Harrison Street’s stunning 1820s row houses

They sparkle like 19th century gems against drab Independence Plaza: nine Federal–style, red-brick beauties with signature dormer windows and peaked roofs.

And though this L-shaped enclave of lovely homes and leafy backyards look like they’ve stood side by side on Tribeca’s Harrison Street since they were built between the 1790s and 1820s, only six are original to this Belgian block corner at Greenwich Street.

Three others were trucked in from a now-demapped stretch of Washington Street during a vast historic preservation effort in the 1970s—one that was derided by architectural critics but the contemporary city is richer for.

Forget the 1970s for a moment and go back in time to the city’s booming post-colonial era. Private homes (like these in an illustration of Greenwich Street) built in the modest yet fashionable Federal style were sprouting up as far north as Bleecker Street.

Federal-style row houses fanned out east along the Bowery and west to Harrison Street, which was once the “bouwerie” of settler Annetje Jens (“a little woman with merry eyes beneath her Dutch cap and a fondness for bright clothing” her biographer says) and then the site of Harrison Brewery.

From the early 1800s to the Civil War, this Lower West Side area formed a well-to-do neighborhood where prosperous residents built homes: dry goods sellers, printers. John McComb Jr., the architect who designed City Hall, Gracie Mansion, built two of the Harrison Street homes.

Like so many other downtown neighborhoods, this enclave lost its cache after the Civil War. They houses fell into disrepair. Two were combined into boardinghouses populated by poor immigrants, and some of the ground floors turned into storefronts.

What had once been an exclusive residential area was now home to industry and commerce, with the bustling produce sellers of Washington Market a stone’s throw from Harrison Street.

Through the 20th century, the homes remained shadows of what they once were, with dormer windows boarded up and storefronts abandoned. But in the 1960s, with Washington Market now gone, New York City historians took notice.

“At the same time that the World Trade Center was being built, from 1969 to 1973, a wide swath of buildings north of Chambers Street along the Hudson River was being cleared for the Washington Market Urban Renewal Area,” wrote Christopher Grey in a New York  Times article in 2001.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission decided to preserve the six houses on Harrison and Greenwich Streets, while saving and moving three more Federal-style survivors on a stretch of Washington Street that was slated to for development.

Once all nine houses were on Harrison Street in an L formation (six facing the street, and three to the side), the architectural firm in charge of Independence Plaza restored them to their former glory.

Some critics at the time found the restoration synthetic. Paul Goldberger wrote in 1979’s The City Observed, “There are facades at Disneyland that look more real, and all that these houses make you want to do is run back again across Greenwich Street where old buildings are still real and not kept alive by artificial respirator,” according to the Times story.

Four decades have since passed, and unless you look closely, it’s difficult to notice that the facades only date back to the 1970s. This auspicious plan to save six of the city’s oldest private homes should be considered a success, especially for the lucky owners.

In the 1970s, “[T]he city offered the houses for sale, with unfinished interiors, for $35,000 to $75,000, and began transferring title in 1976,” wrote Gray.

In October 2016, 27A Harrison Street was listed at $7.9 million!

[Third image: NYPL; Fourth image: NYC Department of Records’ Fifth Image: MCNY 2013.3.1.721; Sixth Image: MCNY 2013.3.1.284]

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8 Responses to “Harrison Street’s stunning 1820s row houses”

  1. Susie Says:

    Wow, this is a great cluster of row houses! Love the historic photos, too.

  2. Zoe Says:

    This is a very interesting post Ephemeral. I can see both sides stated above. It’s difficult to gauge the line between preservation & fantasy.

    I stumbled upon a row of Federal houses w/ stone or block street whilst rushing to meet a friend for a play west of there somewhere. (C. 1988 small thespian company production of Taming of the Shrew that her drama/acting prof./coach or a fellow actor was involved in). It was very romantic under a grey NYC evening sky & I’ve remembered walking through there all these years.

    I have since wondered about the exact location of that magical street (or close or mews) I walked through. Although I remember it as a row of white wooden houses w/ dark blue shutters (?). Is there another block/street/close/mews of Federal houses preserved that far downtown? (Like those I’ve described).

    Re. used as “rooming houses”. When I researched my grandfather’s census records I found someone w/ his name (from Lebanon) in a rooming house in downtown Manhattan in the 1910 census. The abbreviated names that Syrian Christians used on ship’s manifests etc. (baptismal first name & baptismal first name of father vs. family name) result in having more common names. So I’m not positive. But he arrived shortly before then & that person is gone in the next census — after he travelled to meet his brothers out west — so I think it may be him.

    I wonder if he stayed in one of these houses in your post! I will have to research the street address again. (Perhaps you can tell me in what neighbourhood the address was in later. I can look online to see if the building still exists).

  3. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    As I’m sure you know Lower Manhattan along Washington Street was a Syrian Christian neighborhood—with Syrian meaning anyone from Turkey, Greece, Lebanon, even Armenia, I believe. Many New Yorkers thought they were quite exotic, but of course the whole neighborhood was gone once the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel was built.

    • Zoe Says:

      Lots of LOVE for Little Syria Ephemeral. Which included the three remaining buildings that ‘Save Washington Street’ is trying to preserve. One of them a Melkite Church.

      I don’t expect anyone to read the Bildungs Roman (long life story novels) I post here (apologies Phem!); but I wrote about my grandfather coming down there & getting a job as a waterboy from there — on the railroad to get to his brothers in Ohio. (Forgot which post of yours now).

      Also Jewish Syrians lived there (according to something I read… re. ‘Save Washington Street’ I think… possibly on their website). Many elderly Syrian American Jews & Christians (& a few muslims?) lived in the same neighbourhoods according to the recently passed Jack Shaheen — the archivist & professor & author. (Memory eternal). (Please see his archive donated to NYU on misrepresentation of ‘Arabs’ in film & television). That’s what he described of his dad’s pre-WWII generation Syrians; Jewish & Christian. He said they all wanted to be near their same foods. I believe he said half-jokingly “pickles”! He said that changed after 1948 & then 1967. People took sides & older generations that lived side by side moved or passed on. That was true of the LES/Klein Deutschland & later Yorkville also. German Jews & Christians living side by side in NY. Which of course happened again as ethnic enclaves disappeared.

      The Phillip Hitti book really describes the Little Syria neighbourhood downtown. (Early & mid 20th c. Lebanese American scholar historian of Syrian ‘Arab’ Americans). I’m despondent over having missed last year’s Ellis Island show ‘Little Syria’…

      And I hope people realise that “Syrian” did not refer to the modern nation state; but rather greater Syria which included Lebanon & Palestine & part of Jordan. And that most Syrians here then were Christians from Lebanon.

      Re. your quote about people of other heritage finding Syrians downtown (& later on & around Atlantic Ave in Brooklyn) “exotic”; please enjoy the following quote about Boston Syrians (from my reading about Gibran Khalil Gibran):

      “The Syrians are nearly all peddlers if they are anything. There are very few of them in the South End outside of Oliver Place. Next to the Chinese, who can never be in any real sense American, they are the most foreign of all our foreigners. Whether on the streets in their oriental costumes, or in their rooms gathered about a Turkish pipe, they are apart from us…” ~ Associated Charities of Boston, 1892, Robert Woods, editor, The City of Wilderness pp. 36-37

      This quote always makes me laugh! As not much has changed regarding how people view us… OR Chinese Americans. “Next to the Chinese, who can never be in any real sense American, they are the most foreign of all our foreigners.” This could have been written last week about us.

    • Zoe Says:

      Dearest ephemeral Ephemeral:

      I forgot to mention: The Facebook account for a fairly recent exhibit on Little Syria has a LOT of truly amazing & sweet photos on it; as well as profiles of people. It went up before the exhibit. (& I still managed to know nothing about it till it was over!). I took a lot of screenshots & want to blow some up. It took place in the old neighbourhood. In some sort of gallery? shop? company? (I’ve forgotten). I think it preceded the Ellis Island exhibit by several years (?).

  4. Ursula Sommer Says:

    >

  5. Tom B Says:

    NYC is constantly changing before our eyes from it’s very beginning. The big difference now is only the very rich or the very poor can afford to be in NYC.

  6. David Lippman Says:

    I remember these houses from when I was a kid, and they were starting to build Independence Plaza. The whole area was empty, except for lampposts and streets. Glad they preserved the houses.

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