Volume 79, Number 28 | December 16 - 22 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Villager photo by J.B. Nicholas

The Jane hotel at Jane and West Sts.

Hotel goes from seamen to seamy to see and be seen

By Patricia Fieldsteel

NYONS, France — Last spring, friends in Berlin e-mailed asking if I’d heard about the hotel at the end of my street. Somehow, I knew they didn’t mean the Rue Balzac. And yes, I knew all about the goings-on at The Jane. In many ways, this was nothing new, but it set me to reminiscing.

The building was erected by the American Seamen’s Friend Society in 1907-’08, after the old sailors’ home at 190 Cherry St. was demolished to make way for the Manhattan Bridge in 1903. The land, known on the New York tax map as Lot 1, Block 642, was purchased for $70,000. William A. Boring, who co-designed the Federal Immigration Station at Ellis Island, was the architect of the majestic five-story redbrick and cast-stone neoclassical edifice that also contains a basement and partial sixth story. The exterior is still embellished with cartouches of anchors, wreaths, ropes and sea monsters. The building’s completion date is engraved in a stone-block cornerstone — March 19, 1909. Its round two-story watchtower at one time had powerful signal lights that appeared on harbor charts as one of a range of markers for ships navigating the North (today’s Hudson) River.

Olivia Slocum Sage — widow and heiress of the miserly multimillionaire industrialist Russell Sage, for whom she named her own philanthropic foundation — provided half the construction funding. Sage had a particular interest in helping sailors, and was also the niece of General Henry Slocum, namesake of the disastrous excursion boat that burned in the East River in 1904, leaving 1,000 dead. For several decades the society’s building welcomed merchant seamen, sailors and officers from all nations and served as a “safe haven” and temporary home for seamen “in distress,” permitting them often to stay for free.

At its completion, the hotel was said to be the largest and finest equipped building for seamen in North America. It contained a restaurant, bowling alley, swimming pool, interdenominational chapel (“The Church of the Sea”), separate officers’ and seamen’s billiard rooms, an auditorium/concert hall, extensive library, postal service, baggage room, seamen’s bank, laundry, cooperative clothing store, showers and reading, writing and lounge rooms. There were three different and separate classifications of lodgings. Firemen and sailors occupied 170 single berthlike rooms; officers and engineers, 32 well-appointed private rooms; and cooks and stewards slept in 24 beds in a dormitory. Officers’ quarters were 75¢ per night, seamen’s 25¢.

The location was not chosen by accident. This was the heyday of the North River shipping port and the area was filled with brothels, bawdy hotels and drinking and gambling saloons catering to down-and-out seamen visiting the port or “on the beach” (unemployed). Many were little more than indentured servants to some of the steamship lines, ignorant of how to conduct themselves on land, and frequently falling prey to disreputable characters frequenting the dives along the docks.

The American Seamen’s Friend Society hotel towered over the surrounding rickety structures, providing a powerful beacon and symbol of the higher moral lifestyle that could be lived in decent and comfortable surroundings. It was reported that nearly 16,000 seamen visited it in February 1909.

The hotel became internationally famous when it welcomed the surviving members of the Titanic’s crew for the first Titanic memorial service, held in the chapel on April 19, 1912, five days after the mighty ship was lost. The R.M.S. Carpathia had rescued passengers along with the 202 surviving crew members and had arrived at the White Star docks at Pier 54 at W. 13th St. during a torrential storm of thunder, lightning and fierce winds. The crew were then sequestered on the Red Star Liner Lapland and ordered to speak to no one about the Titanic. Eventually, they were shipped back to England as “D.B.S.,” “Destitute British Seamen,” entitling them to transport but not to their wages once their ship had sunk. The A.S.F.S. provided clothes, money, counseling and relief before their return trip. After the prayer service, at which they sang “Rock of Ages” and “Nearer My God to Thee,” the men were given coffee, sandwiches and cake.

By 1930, the building had become too small and a larger one was constructed at 550 W. 20th St. During the Depression and World War II, what became known as the Jane St. “annex” provided free beds and meals to impoverished seamen. In 1944, the YMCA took over the building and removed the watchtower, officially signaling the end of its link to the sea. Two years later, the Jane-West Corporation took charge, renaming the hotel the Jane-West, and housing down-and-out male transients. Mornings they would wend their way up Jane to Manley’s in the days when the shop sold cheap screw-top swill by the pint. By the ’60s and ’70s, when drugs became an epidemic, the hotel was a magnet for dealers and junkies, who would lurk outside.

In 1973, an East European concentration camp survivor, Israel Selzer, and his wife bought the Jane-West. Selzer wanted to make it an S.R.O. (single-room occupancy), but he needed a city permit to do so. Lenore Cahn (Zola) was then president of Community Board 2 and head of its Social Welfare Committee. She was in favor of the S.R.O. as a means for the poor and otherwise homeless to find shelter. The community went along with her. Selzer collected the men’s government checks, deducted the rent and gave them the remaining sum. The hotel continued to attract unsavory types, even if they weren’t actually living there.

The Jane St. Block Association, formed in the winter of 1970-’71, became increasingly alarmed about the increase of crime on the street — household robberies, car break-ins, muggings and assaults. Many blamed the city’s methadone ferryboat, the Gold Star Mother, which was moored at Pier 45 (the Christopher St. Pier) for the distribution of methadone to 550 heroin addicts. Most blamed the men of the Jane-West. A committee from the block association investigated. What they found was essentially a group of destitute alcoholics and mentally or physically ill men with very few addicts actually living inside the hotel, and no hard evidence to substantiate that the addicts from the Gold Star Mother were responsible. One hotel resident, a toothless former lion tamer, complained junkies and alcoholics stole his money. He became one of a group forming liaisons between the hotel, block association and Sixth Precinct.

As a goodwill gesture, the block association held winter coat, blanket and furniture drives and Christmas parties at the Jane-West. The parties were often attended by close to 200 neighborhood residents and a few hotel residents who generally sat off on the side in a group. This was my first encounter with the Jane Street Burghers, who then decided to invite the men to the monthly meetings in their homes. Some still insist everyone came away with a “warm feeling of community.” Joan Stoliar claimed women’s experiences were different. To the men of Jane-West, a woman saying hello on the street meant only one thing — a proposition — and female Jane Streeters were faced with having men they’d rather not see appear at their doors. Inviting the men into homes for meetings also meant they became a little too familiar with the houses’ contents. Burglaries went up. The meetings were moved to the Herzliah Hebrew Teachers Institute at W. Fourth and W. 13th Sts. and the men lost interest.

Then there was the Wolf Man, who howled for hours during the night, his baying so loud he could be heard outside on the street. What was remarkable about the Wolf Man was his ability to maintain his anonymity over the decades, even to the hotel’s residents. The Wolf Man and his howls persisted into the late ’80s/early ’90s and I used to shudder whenever I heard his anguished cries. 

There was also the Cat Lady. She dressed from head to foot in black and had ratty beehive hair with flecks of old glitter inside a large net. She walked, expressionless, on a slant, shuffling her feet, as if she were either in a heroin fog or heavily medicated. She’d had her teeth filed into sharp points like cat teeth and left the hotel around 5 p.m., slowly wending her way up Jane to her job sewing and repairing costumes for the Broadway musical “Cats.” One year, for around two weeks, she dressed all in white, even going so far as to paint her skin and face white.

Healthcare services on site at the hotel were radically curtailed by the New York City budget crisis of the ’70s, though the Visiting Nurse Service provided a nurse three afternoons a week and there was a part-time social worker. The First Presbyterian Church helped provide medical supplies, and Israel Selzer worked with them and the Jane St. community. The city and Red Cross began housing women there, which only exacerbated the already-dire circumstances of most residents. There were constant fights, screaming, blaring music. The police and Fire Department made nightly visits.

Selzer married his cleaning lady after his wife died. After his death, she tried to carry on, opening an art gallery and a restaurant. The auditorium was used for avant-garde theater productions beginning in the ’70s. I remember being electrified by a Mabou Mines performance of Beckett’s “The Lost Ones” with music by the still relatively unknown Philip Glass. The Theater for the New City moved there in 1973. Early plays by Harvey Fierstein, Barbara Garson and Romulus Linney were featured along with experimental dance and music. When T.N.C. moved to the East Village in 1977, the auditorium was renamed the Jane Theater. Its most famous production was the 1998 “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” which ran for several years. In 1986, RuPaul stayed in the tower; there is a hysterical video on YouTube detailing his visit, complete with ear-shattering creaky elevator and bare toilet on a platform just inside the front door.

By the 1990s, Mrs. Selzer had sold the hotel and it was renamed The Riverview. In the early ’90s, the top floor — the sixth — was a brothel, and a short-lived striptease club held forth one summer in the cellar. Although the Riverview billed itself as being an inexpensive, charming Greenwich Village hotel with an expansive view of the Hudson — in the hope of attracting unsuspecting tourists, especially from abroad — it remained little more than a flophouse with a scattering of decent long-term tenants.

In 2000, the building was designated an individual New York City landmark.

During the ’90s and 2000s, another significant change occurred. Buildings in the area surrounding the hotel that had once been factories, vacant or multifamily dwellings were converted to multimillion-dollar condos, co-ops and one-family townhouses. In an ironic way, this upswing helped pave the way for The Jane and its super-rich, though trashy crowd. The hotel was initially built to combat so much of what it has come to embody ever since the A.S.F.S. left. And the problems in each of its incarnations since have remained in many ways the same — sex, drugs, booze, blaring music, noise and maybe a little rock ’n’ roll.

A former longtime Jane St. resident, Fieldsteel currently lives in Nyons, France.

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