This is the latest installment in our Gilded Village blog series.
The Gilded Age was a time of contradictions and change: extreme wealth and desperate poverty; political stability and corruption; venal greed and generous philanthropy; social retrenchment and reform; an ever-more powerful establishment and a rising immigrant class.
Nowhere were the paradoxes and churn of the Gilded Age more blatantly on display than in the area of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and the neighborhood South of Union Square. Here in the last decades of the 19th century, we saw what had been one of the most prestigious residential neighborhoods in New York City undergo tremendous change, as commerce, industry, immigration, and various social and political movements swept across the neighborhood, changing its landscape forever.
Two families deeply rooted in this neighborhood that particularly embodied the change and contradictions of the Gilded Age were the Renwicks and the Roosevelts — both descended from the earliest Dutch settlers of New York.
The Renwicks (by way of the Brevoorts)
James Renwick, Jr. (November 1, 1818 — June 23, 1895) was one of the 19th century’s most prolific and successful American architects. Renwick is best known for his mastery of the Gothic Revival and Romanesque styles, as evidenced in his masterworks Grace Church (1843-1858), St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue (1859-1878), and the Smithsonian Institute on Washington D.C.’s Mall (1846). James Renwick, Jr.’s New York roots are in the area south of Union Square. Descended from the Dutch Brevoort family who held a great deal of land in the neighborhood, it is no surprise that Renwick left his mark on the built environment of this neighborhood. Renwick’s architectural firm, Renwick, Aspinwall & Russell, was a family affair that included his wife’s distant cousin, James Aspinwall, and his great-nephew, William Russell, and leveraged its connections to the Brevoort name to land some of the most competitive projects in New York. There are at least six extant James Renwick, Jr. buildings South of Union Square. Some notable and eclectic examples include a French Flat apartment building, a Romanesque loft building with Art Nouveau detailing, and a grand hotel in the Renaissance Revival style.
The Federal-style fanlight with terracotta detailing at the Lancaster.
Renwick’s Grace Church, completed just before the dawn of the Gilded Age, is emblematic of the neighborhood’s early 19th century status as the center of genteel New York, as it housed one of New York’s most prestigious Episcopalian congregations. Conversely, Renwick’s distinctive “French Flat” at 39-41 East 10th Street, also known as the Lancaster, was built in 1887, at a time when apartment buildings were just beginning to be introduced in New York as an acceptable form of living for middle or upper-class residents. Completed at the height of the Gilded Age when the area was still a prestigious residential address but in flux and beginning to transform into a more commercial center, this luxury apartment building was an attempt to retain wealthy residents of this neighborhood instead as more and more fled to upper Manhattan. Learn more about James Renwick, Jr.’s buildings in the neighborhood on our South of Union Square Map.
Many generations of the Roosevelt family lived and worked in the neighborhood South of Union Square. They had significant land holdings and developed many of the most notable buildings in this neighborhood. During this time, the Roosevelts achieved numerous accomplishments in the fields of politics, literature, diplomacy, and environmental protection. The Roosevelts were among the wealthiest and most prestigious families in 19th century New York. And yet Teddy Roosevelt, their scion who grew up in this area South of Union Square, was the first President to usher in the “Progressive” era in American politics when he unexpectedly ascended to the Presidency in 1901, thus in many ways ending the “Gilded Age.”
The migration of the wealthy to upper Manhattan neighborhoods and the encroachment of commercial operations in the neighborhood South of Union Square is perfectly illustrated in the Roosevelt ownership of the land along what is now Broadway between East 13th Street and East 14th Street. Around 1842, Cornelius Van Schaak Roosevelt (1794-1871), grandfather of President Theodore Roosevelt purchased at foreclosure the land along Broadway between East 14th and East 13th Streets. Here he built his mansion at the southwest corner of Broadway and East 14th Street with gardens extending behind. Cornelius’ grandson, President Theodore Roosevelt, is said to be seen in an image of President Lincoln’s funeral procession moving past the family home in 1865, when he was a young boy, looking out the window with his brother Elliott.
Following Cornelius’ death in 1871, the family mansion was razed, but his heirs retained ownership of the property and formed the Broadway Improvement Company for the purposes of real estate investment and development. The corporation built the Domestic Sewing Machine Co. Building, which was demolished in the 1920s to make way for the structure currently in that location at 853 Broadway today. In January of 1893, The New York Times announced that the Roosevelt Company would be constructing an eight-story office building at 841 Broadway, at the northwest corner of Broadway and East 13th Street. With Stephen D. Hatch as the architect, the design of this loft building included modern amenities such as three elevators and electric lighting. Completed in the spring of 1894, the cost of the was $500,000, with James A. Roosevelt and Robert Barnwell Roosevelt (Cornelius’ sons) as principal owners, and W. Emlen Roosevelt, John Roosevelt, and Frank Roosevelt as investors. The building is now a New York City landmark. Learn more about the Roosevelt family’s impact on the neighborhood on our South of Union Square map.
With the new mayoral administration and influx of new council members, Village Preservation is releasing new information, programs, and initiatives about the area South of Union Square. To learn more about the neighborhood, check out our new and frequently updated South of Union Square Map and Tours. Village Preservation has recently received a series of extraordinary letters from individuals across the world, expressing support for our campaign to landmark a historic district south of Union Square. To help landmark these incredible historic structures and other buildings in this area, click here.