#SouthofUnionSquare — James Renwick, Jr. Tour
James Renwick, Jr. (November 11, 1818 — June 23, 1895) was one of the most influential, accomplished, and skilled American architects of the 19th century. Largely self-taught, he lived and worked most of his life in our neighborhoods, where his family had deep roots. While Renwick earned high profile commissions across the country — including St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. — nowhere is his work more represented than in the area south of Union Square, where he designed no fewer than six buildings within a block of the intersection of Broadway and 11th Street, and designed dozens more nearby, including the still-extant ‘Renwick Row’ and ‘Renwick Triangle.’ Join us on a tour of these sites through our new interactive tool: “Virtual Village” — South of Union Square.
James Renwick was responsible for numerous notable Gothic Revival buildings during the mid- to late-nineteenth century. After making a name for himself with his design of Grace Church, he became a partner in the prominent architectural firm of Renwick, Aspinwall & Russell. Renwick and his firm’s connection to area were deep, as the Renwick family (which included Renwick’s partner William Russell) were relatives of the landholding Brevoorts.
The French Gothic Revival-style Grace Church, built in 1846-47, is noteworthy for several reasons. First, it was Renwick’s first major commission, establishing his reputation as one of the mid-19th century’s preeminent architects. Along with Wall Street’s Trinity Church, it was the first Gothic Revival structure in New York City, ushering in an era and style which dominated the city’s architecture for much of the next 30 years.
Grace Church is also noteworthy for its exceptional siting. In 1847, when the church was completed, by far most New Yorkers lived south of here, and Broadway was the city’s most important artery. The church tower is located at the spot where Broadway bends from a north-south alignment that follows the Manhattan street grid to the diagonal the street follows from here northwest to the Upper West Side. So anyone looking up Broadway south of 11th Street (which nearly every New Yorker at this time would have done on a regular basis) would see Grace Church framing the terminus of that view. This made it one of the most visually prominent structures in the city for many decades. At 230 feet high, the church’s spire was also one of the tallest points on the early New York skyline, if not the tallest — a title held by Trinity Church at a time when the New York skyline was still dominated by church steeples.
While Grace did not surpass Trinity in age or height, it did in social standing. For much of the mid-to-late 19th century, Grace Church was considered the most fashionable church in New York City, the most prestigious locale in the city in which to be married or buried.
That said, much of the elegant beauty we see in Grace Church today was beyond the means of the original congregation. The spire was initially made of wood, not the sparkling Sing Sing marble of which the rest of the church was built (the marble spire was added in 1883, also to the designs of Renwick). Similarly, the ornate stained glass window over the altar was not added until more than 30 years after the church was completed.
The church was landmarked in 1966, just a year after the passage of the New York City Landmarks Law. Its complex was then added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1977.
The Lancaster, 39-41 East 10th Street
39-41 East 10th Street was built in 1887, at a time when apartment buildings were just beginning to be introduced in New York as an acceptable form of living for middle or upper class residents. It is one of the earliest extant ‘French Flats’ or middle-class apartment buildings in the area and in New York City. Built when this area was still a prestigious residential address but in flux and beginning to transform into a commercial center, the Lancaster was clearly an attempt to attract a more sophisticated resident of means, as many who preferred a neighborhood of private homes were increasingly shunning the area. To create this kind of appeal, the firm of Renwick, Aspinwall & Russell was chosen. The Renwicks owned and developed this property, replacing a house which had previously occupied the spot.
The façade combines elements from two then-emerging styles in residential architecture: Queen Anne and Colonial Revival. At the centered entryway is a large Federal style fan light at the transom surrounded by a decorative terra cotta arch. Above the entry is the name ‘The Lancaster’ incised into the brick, and at either side of the entry and also incised into the brick are the numbers ’39’ to the left and ’41’ to the right. Splayed lintels are featured at the windows besides those at the top story. There the windows are capped by round arches with ornamented terra cotta at the tympanum. The brick façade is capped by a simple denticulated cornice. On the interior there were, and apparently still are, two apartments per floor.
The building’s architectural elements and its exterior ironwork remain remarkably intact to the original period of construction more than one hundred thirty years ago.
St. Denis Hotel, 797-799 Broadway
Completed in 1853 by James Renwick, the St. Denis Hotel stood at the corner of East 11th Street and Broadway. The property, which was owned by the Renwick family, had been given to them by their relative, Henry Brevoort, a successful farmer and prominent landowner during the late eighteenth century. The hotel was named after its first proprietor, Denis Julian, and its style was derived from Elizabethan and Renaissance models. It was said to be “one of the handsomest buildings on Broadway, occupying seventy-six feet on that thoroughfare and one hundred and twenty on Eleventh Street” by Miller’s New York as it Is, Or Stranger’s Guide-book to the Cities of New York, Brooklyn and Adjacent Places. Besides the Trinity building, which was demolished in 1853, the St. Denis was the first building in New York to utilize terra cotta as exterior architectural ornament.
In 1917, after 64 years of operation, it was announced that the St. Denis would be closing its doors to make way for a loft building. The reason for its demise was the surrounding neighborhood’s change in character and the manager’s inability to keep up with modern hotel-keeping ideas. In February 1920, the Renwick family finally sold the property, which had been in their family for 250 years, at auction. The building was converted to offices, and on the exterior stripped of much of its ornament.
In spite of our and others’ efforts to have the building and its surroundings landmarked, a plan to replace the Hotel with a large glass office tower was approved by the city. In 2019, the more than 165-year-old former St. Denis Hotel was demolished.
130 East 12th Street
The seven-story brick and stone warehouse at 130 East 12th Street was built in 1905 by the famed architectural firm Renwick, Aspinwall, & Tucker. James L. Aspinwall was in charge of this commission as well as the landmarked American Express Building constructed in 1916. The firm is very well known for its many handsome Neo-Classical buildings all over the city built for the Provident Loan Society where, according to architectural historian Christopher Gray, the firm perfected their brick and terra cotta combination, a mix that is used at 130 East 12th Street.
The original owner of the building, Ida S. Bruch, was the daughter of William Schlemmer, co-owner of the famed hardware company Hammacher & Schlemmer, which got its start on the Bowery (the company still exists today, but is now a purveyor of unique gifts). Therefore, Ms. Bruch was quite well off, allowing her to own numerous properties around the city, according to historic New York Times articles. When Mr. Schlemmer passed away in 1917 he left a large part of his $500,000 estate to Ida, including the Hammacher & Schlemmer factory down the street at 133 4th Avenue, which she later sold for $152,000 in 1935.
Grace Church Rectory, 804 Broadway
Built as the rectory for Grace Church, the Gothic Revival structure at 804 Broadway was built in 1846 and also designed by James Renwick. It was designated an individual New York City landmark in 1966 and was cited in the designation report as “probably one of the finest Gothic Revival residences in Manhattan.” Stone in its cladding, it features corner buttresses with pinnacles, gables decorated with crockets and finials, and pointed arch window openings throughout. The entry is in a projecting gable that is richly decorated and flanked by miniature buttresses capped by pinnacles.
94-98 Fourth Avenue
Grace Memorial House at 94-96 Fourth Avenue was built in 1882-1883 and designed by James Renwick in the Gothic Revival style. It was designed to accord with the architecture of the rectory from nearly 30 years earlier. Faced in marble, it features pointed Gothic arched windows and tracery. The windows are capped by label moldings and there are trefoil railings above the bay windows. At the front gable there are crockets and a finial and a statue is set in a niche. The stone balcony above the entry features trefoils.
98 Fourth Avenue was built in 1906-1907 and designed by Renwick, Aspinwall & Tucker. It was designed in the Gothic Revival style within the Tudor tradition. It has square-headed windows with stone mullions and label moldings above the windows. The entry is enframed with a Tudor arch and surmounted by a crenelated crown. At the slate pitched roof are two dormers with Gothic arch windows.
These buildings were each designated individual New York City landmarks in 1977. As stated in the designation reports, they are “a part of the terminal vista obtained by looking west on 11th Street toward Fourth Avenue. In New York, few structures remain which provide such terminal features: Grand Central Station at the head of Park Avenue, the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue at the end of East 92nd Street, and the New York Public Library at the end of East 41st Street are among the most notable examples which come to mind.”
The Renwick, 806-808 Broadway
The striking loft building at 806-808 Broadway runs the entire block from Broadway to Fourth Avenue behind Grace Church. It was designed in 1887 by James Renwick and the partners in his successor firm — James Lawrence Aspinwall and William Hamilton Russell, Renwick’s grand-nephew. Though a utilitarian structure housing offices, storage, and manufacturing, Renwick and partners designed it with vivid Gothic detail to serve as an appropriate backdrop to Grace Church.
Aside from signage, the building is almost completely intact to its original design, from the gothic arches and tracery to the more robust, industrial Romanesque detailing of the Fourth Avenue façade. Both sides of the building maintain beautifully intact cast-iron storefronts, while the Broadway side boasts florid Art Noveau-style ironwork over the doorway and entry. The harmony between this structure, built as a store and manufacturing building, and one of the most delicate and important Gothic Revival structures in the United States, is nothing short of remarkable. In 1981 the building was converted to residences and renamed ‘The Renwick,’ in honor of its architect.
Explore the “Virtual Village”
#SouthOfUnionSquare is an irreplaceable piece of New York, American, and world history, and an unprotected but essential slice of Greenwich Village and the East Village. We hope you’ll enjoy, explore, and advocate for saving this amazing neighborhood.
To send a letter supporting landmark designation of these and other historic buildings south of Union Square, click here.