Archive for the ‘West Village’ Category

From posh residences to art movie theater, the many lives of two Bleecker Street houses

May 29, 2023

Near the corner of Bleecker Street and LaGuardia Place stand what remains of two houses. At almost 200 years old, time has taken its toll on these twin Greenwich Village dowagers.

Cracked ground-floor doric columns, grimy window lintels, and a strange fourth four addition have dulled the beauty of 144 and 146 Bleecker Street. But a closer look reveals bits of loveliness, like the rosettes in terra cotta panels and Flemish bond brickwork.

The story of these houses—combined into one building over a century ago and officially known as 144 Bleecker—mimics the story of the Greenwich Village neighborhood they’re part of.

Both rose in the early 19th century, fell out of favor among elite New Yorkers in the late 1800s, only to find a place in the city’s cultural and artistic landscape as the 20th century progressed.

The two houses got their start in 1831, built by a developer named Thomas E. Davis. Also the developer of the then-fashionable St. Marks Place on the East Side, this canny real estate operator understood that it wasn’t enough to build a high-class dwelling house.

To appeal to posh buyers, the house needed an address that matched the pedigree of potential owners.

So Davis built 15 Federal-style row houses on each side of up-and-coming Bleecker Street between Laurens Street (now LaGuardia Place) and Thompson Street, then rechristened the block “Carroll Place” (above, in an 1834 map) after Charles Carroll, a Maryland senator and the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence.

What did numbers 5 and 7 Carroll Place—as the houses were known at the time—look like when they made their debut? Imagine high stoops, peaked roofs, and dormer windows, according to the South Village Historic District Designation Report from 2013.

These architectural features are similar to most Federal-style houses remaining in Lower Manhattan. Another Carroll Place survivor, 145 Bleecker Street across the street, still has its dormers.

Early advertisements for the Carroll Place houses made the interiors sound quite appealing. “The elegant three-story brick house No. 10 Carroll Place (Bleecker St.) is a first rate building, having every convenience for the accommodation of a large family, being finished in the first style, with bath room,” read an ad in the Evening Post in April 1833.

Wealthy families took up residence on Carroll Place in the 1830s and 1840s, as they did along other stretches of fashionable Bleecker Street. But by the 1860s, the rich were moving uptown to the newly stylish neighborhoods of Madison Square and Murray Hill.

Carroll Street was losing its cache, especially with an elevated train running just to the east of the houses. Parlor floors were being turned into commercial space, as large parts of Greenwich Village were transforming from a residential area New Yorkers flocked to as an escape from urban life to an urbanized area with factories and tenements.

In 1883, 144 Bleecker became a restaurant. Placido Mori, an Italian immigrant, took over the building, spending the next 34 years several devoted himself to a restaurant the New York Times in 1927 described as a “picturesque resort.”

In 1920, Mori’s devotion to his restaurant included combining it with 146 Bleecker, then asking architect Raymond Hood to give the facade a new look. The result, according to the Historic District Report, featured a row of doric columns outside the ground floor and a fourth floor studio space where Hood ended up living.

Mori’s captured the Italian immigrant and Bohemian air of late 19th and early 20th century Greenwich Village. It also captured the eye of photographer Berenice Abbott, who took the 1935 photo of Mori included in this post.

“Mori’s attracted various literati and Walter H. Killum, in a biography of Hood, relates that the Friday ‘Four Hour Lunch Club’ included Hood, Joseph Urban, Ely Jacques Kahn and visitors like Ralph Walker and Frank Lloyd Wright,” wrote Christopher Gray in a 1990 New York Times piece.

By 1937, Mori’s and its bohemian atmosphere had shuttered. The building remained vacant until 1944. “The first telephone listing after Mori’s appeared in 1944 for Free World House and a consortium of other organizations with names that suggest an anti-Fascist or pro-labor character,” wrote Gray.

A small theater was the next occupant of these once-elite row houses, then a French restaurant. By 1959 it was owned by New York University, until it was transformed in 1962 into the Bleecker Street Cinema, a beloved arthouse and revival movie theater that reflected the Village’s identity as Manhattan’s cultural hub for the arts.

The movie theater made it to 1990 before closing its doors. “In recent weeks a rent hike and partnership dispute were blamed for the closing of Greenwich Village’s Bleecker Street Cinema, which has reopened under new management as the Bleecker Twin Theater, showing gay pornographic films,” wrote Newsday in October 1990.

Since then, these two survivors have served as a a postcard shop and a Duane Reade. It looks like a stationery store occupies the space now, but it also feels like a building in flux—not unlike Greenwich Village, which seems to be redefining itself as an elite enclave once again.

[Second image: 1835 Map by Henry Schenk Tanner, via; third image: Evening Post; fourth image: NYPL Digital Collections; fifth image: NYPL Digital Collections; sixth image: MCNY, Edmund Vincent Gillon, 1977 2013.3.1.211]

A 1927 painting that captures the “rapid modernization” of Greenwich Village

May 1, 2023

If you’re an Edward Hopper fan, then you’re used to seeing his many paintings depicting the backyards, rooftops, and streets of Greenwich Village—especially around Washington Square, which Hopper could view out his studio window.

But his 1927 painting, titled simply “The City,” doesn’t look like Washington Square. It’s more of a mash-up of New York City building styles, from fanciful Second Empire residences to the monotony of low-rise, walkup rows.

The Whitney Museum, which has “The City” in its collection, calls it a “creative representation” of Washington Square Park, one that includes “The Row, Hopper’s own block of brick-faced rowhouses along the northeast edge of the park,” the museum states.

“This composite nods to both existing and imagined structures of diverse architectural styles—including Federal, Gilded Age, and modern, as represented by the skyscraper, lopped off on the far right.”

“The City captures the rapid modernization of Greenwich Village during this period, emphasizing the ever-changing and frequently ad-hoc nature of New York’s built environment.”

A century-old West Village restaurant that’s kept its old-school phone number

April 17, 2023

Gene’s Restaurant, on Sixth Avenue just inside 11th Street, has been in business since 1919, serving Italian food to Village locals who rave about the warmth and unpretentious atmosphere.

But just as wonderful as the menu is the two-letter phone exchange on an ad hanging in the front window: OR-52048. These two-letter prefixes have been phasing out since the 1960s. It’s rare to find one—especially for a business still operating.

OR, what could it stand for? Gene’s seems too far from the Lower East Side for it to stand for Orchard, as in Orchard Street. Perhaps the two-letter prefix came from a local landmark lost to the ages.

An ironworker leaves his mark on a West Village street

April 3, 2023

His name was John P. Weldon. Since 1911 he occupied space at 34 and 38 Stone Street, where he operated an ironworks, making things out of metal and doing some repair work, as he told a courtroom in the 1910s when asked to testify in a trial. He described the premises as a “workshop.”

His father was an immigrant from Ireland, who arrived in New York City in the mid-1800s and founded the Weldon ironworks, according to research from Walter Grutchfield. Exactly when he was born and when he died isn’t clear, and how he spent his life outside of his ironworks business is also unknown.

But at some point in his life he created this manhole cover, found in the West Village on West 13th Street near the Whitney Museum. Simple yet elegant, it’s decorated with circles of raised squares (to keep horses, cars, and people from skidding). In the middle is one single star.

For at least a century, I’d guess, this manhole cover has been in place—an otherwise anonymous worker’s mark on the cityscape. Was he proud of his work, and therefore made sure his name was included? Perhaps he wanted to be remembered by future generations of New Yorkers.

Another John P. Weldon manhole cover exists in New York City, though the exact neighborhood remains in question.

Why a modest 1827 home is missing from its row in Greenwich Village

March 20, 2023

For almost 200 years, the two little row houses clung together on Gay Street—one of those slender hideaway lanes in Greenwich Village that buck the city street grid.

(14 Gay Street, white building in center; 16 Gay Street is to its right, 2016)

Number 14 was built first, in 1827. Its original owner was a plow manufacturer named Curtis Hitchcock, according to the Greenwich Village Landmarks Preservation Commission designation report from 1969.

A year later, Number 16 went up next door, along with the rest of a row of three-story modest houses on the west side of the street. These tidy, low-stooped homes were occupied by the families of New York’s merchant class: small manufacturers like Hitchcock, as well as shop owners and artisans.

For the next two centuries, the two houses stood witness to Gay Street’s transformation from a one-block lane of middle-class houses to a shabbier African-American and immigrant enclave (third image, 1894) to a slice of the Bohemian Village, home to speakeasies, artists, and authors. (Above, photographed in 1937 by Berenice Abbott)

One of those authors was Ruth McKenney, whose writings about living with her sister, Eileen, in a basement apartment at Number 14 in the 1930s were the basis of the 1953 movie musical Wonderful Town.

But the story of Number 14 came to an end three months ago, when the city ordered its demolition after deeming the house “at risk of imminent collapse.” In January, its bricks and other early 19th century building materials were carted away in a dumpster.

How this landmarked piece of New York City history met the wrecking ball is under dispute. According to a December 2022 New York Times article, preservationists blame the owner of the property, a developer, for allowing the house to deteriorate; they also point the finger at the lack of coordination among city agencies that allowed the deterioration to happen.

The developer who owned the house—also the owner of Number 16—told the Times that it was never his intention to let the house fall apart.

Either way, the result is a glaring hole on one of the Village’s oldest and most charming streets—and the exposure of the wood-shingled exterior wall once apparently shared by Numbers 14 and 16, in view for the first time in almost 200 years.

On the other side of the hole in the streetscape is 12 Gay Street, looking like it was ripped at the seams.

[Top image: Alamy; second image: Berenice Abbott/Brooklyn Museum; third image: NYPL Digital Collection]

Tea porches were once popular in city houses—this 1830 Greenwich Village home still has one

March 13, 2023

There are many reasons to swoon over 18 Commerce Street, a three-story Federal-style dwelling built in 1830 just inside this cowpath-like Greenwich Village side street.

The tidy red brick and white trim, the slender columns flanking the front entrance, the black shutters with crescent moon cut-outs, and the twin dormer windows matching those of the house next door—its a vision of Village tranquility and loveliness.

It’s also a house similar to many others in this part of Greenwich Village, built at a time when the city center was crowded with residents and easily transmissible diseases. The suburb of Greenwich, along the Hudson River, became a popular escape for families who could afford to move north and build (or rent) one of the new fashionable row houses.

But Number 18 has more to it than its graceful street-facing facade. Go around the corner to Seventh Avenue, where the back of the house can be seen.

On the second floor above a first-floor patio is a “tea porch”—an architectural feature that typically overlooked secluded backyard gardens and greenery. Here, in the refined Greenwich Village of antebellum Manhattan, homeowners would sit and take their afternoon tea.

Tea porches, or tearooms, were once common in New York City houses in the mid-19th century. This second-floor tea porch was likely added in the decades after Number 18 was built, according to Off the Grid, Village Preservation’s historical blog.

“Though a rare surviving architectural element today, the tearoom (also known as a back porch or tea porch) was an original feature of Greek Revival row houses throughout New York City in the 1840s and 1850s,” states Off the Grid.

The tea porch at Number 18, once visible only from the interior of the block, probably felt very private in the 19th century. That privacy ended when Seventh Avenue was extended through the Village in the late 1910s, slicing through the block and putting the tearoom on view from the street.

Later homeowners seem to have tried to restore some privacy, building the brick fence and installing a barn doors–like gate, though I’m not sure when those features first appeared. (The fence and gate can be seen in this photo from 1939-1941, below.)

If an authentic 19th century tea porch isn’t enough to make Number 18 one of the most charming homes in Greenwich Village, consider the house’s other amenities: four bedrooms, five wood-burning fireplaces, wood-beamed ceilings, and a private parking spot just inside the gate in front of a patio, according to a Curbed article from 2017.

Oh, and there’s a secret basement room accessed only by a tunnel, states Curbed; a resident of the house who happened to be outside when I strolled by said that the room was used to keep food items cold in an era before refrigeration.

A private tea porch and other examples of Antebellum enchantment come at a cost these days. The Curbed article includes gorgeous real estate listing photos and a price: monthly rent ran $25,000.

[Fifth image: NYC Department of Records & Information Services]

Late winter was boot scraper season in 19th century New York City

February 27, 2023

In the 18th and 19th centuries, New York City roads were filthy. Garbage was tossed in gutters (sometimes consumed by free-roaming pigs, who left their own waste behind), dust got kicked up on dry days, and manure from the thousands of horses that pulled streetcars and wagons caked the streets.

Add in the snow and sleet typical of late February and early March, and the cityscape that appears so charming in old black and white photos was actually a muddy, grimy, soupy mess.

No wonder anyone who had a stoop and iron stairway railings also had a boot scraper. Built as a discreet part of the decorative railing, boot scrapers allowed people to scrape the gunk off their shoes before entering a home, business, school, or church.

These 19th century boot scrapers were all found in the West Village. The historic brownstone rows here seem to have more boot scrapers than any other section of the city, and all are still functional and quite lovely in their own old-timey way. But you’ll find them in any neighborhood where brownstones and town houses still have stoops.

Once you start noticing boot scrapers, you’ll see them every time you ascend the stairs, and you’ll realize that many of them are unique, even unusual and decorative. (A few examples can be found in this earlier post.)

Think of boot scrapers as utilitarian relics of an older New York City….right beneath your feet.

Join Ephemeral New York for a Gilded Age talk and tea at the Salmagundi Club!

January 5, 2023

If you were a wealthy and well-connected New Yorker during the Gilded Age, your winter calendar would be packed with balls: assembly balls, charity balls, and of course, Caroline Astor’s annual ball, the highlight of the social season.

And if you weren’t one of the Astor 400? Well, you could read all the details about these swanky events in the newspapers, imagining yourself as a guest or shaking your head at the expense and decadence.

Join Ephemeral New York on January 19 for an intimate look back at Gotham’s winter soiree season during the late 19th century. “Having a Ball: The Gilded Age’s Most Outrageous Parties” is part of the Salmagundi Club’s monthly Afternoon Tea Talks series.

In the parlor at the Salmagundi Club’s beautiful lower Fifth Avenue brownstone (below), I’ll be discussing the social season with Carl Raymond, Tea Talks moderator and host of The Gilded Gentleman podcast.

Carl and I will explore what the season of balls was like and how a ball was organized. We’ll also cover the Gilded Age’s most outrageous and expensive balls, such as Alva Vanderbilt’s 1883costume ball and the 1897 Bradley-Martin ball at the Waldorf—which marked the beginning of the end of ostentatious, over-the-top balls.

The event will be held from 3:30 to 4:30 pm at 47 Fifth Avenue (between 11th and 12th Streets). Tickets are $40 and include a tea reception with sandwiches and cookies following the talk. Click here to purchase tickets!

[Top image: Everett Shinn; second image: Hyde Ball via Find a Gravel third image:]

Winter beauty and misery at the arch at Washington Square

January 2, 2023

Dominating Washington Square Park and the imagination of painter Everett Shinn is the majestic marble Washington Arch, standing guard at the end of Fifth Avenue since 1892.

Here’s the spare beauty of a winter’s night at the arch: the gray-blue sky, and silvery, almost spooky tree branches. The low-rise buildings around the perimeter give the park the look of a town surrounding a village green—which makes sense, because Washington Square Park is the village green for the Village.

But then there’s the human misery of navigating cold, wet, windy weather. Shinn gives us a cab driver trying to control his vehicle, a pedestrian using her umbrella like a weapon, and various people with their heads down for protection against the fierce elements of a New York winter.

The one curious thing is the date of the painting: 1929, according to Christie’s, which auctioned it in 2016 for $47,500. The humans in the painting look like people from 1929. The horse-drawn streetcar and cab, however, must have been painted from memory.

[Source: Christie’s]

What happened to the young couple who held an 1896 winter wedding on Washington Square

December 12, 2022

It’s a lovely wintry scene that captures excitement, romance, and the Gilded Age beauty of a snow-covered Washington Square.

As twilight descends on the Square, well-heeled men and women alighting from elegant carriages make their way along the brownstone row of Washington Square North. From the front stoop of one of the brownstones, a man in a top hat and a woman in a stylish ruffled coat watch their arrival.

The people in the image aren’t just passersby—they’re wedding reception guests. This we know from the title of the painting: “A Winter Wedding—Washington Square, 1897.”

The artist is Fernand Lungren. After the turn of the century, Lungren gained fame for his southwestern desert paintings. Early in his career, he made a living in New York by doing illustrations for popular periodicals, such as Scribner’s Monthly and McClure’s.

I’ve always been curious about the scene. Who, exactly, is getting married here? A little digging led me to the names of the bride and groom—and what happened after the vows were recited and the reception ended.

“This picture shows New York’s upper crust arriving at the Square on the afternoon of December 17, 1896, to attend the wedding reception for Fannie Tailer and Sydney Smith held by the bride’s parents in their home at 11 Washington Square North,” wrote Emily Kies Folpe, in her 2002 book, It Happened on Washington Square. (Above, the row containing Number 11 circa 1900)

Fannie Tailer and Sydney J. Smith weren’t just typical new rich New Yorkers. Both came from old and socially prominent families. The Tailers were even part of the “Astor 400″—the infamous list of the highest echelon of society in the city, at least according to Caroline Astor and her social arbiter, Ward McAllister.

The couple met at the annual horse show, one of the events that marked the opening of the social season in Gotham. Tailer was an accomplished rider, while Smith was the scion of an old New Orleans family.

Their engagement hit the papers in 1895. Tailer “is justly considered not one of the prettiest but one of the handsomest young women in the ultra-fashionable set,” wrote the New York Times. About Smith, the Times stated that he had “sufficiency of worldly goods, is popular, [and] is more than well endowed with good looks.”

The wedding itself took place at 3 p.m. at Grace Church, at Broadway and 10th Street. Though many rich families had moved to elite neighborhoods like Murray Hill and upper Fifth Avenue in the 1890s, Washington Square North was still an acceptable place for a prominent family to live. Grace Church remained the choice place for these Greenwich Village residents to worship.

“The wedding, one of the largest and most fashionable of the season, brought out New York society—Astors, Belmonts, Havemeyers, Cooper-Hewitts, and others,” wrote Folpe. “Lungren seems to have observed the scene from the doorstep of his lodgings at 3 Washington Square, a row house converted into artists’ studios in 1879.”

After the swirl and excitement of this much-anticipated wedding, the couple mostly stayed out of the newspapers. Early on, they secured their own house on Washington Square. At some point they took up residence at Four East 86th Street.

And then, in 1909, came the split. “Sydney Smith’s Wife Sues for Absolute Divorce,” one front-page headline screamed. “Mrs. Smith did not take her usual place in the fashionable life of Newport last summer, but lived quietly with her children at a boarding house, and stories of marital unhappiness were revived in August when she and her husband [were part of] different parties at the Casino tennis matches, and did not speak to each other,” the story explained.

After the divorce, Mrs. Smith married C. Whitney Carpenter, a “broker” according to the New York Daily News. Still active in society, she seemed to live out her life in privacy, though she divorced a second time. She passed away in 1954, and her estate of $80,000 was divided between her two sons.

Sydney Smith also married again, to Florence Hathorn Durant Smith. He died in 1949 at age 81. He held the distinction of being the oldest member of the Union Club, which he joined in 1881, according to his New York Times obituary.

[Top image: Wikipedia; second image: New-York Historical Society; third image: Brooklyn Citizen; fourth image: New-York Tribune; fifth image: Baltimore Sun]