Greenwich Village’s known history dates back to the 16th century, when it was a marshland called “Sapokanican” by Lenni Lenape Indians who camped and fished in the meandering trout stream later known as Minetta Brook. By the 1630s Dutch settlers had cleared pastures and planted crops in this area, which they referred to as Noortwyck. After the English conquest of New Amsterdam in 1664, the settlement evolved into a country hamlet, first designated “Grin’wich” in 1713 Common Council records. Sir Peter Warren, vice-admiral of the British Navy and commander of its New York fleet, amassed a vast land tract here in the 1740s, as did Captain Robert Richard Randall.
Greenwich Village survived the American Revolution as a pastoral suburb. Commercial activity after the war was centered near the edge of the Hudson River, where there were fresh produce markets. The comparative seclusion of the area began to erode when outbreaks of yellow fever and cholera beset the core city in 1799, 1803, 1805, and 1821. Those seeking refuge fled north to the wholesome backwaters of the West Village, triggering the construction of temporary housing as well as banking offices. During an especially virulent epidemic in 1822 many who had intended to remain in the area only temporarily chose instead to settle there permanently, increasing the population fourfold between 1825 and 1840 and spurring the development of markets and businesses. Shrewd speculators subdivided farms, leveled hills, rerouted and buried Minetta Brook, and undertook landfill projects.
The Village at the turn of the 20th century was quaintly picturesque and ethnically diverse. By the start of World War I it was widely known as a bohemian enclave with secluded side streets, low rents, and a tolerance for radicalism and nonconformity. Attention increasingly focused on artists and writers noted for their boldly innovative work: books and irreverent “little magazines” were published by small presses, art galleries exhibited the work of the avant-garde, and experimental theater companies blatantly ignored the financial considerations of Broadway. A growing awareness of its idiosyncrasies helped to make Greenwich Village an attraction for tourists. Entrepreneurs provided amusements ranging from evenings in artists’ studios to bacchanalian costume balls. During Prohibition local speakeasies attracted uptown patrons. Decrepit row houses were remodeled into “artistic flats” for the well-to-do, and in 1926 luxury apartment towers appeared at the northern edge of Washington Square.
The village’s rural roots have left it with a hodgepodge of streets and alleys that defy New York City’s otherwise orderly grid. This exploration of the backstreets of Greenwich Village will begin in Washington Square Park, which was once a city potter’s field...
Washington Square Park
bounded by Waverly Place, 4th Street, University Place and MacDougal Street
When the Dutch settled on Manhattan Island, this was a marshy area that was eventually drained and farmed. As a reward for helping defend the colony from Indian attacks, the Dutch gave the land to free slaves and it was called “The Land of the Blacks.” It remained farmland under English rule but after a yellow fever epidemic in the early 1800s the ground became a cemetery. The burial ground was closed in 1825 and the following year the City bought the land and the square was laid out and leveled. Statues in the park include a remembrance to Italian patriot and soldier Giuseppe Garibaldi, commander of the insurrectionist forces in Italy’s struggle for unification, and one to Alexander Lyman Holley, a talented engineer who helped start the American steel industry after the invention of the Bessemer process for mass producing steel.
Washington Memorial Arch
Fifth Avenue and Waverly Place
In 1889, to honor the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration as the first president of the United States, a large plaster-and-wood Memorial Arch was erected over Fifth Avenue, just north of the park. The temporary arch proved so popular that celebrated architect Stanford White was retained to design a permanent marble arch at the foot of Fifth Avenue. The 77-foot high arch is one of two freestanding triumphal arches in Manhattan, the other being the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge.
WALK THROUGH THE SOUTH ENTRANCE OF THE PARK.
Judson Memorial Church
55 Washington Square South
In 1890, distinguished preacher and church leader Edward Judson initiated construction of Judson Church as a memorial to his father Adoniram Judson, the first American Protestant foreign missionary. Backed by John D. Rockefeller and other prominent Baptists, Edward pulled together the leading artisans of the day - architect Stanford White, stained glass master John La Farge, and sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens -who created an eclectic Romanesque style building from the finest stones and tiles.
TURN LEFT ON 4TH STREET ALONG THE PARK’S SOUTHERN EDGE.
Elmer Holmes Bobst Library
70 Washington Square South (4th Street)
New York University owns many of the buildings around Washington Square - the park is essentially part of campus. The International-style Bobst Library was a Philip Johnson design in 1972; on a pedestal next to the library is a piece of the ornate stonework from the University’s original Gothic building. As you tour Greenwich Village whenever you see a violet banner emblazoned with a flaming torch you are looking at an NYU building.
TURN LEFT ON UNIVERSITY PLACE ALONG THE PARK’S EASTERN EDGE.
Grey Art Gallery/New York University - Main Building
100 Washington Square East
The Grey Art Gallery, New York University’s fine arts museum, is located on the site of the school’s original home, the University Building. Winslow Homer, Daniel Huntington, Samuel Colt, George Innes, and Henry James all lived and worked there, as did Professor Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph, who established the first academic fine arts department in America here. Dismantled in 1894 after 55 years of service, the University Building was replaced by the current Silver Center.
TURN LEFT ON WAVERLY PLACE/WASHINGTON SQUARE NORTH.
Washington Square North
These two blocks, from University Place to MacDougal Street, feature handsome Greek Revival townhouses that were built by wealthy New Yorkers shortly after Washington Square was built. Numbers 1 to 13, save for No. 3, were built in 1832-33. Numbers 19 to 26 went up within the following decade.
TURN RIGHT ON FIFTH AVENUE AND GO HALF-A-BLOCK TO WASHINGTON MEWS ON THE RIGHT.
Beacon Street at 1 Walnut Street
Many of the smaller homes in this area of the Village began life as 19th-century stables. The simple, stuccoed houses on the south side of Washington Mews were intended as residences when they wer erected in 1939. The Belgian-block pavement is now a pedestrian-only alley.
CONTINUE WALKING NORTH ON FIFTH AVENUE AND TURN RIGHT ON EAST 10TH STREET.
Lockwood De Forest House
7 East 10th Street
Lockwood De Forest, who had worked with Louis Comfort Tiffany and other major artists, had a factory in India that shipped teak screens, doors and sometimes entire interiors to America, feeding a growing market for such exotica. In 1887 he added the elaborately carved teakwood projecting bay and trim to this otherwise drab brick townhouse, creating this streetscape show-stopper.
TURN AROUND AND CROSS FIFTH AVENUE TO WEST 10TH STREET.
West 10th Street
between Fifth and Sixth avenues
For some people, West 10th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues is the most beautiful block in New York City. Residences here range from the modest Greek Revival to the opulent Italianate and the street plantings and gardens are vibrant for Manhattan. Balconies are communal, popular in Europe but seldom seen in New York. English Terrace Row, designed by the architect of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, James Renwick Jr., was built between 1856 and 1858 and consists of nine brownstones from numbers 20-38. Mark Twain lived for a time in the Italianate townhouse at #14, raised with brick and brownstone carvings in 1855-56.
RETURN TO FIFTH AVENUE AND TURN LEFT.
Church of the Ascension
Fifth Avenue at Tenth Street
The first parish church, a small white Greek Revival building on Canal Street, was consecrated in 1829 and, a decade later, was destroyed by fire. Within a month, the Vestry selected the present site and hired America’s leading cheerleader for the Gothic Revival style, Richard Upjohn, to design the new sanctuary that was consecrated on November 5, 1841, the first church on Fifth Avenue. The site was considerably north of the city’s population center, when Fifth Avenue was only an unpaved trackway, terminating in a board fence at Twenty-third Street.
47 Fifth Avenue
Originally formed as the New York Sketch Club in 1871, the Club adopted its present name a hundred years ago after Washington Irving published his potpourri of wit and wisdom called The Salmagundi Papers. The Italianate clubhouse is of 1852 vintage. Through the years the Club has been the singular gathering place for such great artists as Childe Hassam, William Merrit Chase, Howard Pyle, N.C. Weyth, Carles Dana Gibson, Ogden Pleisner and many others. Honorary members have included such luminaries as Sir Winston Churchill, Buckminister Fuller, Paul Cadmus, Al Hirschfeld, Thomas Hoving and Schuyler Chapin.
First Presbyterian Church
48 Fifth Avenue
First Presbyterian traces its origins back to services held on Wall Street in 1716; in Colonial times it was known as the “Church of the Patriots.” In the 1840s the congregation moved here, urged on by James Lenox, church elder and one of the town’s richest men who was not stingy with his donations to Presbyterian causes. Architect Joseph C. Wells modeled his Gothic Revival church, executed in brownstone, on Magdalen College in Oxford, England. The fabled architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White showed up in the 1890s to add the south transept.
TURN LEFT ON 12TH STREET.
37 West 12th Street
The Butterfield House from 1962 is a touchstone for modern apartment houses in New York City. Look for the window oriels that infuse a geometric rhythm to the streetscape.
New School For Social Research
66 West 12th Street
The New School for Social Research was founded in 1919 as a center for “discussion, instruction, and counseling for mature men and women.” In 1930, Joseph Urban built his last major structure in New York, blending the Art Deco and the International Styles for this modernistic seven-story classroom
TURN LEFT ON SIXTH AVENUE.
Jefferson Market Courthouse /Jefferson Market Library
425 Sixth Avenue
They don’t make buildings like this any more - and not many back in the 1870s, either. Architects Frederick Clarke Withers and Calvert Vaux piled pinnacles, gables and a 172-foot clock tower onto their High Victorian Gothic pile, slathered in red brick, black stone, white granite, variegated roof slates. In a survey of architects in the 1880s, the courthouse was named the fourth most beautiful building in America. Those sentiments were long gone by the 1960s when the old house of justice faced a date with the wrecking ball. Preservationists piped up, however, and the landmark was saved to trundle on as a branch of the New York Public Library.
West 10th Street, behind Jefferson Market Library
No one except Patchin Place residents get to see it because of the locked iron gate. Named for Samuel Milligan’s land surveyor, Patchin Place is laid out as a straight cul de sac. Famous residents of Patchin Place have included capitalization-averse poet e.e. cummings, and authors John Reed and Theodore Dreiser. Patchin Place also contains the city’s last functioning gaslamp, although it has long ago been electrified.
RETURN TO SIXTH AVENUE AND TURN RIGHT. TURN RIGHT ON CHRISTOPHER STREET.
165 Waverly Place at Christopher Street
This Federal-style building has been a Village landmark at one of the city’s oddest intersections since 1831 when it was built to “heal the sick.” The City had been providing regular treatment for the poor since 1791. Edgar Allan Poe checked in for a head cold in 1837 at the triangular dispensary for indigent Villagers. It is the only New York City building with one side on two streets (Grove and Christopher streets where they meet) and two sides facing one street―Waverly Place, which splits in two directions. It has been vacant since 1998 but there are plans to revitalize the dignified brick building.
Sheridan Square, named for Civil War general Phillip Sheridan, is in the heart of the Village, where seven streets come together. Christopher Street is the oldest street in the West Village.
TURN LEFT ON BEDFORD STREET. TURN RIGHT ON GROVE STREET.
4-10 Grove Street
This curving line of residences stands as an essay in Federal-style architecture. Built as working-class homes, they are typical of the era with features such as red brick facades facing the street that front wooden clapboard rears. Note the Flemish bond brickwork, small dormer windows and wrought iron railings. Like most of its neighbors, these were built by local carpenters and masons who copied architectural designs from pattern books.
RETURN TO BEDFORD STREET AND TURN RIGHT.
86 Bedford Street
Chumley’s was a pub and cultural landmark, established in the 1920s, that had been a gathering place for writers, poets, journalists and activists of the Lost Generation and the Beat Generation. It had a “secret” entrance on Barrow Street with no exterior sign, giving it the air of the speakeasy it once was. Purportedly, the expression “to 86” (meaning to hide or get rid of something, or to stop serving a person) comes from the police warning given to Chumley’s before raids by Prohibition agents to “86 everyone out the back door” (“86” being the Bedford Street address number on the door). A 2007 fire led to the razing of the original building but there are plans to rebuild.
77 Bedford Street
Constructed in 1799, this is generally accepted to be the oldest house in the Village. When it was built this was a free-standing farmhouse with its own yard. The Greek Revival brick facade is an 1836 addition.
75 Bedford Street
Less than ten feet wide this is the City’s narrowest house. It was built in 1873. Edna St. Vincent Millay lived here between 1923 and 1924 and received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry during that time.
TURN RIGHT ON LEROY STREET/ST. LUKE’S PLACE.
6 St. Luke’s Place
West of 7th Avenue, Leroy Street bends and its name changes to St. Luke’s Place, one of New York’s most charming passages. Originally the northernmost boundary of Trinity Church’s estate, this block is graced by brick and brownstone Greek and Renaissance Revival row houses. The official residence of the Mayor of New York when Jimmy Walker was here, marked by a pair of lanterns. The house has the arched entry and pediment-topped windows that are characteristic of mid-century Renaissance Revival row houses. Respected as a fair and effective mayor during his first term, Walker was forced to resign in disgrace in 1932 due to a scandal that plagued his second term.
TURN AROUND ON LEROY STREET AND CONTINUE TO BLEECKER STREET. TURN RIGHT.
This road once ran through the Bleecker family farm and in 1808, Anthony Bleecker deeded to the city a major portion of the land on which his namesake street sits. Famous as a major center for American bohemia and the New York music scene, the legendary club CBGB was located on the east end of Bleecker Street. At 273 Bleecker Street is Matt Umanov Guitars, one off New York’s oldest (more than 35 years) and most respected music stores. It remains the favorite choice of collectors, professionals, & discerning shoppers.
TURN LEFT ON LAGUARDIA PLACE.
Fiorello La Guardia statue
east side of La Guardia Place
In 1933, reformist candidate Fiorello La Guardia was swept into the mayor’s office at the age of 51. Over the next 12 years, La Guardia, nicknamed “Little Flower” (translation of fiorello), unified the public transit system, streamlined government, cracked down on illegal gambling, and constructed bridges, parks, and airports. During his third term, 1942 to 1945, Gracie Mansion became the official residence of New York City’s mayors. This monument to the son of a United States Army bandleader from Manhattan’s Little Italy who became the nation’s first Italian-American Congressman in 1916 was unveiled in 1994. The sculptor was Neil Estern.
TURN LEFT ON WEST 3RD STREET. TURN RIGHT ON MACDOUGAL STREET.
133 MacDougal Street
The Provincetown Playhouse first opened in 1916 in a town house at 139 MacDougal Street and after two seasons moved to #133, formerly a stables and bottling plant. Next door to the Liberal Club and Polly’s Restaurant, the Playhouse, which launched the theatrical career of Eugene O’Neill, was at the heart of pre-World War I Greenwich Village bohemia. Until its demise after the 1929 stock market crash, the Playhouse contributed substantially to the growth of the off-Broadway stage. In 1941, the four buildings at 133-139 MacDougal Street were rebuilt as apartments, New York University offices, and a new Provincetown Playhouse. After a vigorous second life, the theater is now once again dark.
29 Washington Square West
Eleanor Roosevelt took an apartment here in 1942; it was her main residence following husband Franklin’s death in 1945 until 1949.
RETURN TO YOUR STARTING POINT IN WASHINGTON SQUARE PARK, ACROSS THE STREET.