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The Firsts of Greenwich Village

Greenwich Village has always been a cutting edge neighborhood, but who were the true trendsetters? Who dared to dream up something truly novel and break barriers we didn’t even know existed? Greenwich Village boasts an abundance of history, but it’s rare to find historical figures who can truly claim to be the first. In the recent book, New York City Firsts: Big Apple Innovations That Changed the Nation and the World, author and tour guide Laurie Lewis explores the first-of-their-kind achievements that occurred in New York. Lewis will present a lecture for Village Preservation based upon her book this Thursday – register or find out more here.

The First Cappuccino in America:

Cappuccino first became popular in Italy at the beginning of the 20th century. Soon after, legend has it that it was introduced in America by the original owner of Caffe Reggio, Domenico Parisi. His exquisite espresso machine, made in Italy in 1902, was the first of its kind, featuring an ornate chrome and bronze exterior that showcases both engineering and design brilliance. The story goes that Domenico Parisi sent his entire life savings of $1,000 to Italy to purchase this beauty. And the espresso it makes is something that only Proust could describe as adequate. In the bygone days of the 1960s, several classic coffee houses flourished on MacDougal Street in the heart of the South Village, including Cafe Borgia, Caffe Cino, Le Figaro Cafe, and more. But Caffe Reggio is the sole survivor. How has Reggio managed to do so when so many competitors faded like a forgotten memory? Fabrizio Cavallacci, whose family has owned it for decades, believes that the secret to its success is “not changing since 1927!”

The First Shaft for a Passenger Elevator:

Peter Cooper photographed by Brown Brothers. 1870s
Elisha Otis demonstrating his safety system, Crystal Palace, 1854.

Peter Cooper, the founder of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, was an inventor, industrialist, philanthropist, and a prophet in the realm of elevator advancement. Seeing the vertical growth of New York’s skyline in the mid-1800s, he foresaw the need for elevators as buildings reached higher and higher. The Cooper Union’s Foundation Building, an exquisite Anglo-Italianate style structure, was designed to accommodate an elevator four years before passenger elevators became available. However, the building did not receive the first passenger elevator, which went to the Haughwout Building in 1857. Peter Cooper’s elevator shaft was designed to be circular because he believed a circle would enable the maximum loading capacity, although the first elevators were rectangular in shape. Later, Cooper’s son designed a round steam-powered elevator for the Foundation Building, which was eventually replaced in 1972 by an architect’s specially designed round model. In recent years, Cooper Union’s Foundation Building was the site of Village Preservation’s Annual Village Awards and Annual Members Meeting.

The First Night Court in the Nation:

The Jefferson Market Library has always been a significant site in Greenwich Village. The Victorian-Gothic library started its existence as the Third Judicial District Courthouse, designed by architect Frederick Clarke Withers and built between 1874 and 1877. In 1907, the Jefferson Market Courthouse hosted the first night court in America. The night court focused on arraignments, not jury trials, and offered a way for people arrested for minor charges to avoid staying in jail overnight. Initially, the night court only saw women for the first three years, and it operated at Jefferson Market for eleven years before moving to 100 Centre Street. While the show Night Court did not air until decades later, night court was already seen as a source of entertainment and quickly became a tourist attraction. Back when it met at Jefferson Market, John D. Rockefeller was said to enjoy the diversion.

Greenwich Village’s storied past is filled with pioneers and groundbreaking achievements that continue to inspire and shape the world we live in today. Firsts are never the end-all of history; they merely mark the beginning of a story, a movement, or a transformation. They are merely snapshots in time, yet firsts allow us to recognize pivotal shifts in history, beacons signaling the arrival of change.

To find out more about some of these historic firsts that came out of Greenwich Village, check out Pioneers of Greenwich Village with author Laurie Lewis on Thursday, July 27.

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