On October 6th, the door to William Niblo’s multi-drawer mausoleum on Crescent Water creaked open for a daylong series of performances by Niblo’s biographer and alter-ego, Benjamin Feldman, with downtown performance artist Alyson Pou portraying Niblo’s widow Martha, come back from the dead….
Take a gander at the video below, as the Niblos sort out a most disturbing incident in their marital history on the “morning after” Niblo’s greatest success, the Japanese Ball of June 25th, 1860, 12,000 in attendance at Niblo’s Garden, 576 Broadway.
“And special thanks to Ben Feldman, a longtime Green-Wood volunteer who is working on a biography of the most important theatre owner of mid-19th-century New York City, William Niblo. Ben and Alyson Pou, a theater veteran, put together their own elaborate production that was staged on the steps of the Niblo Hillside Mausoleum. It was a tremendous hit, drawing raves from attendees.” From http://www.green-wood.com/2012/open-houses-2012/
WILLIAM NIBLO C.1790-1878:
NEW YORK’S REIGNING TAVERNKEEP AND THEATER OPERATOR
Niblo was born in Ireland, the son of Mary and John Niblo, and came to New York in the earliest years of the 19th century. He found work in the politically connected David King’s porter house on Sloat-lane near Wall Street, and by 1813 struck out on his own, taking over the mansion of former Tory-sympathizer Frederick Phillipse at 47 Pine Street. There he opened the Bank Coffee House, which rapidly became THE place for politicians, actors and businessman to gather, eat and do business in lower Manhattan. A “coffee house” in early New York was no Starbucks! Niblo’s establishment was part hostelry, part tavern, and very much a well-known dining establishment. His larder was legendary, with the freshest wild game brought from all over the Eastern seaboard. Green turtles from the South Seas were stored in an East River pen off Brooklyn Heights; a whole bear was roasted and brought in staked and erect, for a banquet in 1823.
Niblo was part Toots Shor and part Daryl F. Zanuck: in 1828 he sold the Bank Coffee House (by then one of two under that name that he operated). While keeping other hospitality enterprises going, Niblo acquired a former circus grounds and equestrian yard in a part of town that was then ex-urban. The block bounded by Broadway, Crosby, Houston and Prince Streets was leased in toto by him where he opened the first version of “Niblo’s Garden” on July 4th, 1828. His wife since 1819, Martha King Niblo, daughter of David King, was his full business partner in all that Niblo essayed.
Niblo’s Garden was an instant success, with its lavishly planted outdoor spaces, genteel refreshment saloon, and extravagant proscenium amphitheater. Niblo commissioned magnificent coaches to ferry his customers from the hotel he operated with his brother John at Broadway and Cedar Street out into the “country” for the evening. In contradistinction to the rowdy environments on the Bowery and elsewhere downtown, Niblo’s Garden admitted only escorted ladies, and its prices were not cheap. Performers from all over the world vied for Niblo’s attention. Acrobats, musicians, thespians, equestrians: all aspired to appear on his stage. When the Garden burned to the ground in 1846, it was rebuilt and re-opened ever more magnificent in 1849, and then incorporated into the site of the Metropolitan Hotel when it was built in 1852.
A devout Episcopalian, Niblo was instrumental in the founding of Calvary Episcopal Church on Park Avenue South and 21st Street, where to this day one can sit in his pew #113, and see his name inscribed as donor on the large stained glass window dedicated to his dear friend and one-time pastor of Calvary, the famed cleric of mid-century America, Reverend Francis Lister Hawkes. Niblo was a warden and vestryman of Calvary and a substantial donor over the years.
Sadly, Martha King Niblo died in 1851, childless, and William never re-married. He was said to have visited the mausoleum he built for her and their family members in 1854 on a daily basis, especially after his retirement from the theater business in 1861. His name continued to grace the marquee of Niblo’s Garden until its demolition for a loft building in 1894.
William Niblo was played by historian & raconteur Benjamin Feldman: www.new-york-wanderer.blogspot.com
Martha King Niblo was played by multidisciplinary artist & playwright Alyson Pou: www.alysonpou.com
For more information and images see: www.nibloandhisgarden.blogspot.com