Tag Archives: Greenwich Village

“The Row” (Washington Square North)

7 Mar

Back to Snug Harbor! Or, more specifically, all that land they owned in Greenwich Village. Or really, even more specifically, one small portion of all that land they owned in Greenwich Village. (I’ve maybe gotten in the bad habit of explaining my selections too much, so I’m trying to cut to the chase.) As you may recall, the creation of Snug Harbor was stipulated in the will of “Captain” Robert Richard Randall, upon his death in 1801. It was his desire to house the asylum for old sailors on his estate, Minto Farm – some 21 acres of Manhattan in the area today bounded by Fourth and Fifth Avenue, 10th Street and Waverly Place (aka, Washington Square North). His trustees had other ideas however and successfully petitioned the state legislature to allow them to build Snug Harbor elsewhere (specifically, on Staten Island). And who could blame them? The land value of Minto Farm and its neighbors was rising so precipitously that they simply couldn’t resist; by leasing out the land instead and building Snug Harbor elsewhere they would ensure that it became, by the late 19th century, the wealthiest charity in New York. And to be honest, for Snug Harbor’s sake at least, it probably was the wiser move – there’s no way those 21 acres of farmland could have survived as an intact estate anyway, once shit really started getting developed.

Who knows if Robert Randall could have imagined that when he purchased the property, acting as his father’s agent, in 1790, for the sum of $12,500. His father, Thomas Randall, was a well known, and wealthy, sea captain and merchant who’d first made his name as a privateer during King George’s War in the 1740s. (King George’s War, by the way, was one part of the War of the Austrian Succession, an all out European battle royale running from 1740-1748, and coming just two years after the five year long War of the Polish Succession ended and only six years before the Seven Years War (aka The French and Indian War) started. This, incidentally, is part of why I never buy it when people say we live in violent times. Uh, every country in Europe used to fight every other one every fricking decade! Shit’s pretty cool now really.) Thomas Randall’s success apparently let Robert Randall live the life of a gentlemen, and, at age 40, with his father’s purchase of Minto Farm, Robert settled down to enjoy some country living in what was then a bucolic setting 2 miles north of New York City – albeit a decidedly elite bucolic setting, made up of large family estates. His closest neighbor for example, Henry Brevoort, was the fifth of that name, living on the land his family had farmed for the past 150 years, running from (today’s) 10th to 16th Street. Incidentally, his refusal to let the city cut through his land to implement the 1811 street grid plan (despite two city ordinances to that effect) is why 11th Street doesn’t run between Fourth Avenue and Broadway today.

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It was a neighborhood made up of powerful and wealthy people, is what I’m saying, and they likely got a lot wealthier as the boundaries of New York City began creeping north. They were surely helped along in that pursuit when, in 1826, what had been an old potters field (ya know, a common grave for the burial of poor people) was turned into a military parade ground named after George Washington – soon to become Washington Square Park. Snug Harbor/Minto Farm happened to border half of the northern portion of the newly created grounds, and, incidentally (though, I’m sure, not entirely coincidentally), it was mayor Philip Hone who proposed and oversaw the creation of the park – a man who, by dint of simply being mayor (as per the stipulations of Robert Randall’s will), was also president of the Sailors’ Snug Harbor Board of Trustees. So yeah, I’m sure it helped them make more money.

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Case in point, in 1832 that stretch of – now more desirable – Snug Harbor property was leased out to three socially prominent businessmen (James Boorman, John Johnston and John Morrison) who erected a row of Greek Revival mansions, number 1-13 Washington Square North. Eventually dubbed “The Row,” they were judged by the Landmarks Commission (some 130 something years later) to be “the most important and imposing block front of early Nineteenth Century townhouses in the City.” Snug Harbor gets some credit; in leasing out the land they stipulated that any houses built were to be “good and substantial, three or more stories…of brick or stone.” What they got were a unified group of houses: red brick with high basements, a uniform roofline pierced by small attic windows, marble porticos – some with Doric columns, some with Ionic (again the whole Greek Revival thing) – 12 foot deep front yards, and a block long iron fence topped with Greek anthemions (kind of like flowers), lyres and obelisks.

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Part of the idea, of course, in requiring “good and substantial” houses was to attract a wealthy and distinguished clientele, and in that they surely succeeded; amongst some of The Row’s first notable occupants were six of the founders of New York University. Officially incorporated by the New York State Legislature in 1831 as the University of the City of New York, New York University (NYU) started off holding its classes in rented rooms downtown, near city hall. But, perhaps from knowing the spot so well, in 1833 land was purchased on the east side of Washington Square Park and construction began on the “Old University Building,” a kind of grand Gothic-Revival castle that would house all of the functions of the school (visible on the left in the lithograph below.)

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The founders of NYU must have been dreaming big, as they made the University Building much larger than their requirements actually dictated. When it opened in 1835 it was too large for the student body and so its extra rooms were rented out as studios and residences for artists and inventors – including Samuel Morse, creator of the telegraph, and Samuel Colt, inventor of the six-shooter. NYU has obviously come a long way since then, outgrowing the University Building eventually (it was torn down in the 1890s) and moving on from there to gobble up more and more of the neighborhood – including The Row. After World War II, Snug Harbor leased the entire block bounded by Washington Square North, Fifth Avenue, Eight Street and University Place (including the amazing Washington Mews), to NYU for a period of 200 years, with options to renew. And frankly today they might even own the land outright – I believe Snug Harbor sold all their Manhattan real estate when they moved their whole operation down to North Carolina. Sorry I can’t tell you more but this is very long already and it’s honestly more research than I can stand to do at the moment – the real estate holdings of massive “non-profit” (I know what that means, but, come on, what does that really mean?) organizations that got their start in large part because wealthy people bought land on this tiny island a long time ago. And to think, one of them actually thought he could leave the land as a home for old sailors! But that’s a little too non-profit, right?

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Fifth Avenue & 10th Street

1 Oct

Chasing the endless tangents of New York as I like to do I was brought back the other day to the Church of the Ascension.  It’s a spot that has always made me feel nostalgic for some reason, maybe for the simple fact that I used to pass by here several times a week in what already feels like my golden youth.  Though it’s more than that alone really: I think there’s something fall like about the building maybe; maybe the color of its brownstone ashlar, or that it kind of reminds me of an English country church, or maybe the fact that Fifth Avenue round here is developed on a scale that still gives a hint of its more cozy residential past.  You know, just trying to get home for supper before the sun goes down.  Sticking your hands in your pockets and turning up your coat collar as the church bells toll.

The particular tangent that brought me here was reading more about the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who I mentioned the last couple times around.  According to the American Institute of Architects, Saint-Gaudens designed the altar relief for the church in the 1880s – though the church itself makes no mention of him in their official history, and another source (ok, it’s Wikipedia) claims it was Saint-Gauden’s brother Louis who designed them.  Well honestly, who cares, cause it turns out this church is a mother load of new tangents anyway.  So let’s get a tangent hoppin!

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The Church of the Ascension formed in 1827 as an evangelical Episcopalian congregation, with their first building (on Canal Street) co-designed by Ithiel Town (aka tangent number one, and hopefully someone we’ll return to someday).  When that building burned down in 1839 the congregation wasted no time in choosing a new site, on Fifth Avenue and 10th Street, and erecting the building that still stands today (the first one in the picture above).  That one was designed by none other than Richard Upjohn (tangent number two) and completed by 1841.  The English-born Upjohn, at the start of his career here, would go on to much fame for his Gothic Revival churches (like Trinity Church for example, probably his most famous), as well as much credit in general for sparking the Gothic Revival mania that would soon sweep the United States.  He was also the founder and first president of the American Institute of Architects in 1857, even if he was British.  His Church of the Ascension was purportedly the first church erected on the fairly newly laid-out Fifth Avenue.

The Church of the Ascension’s connection with some big names in architecture didn’t stop with Upjohn though.  In the mid to late 1880s they had the interior of the church redesigned by Stanford White (tangent number three), while Stanford’s architectural firm McKim, Mead & White (number four) – probably the premier firm of their day – redesigned the parish house next door.  It was during this remodeling that Augustus Saint-Gaudens would have been called in to create the altar relief, if he indeed was called in. (UPDATE: Just noted on the church’s website that they credit Louis Saint-Gauden with the work. Well phew, glad we got it sorted out and glad that little Louis got a little work thrown his way from time to time.)  More certain is the fact that a number of stained glass windows were designed by John LaFarge (yep, number five) as well as the massive mural above the alter, “The Ascension of Our Lord,” which is a pretty nifty looking piece.  I mean, you gotta love a good Jesus ascension, don’t ya?

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The church could afford all this of course because they had a pretty classy clientele, if clientele is the word to use, with names like Astor, de Peyster, Belmont (of subway, and racetrack, fame) and Rhinelander.  The Rhinelander family – Julia and Serene Rhinelander specifically – gave the gift that allowed the interior to be “beautified” and sure, let’s go ahead and make the Rhinelander family tangent number six cause hell, why not?

Before the remodeling in the 1880s the biggest event to take place at the church was probably the marriage of then President John Tyler to his much younger second wife, Julia Gardiner (then 24 years old to Tyler’s 54).  Due to the age difference, the fact that Tyler was currently the President of the United States, and the fact that Julia’s father had recently died, the ceremony was performed very discreetly, with the news only being broken to the American public after the fact.  Julia Gardiner came from the wealthy Gardiner family, born and raised on her family’s privately owned Gardiners Island, off the eastern tip of Long Island, and one of the largest privately owned islands in the country.  In fact Gardiners Island is still owned by the Gardiner Family, as it has been for almost 400 years, making it the only American real estate still intact as part of an original royal grant from the English crown.  Talk about a tangent!  This is the kind of stuff that I go crazy about.  I was gonna say that President Tyler could be tangent number seven, but clearly Gardiners Island takes the cake.  I mean this might have to spawn a whole new series of exploration.  Island by Island?  Here I come.

St. James Place & Oliver Street

21 Jul

Who knew the fifties were so amazing?  I mean Fahrenheit-wise, not the decade (although also worth some contemplation – get high and think about it).  This past week has been a revelation; it’s already warm enough in the sun to wander aimlessly around outdoors, and the ability to wander aimlessly around outdoors exponentially increases your ability to pass the time with meaning, humor and consideration.  Sorry, I just liked the way those words sounded.  But the fifties rock!

Before winter came along I was getting into the Lower East Side, specifically the area below Canal and Grand Street, where the blocks run diagonal to the east-west grid and public housing tends to dominate the sky-line.  And now it’s warm enough to get back to exploring.  I’m particularly interested in the area known as Two Bridges, between the Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge, namely because of how close it is to the Civic Center.  I tend to think of the Civic Center and the Lower East Side as two neighborhoods that are further apart – first you have to pass through Chinatown, then Little Italy (what’s left of it), then hook a right for the LES.  This new approach is almost like a back door entrance.  Now sure, today this area is basically an extension of Chinatown, but historically it’s always been considered the Lower East.  That very proximity in fact played a role in the creation of the Civic Center to begin with.  The land north and east of City Hall was chosen as the site for various municipal buildings almost by default – the boggy ground (thanks to the old drained and buried Collect Pond) made the area undesirable for high-rise commercial development, and the slums of the Lower East Side made it an undesirable location for anything else.

But before any of those buildings came along, when the Collect Pond was still a pond and New York City still lay to the south, one small part of this neighborhood was used as a cemetery.  On present day St. James Place, just below Chatham Square, Shearith Israel, also known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue – the first Jewish congregation in New York (and the only one until 1825) – purchased land in 1683 and began using it as a cemetery.  It was actually their second burial ground in Manhattan, with an earlier one dating to 1656, though the location of that first one is today unknown.  As such the one on St. James Place is called the First Cemetery of Shearith Israel.  Burials continued there all the way up until 1833.  By that time development had caught up with the area and the city was beginning to nibble at the property; the cemetery shrank in acreage throughout the years, until only the small section we see today remained.

Well before the First Cemetery closed Shearith Israel opened a second one, on 11th Street just east of 6th Avenue.  When burials first began there, in 1805, 11th Street didn’t exist yet.  Six years later the Commissioner’s Plan was adopted, laying out the city’s grid plan for all future development, and the Second Cemetery lay right in the middle of what would become 11th Street.  Burials continued taking place however, as it wasn’t until 1830 that the street was actually cut through.  At that point the majority of bodies were dug up and moved to the congregation’s Third Cemetery, on 21st Street just west of 6th Avenue.  Only a tiny triangle remains of the original Second Cemetery, on the south side of 11th Street.

The Third Cemetery is by far the largest, taking up a whole lot on 21st Street.  It operated until 1851, the year that a law was passed by the City Council banning all burials in Manhattan south of 86th Street and prohibiting the creation of any new cemeteries anywhere on the island.  That law came just a few years after the Rural Cemetery Act of the New York State Legislature, allowing for the construction of large commercial cemeteries in Brooklyn and Queens.  A lot of graveyards in Manhattan were dug up at that time and the bodies moved to the outer boroughs.  This was partially in response to the cholera epidemics that would sweep through the city and partially an attempt to clear the land for more profitable development.  As such it’s a rare thing to find a cemetery in Manhattan now a days, and the fact that all three of these still stand (at least in some fashion) is pretty amazing.  And they aren’t the only three graveyards on the island, which is also kind of exciting to think about.  Do I sense the beginning of a new list?

(Originally posted Mar. 12th, 2010 on Takethehandle.com)

West 4th Street & Cornelia Street

29 Jun

It’s hard to stay away from Greenwich Village. Well for one thing, I’m paid to be around here at least three days a week, babysitting for some pretty awesome six year olds. I met them for lunch at the new Grand Sichuan on Seventh Avenue South the other day (yeah, they know what’s good – they’re city kids). But that’s besides the point really; I’d come by this neighborhood regardless. I’d come by this neighborhood for free. I can’t think of an area that pays higher dividends for exploration. When Europeans tell me that they like New York, but don’t find it very pretty, I tell them to come here, especially if their hotel’s in Midtown. Now does it compare with Paris? Probably not, though I can’t say, I’ve never been there. London? Maybe. I know it doesn’t look like Rome.

But it’s pretty, that’s for sure. It’s been a residential urban community since the 1820s, and it’s stayed a residential urban community to this day, so you get a melange of styles and developmental trends covering the bases between then and now. The earlier ones tend to set the tone for me (but that’s no surprise). The Village was already heavily built up by the 1850s and so it lacks the uniform brownstone look you’ll find in some other neighborhoods further north, or in Brooklyn. Instead you get a lot of modest Federal and Greek Revival buildings, many under three stories tall. They’re so quiet looking and cozy that it hurts, especially when I consider that fifty years ago the whole area was still known for its cheap rents. You might have heard about it – how the Village was the Bohemian center of the United States for a little while. You can kind of take your pick of famous artistic types that spent some time here.

Myself, I’ll pick Dylan, comma, Bob (of course!). He lived in a studio apartment at 161 West 4th Street, above Bruno’s Spaghetti Shop (long gone), from December of 1961 until some time in ‘64. He shared the place for awhile with his girlfriend Suze Rotolo – the rent was $60 a month, which in 2009 dollars would be about $420. Do you know how much you’d have to work to split a $420 rent? The answer is: not much! The location put him right down the block from the various folk venues lining West 4th and MacDougal Street. He shot the cover for his “Freewheelin’ Album”, with Suze, walking down Jones Street right nearby. Both Jones and Cornelia Streets are the rare exceptions in Manhattan, each running just one block long, between West 4th and Bleecker Street. You wouldn’t guess that the bustle of Sixth and Seventh Avenues were right around the corner.

Although that bustle wasn’t always there. Seventh Avenue used to begin at Greenwich Avenue, a few blocks below 14th Street. It wasn’t extended south until 1917 with the creation of the west side IRT subway line, plowing through and over the existing Village streets. Sixth Avenue followed the same pattern: originally it began right above Bleecker Street. In 1926 it was extended all the way below Canal, in part to aid the construction of the Eighth Avenue IND subway line, in part to alleviate traffic coming out of the newly opened Holland Tunnel. Both avenue extensions displaced a lot of people, and tore up some of the removed, village feeling of the Village.

But hey, you still can find it in bucketfuls today. And I suppose the neighborhood has always been a compromise of sorts between its own desires and the larger city’s. Today West 4th Street crosses West 10th, 11th, 12th, and 13th Streets. Any of those intersections can be held up as an example of the separate character of the Village, and its confusing geography – where else in Manhattan do numbered streets intersect each other? But all of those streets existed before the grid (or a semblance of it) was placed on top of them. West 4th Street was originally called Asylum Street after the Orphan Asylum Society, which stood on Asylum and Bank Street. 10th Street was Amos Street, 11th Street was Hammond Street, and 12th Street was Troy. Those all happened to be the streets that lined up with the grid east of Sixth Avenue, and so eventually their names were changed. Should I mention that Bob Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman, in Hibbing Minnesota, before we went on to change his name also? Maybe he got the inspiration from Hibbing’s namesake, Frank Hibbing, who was himself born in Germany as Frans Dietrich Von Ahlen. Or yeah sure, maybe he took it from Dylan Thomas, who ten years earlier had drank himself to death at the White Horse Tavern down the street from W. 4th and Cornelia. It does have a nice ring to it; I can see the appeal. I mean, I think if I was gonna change my name I’d go with Christopher Bob Dylan.

(Originally posted Nov. 6th, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)

Hudson Street & Grove Street

31 Mar

I’m a big sucker for lists. There’s something very satisfying about seeing a quantity of information stacked up so neatly together. It’s pretty simple for me to understand the appeal. I like to learn things. Everything we take in broadens our appreciation of everything else — each good work points towards its antecedents and its followers. It gets me excited to imagine, trying to run down every tangent of that twisted, often intersecting web. I’m in the habit of planning out the next five books I’ll read, before I’m close to finished with the ones that I’m already on. And just that planning starts me daydreaming, and daydreaming puts me in a great mood. I think that’s where I live a large part of reality.

So obviously, this city makes a lot of sense for me to live in. I can approach it all as one big list – first 15th Street, then 16th Street, etc… I can choose whatever self imposed parameters I like, different ways in which to engage. That’s one of the positives with lists: they’re arbitrary, they’re subjective, they’re just suggestions. You can pick them up and drop them as you like. A list taken too seriously becomes a mantra, and a mantra taken too seriously will often make a scary person. I don’t want to be a member of a church, but I’m glad that churches have been built, because I like to go and look at them. Hmmm. I’m not sure what that means exactly. Am I just cruising on a free ride here, finding all of my enjoyment from things that came before me?

Ah well, it keeps me busy at least. And I would say that finding a new garden to sit in qualifies as keeping busy. Of course it does! The church of Saint Luke in the Fields maintains a lovely one, right next to its chapel on Hudson Street by Grove. Walking around in there gives you some nice views of the back of the church and the surrounding row houses. If you get your line of vision just right you can imagine that you’re standing in the plot of some small country parish. And that’s basically what this church first was, when it was founded in 1821 to serve the village of Greenwich. Named for the patron saint of physicians, it was built on land donated by Trinity Church; before landfill extended out the shoreline of Manhattan this spot stood right on the river’s edge. It’s simple design points towards it origin as a country church, and summer chapel for New Yorkers escaping the frequent diseases the warmer months brought upon the city.

Trinity Church built the brick row houses that surround Saint Luke in 1825, reflecting what was already a growing and changing neighborhood. By the end of the 19th century, with Greenwich Village the home of large groups of immigrants and the working class, the congregation decided to move their location uptown, and in 1891 Saint Luke was taken over by Trinity Church, becoming one of its chapels. In 1956 a large number of houses around it were torn down and a school building, playground, and the current garden were erected. By 1976 Trinty Church had decided to divest itself of all but one of its chapels, and Saint Luke was once again an independent parish, as it remains today. It suffered a huge fire five years later, but enough of the original survived for the church to still be considered the third oldest in NYC. It’s an unassuming distinction that seems to fit its style. I’ve written about the second oldest church in these pages already. Do I detect some type of list developing here? How about the oldest church in NYC? How about the eighteenth oldest? Or should we approach it maybe by denomination — how many Catholic churches, how many Episcopalian? (Saint Luke is the latter, by the way). Do we wanna toss some Jewish synagogues into the mix? It’s not a question of hierarchy; it doesn’t matter what falls first and what falls second. It’s all just a refrain, each entry on the list is saying, “Here’s our world, here’s our world.” They’re all in conversation with each other. We’re in that conversation too — our numbers listed.

(Originally posted April 10th, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)

Jefferson Market

9 Feb

It’s freezing cold, or else it rains, and so us types are driven all indoors – forced to express a different kind of satisfaction. And you know: there’s nothing wrong with that. I mean there has to be a winter sometimes. It’s good that we have large and external reasons for our moods. It makes a difference. Have you ever been exuberantly happy when it’s 25 degrees out? Sure you have! But it’s not the kind of happiness that makes you want to jump into a river. And that kind of happiness is pretty great.

But wait, there’s this! You go down to the library, where it’s warm and dry and you stick around awhile. You go down, “with the fine quiet of the scholar which is nearest of all things to heavenly peace,” as F. Scott Fitzgerald so nicely put it and you walk around and you look. You walk around real quiet like and you touch a lot of books and you whisper to yourself their names, until it becomes a sort of catechism. I mean we’re talking heavenly peace here! And if you find a library that already sort of looks like some cathedral, well holy shit, that’s even better.

For my tastes you can’t beat the Jefferson Market Branch (except maybe the scaffolding), built on part of the triangle between Sixth Avenue, Greenwich Avenue and 10th Street. It’s housed in the old Jefferson Market Courthouse, completed in 1877 and voted the fifth most beautiful building in the United States by a panel of architects in the 1880s. And it really is! It’s the last building standing out of a number to have graced this spot since Jefferson Market started in 1832. For years it was one of the principal food markets in the city, distinguished by its large wooden fire-lookout tower. The tower actually burned down some years later, replaced by the courthouse’s brick tower that we see today.  A co-ed jail went up around the same time. Mae West spent a night here in 1927 as part of her ten day sentence for corrupting the morals of youth with her Broadway play Sex. Crazy stuff. But that was in those wild roaring twenties – with the Sixth Avenue elevated railway line running nearby this joint was a hopping spot. The market and jail were torn down in 1929; the elevated ten years later, and in 1932 the only Art Deco prison in the world was built here – The New York Women’s House of Detention. Art Deco or not that one was still not much to look at. But hey, it was a prison, so what can you expect? That stuck around until 1973, when it was replaced by the community garden that still stands today.

The courthouse itself was completely abandoned by 1959. Community leaders saved the day in the sixties: preventing in from being demolished and facilitating the opening of a library branch, which was achieved in 1967. So now the old Civil Court houses the Adult Reading Room on the second floor, and the old Police Court the Children’s Reading Room on the first. You walk up the spiral staircase of the tower to get between them. It was in this courthouse that Stephen Crane famously defended a woman accused of prostitution – he had been with her in the Tenderloin neighborhood north of there at the time of her arrest, as he claimed, “studying human nature.” He was already well known at the time for The Red Badge of Courage; his testimonial got her charges dropped and Crane was praised in the nation’s newspapers for his chivalry. At the same time the scandal nearly ruined his reputation. But just over a month later, en route to Cuba to cover the Spanish-American War, his ship sank and he spent a day and a half at sea in a ten foot dinghy. And just like that his reputation was restored. He wrote a story about it called “The Open Boat.” And no one can ever know how much of it is really true. That’s not a bad thing. Hemingway wrote years later, “The good writers are Henry James, Stephen Crane and Mark Twain. That’s not the order they’re good in. There is no order for good writers.” Well Hemingway wasn’t so bad himself. Although I bet you he wished he’d spent a few days in a dinghy on the open sea. He seems the type who could have appreciated a thing like that. But then I guess, as with so many things, it all depends on how you tell yourself the story after.

(Originally posted Dec. 12th, 2008 on Takethehandle.com)