Archive for the ‘West Village’ Category

A yellow fever outbreak made Greenwich Village

April 6, 2020

Epidemics can shape the way a city develops. And it was an outbreak of a lethal disease that helped create the Greenwich Village that’s been part of the larger city since the 1820s.

In the 17th century, the village of Greenwich was a mostly rural suburb of farms and estates (below, Aaron Burr’s home, Richmond Hill) along the Hudson River a few miles from the city center. (Seen here in a 1766 map, use link to zoom in.)

Periodic outbreaks of yellow fever (among other deadly illnesses) in the lower city—in many spots a filthy place of sewage, stagnant water, and garbage-eating hogs—would cause residents with means to leave, at least for the summer.

“Successive waves of yellow fever drove many New Yorkers to summertime residences in the countryside,” wrote John Strausbaugh in The Village: A History of Greenwich Village. (Another fine home, above, and the oldest house in the Village, at left, from 1799.) Many decamped to Greenwich, “a refuge from pestilence with its former swampland drained and its air fresh.”

But it was the especially pernicious yellow fever epidemic of 1822 that forced thousands to flee the city center for good and recreate their lives in Greenwich permanently, which only five years earlier had installed water mains and sewers.

“Many New Yorkers who had not evacuated during the previous epidemics did so during this final rampant pandemic, states a writer at creatingdigitalhistory.

“As residents moved to Greenwich Village, they built homes and businesses in attempt to replicate their downtown lifestyles. In essence, they created a makeshift city center that has since evolved into the Greenwich Village of today.”

The hurry to leave the main city was noted by Greenwich residents. “Our city presented the appearance of a town besieged,” wrote the former secretary of the city’s Board of Health in 1822, according to Anna Alice Chapin in Greenwich Village. “From daybreak till night one line of carts, containing boxes, merchandise, and effects were seen moving towards ‘Greenwich Village’ and the upper parts of the city.”

Another resident recalled the mass exodus and influx like this: “The town fairly exploded…and went flying beyond its bond as though the pestilence had been a burning mine.” (Above right, a house on Bedford Street, circa 1820s.)

Buildings went up in Greenwich fast. “Temporary stores and offices were erecting, and on the (ensuing day) Sunday, carts were in motion, and the saw and hammer busily at work,” according to Chapin.

A post office, customs house, and newspaper offices sprang up in the formerly sleepy village. “Bank Street got its name in this way, the city banks transferring their business tither literally overnight, ready to do business in the morning,” wrote Chapin.

“Stores of rough boards were constructed in a day,” recalled Charles Haynes Haswell in Reminisces of an Octogenarian of the City of New York. With the lower city all but deserted, ferries from Brooklyn, Jersey City, and Hoboken began docking up the Hudson at Greenwich, wrote Haswell.

A growing neighborhood needs a church, and St. Luke’s, still on Hudson Street, also went up at about this time. St. Luke’s was not by accident named for Saint Luke—the patron saint of physicians and surgeons. (Above left, in 1828)

In total, 388 people died in the yellow fever outbreak, according to Haswell. Many of those victims from the lower city were buried beneath Washington Square, which was the far-away potter’s field of New York in the early 1820s.

By the end of 1825, Greenwich Village now was filled with handsome wood and brick houses. (Above right, on Van Dam Street.) “Between 1825 and 1835, the population of the Village doubled,” wrote Strausburgh. By 1850, it had doubled again.

“Shrewd speculators subdivided farms, leveled hills, rerouted and buried Minetta Brook, and undertook landfill projects,” according to the Greenwich Village Society of Historical Preservation. “Blocks of neat row houses built in the prevailing Federal style soon accommodated middle-class merchants and tradesmen.

This sleepy hamlet (which thankfully kept some of its own original street grid) was no longer separate from the city—it became a part of the city. (Above in an 1831 map). Would it have been subsumed by the city if the yellow fever epidemic never happened? Almost certainly. But the outbreak rushed it into joining Gotham, going from countryside to urbanized in a hurry.

[First through third images: NYPL Digital Collection; fifth and sixth images: NYPL Digital Collection; Eighth image: NYPL Digital Collection]

Tracking the “mousetrap” of Greenwich Village

March 2, 2020

Greenwich Village’s charm lies in its refusal to conform to the city street grid. Who doesn’t get a kick out of former country lanes and cart paths that are now city streets, which intersect and dead-end into each other at strange angles?

This charming confusion confounded New Yorkers in the late 19th century as well, decades after the Greenwich Village of estates and farms was subsumed into the cityscape.

It led one early 20th century New York historian-author to name a section of the Village the “Mousetrap.”

“Some streets are like pages of history, and none more so than those of Greenwich Village; so it is quite a delight to walk among them,” wrote Charles Hemstreet in his 1905 book, When Old New York Was Young.

“Whenever I do so I am sure to end up in one particular spot. It is a part that I have christened the “mouse-trap”—a labyrinth of quiet, narrow streets.”

 

“It is curious to note the different ways in which the streets of the ‘mouse-trap’ disappear. Sometimes they end abruptly in a court; sometimes they twist out of sight around a row of houses against which they are brought to a sudden halt; sometimes they slip into another street and become one with it; sometimes they are cut short by little open spaces which are called parks, and which in are a few decaying trees.”

The main street of the mousetrap, according to Hemstreet, is Bleecker. While Bleecker does in fact end at a park (Abington Square Park), today’s version of Bleecker doesn’t have that twists and stops it may have had in Hemstreet’s day.

Instead we’re left with mousetrap-like streets such as West Fourth, which oddly intersects with West 10th, 11th, and 12th Streets. Greenwich Street meanders nowhere near Greenwich Avenue. Hidden alleys like Milligan Place and Grove Court add to the confusion.

I’ve found only one contemporary reference to the Greenwich Village mousetrap. In a 1996 New York Times article about traffic issues in the Village, Andrew Jacobs quotes residents who call the triangular intersection of Christopher, Grove, and Waverly Streets as the “mousetrap.”

[Top image: Taunton’s Pocket Edition map, 1879/NYPL; second image: Washington Place at Grove and West Fourth Streets, MCNY x2010.7.1.6719; third image: West 12th Street at Greenwich Avenue, MCNY c 2010.18.222; fourth image: Milligan Place, MCNY 89.2.1.62]

The most dazzling luxury apartment ads of 1935

February 24, 2020

It’s 1935, and you’re a New Yorker who needs a new apartment. The Depression is still raging, but your fortunes are on the upswing, and you’re thinking luxurious digs in Midtown or on the East or West Sides near Central Park.

Looks like you’ve got lots of options. The July 27, 1935 New Yorker (selling for 15 cents!) contains many classy apartment ads toward the back pages. These are the most amenity-packed ads for buildings that still exist and are still quite luxe.

The “most distinguished address in America” is quite a claim, but One Fifth Avenue beside the Washington Arch at Washington Square Park is still a beautiful building. This Art Deco gem was built in 1927.

I’m not sure the Parc Vendome of today still has a swimming pool. But it is an impressive fortress of a building fronting West 57th Street. (And the phone exchange: Circle for Columbus Circle?)

The El Dorado continues to shine on Central Park West, its two towers as impressive as other iconic West Side buildings like the Dakota and the San Remo.

Ten Park Avenue at 34th Street might not sound spectacular. But in the 1930s, this building maintained the hotel-style feel of many early apartment houses. Room service is available, and this one-bedroom pad is only $1300…per year, I believe.

“The trend is toward the river,” proclaims this ad for Southgate, a “fashionable colony” of five Bing & Bing buildings on East 51st and East 52nd Street designed by Emery Roth.

“Set apart from the rest of the town” for “smart New Yorkers”…I’m sold!

The strange story of the Village’s “Raisin Street”

January 27, 2020

Never heard of “Raisin Street” in Greenwich Village?

If you lived in the nascent city of New York in the early years of the 19th century, you might have traversed it. The rise and demise of this little street has a curious backstory.

“Raisin Street” was a corruption of “Reason Street,” the name given to the one-block stretch between today’s West 11th Street and Barrow Street. At the time, the Village was a country enclave dotted with farms and small homes a few miles from the city center.

“Reason Street” honored Thomas Paine (at right), the philosopher whose 1795 treatise, The Age of Reason, criticized organized religion.

Paine, who was born in England, had a heroic reputation in the early 1790s. Before and during the Revolutionary War, he was considered a patriot because he encouraged the American colonies to fight for independence.

After moving to France and getting thrown in prison for supporting the French Revolutionaries, Paine came back to the States and spent his final years living in boardinghouse on Herring Street, soon to be renamed Bleecker Street. (Paine’s boardinghouse is the home in the center in a 1920 photo.)

Reason Street made it on an 1807 map by surveyor William Bridges (above). In the next few years, however, the name would be gone, as this 1828 map below shows.

Why the change? The Age of Reason, “an uncompromising attack on the Bible, proved to be unpopular, and did much to sully the reputation Paine had built as a patriot,” wrote Daniel B. Schneider in The New York Times in 1999.

When Reason Street “became city property in 1809, it was rechristened Barrow Street in honor of the artist Thomas Barrow. Barrow, a Trinity Church vestryman, was famous for his depiction of the church in ruins after the great fire that devastated the city in 1776.”

Despite his de-mapping, Paine’s presence in Greenwich Village wasn’t completely obliterated.

Though the boardinghouse he lived in on today’s Bleecker Street was demolished in 1930, according to the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, another house he resided in on the current Grove Street still stands.

“As Paine’s health declined, it became necessary to move him out of the boarding house at 309 Bleecker Street where he lived,” according to the GVSHP blog, Off the Grid.

“Another boarder, Madame Marguerite Bonneville, took a small house on Columbia Street (today 59 Grove Street) in May of 1809, and moved Paine there. He passed away there on June 8, 1809.”

The plaque at left is affixed to the 1839 Federal-style house that replaced the home where Paine died.

The current building is the home of Marie’s Crisis—named for Paine’s The American Crisis, which urged the states to fight for freedom.

[Top image: Wikipedia; second image: NYPL; third image: MCNY X2010.11.220; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: Wikipedia; sixth image: TimeOutNY]

7 mystery photos of downtown New York in 1968

November 4, 2019

For a couple of months in 1968, one New Yorker walked around the East and West Villages, aiming a camera loaded with black and white film at the people and buildings encountered on the street.

This New Yorker captured scenes that would be familiar to city residents today. Above is Sixth Avenue looking south toward Jefferson Market, a year after it became a library branch (but before six years before the fortress-like Women’s House of Detention behind it was demolished).

Here’s Gem Spa at Second Avenue (are those Belgian paving blocks on the street?) and St. Mark’s Place. Apparently in 1968 it was Gems Spa.

I’m not sure what block this is, taken from a roof or terrace across the street; I think it’s LaGuardia Place, without the community gardens on the east side of the street, which didn’t come until the 1970s.

Is that a volleyball net in Washington Square Park? It’s set up in the southern end of the park, with Judson Memorial Church and its iconic bell tower in the background.

Back in the East Village again looking down St. Mark’s Place, with the St. Mark’s Theater marquee advertising a Bette Davis film (it was a second-run house at the time).

The park benches at St. Mark’s Church on Second Avenue are still popular—but you don’t see men in hats and overcoats like this anymore. These folks are old-school East Villagers, and their younger neighbors are hanging out by the church fence near the Biafra sign.

Below, a sidewalk artist displays his work, though it’s hard to know where we are. Soho barely existed at the time; perhaps it’s part of the Greenwich Village art show?

Since most of the images here are easily identifiable, what’s the mystery? That would be who it was who decided to shoot some film of random ordinary street scenes and hang onto the photos for the next 50 or so years. I don’t have an answer…but I know the photographer stashed them in a drawer and basically forgot about them.

[All photos © Ephemeral New York]

The last years in Edgar Allan Poe’s Bronx cottage

October 7, 2019

Like so many people who come to New York with literary dreams but no money, Edgar Allan Poe was always moving from one low-rent place to another.

In the late 1830s and early 1840s, the struggling writer (with his young wife, Virginia, and his mother-in-law, Maria, in tow) bounced around Greenwich Village, Turtle Bay, East Broadway, back the the Village on West Third Street, then to a farmhouse in today’s Upper West Side.

In 1846, with Virginia sick with tuberculosis, the little family made one final move.

Hoping that fresh country air would help his ailing wife, Poe paid $100 a year to rent this small cottage (above) in Fordham, then a bucolic hamlet in Westchester but today firmly within city boundaries in the Bronx.

That rustic, “Dutch” cottage, as it was described in 19th century books—where Virginia (below right) succumbed to TB and Poe wrote some of his best-known poems—is still in the Bronx. (Above, in 2007)

Moved about 500 feet from its original location on Kingsbridge Road to the then-new Poe Park in 1913 (the site of an apple orchard when Poe lived nearby), the cottage is open to the public.

While the preserved home sits at the edge of an urban park surrounded by gritty apartment buildings and the 24-hour noise and traffic of the Grand Concourse, imagine the place as it was in Poe’s day.

Outside the front porch were trees, flowers, and songbirds—quite a different feel from the haunting romance and gloom of many of Poe’s writings.

“In Poe’s time the cottage was pleasantly situated on a little elevation in a large open space, with cherry trees about it,” James Albert Harrison quotes one historian in his 1903 Poe biography.

One visitor, a fellow American writer, described it as “half buried in fruit-trees, and having a thick grove of pines in its immediate neighborhood,” wrote Harrison.

“Round an old cherry-tree, near the door, was a broad bank of greenest turf,” the writer said. “The neighboring beds of mignonette and heliotrope, and the pleasant shade above, made this a favorite seat” where Poe was often found.

Poe kept tropical birds in cages on his front porch, “which he cherished and petted with assiduous care,” the writer noted.

Inside, the cottage—just a kitchen, a sitting room with Poe’s desk, a small bedroom for Virginia, and then steep stairs leading to a second floor with a low ceiling—was described as tidy and warm. (Below, in 1894)

“The cottage had an air of taste and gentility that must have been lent to it by the presence of its inmates,” wrote writer and friend Mary Gove Nichols. “So neat, so poor, so unfurnished, and yet so charming a dwelling I never saw.”

“The floor of the kitchen was white as wheaten flour. A table, a chair and a little stove that it contained, seemed to furnish it completely. The sitting-room floor was laid with check matting; four chairs, a light-stand, and a hanging book-shelf composed its furniture.”

By autumn, Virginia was close to death.

In her bedroom, “everything here was so neat, so purely clean, so scant and poverty-stricken, that I saw the poor sufferer with such heartache.”

Virginia “lay on the straw-bed, wrapped in her husband’s great-coat, with a large tortoise-shell cat in her bosom….The coat and the cat were the sufferer’s only means of warmth; except as her husband held her hands, and her mother her feet.”

After Virginia died and was buried in the Valentine family vault at a nearby Dutch cemetery, grief-stricken Poe began his “lonesome latter years.”

On one hand, his output was excellent. He finished some of his most famous works; in addition to The Bells, he wrote Annabel Lee and Ulalume.

But he was despondent and began drinking heavily. Remaining at the cottage (above, in 1898) with Maria, he was known to take long walks through the pines and cedars of Fordham and into Manhattan across the High Bridge (below, in a 1930 lithograph.)

Poe died in 1849 in Baltimore, of course, leaving Maria as the cottage’s sole occupant.

She moved to Brooklyn (and lived another 22 years). As the 19th century continued, the cottage fell into disrepair. Meanwhile, Fordham and other Westchester villages were annexed to New York City and began to slowly urbanize (below, 1898)

With Poe’s literary genius finally recognized 50 or so years after his death, his uninhabited cottage, one of few original dwellings left from Fordham’s rural days, was moved to the new Poe Park and restored with state funds.

Poe’s house is now a very small museum. But for three years, it was his world.

“It was the sweetest little cottage imaginable. Oh how supremely happy we were in our dear cottage home,” Maria Clemm recounted in 1860 (at left).

[First, third, and fourth photos: Wikipedia; eighth photo: MCNY, 1894, x2010.11.671; eleventh photo: 1930 lithograph; twelfth photo: MCNY, 1898, x2010.11.6718; thirteenth photo: Wikipedia]

Where the hangman lived on Washington Square

September 30, 2019

You wouldn’t know it today, as you walk through the marble arch or past the central fountain. But an estimated 20,000 bodies are buried beneath Washington Square Park.

Paupers, unknowns, prisoners, yellow fever victims—between 1819 and 1821 or 1823 (sources vary), they ended up here, when Washington Square served as the growing city’s potter’s field.

The square, bucolic and out of the way, was an ideal spot for a burial ground. (Above, in the 1880s)

It would be another decade or so before the north side would become “The Row,” a place of fashionable brownstones for the rich. (Below, in 1936)

And though houses were starting to sprout up in what was then the suburb of Greenwich, this was not yet a dense residential neighborhood.

Still, when the potter’s field opened, the gravedigger, Daniel Megie, had to find somewhere to live close to work.

In 1819, this “keeper of the potter’s field,” who also served as the hangman for Newgate Prison at the end of Christopher Street, paid $500 for a corner plot of land on today’s Washington Square South and Thompson Street.

Here, he built a two-story wooden frame shack, “where he could keep his tools and sleep,” according to a 1913 New York Times article.

“For three years he dwelt there, smoothing the resting places in the Field of Sleep,” wrote Anna Alice Chapin in her 1920 book, Greenwich Village.

As the prison hangman, Megie was tasked with executing prisoners in Washington Square—as legend has it from the infamous “hangman’s elm” on the northwest side of the square.

Megie departed his wood house in the early 1820s, when Washington Square ceased to be a potter’s field and the last public hanging took place.

What happened to him is lost to history.

But his home survived almost for a century, serving as a tavern, general store/soda fountain, and then as a Bohemian hangout Bruno’s Garret and then a coffeehouse/spaghetti dinner restaurant operated by Grace Godwin.

Today, the site of the wood frame house built by Washington Square’s hangman and gravedigger is part of NYU.

[Top image: Jessie Tarbox Beals, 1920; second image: NYPL, 1880s; third image: Berenice Abbott, 1936, MCNY: 89.2.1.126; fourth image: New-York Historical Society, 1914; fifth image: NYPL 1925; sixth image: NYPL 1927]

A Village painter’s dynamic 1930s street scene

September 2, 2019

You can practically feel the energy and vitality in painter Alfred S. Mira’s depiction of the daily rhythms of a New York street.

Shops are open, trucks make deliveries, a couple crosses the street, a mother pushes a baby carriage, a father walks with his daughter while a woman walks her dog, and presumably the next day and every day after that, this corner hummed with the same life and dynamism.

But what colorful tenement corner are we on in the the New York of the 1930s or 1940s? (The date of the painting isn’t clear.)

Born in Italy, Mira called Greenwich Village home and tended to paint gritty to enchanting street scenes from his neighborhood.

Though this painting is titled “Greenwich Village New York” by Questroyal Fine Art LLC, a 1943 Los Angeles Times article covering an exhibit of Mira’s in LA printed the painting and called it “Greenwich Ave. and 11th Street.”

The dazzling beauty of New York autochromes

August 26, 2019

When you’re used to seeing 19th and early 20th century New York City in black and white photos, images of the pre-World War II city in stunning color are a revelation.

And few color photos are quite as much of a revelation as the dreamy, ethereal images known as autochromes.

What’s an autochrome? It’s an early form of color photography patented by French filmmakers August and Louis Lumiere in 1907.

“It involved glass plates, a backlight, soot and (oddly) potato starch—and it revolutionized photography,” stated NPR.com, in an article covering National Geographic’s vast archive of autochromes, which include the images here.

“For about 30 years, it was the most widely used process for capturing color.”

“The pointillistic quality of these photographs—small dots of orange, green and purple—gives them a misty, nostalgic tone,” stated NPR.com.

These five autochromes here give us New York in 1929 and 1930: the Hudson River waterfront, two images of Washington Square Park, a view of the Woolworth Building and the demolished Post Office at City Hall, and the street poetry of two men rifling through the wares of a downtown junk shop.

Historically, they’re fascinating—they reveal the spectrum of colors of buildings, signs, vehicles, and clothes of an earlier city, rather than the contrasts of darkness and light most older photographs offer.

Artistically, autochromes don’t just capture color; they create something magical.

[Autochromes: Clifton R. Adams and Edwin L. Wisherd/National Geographic Creative/Corbis]

Alienation and isolation near Washington Square

August 12, 2019

In 1925, Edward Hopper likely went up to the roof of his studio at 3 Washington Square North to complete this painting of the top two stories of an old building.

He ultimately titled it “Skyline, Near Washington Square.”

“The brownstone’s facade is encrusted with Victorian cornices, brackets, arched and square window moulds picked out with heavy shadows,” wrote Gerry Souter in his book, Edward Hopper. “The sides are whitewashed brick seared with sunlight.”

The building is like a dowager of another era, pretty in its day but now isolated, alienated, and stripped of its humanity in the modern urban cityscape.

Or maybe the building is Edward Hopper? Apparently this painting with its “gangly skyscraper” was originally titled “Self-Portrait,” according to Gail Levin’s Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography.