Monday, May 14, 2007

662 Driggs Avenue, Williamsburg

"Though my memory of this early Paradise could scarcely begin before the age of 5, and though I quit the neighborhood at the age of 9, these few years are ineradicably engraved in my mind."
-- Henry Miller in "A Boyhood View of the Nineties" (New York Times, Oct. 17, 1971 [1]).

"There were three streets--North First, Fillmore Place and Driggs Avenue. These marked the boudnaries of the known world."-- Henry Miller in Black Spring, p. 206.

Shortly after his birth in 1891, the infant Henry Miller moved with his family into the top apartment of a three-story building at 662 Driggs Avenue in Williamsburg (a northern neighbourhood in Brooklyn). The Brooklyn City Directory for 1897 locates Henry's father--Henry senior--living at 662 Driggs, working as a "cutter." A good, concise description of Miller's experince at 662 Driggs may be found at (as well as the photo at left).

As his earliest stomping ground, the Driggs Avenue neighbourhood made a deep, golden impression on Miller. He would refer to it throughout his life. "I never seem to exhaust the subject," said Miller in the New York Times article mentioned above. The article is essentially a nostalgic travelogue; I am in the process of making a map out of it, which will be posted soon.
The map below locates Driggs Avenue within the New York City-Brooklyn region. The house at 662 is between North First and Metropolitan Avenue ("North Second Street," back in Henry's day). A veternarian lived across the street, and next to him, a woman named Mrs. Omelio [spelled 'Mealio' in the Brooklyn directories] kept two dozen cats on the "flat tin roof over the veternary's stable." (Book Of Friends I, p. 20). Young Henry would watch her feed them from the third story window of his house (ibid).

At an angle from the house was Henry's favourite street, Fillmore Place, at which was the winning pair of a saloon and a kindergarten. Just a few houses away from 662 Driggs "were the shanties, two or three decrepit buildings right out of a Dickens novel" [1]. One of these was a candy store run by the Meinken sisters.

At left, Henry circa 1894-95 (photo from the Special Collections at UCLA Research Library).

Further south on Driggs, Miller saw his first motion picture at the Presbyterian Church near South Third Street, circa 1897-98. A few more steps and he would arrive at the Novelty Theatre at which he enjoyed the vaudeville experience (Miller talks about the theatres around Driggs Avenue in his chapter "The Theatre," found in Books In My Life [and partly excerpted at Item #237 here)].

Miller began referencing Driggs Avenue in his first novel, Moloch: Or, This Gentile World, using the very intersection of his childhood home as a setting. "By nine o'clock, by the corner of Driggs Avenue and North First Street, thinsg began to happen. Willy Maine wasn't the whole show. Silverstein, the tailor, generally crawled out of his scabby little shanty in shirt sleeves, his suspenders flapping between his legs..." [Moloch, p. 221]. Moloch walks down Driggs several times. He even refers to his cat-crazy neighbour (as "Miss O'Melio") on page 223.

Henry met his good friend Stanley Borowski while at Driggs Avenue, so, naturally Driggs is referenced in his Book Of Friends chapter on Borowski called "Stasiu." Miller says that Stanley's uncle ("a drunken brute") owned the barber shop on the ground floor of the house he lived in (p.10). The Brooklyn directory for 1897 shows a barber named John Borowski living at 674 Driggs, not 662. Stanley sometimes ran errands for "Mrs. O'Melio" (p.20).

On page 29 of Book Of Friends I, Miller describes his memories of Driggs Avenue as always being in "full sunshine." He describes a few visuals from the street, then talks about the interior: "There are two toilets in our house: one is in the garden and is just a plain, old-fashioned shithouse. The other is upstairs on our floor and has running water and a wick floating in a little cup of sweet oil to light when it is dark. My bedroom is just a cell with one window giving on the hallway. There are iron bars protecting it, and through the iron bars come most of my nightmares in the form of a huge bear or a fearsome monster out of Grimm's fairy tales."

In the 1970s, Miller once described his childhood home to Irving Stettner as being "like the only tooth left in a rotten jaw" (From Your Capricorn Friend, p.25). Indeed, others who have visited this still-standing house in Williamsburg over the past decade have described it as "elegantly run-down" (Village Voice) or "kind of a dump" (Waly Matkowsky, on the old Miller message board).

662 DRIGGS AVENUE in 2007 -
Good news: The New York Landmarks Conservancy has apparently put up funds to protect and rennovate Henry Miller's childhood home at 662 Driggs Avenue! According to details posted on the contracted architect's website (Cutsogeorge, Tooman & Allen), the 'Henry Miller House' on Driggs Avenue is currently undergoing some rennovation for the purpose of "preservation":

"The masonry of the front elevation had been coated, the cornice had been removed and replace with concrete masonry units. The existing storefront had been altered. Scope: Emergency brick wall stabilization in conjunction with a shoring contractor, full depth wall rebuilding including replication of stone sills and lintels, stabilization of wood structural members, replication of the cornice based on historic photographs, wood window replacement, restoration and re-glazing of the original copper clad storefront."

The photograph at left (and in the banner art) come from their website, and show the house as I assume it currently exists in its spruced-up state. Can an official plaque be far behind?


Anonymous Eric said...

Sweet! A Henry Miller house here on the east coast. It is almost unbelievable that NYC would take the time/money to restore this. I am stunned.

I found Wallace Stevens' house in Hartford, CT a couple years ago, but while I was taking pictures, the family who owned it came out and left for dinner or something. They did not seem amused.

9:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I went to this house this weekend, Saturday May 26, 07. Nothing has been done, no sign...nothing. I took a few snapshots that I posted on the Myspace Miller profile I manage for anyone that is a friend on there.

4:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Apt is for rent here..(

3:48 PM  
Anonymous William Apt said...

There are at least two other Miller residences in NYC: his birthplace on the Upper East Side and the place where he lived with June in Brooklyn Heights. I don't recall the addresses, but both can br found in Robert Ferguson's biography of Miller.

1:56 PM  
Anonymous said...

I completely agree with everything you have printed here.

11:15 AM  
Blogger beebe said...

I just moved to Williamsburg and knew HM grew up here. A little internet research quickly pointed me to 662 Driggs. I walked by yesterday and shot a photo. So glad to find this blog on the internet to back up what I saw yesterday. Cheers!

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