The tiny historic district on an East Village block

From its Dutch colonial beginning as Peter Stuyvesant’s bouwerie to its later incarnation as a haven for immigrants and artists, the East Village is steeped in history.

Several historic districts acknowledge this rich backstory. But one of the most overlooked is the East 10th Street Historic District, perhaps because it’s so small. The entire district is merely a one-block stretch of 26 row houses and tenements that got its start when Tompkins Square, just across the street, was in the idea stage.

The beginning of East 10th Street goes back to the 1820s, when the heirs of Peter Stuyvesant, former governor-general of New Amsterdam, started selling off parcels of land from his estate.

The growing city of New York at that time was pushing its boundaries beyond Houston Street, and fine row houses for the wealthy were going up on Bond Street, Lafayette Street, and the newly created St. Marks Place.

In 1833, the Stuyvesant descendants sold all the lots on East 10th Street between Avenues A and B to a respected residential developer named Thomas E. Davis—the man who turned St. Marks Place into a stylish enclave, according to the East 10th Street Historic District Designation Report. (Below, an 1833 map with St. Marks Street already on it, while East 10th Street is undeveloped.)

“It was a savvy business move,” states the report, “for that same year the state legislature passed an act creating a public square just across the street on the blocks between East 7th Street and East 10th Street from Avenues A to B.”

Then and now, building in New York City is never easy. While the city was laying out and fencing in Tompkins Square in the 1830s, Davis was figuring out how to shore up the swampy ground under East 10th Street. (He likely didn’t want the homes that would eventually be built here to suffer the fate of the new houses that went up around the Bowery in the 1820s, which soon began sinking into the ground.)

Finally in the 1840s, with the city recovering from the Panic of 1837, the first houses were finished in this much-anticipated new residential district. Number 301, on the far right in the photo above, was completed in 1844, notes the designation report. Within the decade, several others would go up as well, designed in the popular Italianate style as well as Greek Revival.

The first residents of the row houses, however, may not have been the prominent New Yorkers their designers had hoped for. The report explains that in the 1840s and 1850s they were occupied by a ship joiner, a merchant, a butcher, a Rabbi, and a purveyor of artificial flowers. By this time, the city’s elite were moving northward to Union Square and Gramercy Park.

“The elegant row houses of East 10th Street were built at the beginning of a radical demographic shift in New York City that would swell the city’s population and completely transform entire neighborhoods, including the still-developing area around Tompkins Square,” states the report.

Their time as single-family row houses overlooking a peaceful square was ending. The East 10th Street homes were subdivided into separate apartments in the coming decades of the later 19th century; on the eastern end of the street, tenement-style buildings, like the ones above, would be constructed.

“By 1860 the block on East 10th Street facing Tompkins Square was nearly complete, with almost every lot improved with a substantial brick building that survives to this day,” notes the report. One exception: the Tompkins Square Branch of the New York Public Library, an elegant Classical Revival building designed by McKim, Mead, and White and completed in 1904 (below photo, middle).

Through the 20th century, many of the buildings have had facelifts, and demographic changes once again influenced the type of residents living inside them.

East Tenth Street’s development mirrors the development of the neighborhood, and as you walk past these lovely buildings, you can feel that adrenaline rush of potential and possibilities that continues to draw people to the East Village.

[Third image: Hooker’s New Pocket Plan of the City of New York; sixth image: “Tompkins Park, N.Y. City,” Saul Kovner, 1934]

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9 Responses to “The tiny historic district on an East Village block”

  1. The tiny historic district on an East Village block — Ephemeral New York | By the Mighty Mumford Says:

    […] The tiny historic district on an East Village block — Ephemeral New York […]

  2. Bill Wolfe Says:

    That library is a beauty. What an asset for the people of this neighborhood.

  3. countrypaul Says:

    It may have been from this blog that I learned that the remaining two-block vestige of Stuyvesant Street is the last true east-west street in that “upper downtown” area of Manhattan. Very interesting post – thank you!

  4. Ruth Cassell Says:

    Does anyone remember the Engage coffeehouse on this block?

  5. ninagrandiose Says:

    Was the library originally built as a library?

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I believe so—it was an era when great architects constructed public buildings for the common good.

  6. Keith Goldstein Says:

    My first apartment in NYC was in 323 E.10th Street, 1977-81.

  7. Terijo Says:

    Re: 297 E. 10th St.(two bldgs in from corner of Ave A) was owned since the 1930s by Dr.I. Grossman, as a plaque on it indicates.
    I remember it well as my father and Dr.Grossman’s son, Morris, went to Colombia U. and played chess together there after WWII. I was taken to a party there in the mid-1950s and had to hide on the staircase with my mother to avoid to bumping into her mother, with whom she was astranged. It was the closest I ever got to my grandmother.
    I lived in Paradise Alley at 501 E. 11th St. in the 60’s and walked by the bldg. all the time and always noticed the plaque.

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