← Back

Little Tiles, Big Words: The Hess Triangle

Mosaics may conjure up images of the ancient world, or closer to home, of several beautiful artworks in stations across our subway system. But if you zoom in even more closely, there is a strange little triangular plot of land in our midst with a mosaic on it that is legendary in its own right — not so much because of its artistic value, but because of the unusual history behind it and its own non-conforming, iconoclast statement. Boldly emblazoned with the words “PROPERTY OF THE HESS ESTATE WHICH HAS NEVER BEEN DEDICATED FOR PUBLIC PURPOSES,” the Hess Triangle in the sidewalk in front of 110 Christopher Street at Sheridan Square is a beloved little quirk of real estate in Greenwich Village.

Hess Triangle as seen today

In August of 1910, instead of a miniature triangular mosaic, on this site stood the much larger Voorhis apartment building. Owned by the Hess family of Philadelphia, the seven-story tall building contained several multi-room apartments and was located at the conjunction of Christopher Street, Grove Street, and West 4th Street. The Voorhis’ address, 210 West 4th Street, was then still part of the Village’s defiantly ancient winding street system, out of step with the grid plan of the rest of the city.

That was not to last.

Voorhis Building was located in Lot 55 in the G.W. Bromley & Co. Atlas of 1897 .

In August 1910 , the original Pennsylvania Station was finally completed. However, this new massive transit hub required new connections to make it accessible to different parts of the city, including new subway connections. In September, 1911, city planners approved an extension of 7th Avenue southward through Greenwich Village, which in turn would allow the construction of the IRT Broadway–Seventh Avenue Subway Line underneath. The process of extending the avenue required the demolition of several hundred buildings, including the Voorhis.

The Hess family attempted to fight the destruction of their property, but the city utilized its power of eminent domain to bring about its end. The Hess family lost, but they would have the last laugh. Maps from 1916, right before the 7th Avenue extension was completed, already showed something odd — a leftover speck of a plot that had once been the site of the Voorhis.

Circled in red is the tiny leftover of Lot 55 in G.W. Bromley & Co. Atlas of 1916.

This speck of land appeared to have been forgotten by everyone until 1921. It then seems the city ‘rediscovered’ this plot and requested the Hess family pay for the accumulated taxes on the speck of real estate. An article in the Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger from 1922 stated that representatives of the Hess family visited New York to inspect the remains of their property and saw “…a piece scarcely large enough for the erection of a slot machine – but strategically situated before the cigar store door.”

The family refused to donate the plot, and instead negotiated with the cigar store to lease the plot of land from them. In July, 1922, the New York Times reported that “…workmen laid yellow and black tiles in the space used as a sidewalk at the southwest corner of Christopher Street and Seventh Avenue making the following inscription: “Property of the Hess estate, which has never been dedicated for public purposes.” The tiles aroused considerable interest. The parcel is triangular in shape, about twenty-six inches on one side and twenty-six inches on the other. It is one of the smallest pieces left in private ownership as a result of the cutting through a few years ago of the Seventh Avenue extension from the head of Varick Street north.”

“New York Times” article from July 27, 1922 about the laying down of the mosaic

The Hess family finally gave up the ghost and sold their little piece of land to Village Cigars in 1938, merging the two plots. While the rebellious little mosaic remains, its message of individual ownership has not been true since early in the last century. And the triangle’s neighbor of approximately one hundred years, Village Cigars, is now closed.

Village Cigars before their closing

Village Cigars may be gone, but the Hess Triangle itself, and its connection to this twisting history, lives on. Fortunately both it and the building housing Village Cigars are located within the Greenwich Village Historic District, and thus should be able to remain a part of our cityscape for some time to come. You can learn more about what’s happening with Village Cigars here, and about other mosaics across our neighborhoods here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *