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East Village vs. West — Which Is Really the Narrowest House in NYC?

The following is a re-post originally written in 2011:

Word that the West Village’s 75 1/2 Bedford Street is back on the market always brings attention to the slender house in which Enda St. Vincent Millay is said to have written “my candle burns at both ends.”  But it also raises the question of whether or not this truly is the “narrowest house in New York City,” as it’s frequently called, or a mere pretender to the throne.

In fact, an Off the Grid reader recently asked us if there wasn’t actually a narrower house in the East Village, at 39 St. Mark’s Place, which at a glance certainly looks as though it could give its West Village counterpart a run for its money.

75 1/2 Bedford Street (left); 39 St. Marks Place (right)

Which leads us to the question — how did such skinny structures ever get built in the first place, and which is really the narrowest house in New York City?

Answering how they got so skinny helps to answer which is really the narrowest house.

On that count, 75 1/2 Bedford Street and its crosstown rival at 39 St. Mark’s Place actually have a lot in common.  Both were built on lots never intended for houses, and likely originally occupied by horsewalks or narrow alleyways to the rear yards or stables behind adjacent houses.

75 1/2 Bedford Street, with 75 Bedford to the left, and 77 to the right.

No. 75 1/2 Bedford Street stands on what was once the court between 77 and 75 Bedford Streets.  No. 77 Bedford Street is the Isaacs-Hendricks House, built in 1799 and the oldest house in Greenwich Village (but not as old as the 1795 house at 44 Stuyvesant Street in the East Village, as we learned in an earlier post). No. 77 was built for Joshua Isaacs, a merchant who lost the house to creditors just after it was built.  His son-in-law, Harmon Hendricks, bought the house from the creditors in 1801 (hence the name by which it is commonly referred, the “Isaacs-Hendricks House”).  The Issacs-Hendricks House and neighboring properties on Bedford and Commerce Streets were left by Hendricks to his daughter Hettie, who married Horatio Gomez.  No. 75 Bedford Street was built in 1836 for Charles Oakley, a lesse of the the Hendricks-Gomez Estate.

No. 75 1/2 Bedford Street was then built in 1873 for Horatio Gomez on the 9 1/2 foot wide court between 77 and 75 Bedford Street.  The stepped Dutch gable roof and industrial casement windows date from a 1920’s renovation of the house, around the time Edna St. Vincent Millay lived there in 1923-24.   Margaret Mead, Cary Grant, and John Barrymore are all said to have lived at 75 1/2 during the early 20th century as well.

39 St. Mark’s Place (left) and 41 St. Mark’s Place (right) once looked identical

Now let’s jump to the East Village. To understand the history of the narrow structure at 39 St. Mark’s Place, one must similarly examine the history of the two buildings to the east, Nos. 39 and 41 St. Mark’s Place.  Though it might not be obvious now, the two buildings were built together between 1863 and 1865 and were once identical houses.  No. 41 likely looked much like its neighbor to the west, with Second Empire dormers on top and a stoop, and most likely neither house originally had any sort of commercial use in the ground floor (the venerable Cafe Orlin now occupies the ground floor of both).  Both houses originally had narrow alleys extending behind them, likely serving as horsewalks to stables behind (whatever stables or rear yard space might have existed behind the houses were eradicated, likely sometime in the early 20th century, when 43 St. Mark’s Place and 136 Second Avenue were conjoined, taking over and building upon the rear yards of the 39 and 41 St. Mark’s Place houses, apparently for a children’s hospital).

136 Second Ave (left); 43 St Mark’s Place (right)

In the 1920’s, the owners of Nos. 39 and 41 St. Mark’s Place (which had long since been divided into apartments and commercial space on the lower floors, as the once exclusive St. Mark’s Place had become the center of a teeming immigrant district) decided that it was time to build on their narrow adjacent alleyways.  No. 41 was raised to a full four stories, its facade covered over in stucco, and the building was actually widened, extended one bay to the east, turning what had been a three-bay wide house into the four-bay wide apartment building you see today.

39 St. Mark’s Place

The owner of No. 39, however, chose a different tack.  While the facade of No. 39 has been stripped of its ornament, the house still externally appears much as it did when built in the 1860’s, with its stoop, dormers, and original window fenestration still intact.  Instead, according to Buildings Department records (which GVSHP’s research uncovered as part of our ongoing research on the history of every building in the East Village), in 1922 the owner of No. 39 filed plans to extend his building by to the west, to a height of three stories.

Unlike his neighbor at No. 41, however, rather than creating a new facade to join the entire old building and new extension, thus giving them the appearance of a single building, he built in a manner which might have been called an early, and perhaps unintentional, gesture towards preservation.  The extension is designed in an entirely different vernacular brick geometric style, built only to three stories rather than four, and built right out to the property line rather than flush with the original building, thus distinguishing it entirely from the original 1860’s house.  This gave the extension the appearance, if not the fact, of being an entirely separate building, leaving the original 1860’s house at No. 39 St. Mark’s visually intact, at least from the street.  In reality, however, the extension is completely joined to the house at No. 39, and is as much an appendage of the original building as the now-virtually indistinguishable extension of its one-time twin neighbor at No. 41.

1922 Alteration Permit (click to see larger permit)

Interestingly, the Buildings Department records show the original house at No. 39 St. Mark’s Place as 20 feet wide, while the extended structure is 28 1/2 feet.  This makes the structure in question which our Off the Grid reader asked about a mere 8 1/2 feet wide, undeniably narrower than the 9 1/2 foot wide 75 1/2 Bedford Street.  However, it is not technically a house, but instead an extension, or wing, of a larger 28 1/2 foot wide building, in spite of its deceptive appearance as a separate, stand alone structure or house.

Thus, seemingly at least, 75 1/2 Bedford Street gets to keep its title as narrowest houses, if perhaps only on a technicality.

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