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Then & Now: A Home Fit for Fifth Avenue (and Mark Twain)

c. 1908 view of Fifth Avenue from Washington Square Arch. Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York Collections Portal.

For most, lower Fifth Avenue conjures up images of grand early to mid-20th century apartment houses that guide the eye towards Washington Square Arch, the gateway to one of the city’s most fabled parks. But before these buildings were constructed, the base of Fifth Avenue actually resembled the small-scale row house streetscapes of much of the rest of the Village. The four-story Salmagundi Club at 47 Fifth Avenue, where GVSHP holds some of our wonderful events, gives the passersby a clue to the elegant townhouses that once graced the thoroughfare.

21 Fifth Avenue Then
21 Fifth Avenue, July 1933. From the New York Bound Bookshop Collection in the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation’s archives.

One such residence was the stunning brick townhouse at 21 Fifth Avenue on the corner of East 9th Street (see images of the exterior and interior of the Mark Twain house, like the one above, on our Historic Image Archive). Referred to in the Greenwich Village Historic District designation report as “one of the most architecturally notable houses in all New York,” the Romanesque Revival style home was likely designed by the noted architect James Renwick, Jr. for his parents, James and Margaret Ann (née Brevoort) Renwick.  Renwick, Jr. was no stranger to the area in his work life, as his first commission had been the now-landmarked Grace Church at Broadway and 10th Street in 1843.

The 1851 residence at 21 Fifth Avenue was reportedly the first to be built on that block.  The land was bestowed to Margaret by her father, Henry Brevoort, in 1836. In designing his family’s home, Renwick, Jr. employed graceful round arches at the window lintels and colonette door surround. Brick corbelling at the window sills and cornice as well as ironwork at the parlor floor balcony added extra dimension to the façade. The side street elevation was equally as detailed with its peaked gable and numerous windows of varying sizes.

Although his mother’s family owned the house until the end of the 19th century, 21 Fifth Avenue’s connection to influential figures didn’t stop there. In 1906, the noted author Mark Twain lived here when he began dictating his autobiography to his collaborator, Albert Bigelow Paine.

According to the introduction to Mark Twain’s Autobiography, it appears Twain was not at 21 Fifth Avenue very long (Twain also lived briefly around the corner at 14 West 10th Street). But while he was, Paine met with him at a dinner in New York and “asked if he might visit him soon. At their next meeting he proposed to write the official biography of him and Mark Twain agreed. As a result, Twain undertook a series of autobiographical dictations, to be used partly by Paine as the basis of the biography and to be published in and for themselves at an appropriate time.” (p. xv)

The Brevoort replaced 21 Fifth Avenue and other 19th century row houses in the early 1950s. Google Street View.

Despite the beauty of its architecture and its link to famous figures, 21 Fifth Avenue – along with its four townhouse neighbors and the famous Hotel Brevoort to the south – was razed in the early 1950s to make way for the fourteen-story apartment building at 11 Fifth Avenue, known as the Brevoort. Paired with the Brevoort East, the apartment complex occupies the full city block bounded by Fifth Avenue, East 8th Street, University Place, and East 9th Street.

The modern brick high-rise features various setbacks and balconies at some corners. Responding to the automobile age in which it was built, the complex provided a courtyard drive-in. While it joined the next generation of tall buildings on this famed avenue, one wonders what the fate of the so-called “Mark Twain House” and its neighbors might have been had the Landmarks Law been passed some fifteen years earlier.

2 responses to “Then & Now: A Home Fit for Fifth Avenue (and Mark Twain)

  1. A good read, thank you. However, the Fifth Ave photo dated c. 1908 had to be taken a bit later. The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower is visible in the upper right corner which was completed in 1909.

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