In which we discuss one of the prettiest intersections in New York.
I wanted to step away from skyscrapers (for a minute at least) and look for something just the opposite: small, quiet and about a hundred years older. Maybe even something that doesn’t involve millions and millions of dollars. Although I don’t know about that one – this is a tough town to get away from money.
Commerce Street runs parallel to Barrow Street for one block, starting at Seventh Avenue, before it turns 90 degrees to intersect it. It’s an exemplar of West Village topography, totally divorced in appearance from the majority of Manhattan. Just look at this place! What emotions are you going to feel standing here? What’s the opposite of a bad mood? What’s a synonym for peaceful? How do you spell, “meditative certainty of the universe’s correctness”?
There’s a lot of disinformation out there around this corner. Its secluded character seems to lend itself to urban fables. Commerce Street was not in fact named because of its prevalence of businesses, falsely claimed to have moved here during the yellow fever epidemic of 1822. It was never a commercial street. Instead it was one of four streets to have been named (in the 1790s) after the virtues of the French Revolution, back when the French Revolution was all the rage. Eighth Street was originally Art Street; Waverly Place was Science Street, and Barrow Street was Reason Street – named specifically for Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason. Trinity Church, which owned the land the streets ran through, felt that Paine was too radical a figure to commemorate and in 1826 they changed the name to Barrow after Thomas Barrow, a well known artist and member of their congregation. When the Cherry Lane Theater opened on Commerce Street in 1924 its founder, as a publicity stunt, dreamed up the tale of a cherry-tree lined country lane and claimed that Cherry Lane had been the original name of the street; that story still persists today.
The most striking feature of the intersection are the two identical houses at 39 & 41 Commerce Street. The legend goes that these houses were built by an old sea captain for his two feuding daughters, who refused to speak to each other. In reality they were built in 1832 by a milkman from New Jersey, not as a personal residence but as an investment. The mansard roof was added to both of them about 40 years later.
All right, not quite as exciting as a sea captain with estranged daughters, but still, it’s nice to know a milkman could make a solid living back then. Just down the block, where the street turns, stands 48 Commerce Street: owned by a man who’d made an even better living. The building was the property of A.T. Stewart, one of the richest men in New York by the time of his death in 1876. He owned properties throughout the city, though the bulk of his fortune came from retail, not real estate. Stewart is considered the founder of the department store. An Irish immigrant, he built his dry-goods business into a larger and larger enterprise, until in 1846 he opened the “Marble Palace” on Broadway and Chambers Street. The building itself caused a sensation, with its break from Greek Revival architecture, and Stewart’s system of displayed wares with set prices – no bargaining here – set the template for all the retail stores that followed. It also made him extremely wealthy.
I’m not sure if Stewart ever lived at 48 Commerce. In 1870 he completed his mansion on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, across the way from Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor’s residence. Caroline was considered the gatekeeper of New York high society, instrumental in keeping the nouveau riche at bay. A.T. Stewart faced some opposition because of his Irish heritage, but at some point he was simply too rich to ignore. He was perhaps the third richest man in New York by the time he died, after Astor and the Vanderbilts. Three weeks after his death and burial in St. Mark’s churchyard his body was dug up and taken ransom, for $200,000. It took his wife five years to get the body back; by then she’d bargained the corpse-nappers down to $20,000 – if it was in fact his real body they returned. After five years there was no way to really know. But his wife wasn’t taking any chances: his next tomb was rigged up with an elaborate alarm system. Well, at least that’s how the story goes.
(Originally posted Apr. 30th, 2010 on Takethehandle.com)