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Golden Swan Garden

If you’re ever strolling along Sixth Avenue near the West 4th Street subway station – perhaps you are on your way to Washington Square Park, or going to get “a slice” – you might pass a small spot of trees just on the uptown side of the basketball courts.

Photo courtesy of Ephemeral New York (click photo for source.)

Slow down! I urge you to spend a moment there. Read the sign posted on the fence. Step off the sidewalk and into the Golden Swan Garden, a small refuge of flowers and trees, on the site of the long-gone Golden Swan Café. Such an elegant and demure name, but don’t be fooled. The Golden Swan was known by its regular clientele as the Hell Hole.

The building that formerly stood on this site was built sometime in the mid-1800’s, and demolished in 1928 (for the construction of the Sixth Avenue subway underneath.) For most of its life it housed this saloon, once operated by a colorful character named Thomas Wallace, a former boxer. Regular clients at the Hell Hole included playwright Eugene O’Neill, a member of the nearby Provincetown Playhouse, and painter John Sloan.

O’Neill based characters in his play, The Iceman Cometh, on the people he encountered at the Hell Hole, including Harry Hope, based on Thomas Wallace. And Sloan made an etching depicting the interior space of this tavern, as well as a painting, The City from Greenwich Village, that includes the exterior of the building, and the also-long-gone elevated train.

john sloan
“The Hell Hole” by John Sloan, linked from The Bowery Boys (click for source)

When you step into the Golden Swan Garden, located just outside the Greenwich Village Historic District, try to imagine those good old days when cheap rents and numerous neighborhood dives attracted so many creative types – writers, painters, and musicians – who changed, even revolutionized their respective fields, and influenced everyone who followed them.  Try to imagine the rumble of the overhead el; the noisy, crowded, doubtless smoke-filled scene just teeming with that kind of on-edge excitement. Try to imagine life in New York, life in Greenwich Village in the early 1900’s. I think this is something that most of us have in our minds the way television and films present it to us. But when I step into the Golden Swan Garden, I feel the ghosts of that time; I imagine that dark, dank space and that creative energy in abundance. I lament what we have lost, but I am thankful for the masterpieces of Sloan, O’Neill, and others, that endure and take us back to their time.


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