The Yorkville home of a children’s book heroine

Is this beautiful Queen Anne corner townhouse at 558 East 87th Street the fictional home of Harriet M. Welsch, the 11-year-old heroine of the beloved 1964 children’s classic Harriet the Spy?

That’s the conclusion of real-estate writers and online sleuths. The actual address of Harriet’s house is never named in the story about a city girl who spies on her neighbors and earns the ire of her friends for writing about them in her notebook.

But this impressive residence, part of a group of contiguous homes built in 1881 for “persons of moderate means,” according to the Landmarks Preservation Committee, fits the description of the house based on the book.

With its tower and turrets, it sure looks like a place that would nurture a curious kid.

The first chapter gives readers an early clue. Harriet and her best friend, Sport, are in the “courtyard of Harriet’s house on East Eighty-Seventh Street in Manhattan,” wrote author Louise Fitzhugh.

Perhaps the courtyard is Henderson Place, the charming alley off East 86th Street, which the back of the house would face.

Harriet’s bedroom is on the third floor, the story tells us. “It was small and cozy and the bathroom was a little one which looked out over the park across the street.” Carl Schurz Park is right across the street.

Harriet attends the Gregory School, we learn. “It was on East End Avenue, a few blocks from Harriet’s house and across the street from Charles Schurz Park.”

The Chapin School is on East End Avenue and 84th Street and may have been Harriet’s school.

If this isn’t Harriet’s exact house, East End Avenue in the 80s is certainly her world. The book takes readers through Harriet’s spy route, where she stands in an alley on York Avenue to observe the Dei Santis grocery store. She also watches a man named Harrison Withers, who lives in a boarding house on 82nd Street.

Also on her route is a “duplex” on East 88th Street, where a couple who never speak to each other live.

One morning on the way to school she walks through Carl Schurz Park. “She crossed East End at the corner of 86th and walked through the park, climbing the small hill up through the early morning onto the esplanade, and finally sat, plunk on a bench, right by the river’s edge,” wrote Fitzhugh.

Fitzhugh would have known the neighborhood well; she lived on East 85th Street. Like East 87th, her block was in the Henderson Place Historic District.

Number 558 was up for sale in 2016 (interior photos are still on Streeteasy) for $5 million. At the time, the New York Post noted that the house had a dumbwaiter that serves the dining room from the kitchen.

As fans of the book know, Harriet uses a dumbwaiter to spy on her rich neighbor, Mrs. Plumber.

[Third photo: MCNY x2010.11.5744]

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6 Responses to “The Yorkville home of a children’s book heroine”

  1. Dymoon Says:

    this is a great read for an early start to the day.., thanks!

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thanks Dymoon! I just wish the photos came out a little brighter to show off this lovely home.

  3. Benjamin Feldman Says:

    Margaret Wise Brown, author of Goodnight Moon and 103 other children’s books, loved just up the Avenue at #186 East End Avenue in adjoining apartments with her lover Michael Strange (whose real name was Blanche Oelrichs) after they cohabited at Strange’s apartment at 10 Gracie Square during her divorce from her second husband, Harrison Tweed, (her first was John Barrymore). Brown maintained a writing studio in a backlot former dairyman’s cottage dating probably to the 1840s that was saved by preservationists in 1967 when the entire block front on the western side of York Avenue between 71st and 72nd Street was cleared for the Mary Manning Walsh Nursing Home. The house was put on a flatbed truck and moved downtown to a vacant lot at the northeast corner of Greenwich and Charles Streets, where it sits to this day. The house formed the model for “Mister Dog,” Brown’s last book, illustrated by Garth Williams, and published posthumously if I recall correctly after Brown’s tragic death at age 42 in the middle of her affiancement to James “Pebbles” Stillman Rockefeller… For more about that story, heavily illustrated, see my essay “Mister Dog”: http://newyorkwanderer.com/mister-dog/

    • trilby1895 Says:

      Thank you, sir, for this most fascinating entry! I remember with great pleasure reading these books to my children and then, when they’d learned to read by themselves, watching their reading own pleasure. “Goodnight, Moon” was the very first book which I gave my granddaughter.

  4. David H Lippman Says:

    Harriet the Spy…never read it, but everybody I know in school DID.

  5. Jill Says:

    So happy to know Harriet lived in such a magical looking house.

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