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St. Mark’s Place: How Cows Changed its Reputation

St. Mark’s Place, named after the Church of St. Mark’s in the Bowery, is typically known for its other religious calling — rock n’ roll. The street was at the center of the countercultural movements of the second half of the last century, serving as home to a groundbreaking nightclub run by Andy Warhol in the 1960s, giving birth to the shag haircut in the 1970s, and housing some of the city’s most iconic punk shops in the 1980s. But before its love affair with rock ‘n roll, this street was an enclave for German immigrants, and before that the city’s early American elite. In fact, for a brief time in the early 19th century, this street was perhaps the most fashionable address in New York. 

Thomas E. Davis Land Holding 1830s, Courtesy of the NYPL.

St. Mark’s Place became one of the most desirable and elite places to live in the 1830s when Thomas E. Davis purchased the entire block between 2nd and Third Avenue on 8th Street. It is speculated that it was Davis who dubbed 8th Street St. Marks Place after the nearby Church St. Marks in The Bowery, two blocks away (it was common practice in the 19th century to give streets or blocks of streets in our neighborhoods special names to reflect the particular, upscale character they took on; with the exception of St. Luke’s Place in the West Village, few if any of these street names survive). On this newly monikered street, Davis began to construct beautiful federal-style houses which were appealing to the wealthy New Yorkers leaving the increasingly crowded precincts of lower Manhattan. 

Thomas E. Davis Construction, the 1850s.

The homes were constructed on a comfortable, and unusual, 26ft by 120ft lot. By this time the NYC grid had already divided lots into 25ft by 100ft measurements, on blocks that were 200 feet deep. But Davis was able to create his own lots since he purchased the entire block and made those facing St. Mark’s Place an extra deep 120 feet (the lots behind them facing 7th and 9th Streets were commensurately more shallow at 80 feet, and typically housed more modest homes). The St. Mark’s Place homes were designed with Flemish bond brickwork and striking marble trim. The basements and front doors were framed in a Gibbs surround. And the pitched roof had two dormer windows.

While once all of St. Mark’s Place was built up with these grand Davis homes, only two survive intact today. One is no. 4 St. Marks Place, a New York City landmark, known now as the Hamilton-Holly house. Purchased in 1833 by Alexander Hamilton Jr., he lived here with his wife Eliza, his daughter Holly, and Elizabeth Hamilton, the widow of Alexander Hamilton until 1842.

20 St. Mark’s Place, 2021.

The second surviving home, number 20 St. Marks Place, also a landmark, is known as the Daniel LeRoy house. LeRoy purchased the house from Davis in 1832 when it was constructed. LeRoy was the son-in-law of Elizabeth and Nicholas Fish, who lived just a few blocks away at the still-extant 21 Stuyvesant Street. LeRoy and his wife Susan had two children here and lived here until 1858 before moving further uptown.

Three other partially intact houses remain on this block. No. 25 St. Marks Place no longer has its original pitched roof and dormer windows like the other two. It appears to have had a beautiful cornice which has now been removed. The Gibbs surround is the key detail that denotes Davis’s involvement in the construction of this building. Nos. 28 and 18 have lost even more of their exterior detail (though No. 18 retains its two dormers, albeit altered). The interiors of all the homes constructed by Davis had an attic and a basement, a bath, a cellar, an ice house, fine marble mantle pieces, casement windows at the front and back with mahogany trim, and mahogany doors on the first floor. 

25 St. Mark’s Place, 1915. Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society.

The grandest home Davis constructed was really more of a mansion, spanning 40 feet on St. Marks Place near the eastern end of this block. Perhaps to show the potential of this newly developed area Davis went bigger and bolder than with the other homes — a five-bay, 4 story home with a mansard roof and a greek-revival style portico for the entrance. The interior of the home had a grand central stair, mahogany sliding doors, a detailed marble fireplace, and an observatory with a spectacular view. 

1903 photo of the mansion, courtesy Museum of the City of New York

This fashionable neighborhood’s prestige began to dissipate in the 1850s as waves of immigrants began to move in and many of the wealthy residents began to move further uptown. While it’s impossible to pinpoint the exact moment when St. Mark’s Place went from an exclusive residential address to the heart of a teeming immigrant district, an 1852 New York Times article may provide a clue. The piece discussed the herds of cattle continuously being driven up Third and Fourth avenues past St. Mark’s Place, which it described as “furious.” According to the Times, several times a day an ox “frantic and foaming with rage” would come into contact with an unlucky pedestrian, landing them straight into the hospital. The article stated that the drugstore on the corner of St. Mark’s Place and Third Avenue had been converted into a hospital to care for the injured, and called for the city to open more hospitals since it won’t ban the cattle driving through public streets. It seems that by the 1850s there was one cow too many for the elites which had called St. Mark’s Place home.

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