Archive Update: Photographing the Federal-era Houses of Lower Manhattan
As a historian, researcher, and photographer active in preservation, Susan De Vries has been a valued contributor to the field for over two decades. Recently, we’ve added some of her photographs to our Historic Image Archive. Within these collections are images of some of the historic buildings we’ve worked to protect over the past few decades.
Early in Susan’s career, she worked as a research associate intern for Village Preservation before joining our full-time staff. During her Village Preservation tenure from 1994 to 1999, there were many projects she took on, one of which was her photo surveys of early 19th century architecture in Lower Manhattan – images that would later help develop the Village Preservation landmarking campaigns that protected scores of historic buildings. Today, Susan is a frequent lecturer and consultant on history, research, and historic preservation issues.
Her images of early 19th century architecture feel resonant today, but back in 1995 when she began the project, there was a re-emerging interest in this specific era of architecture. The Landmarks Preservation Commission asked our organization to complete a photographic survey of Federal-era (ca. 1790-1835) buildings in Lower Manhattan based on a list they provided. Occurring during her internship, this request was handed to Susan, beginning her survey of the historic structures so valuable to our shared neighborhood history.
Following 1995, she continued photographing these buildings for her thesis, expanding the project beyond the original list. The photos that we’ve added to the archive feature some of that project. Reflecting on the current state of preservation, we’ll look back on three of these images as a way to highlight the importance in maintaining the cultural heritage of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo.
131 Charles Street
One of our city’s first individually designated landmarks, the designation report from 1966 describes 131 Charles Street as a “charming, early Nineteenth Century two-story brick house with peaked roof, delicate dormers and high basement. It is one of the few remaining examples of the small comfortable Federal street houses, once so abundant in New York City.” In 2006 Village Preservation got the house doubly landmarked, along with dozens of surrounding buildings, as part of the Far West Village extension of the Greenwich Village Historic District.
14 Gay Street
In November 2022, demolition permits were filed for the landmarked 200-year-old house at 14 Gay Street. Following years of neglect by the owner, the structure was deemed unstable by the Department of Buildings after illegal work was performed fatally undermining it, sparking our campaign to seek reform to the city’s system of oversight which allows these types of tragedies to occur with increasing frequency.
Village Preservation and State Senator Brad Hoylman, City Councilmember Erik Bottcher, and Assemblymember Deborah Glick urgently demanded that city agencies take swift action to punish the owner who undermined the landmarked 200-year-old house at 14 Gay Street. When Susan De Vries photographed the quaint streetscape, 14 Gay Street was owned by legendary Villager Celeste Martin, whose properties often contained actresses, writers, and other creatives that make our neighborhood unique.
486 and 488 Greenwich Street
Both 486 and 488 Greenwich Street were individually landmarked in 2007 following a campaign led by Village Preservation. These two were among thirteen federal houses which Village Preservation and the New York Landmarks Conservancy proposed and fought to get landmarked beginning in 2002. The designation reports for 486, and 488 Greenwich Street highlight that the survival of these two houses is particularly remarkable in a neighborhood redeveloped with industrial and loft buildings in the late-19th and early 20th centuries.
In the beginning of our work to protect these structures, it was believed that about three hundred thirty Federal-Era rowhouses survived, but about half lacked any landmark protections or were not recognized by the State and National Registers of Historic Places. Today, a new era of significance emerges in light of cases like 14 Gay Street and 131 Charles Street. The fight must continue to protect these iconic structures of our neighborhood. You can learn more about the campaign here and view more of Susan De Vries’ photography in our archive.