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While Old MacDonald had a farm, Hell’s Kitchen once had a slaughterhouse — and the sculptural remnants of the West Side’s butcher block past are to be memorialized in a new community garden created by the Clinton Housing Development Company (CHDC). The more than 100-year-old limestone sculpture of a bull’s head has been carefully preserved and provides a link to a very different vision of Manhattan.

CHDC consultant and landscape designer Shanti Nagel with the newly installed bull’s head. Photo: Naty Caez

The massive sculpture — one of a herd of cattle and sheep that once lined the sides of the New York Butchers Dressed Meat Company on 11th Avenue between W39th and W40th Street — is in the process of being installed in the nonprofit’s new public space on W53rd between 10th And 11th Avenue. It will be named Adam’s Garden, in honor of longtime Hell’s Kitchen resident and Clinton Community Garden founder Adam Honigman, who passed away in 2007.

The group, led by CHDC Executive Director Joe Restuccia, Director of Planning and Programs Bill Kelly, Director of Horticulture Meral Merino and landscape design consultant Shanti Nagel, plans to unveil the final installation in a public ribbon cutting ceremony this spring. “I keep saying that I’m going to bring a lawn chair and a bottle of champagne when this happens, because I think I’ve been in meetings about these cow heads since at least 2017,” joked Shanti.

Cow and ram heads at Hudson River Park, sister sculptures of the one headed to Adam’s Garden. Photo: Phil O’Brien

Shanti has been designing community-centered landscapes with CHDC for over a decade, and is especially excited to see the culmination of many years of planning around Adam’s Garden, community center, and adjacent housing: “540 W53rd has been in process for a long time, and it’s a really beautiful building. It has 200 new units of affordable housing, a terrace and a rooftop that I designed as well.”

And now it will also boast a bull’s head. After the New York Butchers Dressed Meat Company building was torn down in the 1990s, members of Manhattan’s Community Board 4 fought to save the carved creatures from destruction, landing the slaughterhouse relics for many years in a Williamsburg Landmark Preservation Committee warehouse.

This 1906 photo of the newly-built New York Butchers’ Dressed Meet Company building shows the bull’s head in situ on the upper floors. Photo: American Architect/Google

“CHDC got wind that they were going up for auction, and I believe Joe really put his foot down and said these are historic items for the New York City and for Hell’s Kitchen in particular, and they shouldn’t go to the highest bidder, they should come back to the neighborhood — which is so brilliant and so, so cool,” said Shanti. The CHDC bought the heads for $250 apiece. “CHDC got two and the Hudson River Park I believe had two,” she added, referencing the long-term storage area for the cow and ram heads at Hudson River Park (which will now be converted into pickleball courts)

Moo-ving any of the heads to the CHDC park, however, was a challenge in itself. “We think they weigh between a ton and a ton and a half,” said Shanti. “They are solid limestone.” While the bull head has made its way to lay supine on the park grounds, there are still inspections to be carried out before the gigantic sculpture can be drilled and mounted safely. 

Shanti Nagel, Gasper Gaudino of Yourway Contracting and Meral Marino of CHDC. Photo: Naty Caez

Once it’s up, it will provide a memorable, meaningful centerpiece to the community garden, open to all who pick up a key. “The keys are a way for us to keep maintenance low, but also provide access to the whole community — anyone who lives or works in the neighborhood can get a key for $2,” said Shanti. “And attached to the garden, there will be an affordable community room for people to use for classes, a get-together, or even an intimate wedding” perhaps presided over by the mascot of Adam’s Garden. 

When the slaughterhouse was opened in 1906, the professional journal American Architect called it “superior to any like institution on this continent.” Cattle and sheep arrived by river boat or by rail, which ran directly down 11th Avenue. Animals were driven to the roof to be held, then down to the fifth floor for slaughter — up to 2,800 head a day were killed — and then their carcasses processed on the floors below. It was built with rooms that could freeze meat and on the first floor, beef was sold to the public, along with pork, lamb, chicken and duck.

Among the building’s innovations was a recognition of New York’s growing Jewish population: a dressing room for a rabbi on the floor below the slaughter pens. Around the top were six sculptures, which survived with the building when operations ceased in the 1950s, and then when it was taken over by the city in 1975. When the building was torn down in the early 1990s, the heads were all that survived.

And for those who wander in without prior knowledge of the bovine bust’s history, the CHDC plans to provide a primer on the piece. Said Bill Kelley of the CHDC, “We will commit to signage that allows a person to learn the entire history of the site and the piece of art.” 

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4 Comments

  1. My comment for Shanti Nagel.
    Every single time I entered the tunnel I looked up at the pink brick building at smiled. My Dad was a NY butcher!
    We lived at 530W 46th St and yes you can hear and smell the cows pigs and lambs as they were transported in ‘cattle’cars to the slaughter house. We lived four door from the Penn Central Rail line. My Dad told us stories of some times they had “runaway bulls” that broke away from the rails. They would slip slide and crash into everything ( the cobblestones being the reason)
    He further stated the bulls had demagnified pupils ( not sure of the legitimacy of that) but he said he used to walk up to a snorting bull and jump up with a fierce howls hands above his head waving madly like todays tire promotion air sock. He said the bulks used to cower down and back into the stalls. There were plenty of damaged cars with horn holes in them.
    Back then unlike now there were thousands of less cars parked and we as children were forbade to walk alone past 11th avenue. What a difference today.
    So to Ms Nagel- Thank You part of my childhood has been preserved! Please keep us posted as to when the garden opens
    Oh and I have the champagne you speak of – just let me know I’ll bring it and proudly admire “The Bull”

  2. I believe a couple of the other carved heads can be found at the newly(ish) renovated playground at Chelsea Waterside Park.

    I “discovered” these before they were being used sitting in a lot just north of the helicopter pad along the Hudson River. They sat for years in rotting storage crates before a couple of them showed up in the playground.

    Glad to see another one has found a permanent home.

  3. Is there a place for Hell’s Kitchen gardeners in the new community garden? And if so, where can one sign up?

  4. From that building, the slaughtered meats would go the wholesale meat market at 14th Street via the Highline, and some made pitstops along the way to refrigerated packing buildings that the Highline trains actually branched off and went into for packing, Swift Premiuim and Armour were brands that had extensive meat packing operations all over the city, including up at the meat market up on the West Side Highway, between 125th and 135th Streets. New York City was the center of every kind of industry back then, not just finance, insurance, real estate and retail like it is now. Glenn in Brooklyn, NY.

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