Collier’s Rooms, and Other Finds
I sent a fevered missive to my colleagues on SABR’s 19th Century Baseball listserv on November 5, 2002, and followed up with additional finds. This was nearly nine years before publication of Baseball in the Garden of Eden, my book for which research had commenced twenty years earlier. I am grateful to have lived long enough for that book to be completed, and I am frankly tickled to remain an enthusiastic tiller in those fields. Until this post, no one had spotted an image of “Collier’s Rooms,” the upstairs saloon owned by 32-year-old character actor James Walter Collier where, on the rainy evening of March 17, 1871, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players was formed. Delegates from 10 professional baseball clubs met at the saloon at the corner of Broadway and 13th Street, just across from Wallack’s Theatre, where Collier frequently trod the boards. The clubs had come together at the invitation of the Mutuals to establish a new professional National Association, based largely upon the rules and regulations of the amateur organization from which they had just departed.
Friends, I shouted out loud when I found this image on the web one Sunday night, in total serendipity. I was looking for a longshot—an image of Gilmore’s Garden, the successor to P.T. Barnum’s (original) Hippodrome on the northeast corner of Madison Square in New York. Maybe a photo of Collier’s Rooms—the saloon where the National Association was founded on St. Patrick’s Day, 1871–is not the Holy Grail of pictorial research, but it’s an image I never expected to see. The image is one of 70,000 in the “Robert Dennis Collection of Stereoscopic Views, Photography Collection, Miriam & Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints & Photographs, The New York Public Library.” Here is more precise bibliographic info:
Stereoscopic views of theaters and other entertainments, New York City. MFY Dennis Coll 91-F214. View catalog record Image ID: NYPG91-F214 026F.
Looking at the web page of thumbnail views, I saw a big Romanesque building that was unfamiliar to me. The information on the back of the stereocard, which is viewable online, indicates that the view is of Wallack’s Theatre. When I enlarged the view on screen–as you may do by clicking on the image above, twice to yield the enlargement–I spotted Collier’s in the foreground and gave out with my Eureka!
Being a New York City buff with a respectable collection of older books on the subject, I confirmed the street address of Wallack’s Theatre as Broadway and 13th Street, the known address for Collier’s. The mount of the stereocard provided a clue as to its date, which initially I regarded as ca. 1870. Then I found an alternate mount from the same studio series as the Collier’s stereo; it was labeled “New Series” and 1873–thus the Collier’s photo is certainly 1872 or earlier, dead-on for the National Association’s founding date.
The name affixed to Wallack’s Theatre became The Germania in 1881, and The Star in 1883. Saloonkeeper Collier himself was an actor who presumably had only to cross the street to ply one trade or the other.
I could never have located this image by searching for Collier’s Rooms, as it is not cited in the web page’s text or in its underlying metadata.
Oh, and I found Gilmore’s Garden, too, ca. 1875. Leased to Patrick Gilmore, the composer of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” by its owner, P.T. Barnum, in unchanged form it became, in 1889, the first Madison Square Garden. Of particular interest to us is its address: the corner of 26th Street and Madison Avenue, notable as the proximate playing grounds of the men who would become the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club–ca. 1842, before they were thus named. If you look at woodcuts of the old New York & Harlem Railroad terminal on this site ca. 1838 it’s clear that the same structure, with its Tuscan tower, evolved into the Hippodrome and then Gilmore’s Garden.
In a final burst of good fortune, while humming “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again, Hurrah,” I enlarged a view of Mitchell’s Olympic Theatre, again ca. 1870. On the second floor is a sign for the “Mutual Club House.” The address of the theater proved to be 442 Broadway.
I don’t expect any of you to be as transported by all of this as I was, but I just couldn’t keep it to myself.
Finally, who was actor/barkeep James Walter Collier? This from the New York Times of July 7, 1877: “Thomas Woods, alias Gus Fowler, of No. 152 Macdougal-street, was arrested yesterday on a charge of attempting to stab Benjamin A. Whiteman, the bartender in James J. [an error, middle initial was W.] Collier’s saloon, at Broadway and Thirteenth-street, on Sunday morning last.” He continued to act after opening his saloon, taking the lead role in a play in 1879, entitled “Coney Island,” at the Union Square Theatre. And he was present at Madison Square Garden on September 12, 1892 to fete James J. Corbett.
The 1869 and 1870 New York City Directories had listed him as “Collier James W. actor, h[ome] 101 Charles.” That he is not listed as proprietor of a business indicates his saloon was not yet established. In the 1871 directory, however, he is listed at the same residence but now with a liquor business at 840 Broadway. “Our” James Collier is not, in any event, the one born in 1839–that James Collier was living in Herkimer, NY in 1870 (age 30). Our gent is the James W. (erroneously listed on ancestry.com as “James H”) who was 34 years old and living with his mother and siblings in 1870, with no listed occupation. In the 1880 census James W is still single, living in a boarding house on East 14th Street, and lists his occupation as “actor.” After a benefit staged in his honor in 1897, he died on May 13 of the following year, at age 62.