The story of the West Village’s St. John’s Colony

West Village blocks don’t get any lovelier than West 11th Street (below) and Perry Street (bottom photo), two slender old streets lined with mostly well-tended brownstones and brick houses—particularly the stretch west of Seventh Avenue South.

West11thstreet

As picturesque as they are, there’s a secret hiding between these parallel blocks: Go through the horse walk between them (which is private, so you need access from a resident), and you’ll come upon a backyard garden with winding paths, places to sit, and a romantic, artsy vibe.

West11thstreetgarden

What’s the backstory? The garden and the brownstones surrounding them were christened in the early 20th century by a real-estate savvy reverend as “St. John’s Colony.”

West11thstreetgardenchurch

In the early 1900s, the reverend, John Armstrong Wade, led the church that still occupies the corner of Waverly and West 11th Streets, St. John’s in the Village.

Established in 1853, St. John’s built a church with ionic columns (below, in 1970), and the congregation grew along with the neighborhood through the 19th century.

But neighborhoods change, and what were once more middle-class, single-family brownstones were chopped into apartments, which became rundown.

With Rev. Wade at the helm, St. John’s decided to buy up some of the neighboring houses on West 11th and Perry Streets (below, in 1930), with the idea of renovating them to attract more stable residents and keep the parish from having to relocate uptown, like so many downtown churches did at the time.

West11thstreet1930nypl2

“Believing property to be a sound investment, and hoping to keep stable the area adjoining the church property, the vestry began with the acquisition of 224 West 11th Street, to purchase what came to be St. John’s Colony,” states the website for St. John’s.

Soon, properties on Perry Street were also purchased by St. John’s, and the development of the backyard garden was underway.

“Thus, St. John’s Colony began,” states an unidentified article from 1927, reproduced on St. John’s website. “One by one the houses were acquired. One by one under Mr. Wade’s guidance they were changed from common, drab tenements into unusual apartments of distinction and charm.”

Wset11thstreetmarycantwellbook“Fences and rubbish were cleared away and the little back yards were thrown into one—a large, open space where sunshine and space could have sway. Paths were laid out, trees and shrubs planted, and today this garden of St. John’s is unique in the garden history of New York.”

In the 1950s, writer Mary Cantwell and her husband moved into 224 West 11th Street, which she recalls in her beautifully written 1995 memoir, Manhattan, When I Was Young.

“Between West 11th and Perry Street, “and hidden from passersby, was perhaps the most secret of all the Village’s secret gardens,” wrote Cantwell. “It was very large, with two fountains, a small stone alter, private sitting areas at the rear of each basement apartment, a towering catalpa tree which in spring had a haunting, peppery scent, rose of Sharon bushes and spirea and a community of box turtles, invisible in winter and shy in summer.”

Wset11thstreetgardenfacingperry

“Once there had been peacocks, too, spreading their tails along the paved pathways,” wrote Cantwell.

In 1971, the original St. John’s church was destroyed in a fire. A new building replaced it in 1974 and still stands today (below). In the 1980s, St. John’s began selling off some of the houses of St. John’s Colony, according to a 1995 New York Times article.

Sthjohnschurch

By the mid-1990s, St. John’s wanted to “relinquish its rights and responsibilities” regarding the garden, the Times wrote, because it was costly to maintain.

Today, does St. John’s still have a stake in St. John’s Colony? I’m not sure, but the garden seems to open to the back of the church. Perhaps church leaders decided that the peace and beauty there was worth the price of upkeep.

Perrystreet

[Fourth photo: St John’s Church, 1970, MCNY 2013.3.2.1623; Fifth photo: NYPL 1930; Sixth image: “St. John’s Gardens-Greenwich Village,” 1945, by Josephine Barry/MCNY 75.43.89; seventh image: Publishers Weekly]

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8 Responses to “The story of the West Village’s St. John’s Colony”

  1. Lifestyle: The story of the West Village’s St. John’s Colony — Ephemeral New York – The Urban Fishing Pole: Cigar Blogger, Lifestyle Says:

    […] via The story of the West Village’s St. John’s Colony — Ephemeral New York […]

  2. Alice 7777 Says:

    Wow!

    Alice

    >

  3. Bob Says:

    From:
    St. John’s in the Village
    Parish Profile
    May, 2017

    “The St. John’s Colony Trust.

    “In the early 1900s, the Reverend John Armstrong Wade, the seventh rector, and the Vestry
    acquired several properties adjacent to the church buildings, which were then rented to writers and artists. A beautiful garden was planted behind the residences. This project became known as the St. John’s Colony. Notable residents included Kirk Douglas, Eva La
    Gallienne, May Swenson, and Justin O’Brien.
    “By the early 1970s, the St John’s Colony had become a financial burden. The Vestry determined that the amount of time spent by the staff on the buildings and the high cost of maintenance required a change. In 1977, St John’s started to sell off the properties in the Colony. The proceeds from these sales formed the basis of the parish’s current endowment, the St John’s Colony Trust.

    “In the early 1990s, St. John’s also relinquished its easement and withdrew its maintenance
    of the large Colony Garden, saving the parish $10,000 a year, the cost of maintaining a
    space used mainly by the owners of the town houses surrounding it and only rarely by the
    parish.

    (WARNING: PDF!)

    Click to access SJIV+Parish+Profile+0501+TO+POST+ONLINE.pdf

    • Bob Says:

      The April/May 1996 garden easement sale documents are available online at the ACRIS website of the New York City Department of Finance, Office of the City Register, for the church property identified on the City’s records as Manhattan, Block 613, Lot 23.

  4. Sally F Says:

    Love this post!

  5. Tom B Says:

    Whenever my cynical mind sees a story about fixing up “common drab tenements into unusual apartments of distinction and charm” I think Gentrification, the evil of NYC. This place is beautiful. Hope it stays that way for a long time.

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