Up in the Fulton Ferry Hotel

Students of New York’s literary history ought to be familiar with our latest location, the Fulton Ferry Hotel, at 92 and 93 South Street on Schermerhorn Row. Joseph Mitchell, author and chronicler of the five boroughs’ extraordinary ordinary citizens, immortalized the building in his 1952 New Yorker story, “The Cave,” later titled, “Up in the Old Hotel.”

If you haven’t read the story I won’t spoil it for you. All you need to know is that Joseph Mitchell, a habitué and student of the Fulton Fish Market, was eating at Sloppy Louie’s restaurant on the ground floor of the old hotel, when Louis Marino, the owner, mentioned the abandoned floors of the building. The ever-curious Mitchell offered to venture upstairs with Marino to see what was there.

Fast forward to the 1980s, thirty years after Mitchell’s and Marino’s visit. The South Street Seaport Museum by then occupied Schermerhorn Row. One day, the museum bookstore manager, Jack Putnam, discovered a doorway that lead to the forgotten floors of the old Fulton Ferry Hotel. There, Mr. Putnam found the spaces in much the same condition they were in when Mitchell and Marino explored them all those years ago.

Now Jack Putnam is the South Street Seaport Museum’s historian. Occasionally he leads tours of the upper floors of the old hotel, but visitors are rare. The artifacts that remain – century-old wallpaper, delicate plaster, and rickety wooden planks – are too fragile to allow frequent foot traffic.

A few weeks ago, on a bitter January day, Mr. Putnam invited us on a tour of the old hotel, which the South Street Seaport Museum allowed us to film.

As a fan of Joseph Mitchell’s work, the visit was made especially moving when Mr. Putnam recounted how he invited the aging writer back to the old hotel for a final visit, shortly before Mitchell passed away.

View a gallery of odds and ends Joseph Mitchell collected from the Fulton Fish Market

–Daniel Ross, Producer

This episode wouldn’t have been possible without much help from Jack Putnam, Christine Modica, the South Street Seaport Museum, Nora Sanborn, Shane Kelly, the David Rumsey Map Collection, and the Library of Congress. Hat tip to Saul Austerlitz of The New York Times, whose lovely July 2008 piece about the old hotel introduced me to Jack Putnam. And of course, thank you, Joseph Mitchell, for preserving in your writing a New York that has become, as Rem Koolhaas once wrote, “a city replaced by another city.”