It’s Village Preservation’s 40th birthday this year. In honor of this auspicious occasion, we recently released a story map that details our efforts documenting, celebrating, and advocating for the preservation of our neighborhoods, all of which are made possible by our members and supporters. The map is divided by decade, and so today we showcase some of the highlights from each ten year period and look towards the future.
Our organization was founded in 1980 as the Greenwich Village Trust for Historic Preservation, and its original mission was to “safeguard Greenwich Village’s unrivaled cultural and architectural heritage against exploitation and decline.” Some of our initial work included helping in the efforts to rebuild St. Luke’s Church after a devastating fire damaged this c.1821 building, sponsoring a study of the Gansevoort Market area in collaboration with Columbia University (which would help lay the foundation for the area’s eventual landmark designation in 2003), and presenting a comprehensive report on the Greenwich Village Waterfront to the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Another of our earliest efforts was helping to restore the Congregation Shearith Israel Cemetery on West 11th Street, the oldest green space in Greenwich Village. Interestingly, we just supported a new plan for restoring the space again. The wall was recently damaged due to an auto accident (no one was hurt), and the new plan calls for not just the restoration of the wall, but for a bowed wrought iron fence at the eastern end which will protect an elm tree there and provide better visual access to the cemetery for the public.
This was anything but a dull decade. We launched our Annual Village Awards, formed our preservation committee to review important preservation issues in our neighborhood, began our Oral History Project, and received a grant from Preserve New York to research and document federal-era houses in lower Manhattan. And if that wasn’t enough, after a successful proposal was written by architectural historian Andrew S. Dolkart and sponsored by Village Preservation and the Organization of Lesbian and Gay Architects and Designers, the Stonewall Inn and surrounding area were added to the National Register of Historic Places. This was the first site ever listed on the National Register for its association with gay and lesbian history. In 2016 it was designated a National Historic Monument.
In 2002, Andrew Berman became our Executive Director, reflecting the organization’s shift towards a more advocacy-oriented direction. During the early part of his tenure, the Gansevoort Market Historic District was landmarked as a New York City historic district, and was listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places. Additionally, the Preservation League of New York State awarded us a grant to conduct a historical, architectural, and cultural survey of the South Village, which eventually helped lead to landmark designation of the area.
And we didn’t stop there. We began a partnership with the GO (Grace Opportunity) Project, offering our children’s education program, History and Historic Preservation, free of charge to over 150 at-risk students enrolled in the program. Today we offer elementary students an unparalleled opportunity to engage with New York City by exploring the culture and architecture of Greenwich Village in our three-session course: History and Historic Preservation.
In 2008 we also secured the passage of long-overdue East Village rezoning, which for the first time ever imposed height limits on new development in the neighborhood and eliminated the zoning bonus for dormitories and other university facilities.
In 2012, along with our allies, we helped get the East Village/Lower East Side Historic District and the East 10th Street Historic District landmarked, which included the Mezritch Synagogue, the East Village’s last operating “tenement synagogue,” which in 2008 we stopped from being demolished by Jared Kushner.
The first third of our proposed South Village Historic District was landmarked by the city as an extension of the Greenwich Village Historic District in 2010 — the largest expansion of landmark protections downtown since 1969. This made the Greenwich Village Historic District far and away the largest in New York City. This would be followed by the designation of the South Village Historic District in 2013 and the designation of the Sullivan Thompson Historic District in 2016, both of which we proposed for designation and fought to get landmarked. In 2011, Westbeth was landmarked, capping a seven-year advocacy campaign by Village Preservation.
We also launched our blog, Off the Grid, which you’re now reading. We have created over 2,600 posts since that time, with fascinating facts, insight, and perspectives about Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo. In 2015 our historic plaque program was expanded to mark the former Horatio Street home of James Baldwin. We also made available online for the first time our historic image archive, which has incredible photos of our neighborhoods and New York City, more than two centuries of history. And in 2019, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the designation of the Greenwich Village Historic District, with a celebration in Washington Square Park, a full year of programming highlighting the district’s history and contributions, and created an interactive map of the district with tours and the original designation photographs from the 1960s contrasted with present-day photos.
2020 and Beyond
And we’re not stopping there. We have led the opposition to the (currently in limbo) proposal for a 250-foot tall tower in the Greenwich Village Historic District at 14-16 Fifth Avenue. Last January, on the coldest day of the year, we staged a rally with neighbors, elected officials, and other advocacy groups in front of the site to demonstrate opposition to the proposed demolition of the existing landmarked historic building and the proposed out-of-scale replacement. We’re closely monitoring for a revival of the plan.
At the same time, we’re leading the charge to secure landmark designation for the endangered and unprotected area of Greenwich Village and the East Village south of Union Square, to document and celebrate the rich but often overlooked civil rights and social justice history of our neighborhoods, and to fight the city’s plan to upzone SoHo and NoHo, which is clearly the nose of the camel of an effort by the current administration, some other government officials (and candidates for office), and the real estate lobby to secure more upzonings (large increases in the allowable size of new development) in other centrally-located historic districts.
This is only a sampling of the incredible history of Village Preservation which our story map helps brings life. We’re so thankful to our members and supporters who make all this work and all these accomplishments possible. So grab a cup of hot chocolate, and enjoy the story. Hopefully, you’ll be inspired — I know I am.