Archive for the ‘West Village’ Category

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]

A child’s casket emerges in a Hudson Street park

October 30, 2017

The dead who dwell in New York’s burial grounds have a strange way of making themselves known.

One example of this happened in 1939. Workmen renovating James J. Walker Park (second to last photo) on Hudson and Clarkson Streets in the West Village came upon an underground vault—and found a child-size cast iron casket inside.

The casket was “made to look like a shrouded Egyptian mummy,” states the Trinity Church website.

The New York World-Telegram reported on the discovery, noting, ‘The girl’s cast iron casket…had a glass window in the top. Her white silk dress still looked fresh and dainty.'” The paper noted that she was “a pretty yellow haired child.”

What was a casket doing there—and who was the girl inside it?

Until the city seized this green space to make into a park, the land was Old St. John’s Burying Ground (above and at right), run by Trinity Church for the worshipers at nearby St. John’s Chapel, since demolished, according to the New York Cemetery Project.

“It’s estimated that 10,000 people were buried in St. John’s Burying Ground in the years before 1860, when burials stopped—and very few bodies were removed and re-interred during park construction,” states Trinity’s website.

The unusual casket itself revealed the girl’s identity.

“The silver coffin plate gave the child’s basic information: Mary Elizabeth Tisdall, 6 years and 8 months old, died April 14, 1850,” according to Trinity Church.

Church archives discovered that Mary’s cause of death was listed as “brain congestion—probably encephalemia,” and she lived at “219 East Ninth Street in Manhattan, just off of Astor Place.”

Mary’s parents had married at St. John’s. Her father (above) was a British-born coal merchant who became a Mason and wrote poetry; he died in 1878.

Her brother, Fitz Gerald Tisdall, had a long career as a professor of Greek at City College.

Yet no record exists of who Mary was—if she liked school, rolled a hoop in Washington Square Park like other children, visited Barnum’s Museum, or had a favorite type of candy.

All we know about her is that she was one of untold numbers of children who didn’t make it to adulthood in New York at the time, when little was known about sanitation and hygiene and no medicine existed to fight deadly diseases.

Her casket didn’t go back underground, of course. “She rests in peace in the catacombs under Trinity Church,” according to the church website.

The only marked grave in the entire park is an 1834 sarcophagus dedicated to three young firemen who perished in a blaze on Pearl Street.

[Top photo: NYPL; second photo: MCNY; fourth photo: NYC Parks Department; Fifth Photo: Wikipedia]

The gritty appeal of a 14th Street liquors sign

October 16, 2017

The low-rise, rundown buildings on the south side of 14th Street at Eighth Avenue have slowly emptied out—the liquor store moved down the block a few years back, a restaurant closed and nothing reopened, and now a candy store and corner deli are gone as well.

What will become of this wonderful discount liquors sign—bumblebee yellow, two stories tall!—when the building it’s attached to inevitably falls to the developers?

The beauty of 10th Street’s English Terrace Row

October 16, 2017

Shared balconies stretching across several buildings in a row aren’t the norm in New York City.

But a graceful cast-iron communal balcony ties together the brownstones at numbers 20 to 38 West 10th Street. It’s one of the many features that make what used to be called “English Terrace Row” on this Greenwich Village block so harmoniously beautiful.

English Terrace Row, known these days as Renwick Row, was built between 1856 and 1858 by James Renwick Jr., the architect behind circa-1846 Grace Church three blocks east down 10th Street.

Renwick left his stamp all over the mid–19th century the city; he designed banks and brownstones, charity hospitals on East River islands, and other Gothic-style churches, like St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

While he brought Gothic-style architecture back into vogue, he was also forward-thinking.

The houses of English Terrace Row are the first brownstones built without the customary high Dutch-style stoop, “placing the entry floor only two to three steps up from the street in the English manner,” states the AIA Guide to New York City.

“Terrace” is also borrowed from the British.”Terrace does not refer to the handsome balcony that runs the length of these houses; it is the English term for rows of houses, such as found in the Kensington and Paddington districts of London in the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s.”

“New Yorkers who visited England were impressed with this style and saw good reason to adopt it upon their return.”

Apparently one of those New Yorkers was a banker named James F.D. Lanier, who commissioned Renwick to build the row at a time when spacious brownstones with winding inside staircases and enormous windows were all the rage among well-to-do city residents.

Wide and elegant, and shrouded by trees and swathed in amber light in the evening, they stand 159 years later and make this stretch of 10th Street one of the most spectacular in the city.

The photo archive at the GVSHP site has some interior shots as well. For more on the Gilded Age city’s brownstone craze and James Renwick’s architectural gems, take a look through The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

The gritty history of an 18th century Village lane

October 2, 2017

Prison inmates, slaughterhouse workers, runaway pigs, and unlucky sailors are some of the New Yorkers who tread the paving stones of Charles Lane—a Greenwich Village alley between Perry and Charles Streets that has a colorful history.

The prisoners walked here first. The lane was laid out in 1797, states the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. It formed the northern border of Newgate State Prison (below), built at the foot of the Hudson River that same year.

Newgate was supposed to be a new kind of prison a mile or so from the city downtown; it gave rise to the saying “sent up the river.” The novel idea was to provide moral instruction rather than just harsh corporal punishment.

But it quickly became overcrowded, and inmates frequently rioted.

Prisoners sentenced to death likely had to walk past Charles Lane to get to Washington Square Park, where execution awaited, according to Mike Wallace, coauthor of Gotham, per a New York Times article.

After Newgate was shuttered in 1828, the lane became “Pig Alley,” thanks to “the slaughterhouse which formerly graced the middle of it,” explains a 1913 Evening World article.

“There were always stray pigs about the place then, without sense enough to leave the spot where they were to meet their certain dooms.”

Men who worked the ships met terrible fates here too. “It was a wicked place of nights,” the Evening World continued, rather illustriously.

“Many a poor sailor or longshoremen has been carried out from under its yellow lanterns never to wake again except among the company of harped and winged saints who came by way of the Potter’s Field. . . . “

By 1893, Charles Lane got its current name and was officially mapped, states GVSHP.

When photographer Berenice Abbott shot Charles Lane in 1938 (left), the view looking north toward Washington Street shows us an unkempt alley filled with debris—but oh, those beautiful old blocky stones!

Today the alley is cleaned up, and the West Street end buts up against luxury glass co-ops. I don’t know if those co-op owners ever walk through Charles Lane, but I hope they do. I hope they tread lightly and feel its ghosts.

[All Photos © Ephemeral New York except photo 2, from the NYPL, image 3, from the NYPL, and image 5, from MOMA]

This is the oldest house in Greenwich Village

October 2, 2017

Imagine New York in 1799: the entire population numbered about 60,000. The British had only vacated 16 years earlier.

State Street near Bowling Green was lined with posh mansions, and the city was riveted by the murder of a young woman whose body was found at the bottom of a well near Spring Street.

And in a leafy suburb called Greenwich north of the city center, a house was built by a merchant named Joshua Isaacs. It still stands—and it’s thought to be the oldest home in Greenwich Village.

The Isaacs-Hendricks House, as it’s called today, sits solidly on the corner of Bedford and Commerce Streets.

Why Isaacs built his home here isn’t known, but perhaps like other New Yorkers, he was fleeing the yellow fever epidemic that hit the post-colonial city hard.

Isaacs didn’t live at 77 Bedford Street for long though. A year later, he gave up the house to creditors, and his son-in-law Harmon Hendricks (right) bought it in 1801, according to the Greenwich Village Historic District Report.

Hendricks owned a copper mill, and he was a leader of New York’s small Sephardic Jewish community.

For the next three decades, Hendricks (and then his daughter Hettie Gomez, who inherited the house) had this stretch of the Village all to himself.

“Old records clearly indicate that the house was a free-standing building with its own yard,” explains the report. “A map of 1835 indicates no other buildings standing on Hendricks-Gomez land.”

That changed in 1836, when a builder put up 73 and 75 Bedford Streets. (75 and 1/2 Bedford, the former home of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, has the distinction of being the city’s skinniest townhouse.)

Other homes were built in the 1840s and beyond, turning Bedford Street into a residential enclave of red brick and wood frame beauty.

The Isaac-Hendricks house changed with the times.

“Originally the building was a simple frame structure with a gambrel roof,” states the report. “A brick front was probably added in 1836.”

Amazingly, the house—still in the Hendricks family—didn’t get its third floor until 1928. Windows were switched around, and a basement entryway was built in the back of the house. (Fourth and fifth photos, in the 1920s and 1930s)

How did the Isaacs-Hendricks house make it into the 21st century? (above left, in 1975).

In the 1920s, “it was purchased by a group of Villagers to preserve the character of the block and to prevent the erection of an apartment house on the site,” reads the report.

Thanks to these history-minded residents, this lovely home (from the back on the far left of the photo here) is here to delight and inspire New Yorkers.

[Photos one and two: Ephemeral New York; third photo: American Gallery 19th; fourth photo: MCNY; fifth photo: NYPL; sixth photo: MCNY; seventh photo: NYPL]

The nautical loveliness of a Jane Street hotel

August 21, 2017

Today’s it’s The Jane, a pricey boutique hotel a stone’s throw from the well-manicured Hudson River waterfront and the tourist-friendly nightspots of the Meatpacking District.

But a century ago this red brick fortress with the lighthouse-like tower (“whose light flashes a welcome up and down the river”) was the New York headquarters of the American Seamen’s Friend Society Sailor’s Home and Institute.

This benevolent organization founded in 1828 was “one of a number of 19th century religious organizations concerned with improving the social and moral welfare of seamen throughout the U.S. and abroad,” explains this 2000 Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) report.

Built in 1908 on what was once a bustling stretch of docks teeming with ships, the building served as a hotel with amenities like a library, swimming pool, bowling alley, restaurant, lecture hall, and chapel, “an alternative to the waterfront ‘dives’ and sailors’ boardinghouses,” states the LPC.

The place has a rich history. After the Titanic sunk in 1912, surviving crew who arrived in New York on the Carpathia lodged there.

When the YMCA built a new seamen’s home on West 20th Street, the organization dedicated itself to providing free room and board to destitute sailors.

Closed in the 1940s, the beacon that shone from the lighthouse tower forever dimmed, it changed names and hands through the 2000s as a transient hotel. (It was the Riverview in the 1990s—as seen on the old-timey hotel sign on the facade).

The rooms once designed to resemble ship cabins may go for hundreds of dollars a night now (as opposed to 25 cents a night in 1908). Yet the building’s past as a seamen’s retreat still resonates, thanks to the lovely ornaments like anchors, rope, wreaths, and the heads of sea creatures.

Think of them as homages to a city that built its fortunes on its waterfront—as well as to the men who worked its docks and ships.

[Second image: NYPL]

Identifying an eerie drugstore in a 1927 painting

August 14, 2017

The “eerie nocturnal view” of this corner apothecary painted by Edward Hopper in 1927 is easy to get lost in.

At first glance, Silbers Pharmacy looks like an ordinary city storefront, whose bright electric lights and colorful window display on a dark night feels inviting.

Here is a place city residents can turn to for late-night prescriptions, or even for an emergency laxative (Ex-Lax was invented in 1906 and manufactured in Brooklyn, hence the Ex-Loft lofts on Atlantic Avenue).

Yet the more you look at the painting (simply titled “Drug Store”), the more ominous it becomes, strangely devoid of any sign of humanity. It’s classic Hopper, of course, an artist whose work reflects the isolation and alienation of modern urban life.

So where was Silbers Pharmacy? Hopper apparently never identified the street corner; he was known to obscure identifying details of many of the storefronts he painted, as he famously did with his late-night diner masterpiece, Nighthawks.

But it was likely near his studio on Washington Square. One guess comes from the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, which put forth the possibility that Silbers occupied the Waverly Place building where Three Lives & Company bookstore is today.

Three Lives’ official address is on West 10th Street. But the door to the left is 184 Waverly, just like the “184” on the Silbers sign. And hmm, doesn’t the cast-iron column outside the door looks quite similar?

[Second photo: Alamy]

Revisiting 10 shops from 1979 Greenwich Village

August 7, 2017

Last month, Ephemeral New York ran a post featuring some never-before-seen downtown street photos taken in the summer of 1979.

They were taken by a Dutch sailor whose ship was docked in New York Bay.

Whenever he could take a day off and visit Manhattan, he brought along his camera, capturing the energy and excitement of a city he had no idea was at its supposed nadir, facing bankruptcy and with residents fleeing fast.

These photos are from the same collection. Rather than random street shots revealing glimpses of the magic and beauty of day-to-day life downtown, they focus on stores—the kind of small, local businesses that are becoming an endangered species in today’s Manhattan.

Some of these businesses still exist, like Rocco’s, still the best pastry shop on Bleecker Street.

Ottomanelli’s meat market also remains on Bleecker; you can see part of the old-school sign in the photo below (though unfortunately the antique store and children’s store next door are both kaput).

The other shops have vanished. Something Special Cakes and Pies? What looks like a charming bakery seems to have disappeared without a trace. Can anyone identify the block the little shop is on?

Joe’s Dairy, the wonderful Italian cheese store on Houston and Sullivan Streets, hung on until 2013. The workers behind this tiny store made the most heavenly balls of mozzarella. See the cheese hanging in the windows.

Greenwich Village still has plenty of antique stores, but not quite as homey as the Village Oaksmith.

Where was this antiques store? And for that matter, does anyone recognize this colorfully painted tenement with the former Bazaar shop on the ground floor?

According to the sign in the window, it had already gone out of business. I wish I knew what the landlord was asking in rent.

[All photos: copyright Peter van Wijk]