One of the quirkiest and most beloved icons of the Village and its propensity for non-conformity, defying the street grid, and embracing a diminutive scale is also the smallest piece of property to ever be privately owned in New York City.
The story of the ‘Hess Triangle,’ at the southwest corner of 7th Avenue South and Christopher Street, begins in 1910, when nearly 300 buildings along Seventh Avenue in the West Village were condemned and slated to be torn down to widen the street to build the Seventh Avenue subway line. In 1913 the NY Times reported that, “property owners and residents within the line of Seventh Avenue extension from Greenwich Avenue to Varick Street are preparing for the demolition of the buildings within the condemned area.” The buildings along an eleven block stretch were to be “ ruthlessly cut through, destroying many curious old residences and businesses.”
The surveyors missed a tiny piece of the plot at 110 7th Avenue– at the corner of Seventh Avenue South and Christopher Street, where owner David Hess’ five-story Voorhis apartment building stood until the demolition. The city asked the Hess family to donate it, but they refused. Resisting municipal pressure, the Hess family went to court to avow their property rights, and won the case. When all was said and done, David Hess’ heirs were deemed the rightful owners of the smallest piece of property in New York City history, a triangle measuring around 27½” x 27½” x 25½”.
On July 17, 1922, the Hess family installed a mosaic reading in all caps, “PROPERTY OF THE HESS ESTATE WHICH HAS NEVER BEEN DEDICATED FOR PUBLIC PURPOSES.” The sign hasn’t been changed since.
In 1938, the Hess heirs sold the triangle for $1,000 to Village Cigar, the store in front of which the triangle stands. Subsequently, Yeshiva University obtained the Village Cigar building and surrounding property, including the Hess Triangle. The last link in the chain of ownership dates back to 1995, when the university sold both properties to the 70 Christopher Realty Corporation, which rents the building to the store.
As GVSHP Executive Director Andrew Berman stated to the Villager in 2011, “There have always been pressures on the Village to conform to the wishes of city government and the desires of big developers, but the Village, while not necessarily winning every battle, has always been able to maintain its quirkiness, human scale and distinct identity, and the Hess triangle is very emblematic of that.”
Want to learn more about Hess Triangle? Watch this video of the June 2022 Village Preservation program marking the 100th anniversary of the triangle with James Nevius, or read this piece about ten of the most charming spots in the Greenwich Village Historic District, including Hess Triangle.