The shocking history of one East Village building is captured in this new album

The shocking history of one East Village building is captured in this new album

Even the biggest headlines of the day in New York fade over time from the city's collective memory. The day a ship carrying 1,000 kids sank, the arrest of a Communist journalist after a Wall Street bomb explosion, the avant-garde performance art by Yoko Ono—they're the stories that were on every New Yorker's lips at one moment in time but have now become ephemeral. All of these dramatic tales share one common thread: They're all connected to the same exact East Village building. 

Now, a powerhouse team of composers, singers and a librettist is breathing new life into these pieces of New York history. An eight-song, genre-mixing concept album called "The Parsonage: True Tales of Love and Anarchy at 64 East 7th Street" offers a New York City history lesson with shocking details and staggering musical performances. 

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The project began five years ago when David Hajdu, an author, librettist and professor, was combing through archives and realized that all the dramatic moments at this East Village building had never been connected. He wrote lyrics about the building, then connected with a team of acclaimed musicians to bring these stories to life. Composers Darcy James Argue, Theo Bleckmann, Regina Carter, Ted Hearne, Kirk Nurock, Renee Rosnes, Sarah Kirkland Snider and Dan Tepfer collaborated to create the musical score with Hajdu's words. Alicia Olatuja joined Bleckmann on vocals. 

The front page of The World newspaper with news about the boat crash.
Photograph: Courtesy of The Parsonage | A newspaper clipping about the deadly boat wreck with a connection to 64 East 7th Street.

A musical timeline

While this project began a half-decade ago, the story itself started more than a century ago in 1889 with a four-story townhouse created as a parsonage for a local church. The reverend of St. Mark's Church lived there, serving the congregation of German immigrants who lived in the tenements and labored at the sweatshops of the Lower East Side.

In 1904, the church chartered a steamboat to treat the families to a picnic on Long Island. Evoking the joyful excitement of the day, the song starts off with a bubbly resonance. But it soon shifts to a somber tone as the singers describe a horrific fire on the ship that sank the boat and led to the death of more than 1,000 passengers, mostly women and children—nearly everyone on board. It was the worst disaster in the city's history until the 9/11 terrorist attacks. 

The office of Communist propaganda newspaper Russky Golos.
Photograph: Courtesy of The Parsonage | The office of Communist propaganda newspaper Russky Golos.

The album progresses through time, as if each song strips away a coat of paint from a different era. Other tracks document the building's use as a printing press for a Communist newspaper, as a bohemian coffeehouse attracting radicals like Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and as a restaurant called The Paradox where waitress Yoko Ono performed. 

A cinematic number with music by Theo Bleckmann titled "Lou Reed Was Very Well Read" documents the building's time as a used bookstore called Books N Things. Marianne Moore, high priestess of the Village literati, hung out at this popular punk haunt along with Patti Smith, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. 

The composer drew inspiration from the libretto and visualizing how to imbue the words with emotion in his music.

"I wanted to bring something very tender and something very personal and something unexpected," Bleckmann tells Time Out. When you think Lou Reed, you think rock-and-roll, dark, grungy. I wanted something very pristine and sacred, not saccharine but sacred, like a chorale for Lou Reed." 

The building after the couture consignment shop closed; a dumpster sits out front.
Photograph: Courtesy of The Parsonage | The building after the couture consignment shop closed.

Finally, the song cycle moves into the gentrification of contemporary times, noting the building's transition from gritty to glamorous as it eventually became a couture consignment shop and now a luxury residence. The final song in the series, with music by Sarah Kirkland Snider, pulls from the real estate listing for the $18.6 million gutted, modern building, which noted "site history: not applicable." She also wove in pieces of the preceding songs into her composition titled "Eighteen Million Six." 

History takes place in this building but keeps getting erased.

"The way that I thought of it was that this last song was narrated by the soul of the building herself and that she's watching this exchange between the real estate agent and a potential buyer," Snider says. "It's the idea the idea that history takes place in this building but keeps getting erased. There's so much sadness to me about that and poignancy."

Theo Bleckmann recording in the studio standing at a microphone.
Photograph: Courtesy of The Parsonage | Theo Bleckmann recording in the studio.

'A chance to remember'

Each song takes on a completely different style, each befitting of its era. It feels omniscient and dizzying in a sense—enabling the listener to dart from decade to decade with piano, cello, bass, bass clarinet, archival sounds and spoken language as a guide.

"The mystery of how these pieces connect and the vast difference from one piece to another are essential to the character of this. It's a demonstration of how radically things change in the city and how times change and how culture changes—and how much they could change not just in one neighborhood or one block but in one building from one generation to the next," Hajdu tells Time Out.

David Hajdu reviews music for the album at the studio.
Photograph: Courtesy of The Parsonage | David Hajdu reviews music for the album at the studio.

Now, with the newly released album through Sunnyside Records and a premiere at the Museum of the City of New York on April 27, the ghosts of this building will be set free. 

"What's so special about remembering buildings is it's remembering who we are as people and remembering who we've been. There's no tombstones for stores," Snider said. "The more ephemeral, transient but equally interesting aspects of cultural history fade away from view. That bittersweet quality of memory and remembering who we are, that was what I was after in writing this music and that's what's so special about a project like this. It gives us a chance to remember."

That's what's so special about a project like this. It gives us a chance to remember.

Today, as the musical team prepares for the world premiere of "The Parsonage," the building's on the market again, this time for $13.5 million. But this time, the real estate listing notes the history of the four-story brick townhouse, the home to a staggering record of history, now recorded once again for the collective memory of New York.  

What comes next for 64 East 7th Street? It's impossible to say. As Hajdu puts it: "One thing that considering the history of this building shows us is that the future is unknowable."

While we can't know the future, we now can know the past through this time capsule of song, part lullaby, part cautionary tale.