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Ghosts of Buildings Past

Playwright Barbara Kahn chases stories in a vanishing New York

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Most New Yorkers have walked down a street and found an empty lot where an old familiar haunt is gone. Maybe it was a cozy restaurant, or a building where a friend lived. And the city — as it always has and always will — continues to replace itself and build upon the past.

Barbara Kahn’s work as a playwright is about lost places, times, and people. She writes about historical events and the people whose lives aren’t included in textbooks. She writes about queer people, people of color, actual historical figures, and people she’s made up.

Each year at the Theater for the New City, Kahn mounts a new play she’s written, inspired by teasing out hints of drama and fragments of events she culls from her ongoing research.

“I got an email from the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and found out that the St. Denis had been sold, and they were concerned about what was going to happen to it,” she said. “And lo and behold, the new owners posted the glass monster that was going to replace it.”

The St. Denis was a building that stood for 165 years at the corner of Broadway and East 11th Street in Manhattan. It began as grand hotel, frequented by some of the most famous people of the 19th century, from Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain to Alexander Graham Bell. For the last several decades, it’s been an office building, populated by a diverse range of doctors, healers, and other practitioners.

“I know the building because I used to go there regularly,” Kahn said. “I always took the elevator up, and I walked down every single time because it had the most glorious staircase. It was somewhat ornate, but mostly it just had a warm feeling to it, with really good vibes that I can’t explain.”

Like most old buildings, the St. Denis had stories about hauntings and spirits. And Kahn wondered: when the place they haunt is gone, where do all the ghosts go?

“Where Do All the Ghosts Go?,” written and directed by her, is Kahn’s new play set in an old building, from the 19th to the 21st centuries.

In her research, Kahn began to focus on people who’d stayed at the St. Denis whom she could bring to life after death.

“I selected five ghosts I would like to mix and match with each other, and because ghosts live in eternity, I could mix up the time frames. So Sarah Bernhardt and Marcel Duchamp argue about what really is art, things like that.”

Buffalo Bill was also a guest when his “Wild West Show” played the original Madison Square Garden. A historical, but relatively unknown figure, Elizabeth Keckley, was a former slave and companion to Mary Todd Lincoln. She and Mrs. Lincoln stayed at the St. Denis after the president’s assassination when they came to New York.

“At first I had looked at Mrs. Lincoln, then I thought… what about this companion of hers?,” Kahn explained. “And I googled her and found out she wrote a memoir, with a long chapter about their experience about registering at that hotel. I thought: she’s an unknown character with a rich history. Most people know something about Mrs. Lincoln, so I’ll have Mrs. Keckley instead.”

The fifth ghost has the most obscure history, and Kahn had to fill in the gaps of a mysterious life.

“I found a short blurb about a woman who had been arrested at the St. Denis for theft, and it was hard to get any more information about her,” Kahn recalled. “I took trips to the Public Library, looking through periodicals, but I only knew the year she was arrested. On my second or third trip, in the Periodicals Room at 42nd Street, I was able to get the date, and then I found the newspaper reports. Then my costume designer, Everett Clark, found more reports in a Washington, DC, newspaper. So I was able to learn about her, and she was quite interesting.

The woman Kahn discovered claimed to be a Swedish baroness, but had been working as a maid and was accused of stealing.

“But there was an article that the Austrian Embassy refused assistance,” Kahn said. “Was she Austrian? Was she Hungarian? Was she Swedish? What was she? She was just the kind of character I knew I should throw in among all these celebrities.”

The play, a dark comedy, is set in today’s New York, and starts when a couple find out that The St. Denis is being pulled down.

“I always try to include lesbian characters,” Kahn said. “In recent years, many of the tenants were in the healing professions, therapists, psychologists, acupuncturists. So I thought: what if they were a married lesbian couple and went there for marriage counseling? Then they return to the now-empty building and encounter the ghosts.”

In Kahn’s play, the ghosts don’t know that the building is being torn down, and the lesbians don’t know there are ghosts.

“When they meet each other, my play takes off!”

Kahn has assembled a cast of Chloe Simone Crawford, David Leeper, Christopher Lowe, Sarah Teed, Steph Van Vlack, Ashley Versher, and Fleur Voorn. The production team includes set and lights by Mark Marcante, prop design by Lytza Colon, costumes by Clark, and sound by Joy Linsheid.

WHERE DO ALL THE GHOSTS GO | Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave. at E. 10th St. | Apr. 11-28: Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $18 at theaterforthenewcity.net or 212-254-1109

Updated 10:30 pm, April 9, 2019
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