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West 4th Street Courts

Golden Swan Garden

This text is part of Parks’ Historical Signs Project and can be found posted within the park.

Situated on the southeast corner of the intersection of West Fourth Street and Sixth Avenue, this newly created viewing garden rests on what once was the site of the Golden Swan Café. A gilded life-size figure of a swan was perched outside the three-story brick building, which was constructed in the mid-1800s. The operator of the Irish saloon—known to regulars as the Hell Hole—was Thomas Wallace, a former prizefighter who also lived upstairs. Wallace died on the premises in 1922, but not before his tavern became the haunt of neighborhood artists and writers including the American playwright, Eugene Gladstone O’Neill (1888-1953).

As a member of the theater troupe the Provincetown Players, O’Neill was often at their playhouse on MacDougal Street and frequently dropped in to drink at the Golden Swan. In a 1919 letter to his first wife Agnes, O’Neill recounts a trip to the Hell Hole in the midst of the Prohibition era, where he says there was no whiskey at the time but sherry was still relatively cheap at 20 cents a drink. On hearing that a song by Lefty Louie, a Hell Hole bartender, would soon be performed on Broadway, O’Neill wrote, “I think all the hours seemingly wasted in the H.H. would be justified if they had resulted in only this.” His astute observations about human nature came to influence his many works and brought him widespread recognition on Broadway and around the world. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1936 and Pulitzer Prizes for four of his plays. In fact, the Golden Swan served as part of the basis for the setting of O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, first produced on Broadway in 1946 and later revived in 1956. With a cast including Jason Robards, this production was directed by Jose Quintero at Circle in the Square Theatre’s original location at Sheridan Square, not far from this site. The play’s main characters were modeled after people O’Neill knew and met at the saloon, including Harry Hope, based on real-life proprietor Wallace.

O’Neill was one of many writers, artists, intellectuals, and activists who were attracted to Greenwich Village, its cheap rent, and quaint brownstones in the early 1900s. It was here—nurtured in its sundry cafes, taverns, and restaurants—that a unique, revolutionary spirit of creative energy and freedom of thought blossomed and shaped the Village’s bohemian character. The Village’s first tearoom, called The Mad Hatter, once stood directly to the east of this garden at 150 West Fourth Street. The site of this garden was also inspiration for painter John French Sloan (1871-1951), who came to New York in 1904 and worked for some time as a freelance illustrator. With Robert Henri, he organized an exhibition of a group of urban realist painters, known as “The Eight” or the “Ashcan School,” who challenged traditional notions of art. Having moved to the Village in 1912, Sloan lived with his wife Dolly at 240 West 4th Street and at 88 Washington Place. He also had an eleventh-floor studio at 35 Sixth Avenue, a triangular building on the southwest corner across the street from this garden.

During a clandestine midnight picnic at the top of the Washington Arch in nearby Washington Square Park on January 23, 1917, Sloan and a group of actors and artists including Marcel Duchamp went so far as to declare Greenwich Village its own independent nation. The scene depicted in Sloan’s Arch Conspirators (1917) is one of his many works that give a glimpse of city life during his time. In 1917, Sloan also made an etching of the interior of the Hell Hole, in which Eugene O’Neill is portrayed sitting at a table in the upper-right hand corner. His painting, The City from Greenwich Village, includes a view of this corner, looking downtown toward the financial district, with the Sixth Avenue elevated train crossing the scene.

In 1928, the Golden Swan building was demolished for the construction of the Sixth Avenue subway. On June 8, 1934, by permit from the Board of Transportation, Parks was given jurisdiction over this parcel of land, and a playground was opened to the public here on October 14, 1935. The property was officially assigned to Parks by the Board of Estimate on August 27, 1953, and it is one of several small parks in the area that line Sixth Avenue—including the adjacent West 4th St. Courts, Minetta Green, Minetta Square, Minetta Lane Playground, Churchill Square and Charlton Plaza. Continuing in the innovative traditions of the neighborhood, the site was used as a recycling center in the 1980s. The Village Green Recycling Team held a champagne reception here on January 6, 1984 to kick off a program of collecting newspapers, glass, aluminum, and tin for recycling every Saturday. The recycling program ended with the advent of large-scale recycling by the Department of Sanitation in the 1990s.

In 1999, Mayor Giuliani contributed $80,000 for a Requirements Contract to begin to turn this formerly bedraggled open patch of asphalt and concrete into a garden. Council Member Christine Quinn allocated $158,000 in additional capital funding to complete the renovation of the garden, including the installation of new granite curbs, an ornamental steel fence, a toolshed and a jardiniere urn. Completed in winter of 2000, the garden also features bluestone and asphalt block paths, and a number of trees such as the Japanese dogwood ( Cornus kousa), Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), Serbian spruce (Picea omorika), Japanese maple (Acer japonica), Dawn redwood (Metasequora glyptostroboides), and Saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangiana).

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