Archive for the ‘West Village’ Category

A last sign of a defunct Italian restaurant in SoHo

April 2, 2018

Not much has happened on Van Dam Street in the last century or so, and one gets the impression that the residents of this short street in the no-man’s-land between Greenwich Village and the western edge of SoHo like it that way.

But amid a block of almost perfectly preserved Federal-style houses from the 1820s, there’s a curious sign hanging off one facade that reads “21 Renato.”

Renato? This sign (hard to see in the photo, as well as on the street) is the last vestige of the restaurant Renato’s, opened at 21 Van Dam Street 1922 and described as “fairly elusive” by The New Yorker in 1941.

This was before SoHo was a luxury loft district, when the area was an Italian working class enclave of spaghetti houses and groceries bordering Greenwich Village.

Run by Italian immigrant Renato Trebbi, the restaurant (decorated by Village resident and illustrator Tony Sarg) attracted locals, businessmen, and an artistic and celebrity clientele.

“Renato’s at lunch time is a businessman’s haven, where women are outnumbered ten to one, perhaps because the feminine appetite isn’t quite up to a four-course midday meal, which is offered for the reasonable consideration of 85 cents to $1.60,” the New York Times noted in 1945.

In the 1960s, the place still sounded like a hideaway for those in the know, according to this restaurant guide written by Tom Wolfe.

“In the beginning 42 years ago it was just a little place belonging to the Village of Edna St. Vincent Millay and painter Tony Sarg,” Wolfe wrote for the New York Herald Tribune. “His murals still decorate the bar in the front of the house.”

Renato’s could have ended up like Arturo’s on Houston Street or even Fanelli’s on Mercer and Prince, Italian-owned neighborhood restaurants that thrived when Soho filled up with people and tourists with money.

But it’s unclear how long Renato’s lasted and if it was able to cash in on the crowds that came downtown in the 1970s and 1980s. This 1975 Edmund Gillon photo from the Museum of the City of New York, above, shows the Federal houses on Van Dam Street and the Renato’s sign on number 21 at right.

Renato himself died in New Jersey in 1985, but his sign remains.

[Third photo: eBay; fourth photo: Columbia University; fifth photo: MCNY; 2013.3.2.978]

An epidemic gave rise to a beloved Village church

February 19, 2018

Disease can shape a city—and that’s what drove the huge population boom in the country resort of Greenwich Village in the first half of the 19th century.

In the 1700s, Greenwich was a bucolic suburb dotted with estates. by the 1790s and early 1800s, this part of Manhattan, with its cool breezes and healthy air, was overrun with residents fleeing lethal outbreaks of yellow fever in the downtown city center.

“Those marvelously healthy qualities as to location and air, that fine, sandy soil, made it a haven, indeed, to people who were afraid of sickness,” wrote Anna Alice Chapin in her 1920 book, Greenwich Village.

How fast did Greenwich grow? “From daybreak to night one line of carts, merchandise, and effects were seen moving toward Greenwich Village and the upper parts of the city. . . . persons with anxiety strongly marked on their countenances, and with hurried gait, were hustling through the streets.”

With so many new homes going up, churches needed to be built as well. So Trinity Church decided to build a parish on Hudson Street.

In 1820, with an assist from Clement Clarke Moore (a theology professor not yet famous for his Christmas poem whose Chelsea estate was just north of Greenwich Village), a new church was born: Saint Luke in the Fields.

The evocative name was a reference to Greenwich Village as a countryside enclave. And Saint Luke? He’s the physician evangelist, patron saint of physicians and surgeons.

His name is a nod to “Greenwich’s role as a haven for the multitudes fleeing disease in the city,” wrote Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace in Gotham.

The fields aren’t totally gone—St. Luke’s has one of the prettiest secret gardens of any church in New York City.

[Top photo: MCNY; 1895; 93.1.1.17296; Second and Third Images: NYPL]

New York City is a brick and mortar ghost town

February 5, 2018

New York is a haunted city. Everywhere you look are the phantoms and ghosts of old buildings that may have been torn down but never truly disappeared, leaving their faded outlines etched into the cityscape.

Between the time they meet the bulldozer and a replacement building goes up, these ghosts are visible—remnants of older versions of New York and the nameless people who lived and worked there.

The photo at the top, at Fifth Avenue and 46th Street, reveals the outlines of a couple of different buildings. I see a tenement-style structure with three or four floors and two slender chimneys. Then there’s another building with a slope in the front.

On Eighth Avenue in Chelsea (below), two twin Federal–style homes from the early 1800s still stand. A third smaller house is just a faded outline of a pitched roof.

On Fulton Street is the imprint of a squat low-rise and the staircase that countless New Yorkers trudged up and down over the years.

Here’s the remains of a tenement in Flatiron. How many people lived their lives in this little building with the two chimneys?

Another pitched roof, a remnant of an era when they were fashionable (or simply practical). This one is on Broadway and Grand Street.

Against the side of a classic 19th century tenement is a short blocky building, near Penn Station.

On a corner in the far West Village is the outline of a building so long and low, I wonder if it could have been a stable.

Who is the man with the pen on 14th Street?

January 29, 2018

I’ve been curious about him since the 1990s—this sturdy man clad in a loose-fitting shirt sitting in a chair while holding what looks like a pen to a piece of paper.

His image is carved above the doorway of the five-story walkup residence at 210 West 14th Street.

Who is he? A writer I imagine, or an illustrator, or some other kind of artist.

Whatever he’s doing, he seems reflective and serious, engrossed in his work.

Did an artist or writer live and work here? A search of possibilities turns up something interesting.

From 1942 until his death in 1968, French-born painter, sculptor, and Dada pioneer Marcel Duchamp had a studio in this building on the top floor.

(In fact, “Duchamp” is still written on the buzzer outside the front door, a nice turn Duchamp would probably get a kick out of).

It’s one of many places Duchamp lived in the city after he first arrived in 1915. “It was here that, using found objects from his walks around the neighborhood, Duchamp secretly constructed ‘Etant Donnes,’ when the public had thought he’d given up art,” states art-nerd.com.

Is the man with the pen Duchamp? It seems unlikely, based on what Duchamp actually looked like.

The ground-floor commercial space doesn’t hold any clues. Various tenants leased the space over the years, most notably a Spanish food store called Casa Moneo from 1929 to 1988.

Casa Moneo was one of the last holdouts from when West 14th Street was the center of Manhattan’s “Little Spain” enclave.

The identity of the man and his significance at this address remains a mystery.

Monday used to be laundry day in New York City

January 22, 2018

I’d seen this 1900 image of sheets, shirts, and undergarments hanging between rows of New York tenements before. But I never noticed the caption, “A Monday’s Washing.”

Was Monday the city’s official laundry day? Apparently it was a traditional day to do the hard work of washing clothes, as this excerpt from Tyler Anbinder’s book about the city’s notorious 19th century slum, Five Points, explains.

“Hard wash-days”—typically Mondays—provided some of the most unpleasant memories for tenement housewives such as those in Five Points,” wrote Anbinder.

“They first made numerous trips up and down the stairs to haul water up from the yard. Then they heated the water on the stove and set to work scrubbing.”

“Drying the wash was actually the most dreaded task. . . .The advantage of living on a low floor (with fewer flights of stairs to climb) became a disadvantage on wash day, because when hanging your laundry out to dry, ‘someone else might put out a red wash or a blue wash over it, and it drips down and makes you do your wash all over again.'”

[Top postcard: LOC; second image: Mott Street; third image: Minetta Lane, via MCNY x2010.11.2570]

The loveliness of New York’s skinny brownstones

January 15, 2018

A single-family brownstone has been a New Yorker’s dream home since these “brown stone front” row houses (often made of brick with brown sandstone covering the facade) began appearing on city blocks by the middle of the 19th century.

Because building lots during the brownstone era typically measured 25 by 100 feet, the average home came in at about 20 feet across, which allowed for a spacious parlor floor with two or three wide windows with decorative touches spanning each floor.

But thanks to profit-driven developers who decided to squeeze two brownstones into one lot, the cityscape of today contains a fair number of slender, narrow, skinny brownstones.

The top photo shows one in Gramercy with the same iron balconies and cornice as its wider counterparts. The second photo shows two compressed-looking brownstones on West 30th Street.

Above are two more twin narrow brownstones, looking like slender sisters, in the East 70s. They come off as dollhouse versions of the standard-size brownstone next door.

Here’s another mini-me brownstone on the same East 70s block, old New York’s answer to the tiny house craze of contemporary times.

This one above in the East Village isn’t a brownstone, and it looks like it was built in the 1920s or 1930s. You can imagine a builder acquiring this thin lot and then deciding to put up this narrow rowhouse.

This skinny brownstone on Tenth Street, a street with spacious rowhouses collectively known as English Terrace Row, only has room for one third-floor window.

While the house in the last photo probably doesn’t qualify as an actual brownstone—I’m guessing it’s an entryway and staircase for the building to the left on East 39th Street—you have to admire the builder’s ingenuity, adding a cornice and matching window to it to pass it off as a lilliputian house on its own.

[All Photos: Ephemeral New York]

The mystery behind a Bedford Street stable sign

January 8, 2018

Bedford Street is a stunning historic block, but there is one building on this lovely Village lane that’s always piqued my interest.

It’s number 95, a circa-1894 brick beauty with a Victorian era cornice and ground floor brownstone stable.

There’s something else that gives number 95 such an old New York feel: the insignia above the stable doors, which bears the name “J. Goebel & Co. Est. 1865.”

So who was J. Goebel, and what did he do at 95 Bedford Street? The clue is in the three stacked cups in the fanciful sign.

No, he wasn’t a brewer, though the grapes under the cups seem to imply that. Julius Goebel was a German immigrant who either manufactured or imported crucibles made out of a rare kind of clay found in Germany.

Goebel operated his business on Maiden Lane in the late 19th century, according to Walter Grutchfield. His son, who took over for him after his death, moved the company to 95 Bedford Street in the 1920s.

That’s the decade when the building (originally a stable) was converted to office space and into apartments, per the 1969 Landmarks Preservation Committee report.

The established-in-1865 thing is likely a nod to the year Goebel started his company—and it could very well be the year he landed in New York, a turbulent year indeed.

[Top photo: Streeteasy]

The story of the twin houses of Commerce Street

December 24, 2017

In the West Village, at that wonderful cow-path bend where Commerce Street winds around to merge into Barrow Street, sit two stately antebellum homes.

Numbers 39 and 41 Commerce Street, built in 1831 when the village of Greenwich was transitioning from a suburb to part of the larger city, are twin separate stand-alone houses, joined together by a small shared garden behind a concrete wall.

These two beauties remind me of sisters—and a legend about two sisters may be in their history.

The story has it that the houses were built by a sea captain who had two feuding daughters.

The daughters wouldn’t speak to each other, so he built identical houses for them with the shared garden, hoping they would get along again.

Who doesn’t want to believe a story like that? Unfortunately, no evidence supports it.

A New Jersey milkman named Jacob Huyler is credited with building the twin houses, which originally stood only two stories high.

“Huyler never lived in New York, but he did not sell the buildings—he held them for rental,” wrote Christopher Gray in the New York Times in 1996. One of those renters was listed at the time as a captain.

By the end of the 19th century, the mansard roofs and a third floor were added, and both homes were carved up into rooming houses for artists and working-class residents.

[Above right, in 1913; bottom two photos by Berenice Abbott; 1937.]

Today in a pricier Greenwich Village, the houses are single-family residences again. They retain their 19th century loveliness, and strollers often stop and stare.

These twin beauties are emblems of a much different New York, when a legend about a sea captain using real estate to help bring two sisters together doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to believe.

[Third photo: MCNY x2010.11.1797; fourth photo: MCNY 89.2.3.214; fifth photo: MCNY 43.131.1.327]

Cabins and cottages on top of Manhattan roofs

December 11, 2017

Who says you can’t have your own secret little cabin perched high in the sky in the middle of Manhattan?

It looks like one tenement owner made a cabin-like home complete with a shingled roof on top of this otherwise ordinary tenement on East 57th Street at about First Avenue.

It’s nothing fancy, but there’s a little fence around the edge of the roof, creating something of a front yard six flights up in the air. And the door even has an awning.

The people who made the 57th Street cabin have nothing on the cottage dwellers who occupy this beachy home perched on the roof of Third Avenue and 13th Street. (See the for sale ad and interior photos from 2015 courtesy EV Grieve.)

And then there’s the lucky inhabitants on top of 719 Greenwich Street in the West Village, who opened their porch (look, a porch swing!) and gave the New York Times a peek into their hidden tenement-top cottage in 2006.

[Third photo: New York Times]

This 1840 spectacular costume ball started it all

December 4, 2017

The elegant Brevoort mansion (left, in 1912), which stood at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Ninth Street for an astounding 91 years, doesn’t look like the kind of place that hosted serious partying.

But inside these walls was the city’s first extravagant costume ball, credited with launching the fad for the blowout spectacular balls beloved by society throughout the 19th century.

The story of the ball begins with the story of the mansion, commissioned in 1834 by Henry Brevoort. He was a descendant of the Brevoort family—wealthy landowners who trace their Manhattan lineage to the 17th century.

Fifth Avenue at the time was little more than a dirt road. But fashionable New Yorkers were moving to Washington Square, and Henry Brevoort decided to build a Greek Revival house (below, 1915) and surrounding gardens nearby.

It must have been a bucolic home in those early years, a place Brevoort could entertain literary friends like Washington Irving (below left).

After hosting several smaller parties, the Brevoorts had a bigger plan. In winter 1840, they sent out invitations for a costume ball like the ones taking Europe by storm at the time. (This image below, from Demorest’s magazine, gives an idea of these balls).

It wasn’t the first costume ball in New York, but it was the one that dazzled Gotham and pushed the city into ball fever.

“The fashionable set are remarkably well off just now in the possession of an inexhaustible topic of conversation in Mrs. Brevoort’s bal costume, costume a la rigueur, which is to come off next Thursday evening,” wrote former mayor Philip Hone (below right) in his diary days before the affair.

“Nothing else is talked about; the ladies’ heads are turned nearly off their shoulders; the whiskers of the dandies assume a more ferocious curl in anticipation of the effect they are to produce; and even my peaceable domicile is turned topsy-turvy by the ‘note of preparation’ which is heard.”

The lucky invitees showed up at the mansion on February 24. Hone, dressed as Cardinal Wolsey, and his family arrived at 10 p.m.

“Soon after our party arrived the five rooms on the first floor (including the library) were completely filled,” wrote Hone.

“I should think there were about 500 ladies and gentlemen . . . many who went there hoping each to be the star of the evening found themselves eclipsed by some superior luminary, or at best forming a unit in the milky way.”

Such great interest in the ball didn’t go unnoticed by James Gordon Bennett, the canny publisher of the New York Herald. With Brevoort’s consent, he sent a reporter in costume dressed as a knight to report all the details of the ball—perhaps the city’s first celebrity gossip coverage.

Among the costumes were a fox hunter, a peasant, a German miner, an “Arab boy,” a “Dutch girl,” “Spanish muleteer,” and Greek gods and goddesses like Diana.

The ball was a great success, ushering in the era of famous balls given by Mrs. Astor, the Patriarch balls at Delmonico’s, and of course the city’s most notorious ball of all, Alva Vanderbilt’s costume gala at the other end of Fifth Avenue in 1883—so important that it changed New York society.

The Brevoort mansion remained until 1925—a lone reminder of wealth and society in the antebellum city (above in 1903).

[First and second photos: MCNY; third image: NYPL; fourth and fifth photos: Wikipedia; sixth photo: MCNY]