NIGHTHAWKS: THE SEARCH FOR THE DINER

Welcome to my website devoted to the search for the diner portrayed in Edward Hopper's famous and iconic painting, "Nighthawks".


"Nighthawks" was painted in 1942 and is currently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois. Rumor has it that the diner in the painting existed on the triangular corner of Greenwich Avenue and 7th Avenue South in Greenwich Village in Manhattan, New York. This corner is known as "Mulry Angle" or "Mulry Square". The tiles on the remaining wall of where the diner would have stood are often said to be the original tiles from the actual diner. My goal here is to find out more about the actual diner Hopper based the painting off of and if it even actually existed.


HOPPER'S IMAGINATION:


Before we get on with the search for the diner, lets take a look at some of Edward Hopper's other works. Hopper had been known to mislead people before when it came to the locations in his paintings. Allthough he had painted many actual once existing places, many of his paintings were mixtures of scenes he saw in his day to day life, and some were even completely imagined out of nothing.

"Night Windows" - 1928:

This almost voyeuristic painting of an outside view into a very well lit apartment with the rear of a lady in red was a great example of Hopper's work with light and shading. Abot the scene, Hopper said it was "a composite of many glimpsed through the windows of a passing train". (f)

"Early Sunday Morning" - 1930:

One of Hopper's other masterpieces, and probably the most famous after "Nighthawks", "Early Sunday Morning" depicts a block of shops on a bright morning with not a single soul in the picture. Experts have found that this painting was based off of a grouping of shops at 233–237 Bleecker Street in Manhattan. The second story of the current building still looks as it did in Hoppers painting from 1930. Originally this painting was titled "Seventh Avenue Shops", but Seventh Avenue was many blocks away. Avis Berman, author of the book "Edward Hopper's New York", noted that "Hopper did like to throw people off the trail because he didn't want them caught up in the facts, but the mood."(b) When compared to actual historic photos of Bleecker Street from 1930, "Early Sunday Morning" has a couple of features from the other side of the street inserted into the painting to make it all come together. (c)

"New York Movie" - 1939:

"New York Movie" shows a female theater usher, deep in thought near the exit to the theater as a show goes on. There are 53 different preparatory sketches for this painting but they are not from one single theater. Many of the sketches even have the names of the different subject theaters written on the sketch. (e)

"Gas" - 1940:

Hopper's 1940 painting "Gas", depicts a gas station in the country with a lone attendant servicing the pumps. The gas station did not exist in real life. Hopper got frustrated looking for the perfect gas station in the coutry and "not finding any one filling station to his liking, he made studies of several stations and combined them".(d)  


"Hotel Lobby" - 1943:

This painting features the lobby of a New York hotel with a few patrons near the front desk. No bellhop or attendant is present and there is a very dark room in teh back. Ten sketches for "Hotel "Lobby" exist and the layout changes as they progress. There was originally a staircase with a railing that was moved around throughout the sketches, which was left out in the final painting. The rear doorway into the dark room was added in the later sketches. (g)

"Hotel Window" - 1956:

A single older woman in red is shown sitting on a chair facing out to the street as if waiting for something in this painting. When asked about the source of inspiration for the painting, Hopper said "It's nothing accurate at all, just an improvisation of things I've seen. It's no particular hotel lobby, but many times I've walked through the Thirties from Broadway to Fifth Avenue and there are a lot of cheesy hotels there." (h)


PREPARATORY SKETCHES:


MULRY SQUARE:

This map shows the supposed location of the diner in Mulry Square (red star) as well as the angle in which the painting is shown (blue arrow):



This is what the corner currently looks like, as of mid 2009:


It is currently owned by the Metro Transit Authority and used as a storage parking lot. New proposals come from them every few years for ideas as to what to turn the lot into, but are fought by local residents because the lot is a historic landmark (not because of the Hopper painting however). All of the little things you see on the fence are hand painted tiles placed there after the events of 9/11 by individuals in order to remember the victims. The project is called "Tiles for America" and the website can be accessed here.

A popular web blog titled "Walking Off The Big Apple" did a photoshop image of an image of the location today, taken from the same angle that Hopper painted the diner, and superimposed  the painting over it to show where the diner would have sat..
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LOT MAPS:

The earliest known function for the lot is shown in this 1881 lot map. Seventh Street used to come to a stop right at this lot and there was a "Continental Brewery" occupying the space. Seventh Street was later continued through this space, forming the current triangular lot we are familiar with.
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This is a city tax map from 1916 showing city tax lot numbers. The entire block is number 613 and our lot in question is tax lot 59. 

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The next map is a lot map from 1969. It comes from the National Register of Historic Places document detailing all of the areas added to the Register when the majority of Greenwich village was added to the list. The lot number for our lot is 61.
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The most current NYC Tax lot map shown here is from 2008. 
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The latest proposal from the MTA in 2008/2009 to put a ventillation fan for the subway on the site refers to the lcoation as 61 Greenwich Ave.

This photo is from 1930 and if the diner existed at this time, it would have been on the right side of the photo just to the right of where the tall lamp post is. The red-ish building from the background of the painting is visible in the center of this picture, just behind the two parked cars. Note the sign above the shop in the foreground that says "SODA CIGARS FRUIT". It is possible that if the diner was a collaborated concept of many ideas from Hopper's head, that the idea for the sign on top of it came from the one shown in this photo. It bears a striking resemblance.

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Here is another image from 1930, this time the viewing angle places us looking towards the direction of where the previous photo was taken from. The lot is on the left side of the photo and there is a building in the space where the diner would have been located. You can see a protruding section of roof and a slight sliver of a brick building.
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This photo is from 1932 and gives us our first head on look at the lot. At this time it was a gas station with signs for Kesbec Colonial, Super X Gasoline (The possible name of the station) and Milage Gasoline. Gas pumps are visible where the diner would be located, just above the hood and windshield of the white-fendered car in the foreground.
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The next photo is from 1933 and the viewing angle has moved a tiny bit further down the street, almost to the angle that the painting was done at. The lot is still a gas station at this point and the only change from the previous photo is that the "Milage Gasoline" sign has now been changed to a sign for "Koolmotor". A small sign for "Cities Serivce" has been put up under the "Milage Gasoline" sign.
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Another 1933 photo from just a slightly different angle. The small Kesbec Colonial sign has been changed to an Esso sign.
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Another 1933 photo. This is a slightly more close up shot of the station. The sign is now one big sign for Koolmotor ("The Super Fine Gasoline") and a smaller protruding sign for "Cities Service" has been put up.
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Here is yet one more 1933 photo. This one is a great head-on shot of the station. The small Kesbec Colonial sign is visible to the left side of the shot, just above the couple walking, and a giant ad for Kesbec takes up the whole wall behind the station. You can now see that the station is a Kesbec station and there is a small white castle-like structure with an ad in the window for "Hamburgers 5 Cents". This is actually a small diner itself, named "White Tower". They were founded in 1926 and were clones of White Castle hamburger stands. Could White Tower be the "diner" that Hopper based his off of for the painting? Scroll down for some more information on White Towers...
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This photo is from 1937 and is taken from a ways down the street. A new Koolmotor billboard is up and a smaller Esso sign is now on a pole. Still no sign of an art deco style diner with a big, curved glass window.
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The next photo is from 1938 and only shows a sliver of the lot on the right side of the shot but the White Tower building is partially visible, still with the hamburger ad in the window. The giant space in back of the station is now a huge advertisement for Esso. The shot looks down the street that has the buildings used in the background of the painting. They would be right around where the single man in the black coat is, in front of the delicatessen in the center of the photo. The sign that used to say "SODA CIGARS FRUIT" now says "Optimo" with some other unreadable words after it.
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This photo is from 1939 and was taken standing on the sidewalk at almost at the same angle Hopper painted his painting from. Had the photographer extended the shot to the right, it would be a near perfect real life angle capture. Sadly, only the Kesbec Colonial sign is visible in this picture.
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This city tax photo was taken somewhere between 1939-1941 and is a somewhat grainy. It shows the city sign for block 613, lot 62. It is a very good head on shot of where the diner is supposed to be but at this point it was still a service station with the smaller White Tower hamburger stand attached to the left side. There is now a different structure in the service station. It has rounded corners and the words "Esso Servicestation" in lettering above what appear to be garage doors. A different version of the giant Esso advertisement is on the giant space behind the building.
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This next photo is from the "1940's" and shows a birds eye view of Mulry Angle. Once again, the photographer just missed where the diner would have been, in the bottom right hand corner of the image. The building in the center is the building used for the background building in the painting. Look right above where the vents are in the sidewalk.
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If the art deco style diner with the curved glass from the painting did exist at all it would have had to have been built between 1939 and when Hopper painted it in 1942. None of the photos from 1930 to 1939 show a diner of any sort except for the small White Tower hamburger stand with the ad in the window at the service station. The city lot information does not show any new contruction from 1939 to 1942, only one "alteration" in 1939. There were also no electric sign applications filed during this period. Also, if it existed, it would have had to have been demolished by 1954. 

I managed to find the lot on a 1954 aerial photo from historicaerials.com but there appears to be nothing new on the spot. If there was a diner in the location depicted in the painting and it was still standing in 1954, it would be evident in this photo but it appears that there isnt anything there. The lot info shows no demolition permits either so the idea that the diner could have been built after the above photographs and demolished before this aerial isnt logical. The aerial photo was taken when the sun was low in the sky and all of the other buildings are casting a shadow towards the top of the image. Had the diner been there in this photo, the shadow would be quite evident. The main dark shadow you see on the lot is from the tall building that is seen in the previous photographs that was used to host the giant advertisements for Esso etc. If you scroll down a little, the current 2009 satellite image shows the exact same shadow effect as seen in this image.
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These photos from 1979 were taken of St. Vincent's Hospital which is North of the lot, but the photographer happened to get some small slivers of what occupied the lot then. The White Tower structure is still standing in these photos, minus the castle-like crenellations at the top. The strructure at this point had been converted into a Taco Rico, allthough there is a sign for hamburgers right beneath the main sign. If you look closely at the second image, the structure shown is the exact same structure that used to have the "Esso Servicestation" lettering on it with the curved corners from the 1939-1941 city tax photo. The garage doors had evidently been filled in with brick. The fact that this structure is still standing hints at the fact that there was no diner at this location, unless it sat completely seperate from the service station, in which case there would be record of it in the citys files.
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This aerial image was taken in 1980 and pretty much shows
the curved-side building which used to the the service station garage, and the White Tower diner attached to it, which is exactly what is seen in the 1979 photographs.
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In this 2003 image, you can see the curved side building which used to be the service station garage and how its front is filled with brick. The black area over the door looks to be where the small building between the White Tower / Taco Rico was attached.
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In 2004 it remained unchanged but this angle shows you how small of a space that the White Tower / Taco Rico had to occupy. Keep in mind there was also a small main building for the servicestation between them too!
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Another good shot, from 2007.
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Somewhere between 2007 and this 2009 image, the city filled in the black area above the door with tiles to match the rest of the building. They also added a chrome strip going around the entire top of the building to get rid of the ugle crumbling brick work.
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A modern satellite image, taken in 2009, shows pretty much the exact same effect of shadowing as the 1954 aerial image and shows the single solitary building from the previous few photos.
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WHITE TOWERS:

The only diner to sit on the corner in Mulry square was the small "White Tower" hamburger joint. This chain got its start in 1926 and is not the same as White Castle. They are often considered an imatator.

A typical White Tower looked like this (please note, this is not the Greenwich Ave White Tower as seen in the above photos):


Despite the small appearance from the outside, there was good seating inside. This shot shows the interior of typical White Tower and the gentleman sitting at the counter is in a very familiar pose!:


This closeup shows the coffee urns that existed in many of the small coffee shops and diners of the time. Sadly, it was revealed that Hopper did not base his preparatory sketches of his urns off of the ones at this White Tower, but rather at another coffee shop that him and his wife, Jo frequented, named the "Dixie Kitchen":



SOURCES:


a. The Artist's' Voice: Talks with Seventeen Modern Artists, by Katharine Kuh, p. 134, 1962
b. Edward Hopper's New York- by Avis Berman
c.
Request for Evaluation for 233-237 Bleecker Street, Manhattan - GVSHP.org
d. Edward Hopper: Hours of Darkness -
by Janet L. Comey
e. Hopper Ushers In Whitney Celebration - by Carol Vogel - New York Times,
June 9, 2006
f. The Hopper Exhibition -
by Harry Whittaker, In Defense of Marxism, August 27th, 2004
g. Paper To Paint: Edward Hopper's Hotel Lobby - by Harriet G. Warkel
h. Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography - by Gail Levin

1. American Memory from the Library of Congress - Historic American Buildings Survey - Survey number HABS NY-5698-B
2. American Memory from the Library of Congress - Historic American Buildings Survey - Survey number HABS NY-5698
3. Historic Aerials
4. New York Public Library Digital Gallery - "Cities and Buildings" section
5. Flickr - "Mulry Angle in the Forties"
6. Walking Off The Big Apple - "The Light in Hopper: The Diner on Greenwich Avenue. Yes, That Diner" - Thursday, February 5th, 2009
7. Microsoft Live Maps
8. NYC Department of Records - Tax Photographs
9. Greenwich Village Historic District State and National Register Report -
April 1969
10. NYC Digital Tax Maps
11. Flickr