If it hadn't been for Karen, the mailperson, I still wouldn't know about The Muffin House and its importance to history and to my block, West 20th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. I was walking west on the north side of the street last week when I spotted Karen's cart and decided to wave at her inside. Through the window in the door she signaled she was just coming out. I signaled I'd wait.
I get a kick out of talking to Karen. Much of the banter is about her arthritis, but her attitude towards it is better than mine would be had I the knee problems she has. So since chatting with her is always entertaining, I figured I'd wait a minute or two. It was while I was cooling my heels that I noticed a plaque on the facade that had never previously caught my eye.
"The Muffin House," it said in smart bronze letters. It also said the building had been built as a foundry in 1850 and that it had become the home of Samuel Bath Thomas (1855-1919), who converted the foundry equipment into ovens where he began baking--wait for it!--Thomas' English Muffins.
Oh, yes, in the nooks and crannies that are 337 West 20th Street are the equipment--or some of it--that was the origin of the world's most famous English muffins. But why, you ask, are they called English muffins if they originated on West 20th Street in New York City. Easy: Samuel Bath Thomas was born in England but emigrated with his blatantly English name to the United States and Manhattan in 1874. Early on, he worked in a bakery at 163 Ninth Avenue, a building that no longer exists. (To the immediate north of 161 Ninth Avenue is 165 Ninth Avenue. Go figure.)
According to records, Thomas started making the muffins he gave his name shortly after the turn of the 19th century. When he died, the business went to the family. It was sold subsequently, when, apparently, the ovens were covered but not removed, and the building reconverted to apartments. Those ovens, however, seem to have remained where they were--under the courtyard between the back of the building and a carriage house sequestered there.
When Karen emerged and I called her attention to the sign. She knew about it and pointed to the door. Through it and through a window in an inner door, I saw a corridor. She said on a corridor wall are hung an early photograph of the building and a real estate map of the area in commemoration of the site's illustrious past.
When Karen--obviously a good person to know (and I bet her son is, too)--had finished running through the Thomas info, she had other tidbits to impart about the block. But maybe the truth is that every mailperson in the City has knowledge to pass on, because the West 20th Street block between Eighth and Ninth Avenues is no more nor less than a city synecdoche.
Like the old song "Every Street's a Boulevard in Old New York," every avenue in Old New York is a repository. Here's a town where civic pride breaks down into block-by-block chest-swelling. West 20th Street between Eighth and Ninth has its share--maybe even more than its share. To begin with, Clement Clarke "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" Moore's church, St. Peter's, sits solidly on the south side of the block.
What else? The great sculptor Louise Bourgeois lives on the north side and over the years has done some of her work in the basement there. Sculptor Benzion Weinman, known as Ben-Zion, lived farther east on the block until his 1987 death, although his widow continues to live in the house they shared--and with, presumably, some of his output. Immediately to Bourgeois's west, though, is the below-stairs atelier of multi-Tony-winning Williams Ivey Long. Never-out-of-work actor Brian Murray, one of Edward Albee's favorite players, is on the south side. Not to mention The Atlantic Theater Company, which means co-founder David Mamet spends time there as do any number of players who strut the street before and after performances.
Last season, when Martin McDonagh's Cripple of Inishmaan was at the Atlantic, I ran into one of its ensemble several times, the enormously talented and even more enormously friendly Marie Mullen, and got used to falling in conversation with her. She was the one who told me McDonagh, who'd sworn he was through writing for the stage, had finished a new play. We now know it's called A Behanding in Spokane and opens on Broadway this winter.
Let's just say I was the first on my block to know about it, because like most of us New Yorkers, I live on a great block.