This brick Federal-style row house on the south-side of the street between 5th and 6th Avenues was the site of an infamous domestic terrorist explosion on March 6, 1970, caused by the ineptitude of so-called Weathermen of the Weather Underground Organization (the group took their name from Bob Dylan’s song from the 60s, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” – ‘you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows’). The Weathermen were a radical left-wing group opposed to the Vietnam War (among other grievances) and a group of five of them were at the address 18 West 11th Street making preparations to bomb a dance at Fort Dix in New Jersey (“to bring the war home”); apparently, none of them had any experience in the mechanics of bomb-making.
The house had been built in 1845 as a group of houses the millionaire Henry Brevoort, Jr., had built for his four children (father Brevoort lived on the tonier 5th Ave.) One resident of note through the years was the poet James Merrill – he was actually born in this house on March 3, 1926, when his father Charles Merrill (who was the co-founder Merrill of ‘Merrill-Lynch’ fame) owned the residence. Eventually it passed into the hands of James P. Wilkerson, a radio executive who had a daughter Cathy Wilkerson who was a Weatherman in her student years.
On March 6, 1970, Mr. Wilkerson and his wife were vacationing in St. Kitts; their daughter had asked to use the house in their absence and she invited her fellow Weatherman in. Around noon, she and another woman were upstairs showering and ironing clothes while their three companions were attempting to assemble nail-and-dynamite bombs in the basement when suddenly there was an explosion. The explosion instantly killed the three assembling the bomb and Cathy and the other woman emerged from the burning rubble in various states of undress and were taken in by a neighbor to shower and borrow clothes; they then told the neighbor they were going to go to a pharmacy and went underground for the next decade.
Among the neighbors who narrowly escaped an even larger explosion (since there was other unignited dynamite found in the ruins later) was a young Dustin Hoffman who was renting the house (no. 16) next door. (Odd little celebrity sighting—in one photo I found he is salvaging a painting from the subsequent fire.)
The ruins were left untouched for around eight years as the neighborhood balked at the modernist angular design plan put forward by the architect Hugh Hardy, who had purchased the property. Eventually he sold the property and the plan was modified so that it wasn’t so inconsistent with surrounding buildings even as it retained some of the angularity (this is the design you can see today). For many years, passer-bys were greeted by a Paddington Bear who stood guard over the house in the large picture window jutting out towards the street. A couple of years ago, some hedge fund-type bought the house and so no more Paddington Bear.
James Merrill wrote the following poem after the explosion of his birth house (can’t say I entirely follow this particular poem, but I really like the collection it is part of, Braving the Elements, published in 1972):
“18 West 11th Street,” by James Merrill
In what at least
Seemed anger the Aquarians in the basement
Had been perfecting a device
For making sense to us
If only briefly and on pain
Of incommunication ever after.
Now look who’s here. Our prodigal
Sunset. Just passing though from Isfahan.
Filled by him the glass
Disorients. The swallow-flights
Go world by numbskull word
--Rebellion . . . Pentagon . . . Black Studies—
Crashing into irreality,
Plumage and parasites
Plus who knows what of the reptilian,
Till wit turns on the artificial lights
Or heaven changes. The maid,
Silent, pale as any victim,
Comes in, identifies;
Yet brings new silver, gives rise to the joint,
The presidency’s ritual eclipse.
Take. Eat. His body to our lips. The point
Was anger, brother? Love? Dear premises
Vainly exploded, vainly dwelt upon.
Item: the carpet.
Identical bouquets on black, rose-dusted
Face in fifty funeral parlors,
Scentless and shaven, wall-to-wall
Extravagance without variety. . .
That morning’s buzzing vacuum be fed
By ash of metropolitan evening’s
Smoker inveterate between hot bouts
Of gloating over scrollwork,
The piano (three-legged by then like a thing in a riddle)
Fingered itself provocatively. Tones
Jangling whose tuner slept, moon’s camphor mist
On the parterre compounding
Chromatic muddles which the limpid trot
Flew to construe. Up from the camellias
Sent them by your great-great-grandfather,
Ghosts in dwarf sateen and miniver
Flitted once more askew
Through Les Sylphides. The fire was dead. Each summer,
While onto white keys miles from here
Warm salt chords kept breaking, snapping the strings,
The carpet—its days numbered—
Hatched another generation
Of strong-jawed, light-besotted saboteurs.
Kept track above the mantel. The cold caught,
One birthday in its shallows, racked
The weak frame, glazed with sleet
Overstuffed aunt and walnut uncle. Book
You could not read. Some utterly
Longed-for present meeting other eyes’
Blue arsenal of homemade elegies,
Duds every one. The deed
Diffused. Your breakfast Mirror put
Late to bed, a fever
Flashing through the veins of linotype:
NIX ON PEACE BIDPROPHET STONED
FIVE FEARED DEAD IN BOMBED DWELLING
--Bulletin-pocked columns, molten font
Features would rise from, nose for news
Atwitch, atchoo, God bless you!
Brought to your sense (five feared? not one bit)
Who walking home took in
The ruin. The young linden opposite
Shocked leafless. Item: the March dawn.
Shards of a blackened witness still in place.
The charred ice-sculpture garden
Beams fell upon. The cold blue searching beams.
Then all you sought
No longer, B came bearing. An arrangement
In time known simply as That June—
Fat snifter filled with morbidest
Possibly meat-eating flowers,
So hairy-stemmed, red-muscled, not to be pressed.
Pinhead notions underwater, yours,
Quicksilvered them afresh.
You let pass certain telltale prints
Left upon her in the interim
By that winter’s person, where he touched her.
Still in her life now, was he, feeling the dim
Projection of your movie on his sheet?
Feeling how you reached past B towards him,
Brothers in grievance? But who grieves!
The night she left (“One day you’ll understand”)
You stood under the fruitless tree. The streetlight
Cast false green fires about, a tragic
Carpet of shadows of blossoms, shadows of leaves.
You understood. You would not seek rebirth
As a Dalmatian stud or Tiny Tim.
Discolorations from within, dry film
Run backwards, parching, scorching, to consume
Whatever filled you to the brim,
Fierce tongue, black
Fumes massing forth once more on
Waterstilts that fail them. The
Commissioner unswears his oath. Sea serpent
Hoses recoil, the siren drowns in choking
Wind. The crowd has thinned to a coven
Rigorously chosen from so many called. Our
Instant trance. The girl’s
Appearance now among us, as foreseen
Naked, frail but fox-eyed, head to toe
(Having passed through the mirror)
Adorned with heavy shreds of ribbon
Sluggish to bleed. She stirs, she moans the name
Adam. And is gone. By her own
Broom swept clean, god, stop, behind this
Drunken backdrop of debris, airquake,
Flame in bloom—a pigeon’s throat
Lifting, the puddle
Healed. To let:
Cream paint, brown ivy, brickflush. Eye
Of the old journalist unwavering
Through guaze. Forty-odd years gone by.
Toy blocks. Church bells. Original vacancy.
O deepening spring.