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Decades of Limbo To Finally End for South Village “Almost-Landmarks”?

The remainder of the proposed South Village Historic District; the first third, north of Houston and west of 6th Avenue, was heard and designated in 2010.

Last week we received written confirmation from the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) that they intend to hear and vote upon the remaining section of our proposed South Village Historic District north of Houston Street before the end of the year.

To say this was a long time coming would be a vast understatement.  GVSHP has been urging the LPC to consider this area for designation since at least 2002.  But some individual sites within the proposed South Village Historic District have come tantalizingly close to landmark designation before, and for them the wait has been much longer than ten years.

Several buildings in the South Village have previously been “heard but not designated” by the Landmarks Preservation Commission; in other words, the Commission thought highly enough of them to hold a hearing on possible designation, but never voted on whether or not to designate, leaving them in limbo.  Some buildings have been in such a state for close to fifty years.

The South Village has one of the city’s great concentration of these “almost-landmarks.” For some (but not all) of them, that state of limbo may soon be coming to a long-awaited end. 

Here are a few of them.

Mill’s House No. 1, 160 Bleecker Street, btw. Sullivan and Thompson Streets.

Mills House No. 1, later the Greenwich Hotel, and now the Atrium Apartments at 160 Bleecker Street, was also the former home of the Village Gate Theater.  This imposing structure, far and away the largest and tallest in the South Village, was built in 1896 to the designs of renowned architect Ernest Flagg.

The Mill’s House was an early experiment in “reform housing”.  It originally consisted of 1,500 tiny rooms occupied by single men, largely sailors, surrounding a central open well offering a rare commodity of light and air to its residents (now covered over, the light well provides the atrium from which the building currently derives its name).  There was also a library and other recreational areas for the men, who were encouraged to work and therefore not allowed to remain in their rooms during the day.

Unlike other options for poor, single men at the time, the Mill’s House was clean and strictly run, to ensure the health and good moral standing of its residents.

Now the Atrium Apartments, Mill’s House was one of New York’s first, and still one of its largest, private “reform housing” developments.

The same could not be said of the Mill’s House in its later incarnation as the Greenwich Hotel in the 1960’s, which by all accounts had become quite squalid and seedy, and a source of crime and frequent complaint in the Village.  But it was during this period that Art D’Lugoff’s Village Gate was located there as well, which went on to become one of the Village’s and the nation’s premiere performance venues for 38 years.  During its run here, performers included John Coltrane,  Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Nina Simone, and Aretha Franklin, who made her first New York appearance there.

The sign for the old Village Gate still stands, attached to the 2nd floor of the building at Bleecker and Thompson Streets.

Mill’s House No. 1 was heard by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1966, a mere year after the Commission’s establishment.  But in spite of its indisputable historic significance and the passage of so much time, the building has never been designated, remaining in landmark limbo for forty-seven years.

Our next ‘almost-landmark’ is 39 1/2 Washington Square South, a rare “French Flats” apartment building on the corner of MacDougal and West 4th Streets.  Because the South Village became a largely-working-class, immigrant neighborhood by the latter half of the 19th century, virtually all new housing built there from that time onward were tenements or reform housing like Mill’s House, catering to those of quite modest means.

“French flats” at 39 1/2 Washington Square South; note the “Washington View” inscribed in the corner of the building’s cornice.

The rare exception was 39 1/2 Washington Square South, an apartment building constructed in 1883 which took advantage of its corner location on Washington Square to lure middle and upper-middle class residents to a new kind of living arrangement based upon french models of apartment house life.  The architects Thom & Wilson designed a striking Renaissance-style, brick, stone, and brownstone building.  There were just two airy apartments per floor, with generous windows all around.  The building was heard but not designated in 1967, and thus has been waiting forty-six years for landmark designation.

Just next door are our next two ‘almost-landmarks,’ the Greek Revival houses at 132 and 134 West 4th Street.  Both date to 1839, and were among the grandest houses ever constructed in the South Village.

132 West 4th Street

But both may be even more notable for their 20th century lives than their 19th century origins.  No. 132 was remodeled in 1917 by Josephine Wright Chapman, one of the first successful female architects in America.  In doing so, she created what may be the classic (and one of the earliest) rooftop Village artists studio additions.

Quite unusually, she kept the small Greek Revival side windows of the attic intact as she sensitively inserted a new bay window in the center and a setback industrial casement window behind the cornice.  This delicate interplay of new and old elements was in many ways decades ahead of its time.  The work was considered so impressive that the house was recorded by the Historic American Buildings Survey in 1935.

Historic American Buildings Survey drawing of 132 W. 4th (c/o Library of Congress)

Not long after the renovation in 1918, noted actor John Barrymore leased the house. Its grand facade details remain entirely intact today; there is a 1-story rear structure behind the house, invisible from the street.

Next door, no. 134 West 4th Street also underwent a notable transformation directly following World War I.  A young and then-unknown architect named Raymond Hood added a full fourth floor artists’ studio with casement windows in 1919.   Hood would later become one of the most celebrated and successful American architects of the mid-20th century, designing such venerable and influential landmarks as the Daily News Building, the Chicago Tribune Building, the McGraw Hill Building, and Rockefeller Center.

Figure 67. 132 and 134 West 4th Street
134 West 4th Street (r.), with 132 West 4th Street to the left.  Note the artists’ studio additions.

Soon thereafter and for much of the 1920’s the house was occupied by the very  bohemian daughter of the 28th U.S. President, Margaret Woodrow Wilson.  Ms. Wilson sang and made several recordings towards the end of her father’s presidency, but in 1938 traveled to and joined the ashram of Sri Aurobindo in Puducherry, India where she took the name ‘Nishti,” sanskrit for “sincerity.”  From the ashram she edited the English translation of the classical work of the Hindu mystic Sri Ramakrishna.  She stayed in Puducherry until she died in 1944.

No less notable a resident of No. 134 West 4th Street was the beloved and determined preservationist, and co-founder of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, Verna Small, who owned the house until her death in 2008.  No. 134 and 132 West 4th Street were both heard but not designated by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1967.

Finally, 57 Sullivan Street, just north of Broome Street, was built in 1816-1817, and is believed to the the oldest extant structure in the South Village.  It was originally owned by David Bogart, a mason.  Ironically, though the oldest structure in the group, 57 Sullivan Street is a relative newcomer to the South Village ‘almost-landmark’ club, having been first heard but not designated by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1970, a mere forty-three years ago.

57 Sullivan Street — left standing at the altar twice by the LPC.

Not long ago it looked as though 57 Sullivan Street’s decades in landmark limbo might becoming to an end. After a campaign by GVSHP and the New York Landmarks Conservancy to landmark this and twelve other federal-era rowhouses, 57 Sullivan Street was heard again by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 2009.  But the Commission failed again to vote after the 2009 hearing, making 57 Sullivan unique among its South Village peers — left standing at the altar twice now by the LPC.

Unfortunately, this is not the only way in which 57 Sullivan Street is unique.  Unlike the other South Village landmark-limbo sites, 57 Sullivan Street is not within the northern section of the proposed South Village Historic District which the LPC has now promised to hear and vote upon before the end of the year (they have merely committed to “survey” the area south of Houston Street, in which 57 Sullivan Street is located, before year’s end).

And thus with no action on landmark designation immediately in sight, 57 Sullivan Street may end up with the distinction of the longest stay in South Village landmark limbo.

Let’s hope not.

You can find out more about these and many other significant buildings in our proposed South Village Historic District in our proposal for landmark designation by architectural historian Andrew S. Dolkart.

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