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Upper East Side Farmhouse to Village Treasure- 121 Charles Street

On March 5, 1967, a rather unusual new arrival made its way to the West Village from way uptown.  Decades later, it’s hard to imagine the Village without it.

121 Charles Street, 2015 (note the brick pillars)

It would be a vast understatement to say that the house currently located at 121 Charles Street is a unique building with a complicated history. Based on the Greenwich Village Historic District Designation Report, the house dates from the late 18th/early 19th century, with some sources dating its construction to 1810. Saw marks found on the wood indicate that it was built after the introduction of sawmills, dating the house to the early 19th century at the earliest.  For its first one hundred or so years it was farmhouse on the Upper East Side. It then served as a restaurant for a short time, and in 1946, Margaret Wise Brown, author of Goodnight Moon, rented the house (the house is sometimes referred to as the “Goodnight Moon House”). In 1960, Sven and Ingrid Bernhard rented the farmhouse and in 1966 the Bernhards gain ownership of farmhouse. They then did the incredible — moved it from York Avenue and 71st Street to save it from the wrecking ball, to the corner of Charles and Greenwich Streets.

Per a previous post, coming as no surprise, moving a house in Manhattan is complicated, requiring permits from a wide array of city agencies. To further complicate matters, wooden houses have been outlawed in Manhattan since the 19th century; so while the house was grandfathered on the York Avenue site, it would not meet contemporary code requirements in another location. Eventually, Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton and Mayor John Lindsay helped get the approvals needed to move the house. 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.

In 2014 we detailed the route the farmhouse took when it traveled from the Upper East Side to Charles Street, based on a Daily News article written by Joe Cassidy from March 6, 1967. “’Hey! Look, will ya? Lookit the house!’ say astonished East side youngsters as they peer up Second Avenue to see one of the strangest sights ever viewed from the sidewalks of New York.”

In 2015 we sat down with the home’s longtime tenant and owner Ingrid Bernhard for an oral history. In this interview, Ms. Bernhard discusses her early years in Sweden and 1956 move to New York, living in a Greenwich Village women’s rooming house, working at B. Altman’s, meeting her husband Sven, and of course the story of 121 Charles Street. Listen to her oral history or read a transcript of the interview here. Another interesting thing to note is that the brick piers at the entry gate on Charles Street were constructed of bricks found during the excavation of the house’s foundation in 1967. The bricks, buried in the ground for years, were part of the foundations of rowhouses that had long been demolished. A pretty great piece of history to remember as you walk by this beloved Village house.

We composed a slideshow about the house’s history for a 2014 public program., which you can view here. Click here to read a full history of 121 Charles Street. Read more about the home in Off the Grid here.

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

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