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Landmarking 101: The Case of 121 Charles Street

121 Charles is up for sale and press about the house as a potential development site has generated a lot of landmark misconceptions.

The freestanding house at 121 Charles Street has been in the limelight the last few weeks. The home is currently on the market and the listing notes that the home is “the best development opportunity currently available in Manhattan.” While the press has explored a lot of angles on the home and its real estate potential, as usual there seems to be a lot of misconceptions about the home’s landmark status. So we thought we’d take this opportunity to review 121 Charles Street as part of our Landmarking 101 series.

First, a little history on this home. Prior to its move to its current location in 1967, the house stood on a rear lot at 71st Street & York Avenue, where it was occupied briefly in the 1940s by Margaret Wise Brown, author of the children’s picture book Goodnight Moon.  A couple decades later, when the house was slated for demolition by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, its owners saved the house by moving it to the Village. An exact date of construction for the house has yet to be determined. It first appeared on tax maps on York Avenue in 1898, suggesting that it was built elsewhere and moved to York Avenue in the mid-19th century.  A more detailed history of the home and its 1967 relocation can be found at New York Daily Photo blog.

In all of the press about the potential for development of the house at 121 Charles Street, one of the most interesting errors was the phrase “landmark district.” New York City has “historic districts,” not landmark districts. The house at 121 Charles Street is located within the Greenwich Village Historic District, which earns the home landmark status, meaning no changes can be made to it without a public hearing process and ultimately the approval of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

The entry for 121 Charles Street in the 1969 Greenwich Village Historic District designation report.
The entry for 121 Charles Street in the 1969 Greenwich Village Historic District designation report.

Because the building was in its current location at the time the Greenwich Village Historic District was created in 1969, it is part of the designation report. The designation report acts as the official record of the property’s architecture over time. The report assists the LPC in making decisions about changes to the building in future. You can access the Greenwich Village Historic District designation report on the GVSHP website.

Another misconception reiterated in some of the recent press reports has been the idea that because the building had been moved to the district from elsewhere, that its landmark status was somehow different than if the building had been built there. All buildings within a New York City Historic District have landmark status, even new buildings within that district. It is true, however, that the Landmarks Preservation Commission makes judgments about how much a particular building contributes to the district. In the case of 121 Charles Street however, the designation report seems to make the case for a significant contribution:

“As we look down this short street, which combines residential and commercial buildings, the eye is immediately drawn to the unusual little wooden house at the far end of the north side. According to tradition, it dates from the early Nineteenth Century, or even perhaps late in the Eighteenth. It was recently moved from York Avenue and Seventy-first Street to this more congenial spot in The Village and now occupies part of a vacant lot. Its low height and tiny scale is in startling contrast to the four and five-story apartment houses which occupy the rest of this side of the street . . ..”

For those of you interested in learning about potential changes to this, or any other building in a Village historic district, GVSHP can help. GVSHP considers it an essential part of our mission to monitor applications for changes to any of the 3,000 landmarked properties located in our neighborhoods. We publicize all of those applications through our Landmarks Applications Webpage, for which you can subscribe to get updates.


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