Bill Cornwell, 88, Horatio St. owner, activist

Bill Cornwell.
Bill Cornwell.

BY ALBERT AMATEAU  |  Bill Cornwell, a West Village resident and neighborhood activist for more than 50 years, died unexpectedly in his Horatio St. home on Thurs., June 19. He was 88.

Although he’d had a bypass operation eight years ago and had a pacemaker, he was still active.

“It has been a little harder for him to get around the past three years,” said Tom Doyle, his friend and life partner for 55 years.

A resident of his home on Horatio St. between Greenwich and Washington Sts. since 1961 and owner of the four-story walk-up since 1971, Cornwell was for several years president of the Horatio St. Block Association. He was also a zealous supporter of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

A graphic artist, he worked for several advertising agencies, including J. Walter Thompson, from which he retired in 1991. Thereafter, he worked for other agencies as a freelance artist.

William Cornwell was born in Trinidad, Colorado, to Carrie Lloyd Cornwell and her husband, Lathe, a coal miner who hailed from Kentucky. The family, including Bill, his two older brothers and an older sister, moved to California during the Great Depression.

“He was in the Navy for a while, but he said he never got on a ship,” Doyle said.

Bill went to Pomona College and studied art before coming to New York.

“We met in 1958 or ’59 at Riis Park Beach,” Doyle recalled. “We lived for a while on W. Fourth St. and then we found an apartment on Bank St. for $69 a month.

“There was a Chinese egg-roll plant on the block and you could smell it. Uta Hagen’s studio was right across the street,” Doyle added.

“In 1961, we heard about this garden apartment on Horatio St. It was the Meat Market back then,” Doyle continued. “Trucks would roll up the street and bones would fall off the back. The landlord was asking $95 a month and we took it.”

About 10 years later, the owner, Mary Main, a prominent writer, sold the building to Todd Griggs, a local investor, who soon had to sell and offered the building to Cornwell before Griggs put it on the market.

“Bill had just got a job at J. Walter Thompson and we weren’t sure we could swing it,” Doyle said. “But we got a good real estate lawyer and we were able to buy it.”

Cornwell became a regular member of the Sixth Precinct Community Council and a leader of the block association. He was a devoted animal lover and a dog owner until recently.

“We’ve had three giant schnauzers,” Doyle said. “We had to put the last one down three years ago and it broke Bill’s heart. People said, ‘Get a new dog,’ but Bill was worried that we wouldn’t be able to take care of it.”

Cornwell was a regular at the Abingdon Square farmers’ market on Saturdays.

“We got to know a lot of the vendors personally,” Doyle said. “Bill would tell people to patronize the market or it wouldn’t stay in business.”

For the past few days, Cornwell’s only remaining family member, a niece, Sheila McNichols, has been visiting from California.

“I’m so grateful that she’s here,” Doyle said of McNichols. “We were so close, Bill and I, it’s hard to be without him. I’m just taking it one day at a time.

“We were talking about getting married,” Doyle said. “Bill even sent away for two rings. But we’d have to make two trips, one for the license and one for the ceremony. I’m Catholic, for another thing. And after a lifetime together, marriage doesn’t mean so much.”

Cornwell’s death has been a blow to the seven tenants of the building, especially for Erin Smith Dennis and her husband, Mark Dennis.

“I moved into the building about seven years ago when I got married,” Erin Smith Dennis said. “Bill has been such a great landlord. He really loved people and took care of us.”

Mark Dennis has been living in the building for more than 10 years, and his brother lived there before him.

“The apartment has been in the family for 18 years,” he said. “Bill and Tom have been my surrogate fathers.”

A memorial for Bill Cornwell is planned, time and place to be announced. Redden’s Funeral Home, at 325 W. 14th St., is in charge of arrangements.

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