The announcement of rooftop additions in our beloved historic districts frequently – and rightfully so in most cases – causes a surge of anxiety for preservationists. We do everything we can to make sure that the addition does not disrupt the historic streetscape from the public right of way, is aesthetically appropriate to the design of the building, and that the building retains its structural integrity throughout construction. The proposed addition goes through the Landmark Preservation Commission Certificate of Appropriateness approval process and is evaluated by the Community Board and Landmarks Preservation Commission at public hearings. Anyone who wants to submit an opinion on a design may do so. The public is always welcome to testify. Following the hearing process, the Commissioners vote on whether or not the design is appropriate and if approved construction begins.
Even with this thorough review process, many unsavory and overwhelming rooftop additions are approved and constructed. Given the circumstances, imagine my surprise when I stumbled across a delightful article from the Sunday, June 27, 1920 in The Sun and New York Herald titled “Greenwich Villagers Build a City in the Air” by Martha Coman about idyllic roof bungalows and cottages being built atop existing residences to meet increased demand for housing in the area. Coman writes, “…the residents of New York’s art and freak colony have been forced by increased congestion of this old-fashioned quarter to find refuge in the air.”
Naturally, the Greenwich Villagers of the 1920s channeled their creativity into these rooftop oases with verdant gardens and flowers and cottages in the English style with lovely Italian trellises. Coman reports that landlords were happy to lease the rooftop space to quirky villagers willing to build their own roof cottages. A local Village carpenter is quoted as saying that he is overwhelmed with projects to build one and two-room roof cottages for prospective residents. Interestingly, many of these rooftop cottages were only built for the summer and dismantled when the weather began to cool. Materials included canvas roofs held up with metal screening which came pre-cut in the most common dimensions for building a one or two-room abode. Bamboo curtains that roll up and down along the metal screen walls help weatherproof the structure when necessary. The floor was built with large spaces between each board in case of a large storm when drainage was needed. Essentially, these idyllic aesthetically pleasing open-air structures were perfect for summer in the City and arguably the first instance of the “Glamping” phenomenon. (I kid, but it is fun to think about….)
As we have seen with New Yorkers’ outdoor dining obsession today, Villagers became enamored with their open-air residences and sought a way to winterize the roofs for use year-round. Unfortunately, this did not come to pass and very few of these structures remain today. However, actor John Barrymore’s English Roof Bungalow and Aerie at 132-134 West 4th Street are still intact today. The garden oasis consisted of an English-inspired cottage, reflecting pool, slate walkway, and numerous cedar trees. While Barrymore’s original garden was removed at some point, the residence was thoughtfully restored around 2020 including the rooftop aerie with a pleasant terrace garden and patio.
Thankfully, Village Preservation advocated for landmarking Barrymore’s home and rooftop aerie at 132-134 West 4th Street as a part of the South Village Historic District in 2013. Learn more about our advocacy efforts by perusing our Village Preservation: Advocacy and Accomplishments map.