Sunday, December 05, 2010

The Underground Life – Henry Street Basement: Part 1 - Location

“Henry Street joint – setting like a lunatic asylum, only worse.”
-- Henry Miller, c. 1928/1929 [1]
Some time during the winter of 1926/1927, Henry Miller moved into a Brooklyn basement apartment with his wife, June Mansfield, and her female companion, Jean Kronski. The exact address of this apartment has never been specified. Instead, it has been vaguely identified as being on Henry Street, near the corner of Love Lane. Their co-habitation was marked by several months of psychodrama that Miller would describe at the end of Sexus and throughout Nexus (with a parallel account in Crazy Cock). By summer 1927, the dank basement was abandoned, first by June and Jean, then by Henry, who, at age 35, had to endure a humiliating return to his parents’ home.

ABOVE: Excerpt from Henry Miller’s “Schema For Nexus” c. 1945-1950s [PBA Galleries]

LOCATION
Henry Street is located in Brooklyn Heights. Love Lane intersects with Henry Street, one block north of Pierrepont. Henry Street buildings number in the 160s south of Love Lane, and the 150s to 120s north of it (the 130s being midway between Love Lane and the next northern intersectiuon, Clark Street). I assume, then, that Henry and June lived within this property number range, as they’ve been described as living “one door down” from Love Lane [2] and “at Henry St. & Love Lane” [3]. Let’s say somewhere in the range of 134 -161 Henry Street.

ABOVE: A contemporary Google Street View of the intersection at Love Lane (left) and Henry Street.

WHICH BUILDING?
Before trying to guess which building they may have lived in, we need to figure out how much this intersection has changed since 1927. According to building construction dates provided by City Data, all buildings on the west side, north of Love Lane, from #150 – 156 (CVS Pharmacy), and south of the Lane (#160) existed in 1926. On the east side of this intersection, #139 – 161 existed in 1927, except for the apartment building at #155, which stretches all the way from Love Lane to Pierrepont, and eats up lot numbers 153-159—this was built in 1928. However, a 1925 photograph shows that the 1928 building had replaced a type of stone edifice that was unlikely to have a residential basement apartment, thus ruling it out (see April 1925 photo further below). By comparing old and new photos, it doesn't looked like much has changed. My conclusion? The building they lived in in 1927 still exists in some form on Henry Street.

CLUE #1: STOOPS
It's possible that the stoops we see on Henry Street today are the same as they existed in 1926. With this in mind, consider Miller’s description of the exterior of the apartment as he creeps up on it in Sexus: “I tiptoed into the areaway and looked for a gleam of light … I would go in upstairs by way of the stoop … I opened the door softly, walked to the head of the stairs, which were enclosed, and quietly, very quietly, lowered myself step by step. There was a door at the bottom of the steps” (p.497).

Then later: “I went up by the stoop, and slid lightly down to the hallway. Not a sound. I put my ear to the door of the front room and listened intently” (Sexus, 503). And in Crazy Cock: “It was noon when the three of them marched down the stoop …” (CC 153).

Based on these descriptions, it seems to me that the basement tenants had access to their apartment by walking up the stoop steps to the parlor floor, opening the front door into an enclosed vestibule area, then walking down a staircase that led to their front room door. However I interpret it, it’s clear there was a stoop. This rules out some of the apartment buildings on Henry Street without stoops.

CLUE #2: PROXIMITY TO LOVE LANE
Earlier, I had quoted a reference to the apartment being “one door down” from Love Lane. This phrasing comes from Mary Dearborn (Miller biographer) [2], not Miller himself, so I don’t want to get hung up on that as a literal description. However, Miller has described it as being “at Henry St. & Love Lane” [3]. As well, in Sexus, Miller phrases it like this: “… Love Lane, which was at the corner” (500). Also, when Henry takes a taxi home, he asks to be dropped off at Love Lane (Sexus 503). These details situate the basement apartment very close to Love Lane, and not to Pierrepont (which is close-by to the south), and not to Clark Street (which is a 2-minute stroll to the north of Love Lane).
CLUE #3: PROXIMITY TO LUTHERAN CHURCH
North from Love Lane, on the east side of Henry Street, almost all the way up to Clark Street, sits the German Zion Lutheran Church at 125-129 Henry Street. In Crazy Cock, the church is referenced in relation to their basement apartment, as being “[a] little way down the street” (135) – this again places them closer to Love Lane than to Clark. Most importantly, in Sexus, Miller locates the church as being “across the way” (498). Across. I take this an encouraging sign that the location of this church as an east-side landmark, logically places the Miller basement apartment across, on the opposite side: the west side. As Miller writes that the Lutheran church is “across the way,” he goes on to describe how it looks at night. The fact that he could see it in his view, suggests that it was on an opposite side from him ("across the way"). There was/is a Presbyterian church directly across from the Lutheran one, but this would not be in his view because it is on the same west side as him, and is therefore not mentioned.

To clarify, I'm not saying the Lutheran church was directly across from him, because he's also stated that it's "a little way down." So, across and a little way down.

ABOVE: This is a view of Henry Street in 1929, facing the east side, with the Lutheran church in the middle at #125. Since Miller describes this church as being “a little way down the street,” I would say you’d have to back away further than this camera position to be considered a “little way” and not just across the street.
Photo: New York Public Library Digital Collection.

So, with much speculation, I say we are looking for a house on the east side of Henry Street, with a stoop, in close proximity to Love Lane, and old enough that it was around in 1926/1927 when the Millers lived there.

Ok, now stick with me here, as I do something I admit is very subjective. Below is a view of what I would consider to be “a little way” from the Lutheran church, which I've marked with a yellow X. During the winter, which was the season for the scene quoted above from Sexus, Henry would have had a better view of the Lutheran church through the naked trees.

Below the "X" photo, is my view turning left, to face the west side.



Definitely some basement apartment entrances here. But where’s the stoop? Look to the left of the photo. Here it is below:

SPECULATIVE GUESS #1: 150 HENRY STREET
Here is a current view of 150 Henry Street (with the stoop), from Google Street View. It’s notable that this is closer to Love Lane than any other stoop on the street. Love Lane is two doors to the left (just out of frame). Another compelling clue: look at the doorway to the right of the person in the blue shirt, where stairs lead downward. Here’s a better view:


This gated passage is part of the 152 Henry Street building, but is along what would be the basement wall of 150 Henry Street (which you can see to the right of it). Perhaps windows for #150 exist, or existed, in this areaway? “I tiptoed into the areaway and looked for a gleam of light …" wrote Miller. Even the gate on this areaway offers a potential clue. Miller: “The thing was to sneak in while they were out, so that they couldn’t shut the gate in my face” (Sexus 495). [note: it’s possible he meant “gate” figuratively].

Click on this Flickr link to see a current photo of the heavy front door of 150 Henry Street. And here's a bit of history from the Brooklyn Historical Society about 152 Henry Street (with the areaway).

Hey, look, I’m just trying to fit some pieces together here. Your cynicism and scrutiny of this speculation is very much welcome. Some research that may help confirm or deny things: the basement apartment is said to have been a laundry business some time before 1926 [4], then became, in the 1930s, a "chop suey" joint [5].

It's also worth noting that (as you will see in the old photos below), there were lots of buildings with stoops on the west side of Henry Street, between 150 and 124 (#124 is opposite the Lutheran church). But the closer we get to the church and the further away from Love Lane, the more we stray from other existing clues.

SOME VIEWS OF THEIR STREET
Regardless my speculation about the exact location, it’s fair to look at period photographs of the stretch of Henry Street around Love Lane, and to know that these were the views that greeted Henry, June and Jean back in 1927.

ABOVE: Henry Street, east side, from April 1925. From the camera position,  I would say the photographer is standing just north of 150 Henry Street by 30 feet or so. Photo: New York Public Library Digital Collection.
ABOVE: View of Henry Street (1932), standing approximately in front of the stoops in the previous picture, facing north towards Clark Street, with the west side of the street in view (130s house numbers).
Photos: New York Public Library Digital Collection.
____________________________________________
REFERENCES
[1] Quote from Miller’s 1928/1929 Rosy Crucifixion notes, as provided by Karl Orend in his article, “Dear Ghost – A Few Fragments on Henry Miller’s Nemesis, Jean Kronski” (Nexus: Henry Miller Journal, Vol. 4 (2007), p. 210; [2] From Mary Dearborn’s Miller bio, Happiest Man Alive, p.106; [3] Henry Miller: “… cellar life at Henry St. & Love Lane.” From Miller’s unpublished Rosy Crucifixion notebook, as described by PBA Galleries. See my post, “Notes On Nexus”: ; [4] Henry Miller in Crazy Cock, p.77; [5] Martin, Jay. Always Merry and Bright, p. 308.

24 Comments:

Blogger Eric D. Lehman said...

Great work - another one to add to my Miller tour of New York that someday I will get to do...

11:52 am  
Blogger Rich T said...

Anais Nin, in one of her diaries, also says it became a chop suey joint. Wouldn't it show up in a city directory?

12:22 pm  
Anonymous Kreg said...

Very interesting to see the real location! I guess I had always considered the placement of the events in Henry & June's relationship at the intersection of Henry Street and Love Lane as more of a literary conceit than a real place.

9:01 pm  
Anonymous Michael Jones said...

I was looking through Volume 1 of Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal yesterday, and I came upon Amy M. Flaxman's photograph of the Henry Street address. In looking at it closely it doesn't seem to bare any similarity to RC's photogarphs, though maybe I'm wrong. But if I'm right, and taking it that RC's theories are more to the point, it has made me wonder how Amy came upon the picture that she gavem.

1:18 pm  
Anonymous Mike Harris said...

"Henry would have had a better view of the Lutheran church through the [winter season] naked trees"

Even better than that, your photos from the relevant period evidently show there were no trees along the road at all!

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