A secret alley behind a street in Hell’s Kitchen

Is there anything quite as enchanting as coming across a quiet hidden courtyard in the middle of a dense Manhattan neighborhood?

It’s especially magical when the courtyard is just a quick walk from the hustle and bustle of Times Square. That was my reaction when I took a walk through tiny Clinton Court in Hell’s Kitchen.

This secret space is about halfway down the busy tenement block between 9th and 10th Avenues. It’s accessible through a long slender walkway behind a heavy iron door, which you can find to the right of the residence at 422 West 46th Street.

The door is locked, of course. But it’s worth the trip if you can catch a glimpse of the courtyard from the street through the door.

And if you can convince a resident to let you in and see Clinton Court up close, you’ll want to grab your camera.

Clinton Court is an oasis of tall trees and lush gardens. The courtyard is steps from the back entrances for 420 and 422 West 46th Street (with their ivy-covered walls).

And right in the center is an entirely separate carriage house, with a facade right out of New Orleans or Paris, or a fairy tale.

The carriage house has an unclear history. It was probably built in 1871 by the builder who put up the tenement at number 422.

This was approximately 20 years after 420 West 46th Street went up in the 1850s—before Hell’s Kitchen filled up and became a poor Irish neighborhood of factories, warehouses, and small businesses in the decades after the Civil War. (And long before the neighborhood got its colorful nickname.)

The carriage house “had horse stalls on the ground floor, but occupancy of the upper floors at this time is unclear—in the 1880’s a milkman, Jacob Michels, occupied the entire structure,” wrote Christopher Gray in a 1992 New York Times piece.

Yet some sources have it that the carriage house dates back to the 1820s and was owned by George Clinton, governor of New York at the turn of the 19th century and a descendant of DeWitt Clinton, who has a park named after him in the neighborhood.

With Halloween coming up, it might be worth mentioning that a couple of sources claims the place is haunted either by Governor Clinton himself, one of his kids, or by an executed British Revolutionary War sailor named Old Moor, as the site of Clinton Court occupies an former potter’s field cemetery.

The carriage house’s history becomes clearer in the 20th century. “In 1919, Raffaello and Frank Menconi, prominent architectural sculptors, purchased both 420 and 422 and merged the lots,” wrote Gray.

The Menconis are the designers behind the flagpole bases outside the New York Public Library, among other city sculpture icons.

“They added a one-story studio with a skylight on the rear lot of 420 and occupied the entire rear building for their business.”

[ALL PHOTOS © EPHEMERAL NEW YORK]

In 1958, the tenements at 420 and 422 West 46th Street, the carriage house, and the studio became one single apartment complex entity, says Gray—serene seclusion steeped in New York history and mere steps from Midtown.

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23 Responses to “A secret alley behind a street in Hell’s Kitchen”

  1. Audrey Burtrum-Stanley Says:

    There is yet another of these tucked-away gardens-of-delight in NYC. Although I have not seen this place, I have read several accounts of the sculpture, water-features, trees, shrubs and the array of interesting neighbors, all nestled around this tiny jewel of a garden space framed by rowhouses. It is called: ‘TURTLE BAY GARDENS.’

    Two of the residents who lived side-by-side were the late-Kate Hepburn (actress) and Stephen Sondheim (composer). Their back patio areas were divided by a hint-of-a-wall / mid-calf tall. Being very busy personalities, even though they had dwelled there many years, they did not visit and rarely saw oneanother.

    There is a tale of Sondheim trying to get a song composed. He played the same stanza over and over into the wee morning. The sound-proofing must be LACKING between the old residences as Hepburn was kept awake by this repeating musical presentation. She was angry. The woman rose from her bed and marched into his nextdoor patio.

    Sondheim told a TV Talk Show — he was growing weary and glanced towards his French doors. Suddenly shocked, like a midnight apparition was the face of Kate Hepburn mashed up to the door’s windows. The great actress was in an old, well-worn robe was enduring a heavy rain. The glowering expression on her dripping, grim face told him — ‘STOP THE MUSIC NOW.’ Hahahahaaa…

  2. carolegill Says:

    so beautiful. thanks,Emphemeral!

  3. John Lynch Says:

    Great find. Really enjoy these kinds of places.

  4. Dymoon Says:

    another block buster, loved this interlude!!

  5. Ty Says:

    Wow. I lived in a backyard tenement at 230 West 16th nowhere near as beautiful as this. The tenements were built in 1910 and took the place of stables. The building tilted to the east with exposed bricks set so haphazardly I had holes in my wall opening to the outside. You walked through the “horse walk” to get there.

    The landlord tore down the rear building at 232 but there was still never any light and moss grew on everything in the summer.

    My black cat, Portnoy, liked it. He’d sit on the fence stalking pigeons for hours but was too domesticated to catch anything not in a can. Every Halloween I’d bring him out to pose next to the pumpkin for people’s pictures.

  6. Slow Nature Fast City Says:

    Thanks for the inspiration! I’m going out today to walk through Clinton Court.

  7. peopleplaceswords Says:

    magical! wonderful to know it is there, even if off limits.

  8. Velvethead Says:

    Wow! What a cool property.

  9. Zoe Says:

    This is simply unfair!

    Most of my places in NYC looked either like Ralph & Alice Kramden’s Brooklyn apartment in the original Honeymooners or the apartment in the film Eraserhead (inc. perpetually hissing radiator).

  10. Paula Says:

    Lived here during the late 70’s and early 80’s. The West 40’s were a different world then. But, CC was a secret place. The sound of horse hooves and boat whistles transported you back in time.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Wow, this must have been wonderful. I had the good fortune of living in Patchin Place for several years, so I know how transporting it is to close the private gate behind you and feel like you’ve shaken off the modern city!

    • Zoe Says:

      Thanks for that visceral description Paula. Lucky you!

  11. Kevin Walsh Says:

    How did you get back there?

  12. Ty Says:

    All we need is Daytonian to show up and we’ll have a quorum of NYC history bloggers.

  13. NYC's Most Charming Spot Is Just 4 Blocks From Times Square - Jamair.TV Says:

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  15. Paula Says:

    Another memory…a fourth floor walk up, brick wall, fireplace and a skylight. Yes, a magical secret. The two outer buildings were combined with a central stair. On one side you walked in on a flush floor… the other, your had to step down. I think all the units were small studios, some with an alcove.

  16. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    An insider’s view…thanks Paula!

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