One of the earliest known spaces in New York that would now be regarded as LGBT-related was Pfaff’s, operated from 1859 to 1864 by German-born proprietor Charles Ignatius Pfaff. It was a Rathskeller-like beer and wine cellar restaurant in the Coleman House Hotel, extending into the sidewalk vaults (basement area below the sidewalk), that became a favorite haunt of the Bohemians of the 1850s, including artists, writers, and actors.
Walt Whitman, a journalist for some 15 years in Brooklyn and Manhattan, was a central figure here from 1859 to 1862.
“[The] vault at Pfaff’s where the drinkers and laughers meet to eat and drink and carouse, while on the walk immediately overhead pass the myriad feet of Broadway…”
At the time, Whitman was living with his young lover Fred Vaughn in Brooklyn, and they could often be seen together at the same table at Pfaff’s. Whitman had begun writing poetry, which he first collected into Leaves of Grass in 1855. His sensual poetry was considered by many at the time to be controversial and “offensive.” Around 1859, Whitman wrote twelve famously homoerotic “Calamus” poems, celebrating the manly love of comrades, that were included in the 1860 edition of Leaves and made Whitman iconic in the United States and Europe as one of the first people to openly express the concept of men loving men.
Biographers Ed Folsom and Kenneth Price wrote that Whitman met John Frederick Schiller “Fred” Gray in the summer of 1862 and both belonged to a group at Pfaff’s known as the “Fred Gray Association,” described as “a loose confederation of young men who seemed anxious to explore new possibilities of male-male affection.” Whitman left for Washington, D.C., later that year to attend to Civil War soldiers.
Although the underground vaulted space of Pfaff’s has been destroyed, the Coleman House Hotel, with its basement, survives.