Rescuing an Off Off Broadway Theater With a Storied Past

This post was originally published on NY Times - Theater

Written by: John Freeman Gill

When Edith O’Hara, the mother hen and indefatigable leader of the eclectic 13th Street Repertory Company for nearly half a century, died last fall at age 103, the future became decidedly shaky for one of Off Off Broadway’s longest-operating stages.

In an effort to ensure that it’s not the end of the run as well for the antebellum brick house where both the theater and Ms. O’Hara made their homes, preservationists are urging the city to grant landmark protection to the three-story Greek Revival structure.

The city Landmarks Preservation Commission told an advocacy group in January that the quaint 1840s rowhouse with the intricate cast-iron portico at 50 West 13th Street was not distinguished enough to warrant landmark protection on its architectural merits, noting that further study was needed to determine the building’s “cultural significance within the context of Off Off Broadway theater.”

Consequently, the group, Village Preservation, has dived into the archives to try to demonstrate that the building is a worthy cultural landmark based not only on its theatrical history but also on an intriguing, newly unearthed piece of African-American history involving a prominent 19th-century Black businessman and abolitionist.

The new research “is very helpful and we have added it to our records,” Kate Lemos McHale, the commission’s research director, wrote the group on Feb. 24.

A commission spokeswoman added in a statement to The Times that the city “is absolutely committed to recognizing Black history in the urban landscape,” which is why the agency recently launched Preserving Significant Places of Black History, “a world-class story map and educational tool.” She said that the city would “continue to review” 50 West 13th Street.

Edith O’Hara, the leader of the 13th Street Repertory Company for nearly half a century, at the theater in 2006. Ms. O’Hara died last fall at age 103.
Credit…Ruby Washington/The New York Times

A place of opportunity for generations of theatrical neophytes of varying talents, the quirky, no-frills 13th Street Repertory Company was an early stop for such performers as Richard Dreyfuss and Chazz Palminteri. “Line,” a one-act play by Israel Horovitz, ran there for more than 40 years, an Off Off Broadway record. And “Boy Meets Boy,” New York’s first hit gay musical, was first staged there in 1974, the brainchild of Bill Solly, an Englishman whom Ms. O’Hara had taken in and allowed to live upstairs from the theater.

Whether the show will go on is unknown. The building is owned by White Knight Ltd., of which Ms. O’Hara’s three children collectively own a little over a third. The balance of the shares are owned in equal proportion by Stephan Loewentheil, a bookseller, and his ex-wife, Beth Farber. The O’Haras and Mr. Loewentheil previously fought a bitter, yearslong real estate battle that ended, in 2010, with an agreement that allowed Ms. O’Hara and her theater to remain in the building until her death. There is no provision for what comes next.

The Thirteenth Street Repertory Company has been placed in the hands of its artistic director, Joe John Battista, who has vowed to continue making theater under the group’s name. But whether that will happen on 13th Street or elsewhere — and whether the building will ultimately be sold — depends on the outcome of an offstage drama.

Credit…John Taggart for The New York Times

“It’s all still in the air at this point,” said Jill O’Hara, one of Edith’s daughters, who sits on White Knight’s board. “It’s a complex situation that’s not made any easier by the history with this guy,” she added, referring to Mr. Loewentheil.

The building is managed for White Knight by Nate Loewentheil, the son of Mr. Loewentheil and Ms. Farber.

“As someone who cares deeply about cities, I appreciate the history of 50 West 13th Street,” Nate Loewentheil said, “but the building has fallen into very significant disrepair over the past 15 years, so we are trying to figure out our next steps.” (Both his parents declined to comment.)

Ms. O’Hara said that her mother believed that the building was once part of the Underground Railroad, the network of activists who helped enslaved African-Americans flee north to freedom before the Civil War. That belief has been perpetuated in local lore because a trap door in the theater’s dressing room leads to a hidden basement chamber unconnected to the rest of the basement.

Although no evidence has emerged to support the Underground Railroad rumor, new research, performed by Village Preservation and supplemented by an independent historian and a reporter, suggests that the claim may not be outlandish.

From 1858 to 1884, city directories and other records show, the house was owned by Jacob Day, a prominent African-American businessman active in abolitionism and other civil rights efforts. By 1871, Day was one of the wealthiest Black residents of New York City, according to The New York Times, with a net worth of more than $75,000, or around $1.6 million in today’s dollars.

Credit…Katherine Marks for The New York Times
Credit…Katherine Marks for The New York Times

An 1880 issue of The People’s Advocate called Day “the fashionable caterer of East Thirteenth Street” and identified him as a leading member of “a colored aristocracy” in the city. “Beginning as a waiter, by economy and thrift after years of struggle he saved money enough to go into business himself,” the paper noted, adding that Day owned “several fine houses.”

Newspaper articles appear to document Day’s involvement in civil rights causes over more than 30 years. In 1885, the year after his death, his efforts to further African-American self-determination were recognized in a history of Black Americans. “The Colored population of New York was equal to the great emergency that required them to put forth their personal exertions,” wrote George Washington Williams, spotlighting Day, along with his fellow Greenwich Village resident and abolitionist Dr. Henry Highland Garnet, for doing “much to elevate the Negro in self-respect and self-support.”

Born in New York around 1817 to parents who were also born in the city, Day appears to have been publicly active in Black civil-rights efforts as a young man. Along with such prominent abolitionists as the New York publisher and Underground Railroad leader David Ruggles, a man named Jacob Day was among a group in 1840 that called, in the pages of The National Anti-Slavery Standard, for a “National Reform Convention of the Colored Inhabitants of the United States of America,” an effort to combat the colonization movement that aimed to resettle Black Americans in Africa.

Day was also a prominent member and the longtime treasurer of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, the city’s second oldest Black church, which moved to nearby 166 Waverly Place shortly after Day bought his house and place of business on 13th Street.

Tom Calarco, the author of several books on the Underground Railroad, said that an 1852 article in The Standard suggested a strong connection between the church and leading Underground Railroad figures.

The newspaper report detailed an anti-colonization meeting at the church that had been called by the Committee of Thirteen, a vigorous Underground Railroad organization. The Rev. John T. Raymond, the church’s pastor, was a member of the committee and served as president at the 1852 meeting.

Credit…Katherine Marks for The New York Times

Day was “a major leader of the Black community, and he was connected up with other important people that were in the abolitionist movement,” Mr. Calarco said. “We know for at least 26 years, he was still participating in these important meetings with people who were leaders of the movement, so you have to make that assumption that he, if not directly, was indirectly involved in the Underground Railroad.”

Mr. Calarco also shared a document showing that in 1846, Day was one of a roster of African-Americans given land grants in the Adirondack region of upstate New York by Gerrit Smith, a major underwriter of the Underground Railroad.

Mr. Calarco speculated that Day may have used his wealth to fund Underground Railroad operations, whose conductors were often pressed for cash. “They needed the money,” he said, “to pay for the food, to pay for the travel, to pay for the clothes, to pay for people who helped transport” fugitives on boats and trains.

After the Civil War, with slavery abolished, Day worked to secure the vote for all Black people in New York State. In 1866, The Standard reported, he was one of a group that called for a convention to remove the discriminatory provision in the state constitution that barred Black people from voting unless they owned property valued at the considerable sum of $250. “The war of steel is over … but the war of ideas must go on until in this country true democratic principles shall prevail,” the group wrote, echoing today’s battles over voter suppression.

In 1871, a year after the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution finally prohibited the federal government and the states from denying or abridging the right to vote based on race or color, a massive jubilee parade of Black citizens wended its way uptown from Washington Square, with throngs of Black and white New Yorkers lining the route. At a “grand mass meeting” at the Cooper Union, The Times reported, Day was among the officers who issued a resolution declaring that the 15th Amendment could only improve the lot of Black Americans if “the exercise of the ballot shall at once be made safe, and our right to exercise it be maintained by civil authority.”

In 1880, when the Black civil rights leader Frederick Douglass spoke at a rally for the Republican presidential candidate James A. Garfield at the Cooper Union, Day was among the prominent citizens, Black and white, assembled onstage around him.

During the period Day lived on 13th Street, the city’s largest African-American neighborhood, known as Little Africa, had developed nearby south of Washington Square, around Minetta Lane and Minetta and Bleecker Streets. The Abyssinian Baptist Church, whose finances Day managed, had moved to the Village to serve this population. So did the Freedman’s Savings Bank, an institution founded to help former slaves after the Civil War. Day kept an account at the bank, perhaps to support its mission.

Reflecting on Day’s house on 13th Street, Sylviane A. Diouf, a historian of the African Diaspora who curated a digital exhibit called “Black New Yorkers” for the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, said: “It’s important to preserve and show that there was an African and then an African-American presence in that area from the Dutch years and that they had institutions and businesses. It’s important to stress that, contrary to what people think, African-Americans didn’t just arrive in Harlem during the Great Migration, but they had a presence for 300 years before that.”

By the late 19th century, fierce competition for housing from Italian immigrants was already pushing Black residents uptown from the Village to the Tenderloin district. And some of the lingering physical remnants of Little Africa were demolished in the 1920s by the extension of Sixth Avenue from Carmine Street to Canal Street.

“Virtually all of the great institutions and landmarks and homes of leading figures of the 19th-century African-American community of Greenwich Village have been lost or highly compromised,” said Andrew Berman, the executive director of Village Preservation. “50 west 13th Street is one of very few remaining homes of a leading African-American figure, not just in business but in the civil rights arena, that is largely intact from the many decades that he lived and worked there in the 19th century.”

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