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Celebrating the Preservationists of the Greenwich Village Historic District

The Greenwich Village Historic District, one of New York City’s oldest and largest historic districts, was designated by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) on April 29, 1969, just four years after the New York Landmarks Law was signed in 1965 and the LPC was established. In 2019, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the district’s designation, Village Preservation launched an interactive map, “Greenwich Village Historic District: Then & Now Photos and Tours.” The platform showcases ca. 1969 and 2019 photos of every one of the 2,200 buildings in the district, illuminating how the streetscapes have evolved over five decades. The map also includes 27 themed tours that spotlight the neighborhood’s rich and varied significance: as a gathering place for artists, writers, musicians; as key site in LGBTQ, African American, and Jewish history; and so much more. We also included a tour celebrating the many preservation leaders who made a home in the neighborhood, and who played such a role in helping to protect this extraordinary architectural and cultural environment.

Greenwich Village Historic District: Then & Now Photos and Tours.

Jane Jacobs, 555 Hudson Street

555 Hudson Street, 1969 (left) and 2019 (right). 1969 photo courtesy of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.

In post-World War II America (and indeed much of the industrialized world), traditional older cities were considered anachronisms, ready to be replaced by highway-laced suburbs and radically rebuilt with tall towers surrounded by open space. The dense but low-scale, haphazard, sometimes antiquated pre-war city was considered a breeding ground for crime, poor health, decay, and inevitable decline. In response to this, urban planners like Robert Moses ordered the large-scale demolition of older sections of cities, to be replaced or bisected by new motorways and identical complexes of “towers-in-a-park.”

But one unlikely Greenwich Village resident saw the folly in this worldview, and not only challenged it, but arguably changed the fundamental way in which we thought about what makes cities work. Jane Jacobs was a writer who lived at 555 Hudson Street, and noticed not only that the urban planners’ vision of the city did not staunch its decay, it actually seemed to hasten it. Neighborhoods subject to “urban renewal” didn’t renew, but seemed to disintegrate, as longtime residents were pushed out and the fabric which held communities together — local institutions, common cultural touchstones, and the unique sense of place — were destroyed as part of the process.

Jane Jacobs speaks at a Community Board 2 hearing about the proposed ‘Lower Manhattan Expressway,’ April 1, 1967. Photo from the Fred W. McDarrah: Iconic Images of the Village & East Village, Part 2 Collection of Village Preservation’s Historic Image Archive.

Observing what she called the “sidewalk ballet” outside her window on Hudson Street, Jacobs wrote her highly influential 1961 tome The Death and Life of Great American Cities. According to Jacobs, keys to urban success include a vibrant and active mixture of uses, “eyes on the street,” and engaged people at the ground level whose presence deters crime or decay. She encourages spontaneity rather than overly proscribed planning, renewal and reuse of historic buildings which carry meaning for local communities, and giving local communities a voice in their futures. Jacobs and her book led to a fundamental rethinking of what cities needed and what people wanted in their built environment, and her observations proved remarkably spot on. Jacobs’ writings and principles informed everything from land use approval processes in cities throughout the world to the shape of new developments, big and small, around the globe. And in the years since her book was published, the kind of human-scaled, historic, mixed-use neighborhoods Jacobs touted have become amongst the ‘hottest’ and most desirable places to live in the country.

Claire and Stanley Tankel, 37 Bank Street

37 Bank Street, 1969 (left) and 2019 (right). 1969 photo courtesy of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Claire and Stanley Tankel both grew up in Mount Vernon, New York, and met while in college. Claire graduated from the University of Michigan, and Stanley earned two degrees in architecture from Harvard as well as a Fulbright Scholarship. At that time, Claire and Stanley travelled to Europe, where Stanley decided to focus on a career in planning rather than in architecture. The Tankels then moved to 68 Carmine Street to start a family because, as Claire Tankel stated in her oral history with Village Preservation, “Greenwich Village represented all the kind of unique people and the unique way of looking at— I mean Margaret [Mead] lived here.”

In 1956, Stanley, who had become a city planner and activist, called together planning, architecture, and real estate professionals and formed a group called the Greenwich Village Study, which sought to make the community more livable and focused on issues like housing, traffic patterns, and parks in the Village. The group organized around the idea that a loose community of professionals could help improve the quality of living in and around the neighborhood. Coincidentally, at this time, Robert Moses had proposed running a highway through Washington Square, creating an extension of Fifth Avenue called Fifth Avenue South.

The last car through Washington Square, November 1, 1958. Photo from the Claire Tankel Collection of Village Preservation’s Historic Image Archive.

Stanley and the group worked closely with influential activists and politicians including Jane Jacobs, Norman Redlich, Eleanor Roosevelt and John Lindsay. After a public hearing on November 1, 1958, a “ribbon tying” ceremony was held to mark the inception of a trial period in which the park would be free of vehicular traffic. Stanley drove the last car through Washington Square Park, and Claire snapped a photo of this historic event. In her oral history she reflects:

“My dog’s in the car, too. It was an incredible day and we had this funny little car. I mean, part of what we also believed in was, you know, little cars in the city, no gas-guzzlers. That picture shows not only our funny little car, because Jane bought one after that, but it never became a best seller. Yes it did, the Fiat, but not a great seller and it never went on from there…”

In August 1959, it became official: the park would remain closed to traffic. Later, Stanley was appointed to the Mayoral study committee to draft legislation for a landmarks law to protect historic structures. Once the New York City Landmarks Law was passed in 1965, Stanley was appointed as Vice Chairman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Stanley died on March 31, 1968 at the age of 45 in his town house at 37 Bank Street.

e. e. cummings, 4 Patchin Place

4-10 Patchin Place, 1969 (above) and 2019 (below). 1969 photo courtesy of Village Preservation blog.

The poet e. e. cummings lived at No. 4 Patchin Place for four decades, until his death in 1962. It was during his years on Patchin Place that cummings was his most prolific. However, while clearly the Village was a source of inspiration for cummings, as it was for so many in the early and mid-20th century, the Village actually makes very few explicit appearances in his poetry.

In the 1960s, Robert Moses attempted to demolish the Jefferson Market Courthouse building, just across West 10th Street from cummings’ home. This prompted cummings to join the local preservationists who led a grassroots effort to save the building, a coalition that successfully thwarted the plans and provided the building new life as a branch of the New York Public Library in 1967. Several years earlier, in the winter of 1961, the owner of Patchin Place, Hugh Keenan, planned a renovation of the mews, hoping to raise the rent prices for his apartments and push out the lower-income and shorter-term tenants that lived at his property. However, according to Susan Cheever’s biography E.E. Cummings: A Life, when Mayor Robert Wagner found out that writer e.e. cummings would be evicted, he made sure the renovation permits would not be approved. Apparently, cummings wrote a letter to the mayor in March, 1962, saying: “To a human being, nothing is so important as privacy — since without privacy, individuals cannot exist: and only individuals are human…I am unspeakably thankful that the privacy of 4 Patchin Place will be respected, and I shall do my best to be worthy of this courtesy.” 

Ruth and Philip Wittenberg, 35 West 10th Street

35 West 10th Street, 1969 (left) and 2019 (right). 1969 photo courtesy of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Preservationists Ruth and Philip Wittenberg moved into the house at 35 West 10th Street around 1940, and remained there for the rest of their lives. For many years, the couple participated in the Little Garden Clubs of New York’s annual tours, and in June 1946 The New York Times reported on the event, writing: “A home which carried out the same verdant restfulness of the church garden was the brick house of Mr. and Mrs. Philip Wittenberg at 35 West Tenth Street, where a blue-tiled circular fountain with four fish designed by the late Vally Viselthier offset the solemnity of a square ivy-bed.”

Philip Wittenberg, born in 1885, worked as a lawyer, author, and civil rights leader. He is known for defending Diego Rivera when Rivera designed a portrait of Lenin against the Rockefeller family’s wishes, leading the Rockefellers to suspend the muralist’s contract. Ruth Wittenberg, born in 1899, was a prominent figure in Greenwich Village politics, serving on the Community Council for the Greenwich Village area, which became Community Board 2, for forty years. Ruth Wittenberg was jailed twice advocating for women’s suffrage, and marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Alabama in 1965. Furthermore, she worked to designate the Greenwich Village Historic District, and participated in the unsuccessful fight against New York University’s plan to develop the twelve-story Elmer A. Bobst Library on Washington Square South, which local preservationists deemed incompatible with the neighborhood’s architectural landscape.

Ruth Wittenberg Triangle, 2017. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Both Ruth and Philip Wittenberg also worked to save the Jefferson Market Courthouse from demolition and to close the Women’s House of Detention on Sixth Avenue. Philip Wittenberg hosted the Committee for a Library in the Jefferson Market Courthouse’s first meeting at the couple’s home on February 18, 1961, and was selected as the Committee President. According to a New York Times article published the following day, at the meeting: “Mr. Wittenberg pointed out that real estate men had been eyeing the sites of both the jail and the courthouse as ‘a nice piece of property’ for a new apartment house. ‘And when real estate people decide something is a nice piece of property you might as well go home unless you are prepared to stand up and fight,’ Mr. Wittenberg said.”

In 1967, following the efforts of the Wittenbergs and fellow preservationists, the Jefferson Market Courthouse was converted into a branch of the New York Public Library, and the Women’s Detention Center was demolished and the land turned into a community garden. Today, the triangle between West 9th Street, West 8th Street, and Sixth Avenue is named in honor of Ruth Wittenberg.

Greenwich Village Historic District: Then & Now Photos and Tours

Check out “Greenwich Village Historic District: Then & Now Photos and Tours” to read about even more preservationists who lived in and defined these iconic neighborhoods. One key preservationist was the First Lady of the United States of America, and another was the author of the famed children’s book Goodnight Moon. The map also hosts a variety of other themed tours that catalogue the many layers of history that emerged from these streets before and beyond their designation in 1969. Learn more about the district’s Mid-Century Modern architecture, sites where the course of history was changed, homes sporting decorative pineapples, pinecones, and acorns, and so much else:

One response to “Celebrating the Preservationists of the Greenwich Village Historic District

  1. A beautiful story, thank you for sharing. There are stories to be told, people to remember. It is so important in ones lifetime to remember those that were here before us. It’s the DNA of neighborhoods. Everything come alive and has a purpose to exist. Even a building can breathe life to the next generation.

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