American painter Edward Hopper told people that the diner in his iconic painting "Nighthawks" was "suggested by a restaurant on Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet." But which two streets? And which restaurant?
You almost definitely know "Nighthawks," either from that Art History class you barely paid attention in, or from that one episode of The Simpsons that parodied it, or that awful poster that replaces its anonymous, nocturnal subjects with, like, Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe and 2Pac. It's one of the most famous and easily-recognizable paintings in American history, and Jeremiah Moss, the blogger behind the great catalog of change Vanishing New York, has spent the last few months trying to pinpoint the location of the restaurant that suggested Hopper's diner.
If you've got the time, it's worth reading the several-part story he posted on the blog, complete with documentary photographs (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Coda), but if you just want the broad strokes, Moss published an op-ed in Monday's New York Times outlining his search:
Not long ago, one of the readers of my blog, Vanishing New York, sent in an old photo of the lot. There was no diner, only an Esso gas station and a White Tower burger joint that looked nothing like the moody, curved, wedge-shaped lunch counter in "Nighthawks." An urban mystery had just revealed itself: If the diner wasn't in the empty lot, then where was it?
Being an obsessive type, prone to delve, I began searching for Hopper's diner with the help of two of my readers. Multiple streets converge at Mulry Square, creating a shattered-glass array of triangular corners. The buildings wedge themselves into these tight angles, bricks tapering to near points, each structure bearing a Hopperesque resemblance.
I snapped photos of every possibility and checked them against their ancestral images in the New York Public Library's Digital Gallery. I made a trip to the city's Municipal Archives, where I scanned the 1930s atlases of Manhattan known as "land books," matched block and lot numbers to scratchy rolls of microfilm and scrolled through muddy 1940s tax photos. Slowly, I began ruling out suspects.
Moss eventually comes to the conclusion that the restaurant spoken of by Hopper never actually existed—certainly not on Greenwich avenue. And he's bummed: "the discovery that the 'Nighthawks' diner never existed, except as a collage inside Hopper's imagination, feels like yet another terrible demolition, though no bricks have fallen."