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Jewish, Hispanic, and Historic Preservationist: the Maritime Pioneers of Greenwich Village

New York is an immigrant city. It has concentrated populations of various immigrant groups making it the largest city in the world for many groups, or sometimes the largest outside of their countries of origin. New York has the largest Jewish population of any city in the world, and at 30% of its population, New York has the largest Hispanic population of any city in the United States, and the largest outside Latin America and Madrid.

In fact, these two groups — Hispanics and Jews — have been two of the key building blocks of New York City. And while we largely associate Jewish New Yorkers with the waves of immigrants from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and Hispanic New Yorkers with the immigrants and migrants from Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, and mainland Latin America from the mid-20th century on, the first Hispanic and Jewish immigrants to New York arrived much earlier, not long after the founding of New Amsterdam. And they were actually both Hispanic and Jewish, and left a profound mark upon New York City, especially Greenwich Village and the East Village.

Sephardic Jews, originally from Spain and Portugal, arrived in New Amsterdam via Dutch Brazil after it fell to Portugal in the mid-1600s. Spain and Portugal had begun to forcibly convert or expel their Jewish populations in the 15th and 16th centuries, and continued those policies for centuries after. The Dutch and their Manhattan colony, by contrast, offered some level of sanctuary.

de Hooghe, Romeyn, Interieur van de Portugese Synagoge te Amsterdam, ca. 1695, Wikimedia Commons. Accessed September 15, 2023. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portuguese_Synagogue_(Amsterdam)#/media/File:Interieur_van_de_Portugese_Synagoge_te_Amsterdam,ca._1695_Tempel_der_Joden_in_Amsteldam_Templo_o_Sinagoga_de_los_Judias_en_Amsteldam(titel_op_object),_RP-P-AO-24-29.jpg

These Sephardic (or “Spanish and Portuguese”) Jewish families would establish in 1654 what is today the oldest Jewish congregation in the North America, Congregation Shearith Israel. While the present day synagogue for that congregation has been located on Central Park West and 70th Street since 1897, its “Second Cemetery” has been located on West 11th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in Greenwich Village since 1805.

As the next two centuries passed and New Amsterdam became New York and its commercial clout caused its rapid expansion, swallowing Greenwich Village, two congregants of Shearith Israel would come to play an incredibly important role in the city’s history and would make their homes and build their fortunes in and around Greenwich Village.

Congregation Shearith Israel, Photograph, 2010, Wikimedia Commons. Accessed September 15, 2023. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Congregation_Shearith_Israel#/media/File:Congregation_Shearith_Israel_001.JPG

New York is a maritime city. This is not only due to the city’s vast network of waterways but also to its history of nautical innovation. The first regularly scheduled shipping routes, the ocean liners, were born here, and Robert Fulton would build and operate some of the first steam-powered vessels along the Hudson. However, Fulton’s steamboats would not have been possible without copper. Specifically, copper processed by Harmon Hendricks.

Hendricks, the first of our two congregants of Shearith Israel, inherited his father’s dry goods business and transformed it into a mining empire. Opening the first copper-rolling mill in Belleville, New Jersey, his copper would be used extensively in the production of rum, namely the bottoms of the giant stills in which rum was created. But his copper also found its way into the boilers of Robert Fulton’s steamboats, including the Savannah. In 1819 the Savannah became the first steam-powered vessel to cross the Atlantic, paving the way for the great ocean liners we think of today, such as the ill-fated Titanic. As for Hendricks, by 1801 he had already amassed a considerable fortune and was able to buy from his father-in-law, Joshua Isaacs, his home at 77 Bedford Street, today considered the oldest home in Greenwich Village (Hendricks’ descendant, Horatio Gomez, another Sephardic or Spanish/Portuguese Jew by way of Brazil, would later develop in 1877 the much-beloved 75 1/2 Bedford Street next door, “the narrowest house in Greenwich Village”).

75 1/2 Bedford Street, from the Village Preservation Historic Image Archive

And it would be buying real estate in and around Greenwich Village that would help build the fortune of our next influential congregant of Shearith Israel, Uriah P. Levy.

2012.28.9, Jarvis, John Wesley, Harmon Hendricks, Oil on wood panel, ca. 1815-1825, New-York Historical Society. Accessed September 15, 2023. https://emuseum.nyhistory.org/objects/69432/harmon-hendricks-17711838
77 Bedford Street. Ephemeral New York, “This is the oldest house in Greenwich Village.” Accessed September 15, 2023. https://ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com/2017/10/02/this-is-the-oldest-house-in-greenwich-village/

Uriah Levy was also descended from an old line of Sephardic Jews, which had originally settled in Savannah, Georgia. Levy was born in 1792 in Philadelphia and had from a very young age been drawn to the sea. In 1806 Levy decided on a career in the US Navy. Fiercely proud of his Jewish heritage, he worked and fought his way up the ranks becoming the first Jewish flag officer in the US Navy. Ultimately, he became a commodore in 1860, then the highest rank in the navy, and was put in command of the entire US Mediterranean Fleet. In his early years in the Navy, his ships frequented New York, where he attended Congregation Shearith Israel. By the 1820s he had saved enough of his Navy pay to start investing in New York real estate.

NH 48113 Commodore Uriah Phillips Levy, USN; NH Series, Photography Collection. Naval History and Heritage Command. Accessed September 15, 2023. https://www.history.navy.mil/content/history/nhhc/our-collections/photography/numerical-list-of-images/nhhc-series/nh-series/NH-48000/NH-48113.html#

He began buying properties on Duane, Greenwich, Thompson, Sullivan, and MacDougal Street. Within four years of buying his first New York City property on Duane Street, he had become a wealthy man. He bought himself a fine home at 107 St. Mark’s Place (demolished). However, he used his quickly growing real estate fortune to save what is today one of the most important historic homes in the country.

List of deeds; Water bill; Tax bill; Statement re: U.P. Levy estate, 1859-1866, Box: 1, Folder: 4. Uriah P. Levy Collection, P-43. American Jewish Historical Society. https://archives.cjh.org/repositories/3/archival_objects/330646 Accessed September 15, 2023.

After Thomas Jefferson died, his Monticello estate went to his daughter, Martha, who also inherited his extensive debts. She sold it to James Barclay in 1831, who by 1836 had let the estate fall into disrepair. Then Uriah Levy entered the scene. A great admirer of Thomas Jefferson, he purchased the property for $2,700 and purchased an additional 2,500 acres of surrounding land the following year. Levy invested a considerable sum in renovating the house, seeking out and purchasing original furniture, and restoring the gardens. Monticello remained in the Levy family until 1923 when it was purchased by the Jefferson Memorial Foundation.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Home of Thomas Jefferson, Monticello, Charlottesville, Va.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed September 15, 2023. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-a176-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

While many of Levy’s original properties and his home no longer exist, today’s Greenwich Village Historic District and St. Mark’s Historic District were created by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to preserve the remaining historic buildings. Born in 1965, the Commission was first led by Harmon Hendricks Goldstone, great-great-grandson of Harmon Hendricks. So, after incredibly full lives in their own times, the 19th-century legacies of Hendricks and Levy still echo down to us today.

Courtesy of the Anthony C. Wood Archives. “Harmon Goldstone being sworn in as chair of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission by Mayor John Lindsay.” The New York Preservation Archive Project. Accessed September 15, 2023. https://www.nypap.org/preservation-history/harmon-goldstone/

2 responses to “Jewish, Hispanic, and Historic Preservationist: the Maritime Pioneers of Greenwich Village

  1. This is a fascinating, enlightening and exciting history of Greenwich Village and ,indeed, the country. In examining the contributions of New York’s early Jewish population it reminds us of the part immigrants played in the development of our City. In these troubling times, a message we cannot forget.

  2. Absolutely spot on. We Americans have short historical memories and this cogent, well written piece is valuable.

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