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121 Charles Street, from Yorkville to the Village

121 Charles Street in 1967. Source: Landmarks Preservation Commission.

By now, many of you have heard about the controversy over the little house at 121 Charles Street, at the corner of Greenwich Street. If you haven’t, ERG Property Advisors listed the house for sale as a development site for “a developer or user to execute a wide variety of potential visions, from boutique condominiums, apartments, or a one-of-a-kind townhouse.” The property is still for sale for a staggering $20 million.

Just to reiterate, anyone who buys this property can’t simply tear down or move the house. To even attempt that they would have to apply for a permit from the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) since the property is located within the Greenwich Village Historic District. This would also include a public review process in which the public can see and weigh in on the proposal. No such application has been filed yet (it is only speculation as to whether or not one ever will be), and, as we said above, the property hasn’t been sold.

Today, we thought we’d share some of the great history we’ve uncovered about this house. As we’ve mentioned before, the house was moved from Yorkville to the Village in 1967. The above photo was taken by LPC staff when the area was under consideration for historic district status. It shows the recently-arrived house on its yet-to-be landscaped property.

The wooden house is colored yellow in the map above (blue box surrounding it added by GVSHP). West side of York Avenue between 71st and 72nd Streets. 1916 Bromley map. Source: NYPL.

The house had previously been located at 1335 York Avenue, between 71st and 72nd Streets (see above). Saw marks found on the wood indicate that it was built after the introduction of saw mills, which would date the house to the early 19th century at the earliest. A knocker that used to be on the front door had an inscription that read, “Cobble Court 1810”. There has also been speculation that the house was built in the late 18th century.

William Glass and his wife bought the property and farmhouse in 1868 and operated a dairy there (interestingly, they had previously lived in Greenwich Village). They built a two-story brick residence in front of the farmhouse c. 1869 (seen in the map above), blocking it from view. The property became known as Cobble Court because of the cobblestones that paved the area between the two houses.

LIFE 1946 Brown2
Author Margaret Wise Brown in the doorway of the house when it was located on York Avenue. Source: LIFE Magazine, 1946.

In the early 20th century, the house was a restaurant. Over time, the farmhouse was rented out, most notably to Margaret Wise Brown, author of Goodnight Moon (1947), in the 1940s. Her book Mister Dog (1952) features the house. In 1960, Sven Bernhard rented and renovated the home. His wife Ingrid later moved in after they married in December 1964.

William Glass’ grandchildren – William and Robert Glass, and Margaret Glass Healy – eventually sold the property to the Archdiocese of New York in 1965 (it took the Archdiocese 15 years to convince Healy to sell since she was so attached to the property). The Archdiocese planned to demolish Cobble Court so it could build the Mary Manning Walsh Home for the Aged.

Still renters but unwilling to give up their beloved house, the Bernhards went to court and eventually won ownership around July 1966. They had six months, until January 31, 1967, to move it elsewhere. William Shopsin, a young architect interested in preserving historic buildings, was hired to find a new site that would preserve the house’s charm. He found the Charles and Greenwich Street lot on February 3rd (the first of two extensions the Bernhards received to move the house). The lot’s unusual shape was also able to accommodate the 26-foot-wide house, which would have trouble fitting on the standard 25-foot-wide Manhattan lot.

The Bernhards wait as their house is moved onto the lot of 121 Charles Street.

Before moving, he needed the permission of numerous city agencies, including the Department of Buildings (DOB), which had no record of the building due to its age (its construction predated DOB’s formation in 1866). To further complicate matters, wooden houses had been outlawed in Manhattan; so while the house was grandfathered on the York Avenue site, it would not meet contemporary code requirements in another location. When the story caught the interest of Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton and Mayor John Lindsay, their influence helped get the approvals needed to move the house.

Bernhard Homestead Welcome 1967 - from Linda Yowell
1967. Source unknown.

The court gave a final March 6th deadline to move the house otherwise it would be demolished. After snow threatened the move, the event took place on Sunday, March 5th. Borough President Sutton and a committee of West Village residents were at 121 Charles Street to greet the house’s arrival.

The house sat on a platform for six months while the necessary permits were granted to dig a foundation (meanwhile, the Bernhards lived in a nearby apartment on Hudson Street). The cobbles from the York Avenue site were brought here to recreate Cobble Court. The Daily News in 1969 thus described the lot: “On the left is an open yard and on the right, tucked into a corner, is a garden. In summer, flowers grow around the house and along the path to the door.” Ingrid Bernhard had iron gates installed so that onlookers would have a clear view of the house. That same year, the house and property gained landmark status as part of the newly-designated Greenwich Village Historic District.

The Bernhards lived here until 1986. It passed through two owners in two years before Suri Bieler bought it in 1988 (Bieler had been fond of the house since first seeing it on Charles Street as a child in the 1960s). She lived here with her husband Eliot Brodsky and their son, and hired architect George Boyle to complete an extensive renovation to the house in 2000-01. The first and second floors were expanded, and great care was taken to preserve the quirky charm of the house.

Google Street View.

This renovation received the approval of the LPC in September 1996. The permit mentions that the approved work consists of a “two-story addition on the east façade and one-story additions on the south and west facades, and also interior alterations.”

The permit also calls out the building’s “age, style, scale, materials, details and unusual history” as being “among the features which contribute to the special architectural and historic character of the Greenwich Village Historic District.”

The permit also states that, with regard to the proposal, the LPC “found that the design skillfully avoids overwhelming the diminutively scaled original building by breaking down the additions into a number of small discrete sections; that the irregular massing of the new sections reinforces the informal vernacular character of the original; that the careful placement of the largest section, the two-story eastern addition, responds to the unusual shape of the lot and the angle of the street while also helping to minimize the bulk of this wing; that the building’s vernacular quality is further reinforced by the sensitive mix of window types and sizes; and that for these reasons the proposed additions will reinforce the unique character of this building and site, and the special character of the Greenwich Village Historic District.”

For more information on this house, you can view our full report on its history, its movement from Yorkville to the Village, and its evolution since then here.

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