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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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”