Among the many delights included in this weekend’s Open House New York will be three iconic Greenwich Village buildings–a Gothic Revival church with many architectural firsts, a library that was originally a courthouse which heard the “Trial of the Century,” and a groundbreaking artists’ housing complex that was formerly home to Bell Telephone Labs and the site where color television was invented. These extraordinary landmarks span three centuries of American history, reflecting the evolution of our city’s spiritual, artistic, industrial, scientific, and civic life.
Southward view of Gay Street via Wiki Commons
Gay Street is one of the most charming and picturesque streets in Greenwich Village, an icon of the historic neighborhood’s anachronistic character. But the origins of its name are hotly debated, with the LGBT rights movement and abolitionism often cited as the source of its unusual nomenclature. And while the street certainly has strong connections to gay liberation and the African-American struggle for freedom, the history behind the name is a little murkier, and a little more complicated to unravel, than one might expect.
The Village is known as one of the oldest parts of New York City, where historic architecture can be found everywhere, and charming houses from a bygone era still stand. Here at the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, a perennial question we’re asked is “which is the oldest house in the Village?” It’s a great question, with a complicated answer. Is it one of the two charming wooden houses? The “brick” house with connections to Paul Revere? The Merchant’s House Museum, Manhattan’s first individual landmark? The handsome Stuyvesant Street house built by Peter Stuyvesant’s great-grandson?
Google Street View of Federal-style rowhouses on VanDam Street
It’s an often-overlooked enclave with the largest concentration of Federal and Greek Revival style houses in New York City. Its origins can be traced back to historical figures as esteemed as George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jacob Astor, but it’s just as deeply connected to Italian immigrants and radical 20th-century innovators. The most dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker will have trouble telling you if it’s in Greenwich Village, SoHo, or Hudson Square.
The tiny Charlton-King-VanDam neighborhood is, as its name would imply, located along charming Charlton, King, and VanDam Streets between Sixth Avenue and Varick Streets, with a little arm extending up the southernmost block of MacDougal Street just below Houston Street. It was only the fourth designated historic district in New York City when it was landmarked on August 16th, 1966, and for good reason.
The Grand Central Hotel in the late 1800s, via Wiki Commons
In the mid-1970s, New York City was falling apart. Its finances, infrastructure, and social cohesion were, figuratively speaking, crumbling. But in one very tragic case, they were literally crumbling, too. And it all came tumbling down on August 3, 1973, when what was once one of the world’s grandest hotels (which had more recently become known for mayhem of both a musical and criminal sort) collapsed onto Broadway at Bond Street in Greenwich Village. From serving as the scene of one of the time’s most notorious murders to a connection to the National Baseball League, the Grand Central Hotel certainly had a grand history.
P.S. 64 in 2013, courtesy of GVSHP
Twenty years ago, on July 20, 1998, Mayor Rudy Giuliani sold former Public School 64 on the Lower East Side, then home to the Charas-El Bohio Community and Cultural Center, to a developer, despite opposition from the building’s occupants and the surrounding community. The decision and the building remain mired in controversy to this day. Community groups and elected officials will hold a rally in front of the building at 605 East 9th Street on Friday at 6 pm to mark the 20th anniversary of the sale and to call on Mayor Bill de Blasio to return the building to a community use.
PS General Slocum; photo via Wikimedia
On June 15, 1904, a disaster of unprecedented proportions took place in New York City, resulting in the loss of over 1,000 lives, mostly women and children. This largely forgotten event was the greatest peacetime loss of life in New York City history prior to the September 11th attacks, forever changing our city and the ethnic composition of today’s East Village.
It was on that day that the ferry General Slocum headed out from the East 3rd Street pier for an excursion on Long Island, filled with residents of what was then called Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany. This German-American enclave in today’s East Village was then the largest German-speaking community in the world outside of Berlin and Vienna.
1968 was a turbulent year marked by riots, massive protests, and assassinations of notable political figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.
But 50 years ago on June 3, 1968, an attempted assassination in New York City shook the downtown art world more deeply and personally than any of these other headline-grabbing events. Perhaps that was because it involved two quintessentially downtown figures — one a world-famous artist; the other, a struggling, mentally unbalanced aspiring writer/performer/self-proclaimed social propagandist, whose greatest claim to fame ended up being her attempt to kill the former, her one-time employer.
An 1870 newspaper illustration of Elizabeth Blackwell giving an anatomy lecture alongside a corpse at the Woman’s Medical College of New York Infirmary. Courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress.
One of the most radical and influential women of the 19th century changed the course of public health history while living and working in Greenwich Village and the East Village. Elizabeth Blackwell, America’s first female doctor, established cutting-edge care facilities and practices throughout these neighborhoods, the imprint of which can still be felt to this day in surviving institutions and buildings. In fact, one recently received a historic plaque to mark this ground-breaking but often overlooked piece of our history.
Jane Jacobs’ birthday on May 4 is marked throughout the world as an occasion to celebrate one’s own city — its history, diversity, and continued vitality. “Jane’s Walks” are conducted across the country to encourage average citizens to appreciate and engage the complex and dazzling ecosystems which make up our cityscapes (Here in NYC, MAS is hosting 200+ free walks throughout the city from today through Sunday). But there’s no place better to appreciate all things Jane Jacobs than Greenwich Village, the neighborhood in which she lived and which so informed and inspired her writings and activism, in turn helping to save it from destruction.