Yesterday, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) voted to create a new landmark district, called the South Village Historic District. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation has spent many years researching this area of the Village and urging the city to designate this Village neighborhood as a landmark district. So as we celebrate this long deserved piece of landmark protection, we thought we would revisit our Landmarking 101 series to talk a little more about how the borders of a newly-created district come about.
The development of boundaries of a historic district includes various factors, some scholarly, some political. In the case of the South Village Historic District, one factor was the proposed boundaries included in a “Request for Evaluation” GVSHP submitted to the LPC in 2006. (Unsure what a “Request for Evaluation” is? Check out this past Off the Grid post for a tutorial on this and other obscure historic preservation terms.) According to architectural historian Andrew Dolkart, who authored the report, the boundaries surveyed and considered landmark-worthy were based on the character of the historic physical fabric, major streets and avenues that divide neighborhoods, and the boundaries of previously designated historic districts or proposed districts.
The physical fabric of the neighborhood explains why, for instance, the section of the proposed study area’s eastern border adjacent to West Broadway goes through the middle of a block. The architecture on the western side of West Broadway is mainly comprised of cast-iron buildings erected for industry, while residential tenement buildings dominate the eastern side of Thompson Street. In fact, an extension of the SoHo Cast-Iron District in May of 2010 extended that Cast-Iron district so that it now directly abuts GVSHP’s proposed South Village district.
While architecture remains the dominant concern in establishing the boundaries of city landmark districts, culture is increasingly playing a role in this process. In the case of the South Village study area, the two go hand- in-hand. Much of the tenement architecture that characterizes the South Village was built for an increasingly immigrant neighborhood. Italian immigrants came to dominate this area from the late 19th century through the years between the First and Second World Wars. In fact, a 1920 map illustrating the ethnic areas of Manhattan shows how the borders of GVSHP’s study area mirrors the settlement of Italian immigrants in the neighborhood. The term South Village itself comes out of the area’s immigrant history. While many today consider the streets south of Houston along Sullivan and Thompson Streets included in GVSHP’s study area a part of SoHo, GVSHP found numerous references to the neighborhood’s name as the South Village, particularly among that historic Italian community.
Often, the border of a historic district does not neatly line up along a street or avenue. We here at GVSHP are often asked why a historic district border looks so jagged. In the case of the new South Village Historic District, the southern border of the district along Houston Street is carved out along Sullivan and Bleecker Streets and Sixth Avenue. These carve outs include ball fields and row of ten 1840s houses at 130-148 Houston Street that the LPC ultimately considered too highly altered for inclusion. While there are non-contributing buildings in all historic districts, you’ll find most historic districts will carve out those particularly along the edges of a district. These borders often cause confusion when the brown street signs indicative of a historic district are placed on a street because a majority of that street is part of the district.
GVSHP, with the help of the community, was able to advocate for the inclusion of the several buildings the LPC originally carved out. With the help of a letter writing campaign, the LPC included NYU’s Vanderbilt Hall and Kevorkian Center at 40 and 50 Washington Square South in the new district, preventing two-carve outs unpopular with the community (even more unpopular was the 300 ft. tall tower NYU could have built on the site under existing zoning rules had it not been included in the landmark district — see images here).
If you are interested in learning more about GVSHP’s proposed South Village Historic District, visit the South Village page on the GVSHP website. There is one more portion of the South Village study area that GVSHP is working to get landmarked, so stay tuned!
And to learn more about landmarking in New York City, you can read these past Landmarking 101 posts on Off the Grid.