Posts Tagged ‘Greenwich Village history’

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]

Where the “worthy poor” went for medical care

October 8, 2012

It’s 1831, and you live on the poorer outskirts of newly fashionable Washington Square.

You’re nursing a fever or broken bones, but you’ve got no money to see a doctor.

You’re in luck—you can visit the new Northern Dispensary, located on the triangular wedge of Christopher Street and Waverly Place.

Opened in 1827, this nonprofit was one of several dispensaries established in the city during the 19th century for the “worthy poor,” reports The New York Times.

Think of them as the equivalent of today’s walk-in clinics, where you could get meds at little to no cost.

Edgar Allan Poe, then living on Waverly Place, dropped by in 1837 for help with a head cold. “Clement C. Moore was a donor, as were Samuel F. B. Morse and P. T. Barnum,” the Times article states.

According to Inside the Apple, by Michelle and James Nevius, “the people who availed themselves of the Northern Dispensary would have been the tradesmen who provide services to the wealthier residents of Washington Square.”

The Northern Dispensary continued to offer care to the indigent through the 20th century.

In the 1960s it limited its services to dental health, and in 1989 was to be given to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, which planned to turn it into an AIDS hospice.

That didn’t happen; instead, the Archdiocese sold it in 1998 to a real-estate investor who died a year later.

Bound by a 181-year-old deed that stipulates the property must be used for health care for the poor, the Northern Dispensary remains eerily empty.

[Top sketch of the Dispensary between 1840 and 1870: from the NYPL Digital Collection]

The 1940s folkie commune on West 10th Street

August 2, 2012

After traveling around the country in the 1930s making a name for himself as folk singer, Woody Guthrie arrived in New York City in 1941.

Here, he hooked up with fellow folkies, among them Pete Seeger, Bess Lomax, and Lee Hays.

Under the name the Almanac Singers, they and a rotating lineup of band members had kind of a loose collective going at this slender brownstone at 130 West 10th Street.

“Calling their house ‘Almanac House,’ the group of musicians earned their rent money by offering informal concerts in the basement of the building, charging their audience thirty-five cents per person,” states Exploring the Original West Village, by Alfred Pommer and Eleanor Winters.

In the forward of a book called Radical Walking Tours of New York, Pete Seeger says this about the communal home in the pre-World War II city:

“We lived at 130 West 10th Street off Greenwich Avenue in the fall and the first hootenanny in New York was held in the basement.”

At $100 a month, the rent was high, so they moved to cheaper digs on Sixth Avenue.

The Village wasn’t Guthrie’s only city neighborhood. Later in the 1940s he moved his family to a house on Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island.

In 1952 he was diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease at Brooklyn State Hospital, now Kingsboro Psychiatric Center.

[Top: Guthrie performing in a 1943 Life photo]

Where was colonial Manhattan’s Richmond Hill?

November 3, 2011

If you live in the area bound by Varick, Charlton, MacDougal, and King Streets on the western edge of SoHo, then you’re a resident of a neighborhood once called Richmond Hill.

The name comes from the circa-1760 colonial mansion and bucolic estate that once stood nearby.

The Richmond Hill mansion (below right) was really something. “The big house, a massive wooden structure of colonial design, had a lofty portico supported by Ionic columns,” reports a Villager article from 1945.

“A long curving driveway led up to the house which was built on a wooden mound. Fretted iron gates guarded the entrance.”

It hosted a succession of famous names: George Washington, John Adams, and Aaron Burr.

Abigail Adams described the estate’s beauty: “On one side we see a view of the city and of Long Island. The river [is] in front, [New] Jersey and the adjacent country on the other side. You turn a little from the road and enter a gate. A winding road with trees in clumps leads to the house, and all around the house it looks wild and rural as uncultivated nature. . . .”

Burr sold it to John Astor around 1807. He subdivided lots for development, and the Richmond Hill neighborhood sprang up in early 19th century—small Federal-style homes, many of which are still on Charlton, King (above), and other blocks off lower Sixth Avenue.

The old mansion operated as a resort, roadhouse, and theater until it was razed in 1849. With the house gone, the neighborhood name died too.

The women’s prison in the middle of the Village

March 14, 2011

It’s doubtful that today’s Greenwich Village residents would allow the city to put up a fortress-like jail behind Jefferson Market, the 19th century courthouse-turned-library at Sixth and Greenwich Avenues.

But the Village was different in the 1930s. When city officials decided to replace an old jail that was part of Jefferson Market, they weren’t met with NIMBY opposition.

So in 1932, the Women’s House of Detention opened.

Modern and bright (WPA murals lined the walls), it focused on reforming the inmates, often charged with prostitution.

There were some illustrious inmates, held for other crimes, like Ethel Rosenberg, Angela Davis, and Valerie Solanas, who shot Andy Warhol in 1968.

Longtime Village residents still miss the street theater: Inmates on higher floors catcalled men on the street and cussed out visiting boyfriends and husbands on the sidewalk below.

By the 1960s, it was overcrowded and as unsafe as the jail it replaced. Closed in 1971 (inmates were shipped off the Rikers Island), the building was bulldozed in 1974.

A lovely garden was planted in its place.