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The High Line is Dismantled and the West Side is Transformed

There’s no overstating it – we at Village Preservation love our members and friends sharing old mementos and images of our neighborhood. Personal or family pictures taken of one’s surroundings or familiar spots often now become, years later, important historical documents.

1962, Washington and Perry Streets. Nick Fritsch (aged 7) and his older sister Erica, in the foreground in front of cut pieces of the High Line trestle in the process of being dismantled. Their home at 141 Perry street is the small reddish without fire escapes building visible behind the trestle.

Case in point:  we’ve just added to our ever-growing Historic Image Archive a mini-collection of photographs taken by longtime resident and tireless defender of the West Village Peter H. Fritsch, donated by his son, Nick Fritsch. These images (above and below) of Nick, his sister, and their Perry Street home’s surroundings show the High Line, which once ran from 34th Street all the way to Spring Street, in the process of being dismantled and demolished in the West Village.

Crane with wrecking ball mounted on the High Line trestle. Photograph by Peter H. Fritsch, 1962.

Born in a small town in Austria in 1919, Peter Fritsch moved to the United States in the mid-1930s and earned his degrees from Louisiana State University and Harvard Business School. He then followed his love of music to New York City, working as an executive for Musicraft Records before founding Lyrichord Discs in 1950 with his wife, Theresa. The family resided at 141 Perry Street, the basement of which served as the Lyrichord headquarters, from 1958 to 2001. Their beautiful brick Greek Revival home, included in the 1969 Greenwich Village Historic District Designation Report, was erected in 1846 for John Keane, a stonecutter based at 615 Washington Street just down the road. As residents of the oldest surviving building on the block and the last remaining example here of a rowhouse of this period, it’s incredibly fitting that Peter and Theresa Fritsch were founding members of the West Village Committee, fighting alongside Jane Jacobs and others to protect the neighborhood.

The crane and wrecking ball is getting into position in the middle of the intersection of Perry and Washington Streets. The building west of the trestle on the right was the headquarters of the Spanish-language newspaper “La Prensa”. Its sign appears on the corner of the building.

Fritsch’s photographs, donated to GVSHP by his son, Nick, offer a fascinating look at the changing landscape of the Far West Village in the early 1960s.  Demolition of the southernmost section of the High Line, from Spring to Bank Street, began around 1960.  As the demolition work slowly made its way up Washington Street, it left blocks and blocks of empty space where the tracks once ran, and much of that space remained empty for a decade and a half afterward. While one block, between Christopher and West 10th Streets was replaced with the brick apartment building at 165 Christoper Street in 1961, much of the rest of the space left vacant by the demolished High Line became the subject of a years-long fight between neighbors and Robert Moses.  Moses originally planned to demolish nearly all of the West Village west of Hudson Street as part of an urban renewal development, and replace it with high-rise towers surrounded by open lawns.  Once that plan was defeated, the battle ensued over what to do with the empty land left by the High Line’s demolition, with neighbors favoring Jane Jacobs-inspired simple, walk-up, infill affordable housing.

141 Perry Street. Image courtesy of Google Street View.

The neighbors won — sort of.  Their plan for what became West Village Houses was adopted, but the city’s fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s significantly altered and stripped down the designs, while retaining the basic idea of placing low-rise, simple buildings with shared rear yards along the street with small front yards — a modern, updated version of a West Village mixture of rowhouses and small apartment buildings.  Demolition of the High Line north of Bank Street and what is now Westbeth, all the way to Gansevoort Street where the High Line now begins, took place in 1991; rather than some utopian ideal, those sections of the High Line were replaced with market rate housing erected by real estate developers.

Counterclockwise from top l.: 165 Christopher Street (1961); the Jane Jacobs-inspired West Village Houses; 99 Jane Street, one of the new buildings which replaced the last section of the High Line to be demolished in 1991; no utopian planning here.

Through Peter Fritsch’s lens, we see the first stages of the High Line’s dismantling; that gradual dismantling, and the preservation of the remainder of the High Line, lead to the dramatic transformation of the West Side of Manhattan.  The High Line’s demolition is shown with a crane piercing the sky and its wrecking ball ready to strike, workers standing beside a barrier that reads “Do Not Cross”, and a young brother and sister posing among hunks of trestle. In one of the images, the Fritsch home is clearly visible in the background, showing just how near the family were to the deafening pounding of the wrecking ball on the tracks.

Where the High Line was demolished in the West Village, a great deal of development took place, though some was reserved for affordable housing. In Chelsea where the High Line was preserved, an absolute tsunami of development took place along its edges, most very expensive.

Of course the High Line north of Gansevoort Street is still intact, and was transformed into one of New York City’s most popular (and crowded) parks.  As part of the deal for preserving the High Line, however, the city rezoned the surrounding blocks which have since supported one of the largest development booms in New York’s history.

But the Fritsch’s photos bring us back to a time before all of that, and shed light upon the High Line’s prior life, and its partial undoing. The Fritsches were deeply committed to preserving the neighborhood where they lived for over 60 years. These photographs certainly preserve the memory of how this area once was, and now serve to celebrate the life and activism of the man who took them, his family, and their legacy.

Want more historic images?  You can access our entire historic image archive here.

If you have old photographs of our neighborhoods and you are interested in donating them so we can share them with the public, let us know! Email Sam Moskowitz to ask about adding your photos to our Historic Image Archive. Prints from the archive are also available for purchase. 

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