On this day in 2007, two historic federal style row houses at 486 and 488 Greenwich Street (between Spring and Canal Streets) built in 1823 by the Rohr family were designated landmarks by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. These two houses were among thirteen federal houses which GVSHP and the New York Landmarks Conservancy proposed and fought to get landmarked starting in 2002.
According to the houses’ landmark designation reports and Daytonian in Manhattan, in the early 19th century, the Lispenard family owned a large swath of land on the west side of Manhattan between the established city of New York in the lower tip of Manhattan island and Greenwich Village. Referred to as Lispenard’s Meadows, the land was marshy and of little value until the area just to the south was developed by Trinity Church as St. John’s Park, the most exclusive residential district in New York. By the 1820s, Greenwich Street was the main route from New York to Greenwich Village, cutting through Lispenard’s Meadows. When Canal Street was laid out it included a sewer that drained the marshland. What had been essentially worthless property was suddenly attractive real estate.
According to the designation report, the earliest known tenant at 486 Greenwich Street was merchant Isaac Moses, from 1824-26. Baker Charles Hummel was a resident and owner from 1831 to 1850. By 1851, the building had become a rooming house. Until 1953 it had two long-term owners: Abraham Witherup and Milton W. Armstrong, partners in a building firm and their heirs, and real estate operator Robert I. Brown and his family. In the 20th century, the property was used industrially as a bearing metals manufacturing firm from 1906-17, and A. Johnston & Son Iron Works occupied the space from 1953-75.
The earliest known tenants at 488 Greenwich Street included a tin/hardware dealer, a coppersmith, a grocer, and a smith/grocer/carman. By 1851, this home had also become a rooming house. For nearly a century, it had two long-term owners: hardware dealer Robert Shiells and his heirs from 1852-99, and the Ely family from 1899-1944, including former New York City mayor Smith Ely, Jr., whose leather tanning business, Ely, Vanderpoel & Kitchell, was founded in 1868. Ely had a long career in public service as the school commissioner, state senator, county supervisor, commissioner of public instruction, member of the United States House of Representative, the 82nd Mayor of New York from 1877-78, and commissioner of parks.
The designation reports also note that the survival of these two buildings is particularly noticeable in a neighborhood that was redeveloped with industrial and loft buildings in the late-19th and 20th centuries, to say nothing of the flood of redevelopment which took place here after a 2003 rezoning. Without a doubt, without landmark designation, these two lovely and historic buildings would be unlikely to last long into the 21st century.
Preserving and protecting federal-style (1790-1835) houses is an important part of GVSHP’s mission, and one which we will undertake in areas beyond out geographic boundaries. Twenty years ago, in 1997, GVSHP received a grant from Preserve NY, a grant program of the Preservation League of NY State and the NY State Council on the Arts, to document and help preserve federal-style houses in Lower Manhattan. In that time, GVSHP has helped gain landmark status and/or State and National Register of Historic Places listing for one hundred thirty six federal houses, of which 486 and 488 Greenwich Street are but two — read about them all in our report here.