If These Walls Could Talk: NYC's Apotheke
By Kathleen Squires
November 27, 2013
If the walls in restaurants and bars could talk, what stories would they tell about the people who passed through and the events that occurred there over time? Like an old, venerable relative, they can be full of fascinating, quirky, and sometimes sordid tales of the past. In our monthly series, we uncover some of those intriguing histories.
Apothéke, one of NYC’s most transporting cocktail bars, is tucked below a tenement building on the bend of the quiet, one-block Chinatown street. Uncertain patrons navigate stairs into the basement, before emerging into a dark space where absinthe cocktails are the specialty of the house. And while Apothéke plays up its clandestine vibe, revelers today have little worries of getting mugged, or worse, when they leave the venue. Doyers Street was once known as the murder capital of Manhattan, after all.
But the building at 9 Doyers Street did enjoy charitable beginnings. Erected as a humble dwelling, like many others on the Lower East Side in the 19th century, the building was used in the 1880s as a temporary home for local tenants evicted from overcrowded neighboring tenements, as part of the housing reform movement spearheaded by New Yorkers like photojournalist Jacob Riis.
In 1893, the ground-level and basement space, along with neighbors at 5 and 7 Doyers Street, became the home to the Chinese Concert and Theatrical Company, New York City’s first Chinese Language theater. The space was controversial to the non-Asian locals, as they were known for giving performances on Sundays - illegal at the time. In 1895, the New York Times reported that eight actors were arrested in costume one night for violating the Sunday law; owner Chu Fong immediately filed a complaint, not only with the police commission, but with President Theodore Roosevelt, claiming that he was being persecuted and that the police, and the law, were interfering with “religious services.” Fong won.
Just after the turn of the century, however, the quaint and exotic bend became known as the “Bloody Angle,” because of the many shootings and hatchet murders during the gory Tong Wars of Chinatown gangs. According to the New York Times, “Law enforcement officials say that more people have died violently at Bloody Angle, the crook of Doyers Street, than at any other intersection in America.”
“They chose to fight on Doyers Street to avoid all of the spirits and ghosts, because the belief was that spirits and ghosts can only fly in a straight line,” says Apothéke owner Heather Tierney. “So they would be able to at least steer clear of them, if not the rival gangs, on this angle.”
Even patrons inside the theater weren’t safe from the gang violence: In August 1905, three Tong members were killed inside the theater, during a shootout which sent the crowd of 400 into a panic. Tierney says a rabbit warren of tunnels, used as an escape, still exist underground from those days. “During the Tong wars, people would flee into the tunnels just two doors down from where Apothéke is in order to get to their apartments on the Bowery. You can still go down in these tunnels today,” she explains. “There are a bunch of little shops down there—spice shops, an acupuncture place, a little travel agency. There's a notary guy down there I always go to.”
The theater stayed until 1911, when the building was converted yet again into The Rescue Society’s Midnight Mission for the homeless. Yet the violence in the Bloody Angle raged on, well into the 1930s.
During those times, the basement space morphed into a full-on opium den. “We found some old photographs of the place when it was an opium den,” Tierney says. “That led to our thought about serving absinthe. Absinthe is kind of like the later-day opium.”
There's little documentation about how long the drug-induced days lasted, but by the time Heather and her brother Christopher took over in 2008, it had been a Chinese restaurant called Golden Flower Restaurant for at least two decades. “It was a Chinese restaurant by day and then at night it was a karaoke bar,” Heather says. “Before that it been a restaurant for a long time. At one point, it was a chop suey house, in the '40s. We found this really cool photograph of these men in these black trench coats and these fedora hats going into this chop suey house.”
When the Tierneys renovated, they didn’t find any old bottles of absinthe or vials of opium buried within the walls. They did, however, tear down several layers of old plaster to unearth the gorgeous tin ceiling that is in place now. That set the tone for the rest of the décor, with absinthe-green walls and light sconces filled with opium-like herbs. There’s even a cocktail called The Deal Closer, that’s been on the menu since Apothéke’s opening in 2008. It’s made with an aphrodisiac herb that the Tierney siblings get from the spice shop down in the neighboring tunnels. Opium not included, of course.