Monday, September 10, 2012
Charlie Pfaff's Cellar: Setting the Stage
CHRONICLES OF CROTON'S BOHEMIA
In the early decades of the 20th century, the sleepy northwestern corner of
underwent a rapid transformation. After 13 years of construction, the
imposing New Croton Dam opened in 1905. It supplanted and submerged the former
Croton Dam dating from 1844 when the Croton Aqueduct first brought water to Westchester County New York City. Actually located in the town of Cortlandt, the
107-year-old New Croton Dam is well worth a visit. The second largest cut-stone
structure in the world after the Pyramids, this largely overlooked tourist
attraction never ceases to amaze and awe visitors.
real estate developer Clifford Harmon purchased a large section of the original
Van Cortlandt property in Croton from surviving Van Cortlandt descendants. Fresh from developing a new
community in Pennsylvania’s Upper Darby Township
outside of Philadelphia,
Harmon knew it would be easier to sell unimproved lots on the installment plan
than to sell completed houses.
The year before, Harmon had purchased a former farm outside of
Naming his planned development of this large parcel East
Lansdowne, he divided the land into lots priced between $160 and
$440, with $2.00 down and weekly payments ranging between $1.00 and $2.20. There were no taxes, no mortgages
and no interest for a year. By July of the following year, many lots had been
sold and 30 lot owners had already built homes.
Harmon was determined to repeat his
Pennsylvania success in Westchester.
In 1907, with lots tightly laid out on his hilly Croton terrain, he was ready
for customers. Advertising heavily in New
York City newspapers, he plastered his ads with copies
of telegrams from notable figures in opera and the theater and ran special
trains from the old Grand Central Terminal to the community he shamelessly
named Harmon-on-Hudson. In small type in his ads was the
word “restricted,” a common code word of the day indicating to would-be buyers
that certain types considered undesirable would be excluded from buying lots.
Aiding Harmon's sales pitch was news that the New York Central Railroad would be electrifying the main line all the way to Croton. This did not happen, however, until 1913, in conjunction with the opening of the handsome present-day Grand Central Terminal. Through the years, the eclectic collection of architectural styles that make up the Harmon community continued to grow, eventually acquiring its own post office, churches, volunteer fire department and shopping area.
An aviation pioneer, Clifford Harmon would later develop other Westchester communities including Pelhamwood,
and Shore Acres in Rye.
Incorporated in 1898, the
village of Croton-on-Hudson
annexed Harmon, and Oscawana in
1932. Loyalties die hard. Many older Harmon residents still stubbornly insist
on referring to their community as Harmon, not Croton. Mt.
Ralph Waldo Trine
At the same time seekers of cheap land were flocking to Harmon’s new development, the
Mt. Airy neighborhood just outside the
briefly attracted members of a religious sect called the New Thought Movement. village of Croton
Begun in the early 19th century, the movement included individuals who shared beliefs about such concepts as positive thinking, healing, creative visualization and the life force, all leading to personal self-knowledge and power. Many of its early founders and teachers were women. Best known of its members was prolific author Ralph Waldo Trine. His best-selling work, In Tune with the Infinite, was first published in 1897 and is still in print. Land was cheap, and Trine had an enormous appetite for land. After purchasing large sections of
Airy and attracting a small colony of
followers, he abruptly decamped for sunny California.
The stage was now set for the influx of bohemians, socialists, communists and anarchists who would travel north from Greenwich Village and create a bohemia in Croton at the beginning of the war in
Europe in 1914. Land—mostly hardscrabble
farms and apple orchards—was still cheap, and New York City was only an hour away by train.
To place Croton’s bohemia in perspective, an exploration of bohemia’s early colorful history is useful. "Bohemians" was a French term for gypsies, based on the mistaken belief that their original homeland was
The name was attached to the artists of the Latin Quarter of Paris in the 1840s--derisively
at first and later in envy. The romantic tales of French
writer Henri Murger about Paris’s left bank inhabitants, serialized in 1845 and
published in book form as Scènes de la Vie de Bohème in 1851, portrayed them as highly principled
individuals who rejected middle-class morality, had contempt for money and
practiced alternative work habits and domestic arrangements.
Henry Clapp, Jr.
The American who brought bohemianism to
New York City was a New England Yankee, Henry
Clapp, Jr. After having lived in Paris for
several years, Clapp arrived in Manhattan
in the mid-1850s and soon gathered a coterie of like-minded bohemians around
him. These included Fitz Hugh Ludlow,
one of the few native New Yorkers in his group. Ludlow wrote The Hasheesh Eater describing his cannabis use and portraying an active
drug scene here.
Women in Clapp’s group included independently wealthy writer Ada Clare from
Charleston. Known as the “Queen of Bohemia,”
she scandalized respectable citizens by sending editors verses about fiery
love. She also insisted on bringing her
illegitimate son Aubrey with her everywhere. Rumor had it that the child’s
father was Louis Moreau Gottschalk, a celebrated pianist, composer and
Another regular in Clapp's group was Walt Whitman, former editor of the
Brooklyn Daily Eagle. His outspoken Democratic
politics did not sit well with the paper’s conservative owners, and he soon found
himself out of a job. In 1855, Whitman self-published 800
copies of a slim book of his poems entitled
Leaves of Grass. Despite Whitman's strenuous efforts in reviewing and
promoting his book, readers found it scandalous. It sold only a few hundred
Whitman was forced to return to journalism in 1857 and became editor of the
Brooklyn Daily Times. In 1858 Clapp founded the New York Saturday Press, a weekly with a
radical approach to art and politics that touted new American writing,
particularly Whitman’s robust work.
Charlie Pfaff’s Cellar
The Clapp group found a watering hole when rotund Charles Pfaff, a German Swiss immigrant, opened a basement beer cellar and restaurant at 653 Broadway, just north of
Street. Modeled after the rathskellers
popular in Europe, Pfaff's establishment
offered what was arguably the best coffee in town plus hearty German beers,
fine wines and imported cheeses. Beneath the sidewalk at the far end was a
vaulted "cave," illuminated from above by daylight filtered through small
glass inserts in the sidewalk. Here Pfaff installed a long communal table
reserved for Clapp’s group. Whitman called Charlie Pfaff “a
generous German restaurateur, silent, stout, jolly and I should say the best
selector of Champagne in America.”
Constantly troubled by financial problem, Clapp’s weekly suspended publication during the Civil War and did not resume until 1865. The following year Clapp published Mark Twain’s classic story about the jumping frog of
. Whitman would leave Calaveras
County New York in 1862 for Washington to work in Union hospitals. Charlie
Pfaff’s building was demolished in 1870, and he moved his restaurant uptown.
Poverty-stricken Henry Clapp died in an asylum on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island) in1875.
The forthcoming series on Croton’s bohemia will explore some of the fascinating radical personalities of the early 20th century and their legacies--too often overlooked in today’s humdrum world.