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BY T. SCHOEN | In 1879 the Tenement House Act was passed. The measure ensured that tenements were no longer built with their windows facing interior hallways, instead requiring that they face an open area, which could simply be the open air, or a courtyard.
As a result, numerous “reform houses” were constructed in this manner. Among the larger buildings constructed under the act’s provisions was Mills House No. 1, at 160 Bleecker St. Designed by Ernest Flagg, the building stands now as a refurbished relic from another time.
The squat building is plain white, for the most part, with tall, narrow windows occupying much of the exterior wall space. Directly above the entrance, the building is shallowly partitioned by an ornate arch, set below a circular window lined with decorative carvings.
The building, now an apartment complex called The Atrium, originally served as a home for the destitute. It featured 1,500 small rooms, each of which contained only a bed, intended for use only at night. A large, open courtyard was incorporated into the design, with many of the tiny rooms’ windows opening onto it.
The complex was complete with all the necessary facilities: a restaurant, a laundromat and various washrooms and sitting rooms. The building was intended by the owner to be run not as charity housing, but as a business — a hotel that made a profit, but also encouraged the homeless men staying there to find work, providing them with a chance to get their lives in shape.
Not long after its construction, in 1897, according to The New York Times, a man named Edward J. Epstein became the first suicide victim in the history of the building, ironically being one of the more well-off tenants staying there at the time.
Although the Bleecker St. building is known today primarily for its former use as a reform house and its current incarnation as an upscale apartment building, it also underwent a dark transitional period. After it had exhausted its use as a house for the unfortunate, it was renovated, and converted into a hotel, called The Greenwich, which was possessed of brief notoriety as a hub of crime in the neighborhood.
Fortunately, this reputation was short-lived, and the building was soon renovated again, transformed into the well-developed apartment complex that it is today, the expansive courtyard sealed over with skylights.
Today, the many former tiny rooms now converted into large apartments — sporting a bit more furniture than just a single bed — offer little to remind of what the complex’s original purpose had been.
Commercial tenants on its lower floors include the Poisson Rouge music club — where the former Life club used to be located — and a Duane Reade. Before Life, the club space was home to the famed Village Gate.
The former Mills House No. 1 is one of 500 buildings in the proposed South Village Historic District currently being advocated for by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. In 2009, New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission designated one-third of the proposed district, protecting about 250 buildings.