Hopper sleuths agree diner was not on M.T.A. lot


By Lilly O’Donnell

Adding more intrigue to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s plan to build a subway ventilation plant at Mulry Square is the fact that the site was long believed to have been home to the diner in Edward Hopper’s iconic painting “Nighthawks.” Not only did legend hold that the diner once stood there, but the lot is also located in the landmarked Greenwich Village Historic District.

Acknowledging the site’s historical sensitivity, the M.T.A. recently unveiled a faux facade — or “fauxcade” — design for the fan plant, intended to blend in with the buildings around it. But the fauxcade, in the view of Andrew Berman, director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, is a shoddy attempt to camouflage the project, or as he put it, “the clumsy, poorly constructed aspects of this building that were supposed to reflect the ‘Nighthawks’ diner.”

As expected, the proposed project piqued the interest of G.V.S.H.P., as well as Jeremiah Moss, of the blog Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York. G.V.S.H.P. and Moss went along almost the same track of investigation simultaneously and unwittingly, trying to confirm whether or not Mulry Square was, in fact, the site of the famous diner, or to gauge exactly how upset they should be with the M.T.A.

“We’re constantly doing research and trying to substantiate history,” said Berman, who was not surprised that Moss’s research had taken him down the same roads as the society’s own: Both used tax photos from the 1930s and a Land Book from the 1950s, and took a critical look at the buildings that stand on all of the possible “Nighthawks” locations today.

In the end, both Moss and G.V.S.H.P. had to admit that whichever building “Nighthawks” may have been based on, it was most likely at least partially a composite of several buildings.

“We have to assume that the ‘Nighthawks’ diner stood everywhere, that it came from every possible corner, from bits and pieces of the city, the large and lonely city that Hopper’s art holds for us,” wrote Moss.

Moss’s search led him to believe that “Nighthawks” was at least loosely based on the building on Seventh Ave. South and Perry St. that now houses Empire Szechuan Village restaurant, and that the Mulry Square myth was started with an error. Moss published his findings on his blog in early June. Berman and G.V.S.H.P., in fact, arrived at their own findings even earlier, back in April.

“He came to the exact same conclusion, based on — by an unbelievable coincidence — basically the exact same research,” Berman said of Moss.

Berman, however, believes Hopper may not have wanted people to know exactly where he was drawing his inspiration from.

“Public statements made about the ‘Nighthawks’ diner being on the corner of Greenwich Ave. might have been intentionally misleading,” he speculated. Berman added that maybe the painter didn’t want people to look at the artwork as a direct portrait of any one spot, but as something of his own creation, whether or not he borrowed aspects from real buildings.

Though their conclusions diverge as to the level of intent behind the ambiguity, both parties agree that if it ever existed, the “real” “Nighthawks” diner most likely did not stand at Mulry Square. This development, however, does not change G.V.S.H.P.’s opinion of the M.T.A.’s building plans, according to Berman.

“It would have been one of many elements we would have pointed to in terms of what would be appropriate or inappropriate,” he said. “The fact that the ‘Nighthawks’ diner site was not there does not change the fact that we think the M.T.A. plan is inappropriate.”