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Fourteenth Street and Fifth Avenue: A Window into the Development of the City

We have previously researched the Dutch ownership of the lands within the area south of Union Square, land that was originally home to the native Lenape people. The Dutch took over the Lenape’s land and began allocating different parcels to wealthy Dutchmen, leaders, and new settlers in the area. The prominent Elias Brevoort, a wealthy Dutch landowner, owned a large section of the area south of Union Square. Eventually, Breevort sold a portion of his land to loyal Englishman John Smith as the development of the area proceeded.

Geo. Hayward, 120 Water Str N York for D T Valentine’s History of New York, 1852

In the late 18th century, Smith was a man of prominent social status who worked as a leather dresser and owned and profited from the work of several enslaved people. Through this, he purchased 22 acres of land from the Breevort estate and constructed a sizable home on the southwest side of what is today Fifth Avenue and 14th Street. This home was accessed only through a long lane connected to the Bowery Road until the city opened 14th Street in 1762. In 1788, John Smith died, and German immigrant Charles Spingler, his former farmhand, took over Smith’s land. Today, mystery shrowds Spingler’s land purchase, but our research has offered some insights into what happened from there.

1762 Smith family home

The most common understanding is that Spingler purchased the land from Smith’s estate after his death for £950 (or $4,700). However, another report tells the tale that Smith, a loyalist and staunch supporter of King George III, fled New York during the revolution, leaving behind his land and that Spingler purchased the land from estate executives. In 1912 McClures Magazine reported that after Smith fled his farmhand Spingler continued to work the land and had the foresight to pay taxes on it. According to this version of events, after twenty years, Spingler successfully filed for land ownership through adverse possession. That such a route to a former farmhand owning a former member of high society’s estate might have been the case was apparently the subject of considerable rumor and controversy at the time, and for years after.

Charles Spingler, (1747-1814)

Charles Spingler was a German immigrant who held many jobs as shopkeeper, butcher, and farmhand, which gave him access to the money needed to purchase the Smith land. Though the path to land ownership may not have been as salacious as the papers and magazines wanted it to seem, in 1788, Spingler promptly moved his family into Smith’s home and continued to toil the land. However, he soon felt that living down the lane from the Bowery Road was lonely and decided to construct a mansion for his family on the hill closer to the Bowery Road, in what is now Union Square. 

The Breevort, Smith, and Spingler farm was located on lot 56, sitting on top of Minetta Creek, Geo. Hayward, 120 Water Str N York for D T Valentine’s History of New York, 1852

Spingler continued to work his farm and became known for his garden cart from which he would sell fresh vegetables he’d grown. He also began to lease some land, which grew the Spingler family’s standing and financial position. Charles Spingler died in 1815, and his family continued to live in the home erected close to the Bowery until the city took over the home by condemnation in 1845 when the construction of Union Square Park was nearing full completion. The family moved back to the old Smith home near Fifth Avenue, and soon Spingler’s granddaughter, Mary, married a man who was not equal to her “social standing.” Martin Van Bueren worked as a mechanic when he met the daughter of the now-prominent Spingler family. The couple moved into a home at 29 East 14th Street, and soon convinced Eliza Spingler, Mary’s mother, to erect a new mansion at 21 East 14th Street. The mansion they constructed was a five-bay brownstone with an exceptionally large basement. Standing back from the street and surrounded by ample grounds, it appeared as a country mansion out of place. In 1894, The New York Times described it as a “great brownstone house…in the midst of the bustle of one of New-York’s busiest retail business districts.” 

21 East 14th, 1925

Martin Van Bueren, whose name was attached to the land, continued to grow the family’s wealth. As the city’s growth pushed further north and this area became more desirable, the surrounding families began to sell their land. Van Bueren, however, leased it. Those who leased lots from the family were allowed to construct buildings on their leased land. The home constructed by the Van Buerens at 21 East 14th St survived until 1927 when it was demolished for a theater and office building in the wake of ever-larger developments in the city (that building was itself demolished and replaced ca. 1960 with the large white brick apartment building which stands there today). Just a block directly south, 15 East 13th Street, a small two-story brick store, offers us a window into the now almost entirely gone scale of buildings that used to characterize this area.

15 East 13th Street, c. 1844, seen today 2021

The story of the Spinglers and all that preceded and followed them tells us a lot about the complicated story behind the development of this area. To explore more about the history and development of the area South of Union Square and to help advocate for its preservation, click here. 

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    One response to “Fourteenth Street and Fifth Avenue: A Window into the Development of the City

    1. We live in the Brevoort (this is the correct spelling!) and understood that it was Henry Brevoort who owned the land around here, including the land that would become Grace Church. His nephew, James Renwick, built Trinity Church, among other notable buildings. The Hotel Brevoort stood on the land where our building is now.

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