This alley was once an exclusive New York street

These days, it’s a dark, narrow footpath between Laight and Beach Streets in Tribeca, with Belgian block paving yet no streetlights or street signs telling you where exactly you are.

But in the 19th century, this was St. John’s Lane, a rich and fashionable residential street that faced the back of St. John’s Chapel (below) on adjacent Varick Street.

Completed in 1807, St. John’s Chapel and nearby St. John’s Park (or Hudson Square, as it was supposed to be called originally) were the centerpieces of the booming city’s new St. John’s Park neighborhood.

By the 1820s, what was once a swampy area called Lispenard’s Meadows in colonial times had become a posh, genteel English-style enclave for Knickerbocker merchants and other well-heeled professionals whose fortunes rose in the first half of the 19th century.

Trinity Church owned the land, and church officials sold lots surrounding the private park to upscale buyers. (They tried to rent them at first, but New York’s wealthy didn’t like that arrangement.)

Those buyers in turn built Georgian-style row houses surrounding the park and chapel. They also fenced in the park and planted beautiful gardens.

“Catalpas and cottonwoods, horse chestnut and silver birch trees were planted throughout, and gravel paths wound among them and the ornamental shrubs and flower beds,” wrote Charles Lockwood in Manhattan Moves Uptown.

St. John’s Park had a well-deserved reputation as a polite and refined neighborhood with a peaceful green space. But its standing changed when Cornelius Vanderbilt put down railroad tracks on one side of the park. In the late 1860s, Trinity Church sold the park to Vanderbilt, who built a railroad station where once were flowers and trees.

The rich left, and their homes became boarding houses and tenements. Commercial enterprises and poorer New Yorkers moved in.

St. John’s Lane still survives in a once-again-posh Tribeca, unmarked and unknown. A plaque at Albert Capsouto Park on Canal Street recalls St. John’s Park as well.

The gorgeous chapel itself hung on until 1918, when it was bulldozed. You can still see images of it at the Canal Street 1 train station, where it’s memorialized on the subway mosaics opposite the platform.

[Second image: unknown; third image: NYPL; fourth image: Wikipedia; fifth image: NYPL]

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10 Responses to “This alley was once an exclusive New York street”

  1. Benjamin Feldman Says:

    A wondeerful post! For more about St. John’s Park and its storied architect, click here:
    http://newyorkwanderer.com/a-tribeca-palimpsest-from-days-gone-by/

  2. Ruth-Ann Rosenthal Says:

    Another great post.

  3. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thank you! I like to walk along it and imagine the refined folks from the 1830s and 1840s dandying around, going to church, enjoying their private park without any idea that in a generation it would all be over.

  4. Timothy Grier Says:

    Does anyone know if NYC is preserving old Belgian block streets or are they replacing them with asphalt when they need maintenance or upgrades? Thanks and love your blog!

  5. Greg Says:

    The depot replaced the park, actually.

  6. Edward Says:

    Can you imagine a private company taking over a city park and destroying it wholesale nowadays? Guess there were zero zoning laws back then!

    • Benjamin Feldman Says:

      It happens in NYC all the time…
      Witness Barry Diller’s failed attempt to take over the Cunard White Star pier at 15th St in the North River recently. The husbanding of community resources is constantly being mis-directed for personal aggrandizement by rapacious developers…

  7. David Lippman Says:

    Fascinating post on a forgotten street that deserves to be remembered.

  8. A child’s casket emerges in a Hudson Street park | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Burying Ground (above and at right), run by Trinity Church for the worshipers at nearby St. John’s Chapel, since demolished, according to the New York Cemetery […]

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