Posts Tagged ‘New York in the 1820s’

Harrison Street’s stunning 1820s row houses

August 28, 2017

They sparkle like 19th century gems against drab Independence Plaza: nine Federal–style, red-brick beauties with signature dormer windows and peaked roofs.

And though this L-shaped enclave of lovely homes and leafy backyards look like they’ve stood side by side on Tribeca’s Harrison Street since they were built between the 1790s and 1820s, only six are original to this Belgian block corner at Greenwich Street.

Three others were trucked in from a now-demapped stretch of Washington Street during a vast historic preservation effort in the 1970s—one that was derided by architectural critics but the contemporary city is richer for.

Forget the 1970s for a moment and go back in time to the city’s booming post-colonial era. Private homes (like these in an illustration of Greenwich Street) built in the modest yet fashionable Federal style were sprouting up as far north as Bleecker Street.

Federal-style row houses fanned out east along the Bowery and west to Harrison Street, which was once the “bouwerie” of settler Annetje Jens (“a little woman with merry eyes beneath her Dutch cap and a fondness for bright clothing” her biographer says) and then the site of Harrison Brewery.

From the early 1800s to the Civil War, this Lower West Side area formed a well-to-do neighborhood where prosperous residents built homes: dry goods sellers, printers. John McComb Jr., the architect who designed City Hall, Gracie Mansion, built two of the Harrison Street homes.

Like so many other downtown neighborhoods, this enclave lost its cache after the Civil War. They houses fell into disrepair. Two were combined into boardinghouses populated by poor immigrants, and some of the ground floors turned into storefronts.

What had once been an exclusive residential area was now home to industry and commerce, with the bustling produce sellers of Washington Market a stone’s throw from Harrison Street.

Through the 20th century, the homes remained shadows of what they once were, with dormer windows boarded up and storefronts abandoned. But in the 1960s, with Washington Market now gone, New York City historians took notice.

“At the same time that the World Trade Center was being built, from 1969 to 1973, a wide swath of buildings north of Chambers Street along the Hudson River was being cleared for the Washington Market Urban Renewal Area,” wrote Christopher Grey in a New York  Times article in 2001.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission decided to preserve the six houses on Harrison and Greenwich Streets, while saving and moving three more Federal-style survivors on a stretch of Washington Street that was slated to for development.

Once all nine houses were on Harrison Street in an L formation (six facing the street, and three to the side), the architectural firm in charge of Independence Plaza restored them to their former glory.

Some critics at the time found the restoration synthetic. Paul Goldberger wrote in 1979’s The City Observed, “There are facades at Disneyland that look more real, and all that these houses make you want to do is run back again across Greenwich Street where old buildings are still real and not kept alive by artificial respirator,” according to the Times story.

Four decades have since passed, and unless you look closely, it’s difficult to notice that the facades only date back to the 1970s. This auspicious plan to save six of the city’s oldest private homes should be considered a success, especially for the lucky owners.

In the 1970s, “[T]he city offered the houses for sale, with unfinished interiors, for $35,000 to $75,000, and began transferring title in 1976,” wrote Gray.

In October 2016, 27A Harrison Street was listed at $7.9 million!

[Third image: NYPL; Fourth image: NYC Department of Records’ Fifth Image: MCNY 2013.3.1.721; Sixth Image: MCNY 2013.3.1.284]

Dandy Point: the 1820s city’s popular swim spot

June 26, 2017

How did New Yorkers of the early 19th century handle summer?

If they didn’t cool off at one of the city’s lovely pleasure gardens, they may have gone to Dandy Point—a popular East River recreation spot at today’s East 13th Street, depicted here by William Chappel.

A Harper’s New Monthly Magazine article from the 1882 looked back at Dandy Point, which was just north of several shipyards.

“Above of the northernmost yard the bank of the river sloped into a beautiful beach of clean fine sand, where at evening scores of men and women assembled to bathe in Arcadian simplicity,” stated Harper’s.

“Dandy Point, or ‘Pint,’ as they called it, was the name of this popular resort, and no summer night passed without witnessing the arrival of bathing parties of twenty of more persons of both sexes.”

“Down from the big wagons they jumped, the men going to one spot, the women going to another not far off; and when their clothes had been exchanged for older or less valuable ones, without the protection of bath-houses of any kind, down into the water they ran, disporting themselves as freely as dolphins.”

[Second image: East River at 53rd Street in the 1830s, to give an idea of what Dandy Point might have looked like; Wikipedia]

Who gave Maiden Lane its name?

April 9, 2010

A bit of mystery surrounds the origin of innocent-sounding Maiden Lane, one of the first streets laid out by 17th century Dutch colonists.

It may have started as a lovers’ lane.

“Tradition had it that the girls of early Dutch days were wont to stroll by the little stream along what was known first as Maagde Paatje,” says a 1911 New York Times article.

The name might also stem from the street’s rep as New Amsterdam’s clothes-washing center. “Maiden Lane was the site of a freshwater stream where young maidens did their laundry,” explains Gerard R. Wolfe’s New York: A Guide to the Metropolis.

Whether a lovers path or laundry area, Maiden Lane was for a short time home to Thomas Jefferson.

The street eventually hosted a market and then became the city’s jewelry district in the 19th century.

It’s part of the Financial District now, but the name resonates differently than, say, adjacent Gold Street.

“View of South Street, From Maiden Lane,” by William James Bennett, 1827