Greenwich Village History
Pre-Contact, Dutch and the Eighteenth Century
Greenwich Village’s known history dates back to the 16th century, when it was a marshland called Sapokanican by Native Americans who camped and fished in the meandering trout stream later known as Minetta Brook. By the 1630s Dutch settlers had cleared pastures and planted crops in this area, which they referred to as Noortwyck. Freed African slaves brought here by the Dutch also farmed parcels of land in this sparsely populated district. After the English conquest of New Amsterdam in 1664, the settlement evolved into a country hamlet, first designated Grin’wich in 1713 Common Council records. Sir Peter Warren, vice-admiral of the British Navy and commander of its New York fleet, amassed a vast land tract here in the 1740s, as did Captain Robert Richard Randall.
The Nineteenth Century
The Federal Period, 1790-1820
Greenwich Village survived the American Revolution as a pastoral suburb. Commercial activity after the war was centered near the edge of the Hudson River, where there were fresh produce markets. In the 1780s the city purchased a parcel of eight acres for use as a potter’s field and public gallows, at what is now Washington Square Park. The comparative seclusion of the area began to erode when outbreaks of yellow fever and cholera beset the core city in 1799, 1803, 1805, and 1821. Those seeking refuge fled north to the wholesome backwaters of the West Village, triggering the construction of temporary housing as well as banking offices. During an especially virulent epidemic in 1822 many who had intended to remain in the area only temporarily chose instead to settle there permanently, increasing the population fourfold between 1825 and 1840 and spurring the development of markets and businesses. Shrewd speculators subdivided farms, leveled hills, rerouted and buried Minetta Brook, and undertook landfill projects. Blocks of neat row houses built in the prevailing Federal style soon accommodated middle-class merchants and tradesmen.
- The Federal-Era Rowhouse of Lower Manhattan
- Daniel LeRoy House, 20 St. Mark’s Place, Individual Landmark
- Hamilton Fish House, 21 Stuyvesant Street, Individual Landmark Hamilton-Holly House, 4 St. Mark’s Place, Individual Landmark
- 131 Charles Street, Individual Landmark Old Merchant’s House, 29 East 4th Street, Individual Landmark Virtual Tour: 83 and 85 Sullivan Street
- Far West Village Report: The Era of Significance
- The Development of an Affluent Row House Neighborhood
The Empire Period, 1820-1860
From 1820 a more affluent residential development emerged to the east near Broadway. Another fashionable area developed around Washington Square Park, at the foot of Fifth Avenue. The potter’s field was closed in 1826 and transformed successively into a military parade grounds and a spacious pedestrian commons. On the perimeter of Washington Square, stately red brick townhouses built in the Greek Revival style drew wealthy members of society. The crowning addition to this urban plaza was the triumphal marble arch designed by Stanford White. Erected in 1892 and funded through private subscription, it replaced a temporary portal raised to commemorate the centenary (1889) of George Washington’s inauguration as President.
The Gilded Age, 1870-1900
Immigration dominated the late 19th century in Greenwich Village and completely changed the character of the neighborhood. Aside from new waves of immigrant groups including French, Irish, and Italian, the area experienced a rise in Bohemianism and a departure of the fashinonable set, who were now moving northward towards Fifth Avenue and Central Park. With the departure of the upper classes, the area became increasingly commercialized. Large factories such as the Asch Building (1900), later home to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, were being constructed along Broadway and the Greenwich Village waterfront. Despite more commercial nature of the area, in 1892 the Stanford White designed Washington Square Arch was permanently constructed in marble and the area around the Park was immortalized in the writing of Henry James and Edith Wharton. James wrote his Washington Square in 1880 and many of Wharton’s books, including The Age of Innocence, take place in the Village during this era.
- Virtual Tour: Judson Memorial Church
- Jefferson Market Library, Individual Landmark Astor Library, 425 Lafayette Street, Individual Landmark Bayard-Condict Building, 65-69 Bleecker Street, Individual Landmark
- Bond Street Savings Bank, 330 Bowery, Individual Landmark
- DeVinne Press Building, 393-399 Lafayette Street, Individual Landmark
- Engine Company 33 Firehouse, 44 Great Jones Street, Individual Landmark
Immigration in the Village
During the early 19th century new institutions served the spiritual, educational, and cultural needs of the growing community. Religious denominations commissioned buildings with elaborate decorative schemes, New York University grew on the east side of Washington Square beginning in 1836, and the neighborhood soon became the site of art clubs, private picture galleries, learned societies, literary salons, and libraries. Fine hotels, shopping emporia, and theaters also proliferated. The character of the neighborhood changed markedly at the close of the century when German, Irish, and Italian immigrants found work in the breweries, warehouses, and coal and lumber yards near the Hudson River and in the manufacturing lofts in the southeast corner of the neighborhood. Older residences were subdivided into cheap lodging hotels and multiple-family dwellings, or demolished for higher-density tenements. Plummeting real estate values prompted nervous retailers and genteel property owners to move uptown.
- Past Program: Gangster City Past Program: Changing Perceptions of Italian Immigrant Women
- Past Program: The Villagers of Ellis Island Population Change in the Tenements of the South Village
- The Italians of the South Village
- Children’s Aid Society, Elizabeth Home for Girls, Individual Landmark Christadora House, 147 Avenue B, Individual Landmark
- Ottendorfer Public Library, 135-37 Second Avenue, Individual Landmark
- Eleventh Street Public Baths, Individual Landmark
- First Houses, East 3rd Street and Avenue A, Individual Landmark
- German-American Shooting Society, 12 St. Mark’s Place, Individual Landmark
The Twentieth Century
The Village at the turn of the 20th century was quaintly picturesque and ethnically diverse. By the start of World War I it was widely known as a bohemian enclave with secluded side streets, low rents, and a tolerance for radicalism and nonconformity. Attention increasingly focused on artists and writers noted for their boldly innovative work: books and irreverent “little magazines” were published by small presses, art galleries exhibited the work of the avant-garde, and experimental theater companies blatantly ignored the financial considerations of Broadway. A growing awareness of its idiosyncrasies helped to make Greenwich Village an attraction for tourists. Entrepreneurs provided amusements ranging from evenings in artists’ studios to bacchanalian costume balls. During Prohibition local speakeasies attracted uptown patrons. Decrepit row houses were remodeled into “artistic flats” for the well-to-do, and in 1926 luxury apartment towers appeared at the northern edge of Washington Square. The stock market crash of 1929 halted the momentum of new construction.
Art in the Village, 1930s
During the 1930s, galleries and collectors promoted the cause of contemporary art. Sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney opened a museum dedicated to modern American art on West 8th Street, now the New York Studio School. The New School for Social Research, on West 12th Street since the late 1920s, inaugurated the “University in Exile” in 1934.
The “Beat Movement” and Happenings, 1950s-1960s
The Village had become a center for the “beat movement” by the 1950s, with galleries along 8th Street, coffee houses on MacDougal Street, and storefront theaters on Bleecker Street. “Happenings” and other unorthodox artistic, theatrical, and musical events were staged at the Judson Memorial Church. During the 1960s a homosexual community formed around Christopher Street; in 1969 a confrontation between the police and patrons culminated in a riot known as the Stonewall Rebellion, regarded as the beginning of the nationwide movement for gay and lesbian rights. Greenwich Village became a rallying place for antiwar protesters in the 1970s and for activity mobilized in response to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
The Historic Preservation Movement, 1940-Present
The historic preservation movement in Greenwich Village was begun over fifty years ago. In the 1940s, urban renewal efforts on Washington Square South had altered the physical character of the neighborhood by demolishing many 19th century structures. Local resentment of these development initiatives inspired a preservation movement and helped to defeat a plan by Robert Moses to carve a roadway through Washington Square. Efforts by preservationists were strengthened by “downzoning” changes in 1961 and by the designation in 1969 of a contiguous Greenwich Village Historic District that protected more than 2,035 structures and encompassed most of the West Village from 6th Avenue to Hudson Street. In addition, a number of adaptive reuse projects came to fruition, notably conversions for residential purposes of structures formerly used by the federal archives, the Manhattan Refrigeration Company, and Bell Laboratories.*
For the next several decades, the Greenwich Village Historic District remained as it was, despite the desire by residents to expand the district to other parts of the neighborhood. When the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the Gansevoort Market Historic District in 2003, it was the first new district in the Village since 1969. The extension of the Greenwich Village Historic District and the creation of the Weehawken Street Historic District in 2006 was the culmination of the neighborhood’s long-held goal to preserve the waterfront, which was excluded from the original district. These recent landmarking victories in the Village would not have happened had it not been for the successful advocacy of GVSHP. The Society continues to work in close connection with the community to realize these goals and to fight to protect much of the undesignated areas of the neighborhood, including the South and East Village.
Greenwich Village LGBTQ History
Village Preservation continues to advocate for protection of a variety of sites tied to the Village’s LGBTQ history.
The oldest gay bar in New York, Julius’ was also the site of a groundbreaking gay civil rights action in 1966 which resulted in the end of New York State’s prohibition on serving alcohol to anyone known to be gay. The “sip-in,” in which several members of a gay civil rights organization known as the Mattachine Society went to the bar identifying themselves as ‘homosexuals’ and asked to be served a drink, was based upon the “sit-ins” being staged at segregated lunch counters throughout the South, and was one of the first recorded instances of civil disobedience against anti-gay discrimination.
This nearly 200 year old house became a ‘gay commune’ in the early 1970s, in which some of the most important and influential activist figures of the time resided. Read about it in our letter to the Landmarks Preservation Commission HERE. Residents included Jim Owles, who co-founded the Gay Activists Alliance and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), was the first openly-gay candidate for office in New York City, and lobbied for the very first gay anti-discrimination ordinances in New York City and State. It also included Bruce Voeller, who co-founded and was the first director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, was the plaintiff in a landmark Supreme Court case establishing gay and lesbian parental rights, got what had been called “Gay Related Immune Deficiency Disorder (GRIDD)” renamed the more accurate and less stigmatizing “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS)”, and conducted the first published study demonstrating that condom usage could prevent the spread of AIDS. Both of these men did much of this groundbreaking work while living at 186 Spring Street. Read the New York Times report here.
This was the site of the founding in 1973 of what came to be known as PFLAG, Parents, Friends, and Families of Lesbians and Gays, now a national organization with 350 Chapters and 200,000 members.
101 Avenue A (site of the Pyramid Club) In our nomination for 101 Avenue A as a New York City landmark, GVSHP highlighted and documented the important role that the Pyramid Club, located in the ground floor of the building, played in launching a new generation of politically-conscious drag performers in the late 1980s, and in the founding of the annual Wigstock drag festival. The club was central to the “Downtown Scene” of the era and nurtured performance artists and young performers including Madonna, Nirvana, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. In the late 1960s, Warhol superstar Nico also lived in the second floor apartment above the club.
The LGBT Community Services Center The LGBT Community Services Center at 208 West 13th Street was proposed by Village Preservation proposed for landmark designation in 2014 and was finally landmarked in June, 2019. The LGBT Community Center has been a home and resource hub for the LGBT community in New York City since its founding in 1983. The center celebrates diversity and advocates for justice and opportunity. The building that houses the community center is a beautiful brick Italianate structure that was originally built in the third quarter of the 19th century as Public School 16. Today, it has grown to become the largest LGBT multi-service organization on the East Coast and the second largest in the world.
Gay Activist Alliance Firehouse The former Gay Activists Alliance Firehouse at 99 Wooster Street was proposed by Village Preservation proposed for landmark designation in 2014 and was finally landmarked in June, 2019. Almost exactly six months after the Stonewall Riots, the group was founded by Marty Robinson, Jim Owles, and Arthur Evans, as an offshoot of the Gay Liberation Front. The GAA was intended to be a “single issue, politically neutral [organization]”, whose goal would be to “secure basic human rights, dignity and freedom for all gay people.” Active mostly just from 1970 to 1974, they had a profound influence not only on the lives of gay and lesbian New Yorkers, but on the broader culture and on activism in our city and country in general.
Webster Hall Village Preservation highlighted Webster Hall’s early 20th century drag balls and gay and lesbian-inclusive celebrations and political events as part of the important social and cultural history which formed the basis for our nomination of the site for landmark status. The city granted landmark status on the building in March 2008.
Stonewall District National Register of Historic Places Report and images The first site listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its association with Lesbian and Gay history Designation sponsored by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and the Organization of Lesbian and Gay Architects. Read more about the listing here.
Stonewall Inn, 51-53 Christopher Street
History was made and preserved on June 23, 2015, as the Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously to approve landmark designation of the Stonewall Inn at 51-53 Christopher Street. This was the first such site the Commission had landmarked based solely upon LGBT history. Village Preservation first proposed the Stonewall for landmark designation in early 2014, and spearheaded the campaign to get the City to take this action. Click here to read the Stonewall Inn Designation Report.
Gansevoort Market Historic District Designation Report Designated September, 2003, and nominated by GVSHP’s Save Gansevoort Market project, this report includes the history of gay establishments in the area and the area’s historic role in New York’s gay community.
127 MacDougal Street Landmark Designation Report Designated June, 2004, nominated by GVSHP and the NY Landmarks Conservancy. This report includes the history of early lesbian and gay establishments on MacDougal Street.
129 MacDougal Street Landmark Designation Report Designated June, 2004, nominated by GVSHP and the NY Landmarks Conservancy. This report includes the history of early lesbian and gay establishments on MacDougal Street.
131 MacDougal Street Landmark Designation Report Designated June, 2004, nominated by GVSHP and the NY Landmarks Conservancy. This report includes the history of early lesbian and gay establishments on MacDougal Street.
Weehawken Street Historic District Designation Report Designated May, 2005 in response to GVSHP’s “Campaign to Save the Far West Village.” Includes history of gay establishments in the area and the area’s historic role in New York’s gay community.
Proposal for a South Village Historic District Written by Andrew Dolkart, commissioned by GVSHP to support proposal for a South Village Historic District. Includes the role played by MacDougal, Bleecker, and West 3rd Streets in the late 19th/early 20th centuries as the center of lesbian and gay life in New York. (see pp.66-67)
South Village Historic District Designation Report This historic district report documents the rich array of 19th and early 20th century sites connected to the development of this neighborhood as a mecca for immigrants, artists, writers, and musicians in the 20th century, as well as a chapter focused specifically on the neighborhood’s LGBT history. The South Village was once the center of the world for LGBT New Yorkers. In fact, a century ago, the South Village was one of the few places on earth with an open and visible concentration of establishments catering to the LGBT community, attracting visitors and tourists from around the world.