from the South Street Seaport.
The front door of what is now a Heartland Brewery Branch.

The boarded up old hotel dates back to 1811.
A sign in the window for Pittsburgh's Iron City beer, a favorite of mine.
A ship sits in the seaport.
The Manhattan Bridge from the South Street Seaport.
I recently finished Joseph Mitchell's acclaimed essay, "Up in the Old Hotel". Written in 1952, it's an account of his many interviews with old friend Louis Morino, the proprietor of Sloppy Louie's, a seafood restaurant at 92 South Street in the heart of the Fulton Fish Market. The building, however, opened up in 1811 as a courting house (I'm not sure what that is), but was converted to an upscale hotel shortly thereafter. Sloppy Louie's, I was surprised to learn, stayed in business as late as 1998, and Sweets Restaurant next door was a city staple from 1847 to 1992. Unfortunately, in the nineties gentrification took over.

Louie always hated the name of his restaurant, but another Italian immigrant who owned the place before him, John Barbagelata, informally called his restaurant "Sloppy John's". The name was so popular with patrons that it carried over, and eventually Louie ordered a big sign with the name, saying that he couldn't beat them, so he joined them.

Mitchell had been going to Sloppy Louie's for years when he started to interview Louie about the building. By the early '50s, Louie had begun to need to expand. Stairs led to the second floor of the building, where he originally kept supplies and where the workers could change, but only an ancient pully-operated elevator led to the floors above. That being a rather unreliable mode of transportation, the floors above were simply neglected for years. Louie told Mitchell that in over twenty years of business, he had never been up there even once.

Louie at first wasn't aware of the rich history of the building his restaurant was in until he was unexpectedly visited by the matriarch of the Schermerhorn family, who arrived out front in a stretch limo to get an update on the condition of the building. The Schermerhorns were a prominent family who owned a number of popular hotels and boarding houses in the 19th century. With the ferry to Brooklyn right there, the old hotel at 92 South Street and others surrounding it became a bustling tourist destination. But over the years, with the building of the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges and the subway system, the area went into decline, and what used to be a fashionable middle-class clientele turned more into a seedier breed of sailors and longshoremen. The nail in the coffin for the area was Prohibition, when the tavern on the ground floor of the building was forced to close.

By the early fifties, Louie and Mitchell had convinced each other to take that old elevator upstairs once and for all, and what they found among the cakes of dust was piles of old hotel furniture which had been sitting in the dark for decades. A sign on the wall read, "THIS READING ROOM WILL BE CLOSED AT 1A.M. FULTON FERRY HOTEL". Another read, "ALL GAMBLING IN THIS READING ROOM STRICTLY PROHIBITED. BY ORDER OF THE PROPRIETORS. FULTON FERRY HOTEL." Some cabinets, bureaus and mirrors were left in place, and around the corner there was a long hall with rows of bedrooms, that contained a couple of old bedframes and coat hangers,

Louie found the whole experience to be rather depressing, and wanted to get out of there, not even bothering to go up to the fourth floor, and so they left, without even bothering to go up again. It wasn't until over forty years later, when Jack Putnam, historian of the newly-opened South Street Seaport Museum, invited Mitchell to explore the floors on the upper level once more. Rarely opened to the public due to its unstable condition, the hundred-plus-year-old furniture, plaster and wallpaper remained virtually intact.

And so I decided to head way downtown to try to find the old hotel for myself. Following the door numbers along South Street, I eventually came across what is now a Heartland Brewery, a chain in the city, with other locations in Union Square and the Empire State Building that makes it's own line of craft beers. I went in, ordered a beer, and began to ask the bartender what he knew about this place. He had never heard of Joseph Mitchell, but he told me that this used to be the North Star Pub, and before that Sweets Restaurant. To my left was a dining room annex that was boarded up when Heartland moved in, but was recently opened to the public. That was once Sloppy Louie's, he told me. Around the corner is an Ann Taylor which also occupies the second floor, and further down the street is the museum. I asked him about the old abandoned hotel, and he said that the top three floors still contain all that old furniture from the nineteenth century, but very rarely is anyone allowed up there. He had never been up there, and neither had anyone he knew.

With that I thanked him for his help and told him I'd see him next time. I've heard that those floors are going to be renovated and opened to the public someday, but so far that isn't happening. Taking one last look, I headed back uptown, leaving behind that relic of a long-gone city.


  1. JMe,
    Great post. I'm a huge Mitchell fan. Sad that the old place is gone, surprising that the hotel junk is still up there. You should go back again when it's slow, ask for the manager. Take a hardhat with you. Life is short.

  2. I enjoyed this article immensely. I would love to have a tour of the upstairs of that building. They should turn it into a museum like they did with the old tenement buildings down in the old Delancy Street area.