Places that Matter

Golden Swan Garden

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Decorative Jardinière urn, Golden Swan Garden, photo by Angela Garra, 2015
Decorative Jardinière urn, Golden Swan Garden, photo by Angela Garra, 2015
Golden Swan Garden, photo by Angela Garra, 2015
South entrance to the Golden Swan Garden, photo by Angela Garra, 2015
John Sloan, "Hell Hole," 1917
Urban oasis on the former site of a beloved dive bar
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Place Matters Profile

Written by Angela Garra for Place Matters and the Fall 2015 Local and Community History course of NYU's Archives and Public History Program

The Golden Swan Garden is a petite pocket park consisting of approximately half an acre of land on the southeast corner of West Fourth Street and Sixth Avenue. Completed in the winter of 2000, the park is a small retreat from a highly urbanized area. Although perhaps not the most visually arresting park in New York City, the Golden Swan Garden has great value as a pause point from the hustle and bustle of the West Village, and also for the legacy surrounding the property. The plot was formally the location of the Golden Swan Café, a dive bar known to frequenting patrons as the “Hell Hole.” Founded during the mid-nineteenth century, this quirky saloon became the stomping grounds of important neighborhood artists such as American playwright Eugene O’Neill and Ashcan School painter John French Sloan, as well as author and activist Mary Heaton Vorse and Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day. The history of the saloon helps to emphasize the changing nature of the New York City landscape, and how a once rowdy and raucous atmosphere can eventually be transformed into a peaceful sanctuary. 

The early founding years surrounding the Golden Swan site are not entirely clear. The bar may have been in existence as early as 1857, with a man by the name of John J. Worden as the proprietor. His association with a “porter house” at 36 Sixth Avenue is clearly indicated in the City Directories and he was connected with the building until at least 1871. Whether this was for the Golden Swan or a saloon that predated it is unknown.

The few years following Worden’s ownership of the saloon are equally unclear. A man named John McCrea was most likely the owner between the years 1878 and 1880, but it is unknown whether he held proprietorship for the entire gap between Worden and the final owner, Thomas J. Wallace. John McCrea’s name also appears in an 1878 article from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle regarding a robbery trial, in which William Stegen, a witness to the crime and an employee of McCrea, credits him as the proprietor of the Golden Swan.
Thomas J. Wallace, undisputably the most famous of the Golden Swan proprietors, is recognized as being the owner starting in at least the year 1888, to as early as 1872. Wallace was a former Irish prizefighter and many of the stories known today about the Golden Swan are believed as being during his time as owner. From at least Wallace’s reign as proprietor, the Golden Swan was considered to be a “Hell Hole.” So much so in fact, that it was nicknamed just that by its regulars. Filled with the stench of sour beer, the bar was known for attracting an undesirable crowd. The Hudson Dusters, an Irish street gang, made the Hell Hole their stomping grounds. Gang members, such as Kid Yorke, Goo Goo Knox, Rubber Shaw, Circular Jack and Ding Dong were regulars, often participating in burglaries and hijackings, as well as providing dirty work for local political organizations like Tammany Hall. The bar was regularly filled with former prisoners and gangsters, and often Wallace would get into physical altercations with patrons. He lived in the upstairs apartment over the Hell Hole from the end of the nineteenth century until his death in 1922. During this time, Wallace would descend into the tavern nightly to partake in whiskey shots in the front room.
The bar’s physical design was also an interesting concept. Being a corner lot property, patrons could either enter the building through the “front room” entrance, which was on the corner of Sixth Avenue and West Fourth Street, or on the east side of the building towards the rear. The front room, where women were prohibited, was furnished with wooden tables and benches, and the floor was covered in sawdust. A wooden sign hung above the doorway, decorated with a life-sized golden swan.
Even though it was a dive, the saloon had a charm and character that lasted through the years. Wallace had a collection of curiosities that he acquired at auction. The list ranged from a Swiss mechanical racing game, miscellaneous obscure foreign art paintings, and the stuffed remains of Consul, “the educated monkey.” Consul was a formally famous monkey in the early twentieth century that smoked cigars, ate with utensils, and traveled throughout Europe on tour. Consul's stuffed remains were situated at the end of the bar, dressed in a checked suit. He perpetually pointed to a sign that read, “No religious and political discussions or other objectionable language allowed on these premises.” At one point in 1907, Wallace acquired an unauthorized oil portrait of J.P. Morgan, which was quickly repurchased by a friend of the financer for nearly three times the original price, thus saving it from the disgrace of hanging in
such a disreputable joint.
Wallace’s rowdy and eccentric personality directly attributed to the distinct character of the Hell Hole. So much so, that when Eugene O’Neill wrote his famous play, “The Iceman Cometh,” his character Harry Hope was based entirely off of Wallace. Originally, an early draft of the play put Hope’s name as Thomas Wallace, but O’Neill changed it in his final copy. O’Neill was inspired by many of the Hell Hole’s patrons, and it is reflected in his choice of characters for “The Iceman Cometh.” The appeal to O’Neill and other inspiring artists was the chance to comingle with the different types of people outside of their world. The Hudson Dusters were known to socialize with O’Neill, and one member of the gang actually offered to
steal a coat for him on a particularly chilly day.
Besides O’Neill, other notables that made the Golden Swan their bar of choice were Mary Heaton Vorse, Dorothy Day, John French Sloan and Charles Demuth. The mysterious and bohemian atmosphere at the saloon allowed notable artists and writers to gather inspiration. Vorse is quoted as saying that the Hell Hole was “something at once alive and deadly, sinister. It was as if the combined soul of New York flowed underground and this was one of its vents.” John Sloan produced an etching of the interior of the bar in 1917, which features Eugene O’Neill in the upper right hand corner. Charles Demuth similarly painted “At the Golden Swan” in 1919.
In 1920, prohibition put a general end to the party at the Hell Hole. Although the bar remained open, it was difficult to acquire liquor. Wallace died in 1922, heartbroken from prohibition. The building was razed in 1928 during the construction of the Sixth Avenue subway. In 1935, a playground was opened on the lot. In the 1980s, the site was used a recycling center but was closed in the 1990s when the Department of Sanitation kicked off a large scale recycling program. In 1999, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani helped to transform the unused parcel of land into a garden. Completed in the winter of 2000, the garden features an ornate steel fence and a decorative jardinière urn, as well as ornamental Japanese dogwood, flowering dogwood, Serbian spruce, Saucer magnolia, Japanese maple, and Dawn redwood trees.
In addition to the added greenery, a memorial plaque and tablet honoring the Golden Swan Cafe are positioned within the garden. Two small benches are situated within the curved granite walkway, and allow for a passerby to sit and reflect about the changing face of the city. The impractical idea that a rowdy dive bar could one day become a tranquil spot in the concrete jungle that is New York City is a notion that’s worth pondering. The creation of these memorials allow us all to reflect on how the cityscape changes over time, and remembering the importance of these places that have passed on help us to recall who we were and consequently who we are now. The obscured significance of the Golden Swan Garden is what makes this place so extraordinary.
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