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Paradise on 13th Street

Molly Crabapple

Spain Restaurant and Bar; illustration by Molly Crabapple

When Spain Restaurant and Bar closed in 2020, prompted by the health risks the pandemic posed to its owners, the Village lost one of its last signifiers of a bohemianism that had in fact been dead a century. Spain was not known for exquisite food, a refined atmosphere, manicured space, or chipper service. But there were alternative virtues: a warm interior, an enviable spot on leafy West 13th Street, an array of free tapas contingent only on the purchase of an Estrella Galicia or a favorably priced house wine.

Its proprietors—the stately Luis Marques, invariably dressed in a tart-red dinner jacket with a wide black lapel, and Julio Diaz, who wore a black tie and white shirt tapered just above the elbow and a watch on his left wrist—were gruff and comforting guardians. They set up shop on the townhouse’s ground floor in the 1960s and purchased the building several years later. The restaurant advertised its name on a canopy, in the style that still adorns a handful of nearby venues, like Gene’s (West 11th) and Villa Mosconi (MacDougal). A splintered and illuminated display case, the kind that often holds nativity scenes, offered passersby a menu flanked by press clips and a dime-store American flag.

The front room, a brick, low-ceilinged den decorated with clocks, photographs, and an assortment of haphazardly mounted paintings—a fading portrait of a bearded knight, a study of a Sevillian bell tower—was the bar. Currency from Turkey, Guyana, Ecuador, Barbados, Spain, Mexico, Argentina, France, Trinidad, and the Cayman Islands was plastered across a large panel. A rounded thick-railed wooden counter separated customers from the bartender, who doled out glasses of sangria and beer on paper Modelo-brand coasters, even though Modelo was not on offer. Along the opposite wall were a few tables in red. The peculiar back room—where white-clothed tables lined the perimeter and marble nymphs (were they naiads?) stood between paintings of English ports and a pair of African masks—was for dining.

In Spain’s last years Diaz performed much of the legwork, resolutely ambling in his gently hunched way from kitchen to bar to table and back, carrying drinks, coasters, and plates of cocktail meatballs, fried potatoes in hot sauce (patatas bravas pushed to absolute simplicity), or—by luck or design, patrons never knew—an offering of the extended menu that emerged upon the purchase of successive drinks, the higher-tier options including a slice of Spanish tortilla or, rarer still, a platter of pork riblets. After delivering the check, always peremptory, Diaz would clear the table with a crumb sweeper. In occasional quiet moments one could find him near the back of the bar, spearing plates of meatballs with toothpicks, or squatted on a stool, calmly surveying the room and waiting for the kitchen’s bell to ding.

Off the hallway between the two main rooms was the kitchen, where cooks lined up plates of prepared dishes; a wooden cellar door; a smaller lounge for bar patrons, usually emptier; and a bathroom, where flushing the toilet demanded an aggressive technique (six to eight motions usually did it). A desiccated bar of soap congealed to the sink never left one’s hands feeling particularly clean.

Spain was popular among the city’s media workers (a New York Times metro beat profile made the restaurant’s display case), but it also attracted tourists, local intellects, and a handful of neighborhood regulars associated with the nearby Spanish Benevolent Society, the heart of what was once “Little Spain.” Perhaps its most reliable patrons were the graduate students who made the restaurant an after-hours colloquium on art, theory, and politics over scores of drinks. The New School philosopher Simon Critchley recalled adopting the bar in the mid-2000s after his department’s regular post-seminar venue, the legendary Cedar Tavern, shuttered. (Diaz and Marques came to call him “Professor.”) “You could stretch out an evening at Spain,” he told me, “which for the students was great because it gave them the impression of being able to afford to go out in New York.” Critchley once brought in the philosopher Jacques Rancière after an event they’d given on the state of critical theory. Judith Butler declined to join them, and Rancière—before Critchley could intervene—ordered the paella. “Jacques was not impressed.”

Spain was not the last of its kind. (See, for instance, La Nacional, housed by the Benevolent Society on 14th Street, or Sevilla on Charles Street. Writing about the latter in 2015, the critic Robert Sietsema called Spain “not quite as old” but “twice as decrepit.”) And yet there was little replicable about its appeal. This had to do not only with its age but also with the oneiric haze that came over one upon stepping into the restaurant’s back room—an impression of the space’s bygone life.

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The townhouse that Spain occupied is around 180 years old, an example of the Greek Revival style common to Greenwich Village’s historic district, of which that block—13th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues—belongs to the northern edge. Most of the surrounding structures also date to the mid-1840s, when Irish and German immigrants flooded the city as the United States pulled itself out of a depression—compounded in New York by the collapse of a still-nascent speculative housing market. Three-story dwellings, more efficient given Manhattan’s rising land prices, were by then replacing the two-story houses then standard for New York’s affluent neighborhoods.1

The first notable occupant of 113 West 13th Street was Henry Jarvis Raymond, a young Whig journalist. Within a year of its construction, he and his wife, Juliette, began raising their first son in the building, “one of a row of high-stooped, red-brick houses that stretched west from Sixth Avenue,” in his biographer’s words, where Juliette “arranged her furniture and treasured her white and gold wedding china with its monogram of gilt.”2 A few years later Raymond moved down the block and helped found The New York Times, then the Republican Party not long after.

In the second half of the century, the Village transformed. The area had been a home to black tenants since the mid-1600s, when a small number of partially free slaves became property owners under the regime of the Dutch West India Company. (They made annual payments to the company, and their children remained enslaved.) By the 1850s most of the neighborhood’s black residents were concentrated in a handful of blocks around Minetta Street once known as “Little Africa” and by racist epithets to the police, who enforced the color-line politics of the housing market. Gradually they found themselves subjected to escalating segregation and pushed uptown by the arrival of Italian, Irish, and then Jewish immigrants.3

One bohemian epoch came and went, exemplified by the carousing at Pfaff’s beer cellar, where Walt Whitman worked on Leaves of Grass in the late 1850s. During the first decades of the next century, a new socialist radicalism emerged downtown. The Village, as the editor Malcolm Cowley recalled in his memoir Exile’s Return (1934), synthesized the revolts against puritanism and capitalism; in these years, “Bohemians read Marx and all the radicals had a touch of the bohemian.” John Reed and Emma Goldman, two of the moment’s avatars, rallied around labor issues—Reed from a communist perspective and Goldman from an anarcho-feminist one—and partied and romanced with abandon. But in Cowley’s view the trials of World War I and its conscription, which forced the rebels to pick sides, undid many of the revolutionaries. “After the war the Village was full of former people,” he wrote:

There were former anarchists who had made fortunes manufacturing munitions, former Wobblies about to open speakeasies, former noblewomen divorced or widowed…former aviators and soldiers of fortune, former settlement workers, German spies, strike leaders, poets, city editors of Socialist dailies.

The building’s formative tenant in the first half of the twentieth century, the modern art gallerist Edith Halpert, arrived in the Village in the 1920s, the epilogue to the neighborhood’s golden age.4 (By then, Cowley wrote, “people were talking about the good old days of 1916.”) Born in 1900, she fled antisemitic violence in Odessa and at eighteen married the painter Samuel Halpert in New York. Twelve years later she divorced him, having in the meantime made enough money in her job managing bond campaigns to devote herself to the business of art. In 1926 she cobbled together $40,000 to purchase the townhouse at 113 West 13th, which would accommodate, on its ground floor, the Downtown Gallery, a home to avant-garde painting and sculpture. Here Halpert made her name as the gallerist-manager of first-wave modernists including Stuart Davis, Ben Shahn, Niles Spencer, and Yasuo Kuniyoshi. The gallery would last nearly fifty years, fifteen of them in the space on 13th Street.

The same year that Halpert bought the townhouse, Floyd Dell, editor of the short-lived socialist magazine The Masses, lamented that the Village had devolved into “a side-show for tourists, a peep-show for vulgarians, a commercial exhibit of tawdry Bohemianism.” Halpert was undoubtedly part of the sideshow. At that time, art was still uptown; where better to advertise the new lines and colors of Bohemia than its birthplace? She wanted, she said, to “enable all to possess works of art.” That might have seemed an egalitarian goal, but her business depended on an affluent clientele. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, the collector soon to cofound New York’s Museum of Modern Art, became one of her crucial patrons.

Some vestiges of Village radicalism survived. The headquarters of the new Communist Party of America sat blocks from Halpert’s gallery; the writer John Strausbaugh, in his history of Greenwich Village, describes Red-scared newspaper editors rejecting articles around this time for being “too Thirteenth Street.”5 Halpert believed that many of the Downtown Gallery’s early visitors wandered in hoping to discover a clandestine bar, and the gallery did for a time host an animated salon, which Halpert scrapped after its emcee, Ford Madox Ford, attempted to invite the firebrand Ezra Pound. (According to Halpert’s biographer, Lindsay Pollock, Pound’s fascist inclinations proved to be a bridge too far.) Rockefeller seemed to want in, too. One afternoon, Pollock relates, she convinced Halpert to bring her to a speakeasy only to flee on the threshold, overcome by the thought of an item in the New York Daily Mirror.

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Abby Rockefeller’s resources and connections helped the gallery expand. In the late 1920s Duncan Candler, who had undertaken projects for the Rockefellers in New York and Maine, offered to design an addition to the building. Together he and Halpert planned a new 740-square-foot exhibition space, distinguished by an enormous skylight, to be constructed in the townhouse’s backyard. They called it the “Daylight Gallery.”

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Rent in Manhattan was meanwhile rising; as John Taylor Williams details in his recent book The Shores of Bohemia, scores of artists relocated from the Village to Truro, Wellfleet, and Provincetown in the outer reaches of Cape Cod.6 Art was increasingly identified as a weapon in the class struggle by critics, sculptors, and painters, some of them former illustrators of the early decades’ leftist little magazines. In the early 1930s, the scholar John X. Christ has shown, Halpert was trying to expand the public understanding of what kind of artist was fit to represent the movement of “American Scene” painters: not just regionalists and social realists but also a newer camp who were testing the limits of representation, if not always entirely eschewing it.7

Some of Halpert’s clients followed surrealist or flat-out abstractionist impulses. She gave several important solo shows to Kuniyoshi, a Japanese-American painter who retooled the American folk art tradition with elastic renderings of cows and country landscapes. She represented the early Cubist painter Max Weber, as well as the sculptor-painter William Zorach; a Zorach watercolor became one of her first major sales, to Rockefeller. Others, like the painters Jacob Lawrence and Shahn, remained drawn to explicitly political subjects. The 1932 Downtown Gallery exhibition of Shahn’s gouache Sacco and Vanzetti portraits gave him his first taste of critical and commercial success. In 1941, a year after it moved to midtown, Halpert’s gallery premiered Lawrence’s dramatization of the Great Migration in sixty angular scenes—the first time, it is said, that a mainstream New York gallery represented a black artist. Halpert also made the career of the painter Stuart Davis, giving him nine solo shows between the late 1920s and early 1960s. Davis, known for wildly colorful jazz-powered geometries like “Swing Landscape” (1938), produced under the WPA, became an early master abstractionist. In a 1935 essay he described the relation between painters and their public:

The artist finds himself without the meagre support of his immediate past and he realizes now, if not before, that art is not a practice disassociated from other human activities.… Looking about him, he sees sharp class distinction, those who have, and those (the great majority) who have not. He recognizes his alignment with those who have not—the workers…. A work of art is a public act, or, as John Dewey says, an “experience.” By definition, then, it is not an isolated phenomenon, having meaning for the artist and his friends alone. Rather it is the result of the whole life experience of the artist as a social being.

For all the radicalism of the artists she championed, Halpert declined membership in leftist organizations and rarely discussed politics—“never mentioning them in letters to clients,” in Pollock’s words, “and only rarely to artists.” She sometimes muted the urgency of her artists’ work, as in the press release for Shahn’s Sacco and Vanzetti series. “What his sympathies were in this much discussed episode is not relevant,” she wrote. “It is of significance, however, that he interpreted the major events with passion, keen understanding, and a careful study of the material on hand.”8

Her job was to mediate between poor artists and rich buyers, but those groups were hardly blind to each other. The painters knew that their avant-garde, as the critic Clement Greenberg suggested, was hitched by an “umbilical cord of gold” to the tastes of the ruling class. Patrons like Rockefeller, for their part, appreciated that investing in the avant-garde might insulate them from anticapitalist scrutiny. In 1932 she’d considered buying Shahn’s Sacco and Vanzetti series in its entirety. “Comes the Revolution,” she reportedly said, “I can fill the windows with these, and the House of Rockefeller may survive.”

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The postwar Village scene benefited from the expanding New School, which housed a group of émigré intellectuals that included Erich Fromm, Rudolf Arnheim, and Karen Horney—the “storm troopers of humanism,” as Anatole Broyard called them. In a series of 1950 dispatches for the New York Post, Mary McCarthy—who had spent much of the previous decade away from the city, often on the Cape—wrote that the Village had become a place “where young people throng for a few years before settling down to ‘real life,’ where taxis full of tourists pursue the pleasure-principle outside of ordinary time, as on a steamer.”

In these years Halpert fought at times to keep her business afloat. In the face of mounting debts, she left 113 West 13th Street in 1940 for a series of midtown venues, and in the middle of the decade her old building fell into the hands of a lawyer named Charles Hiesiger. Under his ownership, the space that had been the Downtown Gallery operated for a number of years as an Italian restaurant called Fred Chiaventone’s.

To people just coming to New York, the local cultural swings of the late 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s—the euphonies of bebop and Beat poetry, the caustic reductions of the second-wave abstract painters, the analytic improvisations of the Judson Dance Theater—seemed to augur another goodbye to a utopian past. Michael Harrington, who would soon become one of the country’s preeminent socialist organizers, arrived in the Village in 1949, when the popular places to congregate and drink included the San Remo, the Café Bohemia, the Cedar Tavern, and the White Horse, where the moldering dipsomaniac Dylan Thomas held court. Harrington later wrote of having “encountered Bohemia in about the one hundred and twentieth year of its existence and on the eve of its death. Bohemia could not survive the passing of its polar opposite and precondition, middle-class morality.” Perhaps, by packaging modern art for the rich, Halpert had contributed to its demise. “Once businessmen started hanging nonobjective art in the boardroom,” he concluded, “Bohemia was deprived of the stifling atmosphere without which it could not breathe.”

By the late 1940s abstract art had become a weapon in the cold war. Under the pretext of cultural diplomacy, the state department organized mass touring exhibitions of American art. These presentations prominently featured Halpert’s artists, including Shahn, Kuniyoshi, Zorach, and the painter and photographer Charles Sheeler, though public outcry about the artists’ Communist histories, exacerbated by a disdain among many Americans for abstract art, cut several shows short. (Harry Truman called an early international exhibition “merely the vaporings of half-baked lazy people.”) The grandest of these displays was the 1959 American Exhibition in Moscow, which featured jazz, color television, IBM computers, Pepsi, and—in a remote corner—American painting. No one loomed larger in the show’s catalog than the onsite curator, Halpert, who had exhibited nearly two dozen of the painters in her own space.

A month before the show was set to mount, HUAC protested the selections of the Moscow exhibition committee on the grounds that they included artists with radical sympathies. President Dwight Eisenhower, an amateur painter, publicly criticized one of the more risqué picks: an unflattering depiction of an American general by Jack Levine, whom Halpert had given a one-man show on 13th Street two decades earlier. The following day Halpert gave an audacious comment to the Times: “Some people think the President’s paintings aren’t so good either.” The irony was that by this point, the State Department had been quietly deploying modern art to diplomatic ends for years. In Moscow, where the Soviets regarded abstract painting as the foaming expression of a sybaritic bourgeois consciousness, Halpert was also obliged to defend her painters, arguing that the government ought to be showing them off. They were, she wrote to a State Department official, “the visual symbol of freedom of expression in the countries where this is imperative.”9

A few years after she returned from Moscow, Halpert moved the Downtown Gallery a final time, to the Ritz Tower on Park Avenue, a long way from Bohemia. Her first property, meanwhile, was in the throes of a bitter legal dispute among the heirs of Charles Hiesiger, the lawyer who’d purchased it after the war. They finally offloaded the townhouse in 1972, presumably with some relief, to the young proprietors of Spain.

Julio Diaz and Luis Marques had grown up in the province of Galicia. Their new venture was a stone’s throw from the stretch of 14th Street that anchored “Little Spain,” but in the following decades, as soaring Manhattan rents sundered ethnic neighborhoods, the community waned. In the late 1980s Casa Moneo, a beloved specialty-goods grocery dedicated (in its owner’s words) to “satisfying the Latin sweet tooth,” closed after nearly sixty years in business. El Faro, a Greenwich Street restaurant with literary lore and creature comforts comparable to Spain’s, folded in 2012. By then the membership of the Benevolent Society had dwindled from its 1950s peak of seven thousand to fewer than ten people. Like that of so many holdouts, Spain’s charm resided partly in what it had withstood.

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In 1962 the Smithsonian’s oral history program initiated a series of interviews with Halpert. She reminisced about her enterprising career, including the construction of her original space on 13th Street. In those interviews lie some of the secrets to Spain’s back room, where visitors saw, if they looked up, a bulky tarp spread over the ceiling: the shrouding of what had been the Daylight Gallery’s sky-pane. The far corners of the room were cut into sculptural niches; having once held modernist works, at Spain they were filled with imitation Greek statuary. A more precious remnant of Halpert’s day, a carving of two resting nudes by the sculptor Duncan Ferguson, adorned the dining room’s interior doorway.

Other traces remained—perhaps still remain—out of sight. In 1930 Halpert published a monograph of Weber’s paintings. The book undersold, and she was stuck with the remainders. Storage proved expensive, so during a renovation of the Daylight Gallery, Halpert used sheetrock to seal a few hundred copies of the book into two recessed portions of a back wall. By the time she left the building in 1940 she had forgotten about them; a nightmare years later resurfaced the memory, and she attempted to reclaim the packages. The tenant at the time, the sculptor Peter Grippe, told her that the landlord wouldn’t allow him to rip out the walls. “The books are still there,” she surmised in 1962, “unless the building has been torn down.”

In 2021 Diaz and Marques sold the building, at a wild profit, to a real estate company that flips properties in Soho and Southampton. The current owners are apparently interested in retaining the ground floor as a restaurant. The next inhabitant will presumably gut the space, but one hopes some of its signatures will endure.

The day before my last evening at Spain, the World Health Organization declared a pandemic; the one that followed, a travel ban went into effect. Four other patrons sat at the bar when I arrived to wait for friends, but within an hour it had cleared out, leaving me, Diaz, and a young bartender. A Spanish verse set to the tune of “Loch Lomond” played while the bar’s televisions showed virus updates.

“We still talk about trying to find the new Spain,” Critchley told me. “It’s not happened yet, and I don’t think it will happen. And it’s a great pity.” The last time I walked by the building, this past spring, it was in disarray. A planter was filled with trash bags; a light fixture on the canopy lacked a bulb. Lottery tickets, fast food containers, and empty marijuana bags were strewn around the entryway. Someone had graffitied on the front window of the bar, now boarded up, the word “HOMESICK.”

A year before she mounted the American Exhibition in Moscow, Halpert returned for the first time to Odessa. She’d left her birthplace a city of horrors, wracked by decades of pogroms. It had been, too, a glorious port metropolis, a Jewish intellectual haven, a sprawl of bustling teahouses and cafés—in the words of her biographer, an “oasis of cosmopolitan splendor.” In the Smithsonian’s oral history, Halpert recalled visiting the building where she’d lived as a child. The structure had changed little, but over a half-century something of its animating spirit had dissolved: “The thing that hurt was that as I stood there, I waited for something to happen—you know, there was no nostalgia, no sentiment—just rubble.”

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