Landmarks vs. National Monuments: How Safe is the Stonewall Inn?

In late April of last year, President Trump signed an Executive Order aimed at reviewing all National Monuments created under the Antiquities Act since 1996.  As the Stonewall National Monument, designated in 2016, would fall within this review, many individuals and advocacy groups have voiced their concerns that the current administration might strip the monument of this status, as was done to some other National Monuments in Utah. Some have even gone so far to express concern that such a move could result in Stonewall being demolished.

Fortunately, so far the administration’s review of National Monuments has not resulted in any change in the status of Stonewall.  But since the issue has come up, we thought we’d explain why even if that did happen — if Stonewall were stripped of its National Monument status, as has been done elsewhere — it would not result in the site’s demolition or destruction.

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The Lasting Imprint of Stuyvesant Street

Nearly all of the East Village falls in line with the Manhattan street grid, dating back to the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811. However, one defiant street, only one block long, stands at odds with the grid, Stuyvesant Street. Running true East – West, it was named for Petrus Stuyvesant (1727-1805), the great-grandson of Petrus Stuyvesant (also known as Peter, d. 1672 and the last Dutch West India Company director-general of New Amsterdam) and the street originally ran through Petrus’ vast farmland beginning at present-day Fourth Avenue. Stuyvesant Street then stretched to the Petersfield house, which was located roughly around today’s First Avenue and East 16th Street, with views of the East River. In spite of the fact that the only section of Stuyvesant Street that remains intact today is between Third and Second Avenue (between 9th and 10th Streets), vestiges of the remainder of the street east of there, at odds with the grid, may still be seen today in some very surprising ways.

St. Mark’s on the Bowery, angled to Stuyvesant Street which used to run in front of it.

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Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s Rich and Varied Legacy

When a woman born into the privileged class bucks the system and comes into her own as an artist and philanthropist, a great story is born. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney was decidedly born into the privileged class, on January 9, 1875. But the life she chose for herself was nothing short of revolutionary, having a huge impact upon the art world, and the Village.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in her studio 1920

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Mixed But Positive News on Chain Stores for the New Year

The tenth annual ranking of national retailers in New York City by the Center for an Urban Future (CUF) just came out, and it reveals a 1.8 percent increase in the number of store locations over last year in the city as a whole.  You can see the full report here.

The report breaks out chain stores by zip codes, which is useful but also has its limitations, given the lack of correspondence between zip code and neighborhood boundaries.  Even so, there is mixed news for the zip codes that overlap with Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo.  Two of our five zip codes saw a decrease in chain stores, while another two saw an increase.  One remained unchanged. But the good news is the decreases were much larger, percentage-wise at least, than the increases, so we bucked the citywide trend of an uptick in chain store presence.

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Considering New Buildings in the Greenwich Village Historic District

On January 4, 2017, GVSHP released its report cataloging for the first time in one place all new buildings approved by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission in the Greenwich Village Historic District since its designation in 1969 — click HERE to see the report.  It’s been updated since its release and to date, we have recorded forty-two such approvals, though not every approved building was constructed. The report documents each application including renderings or pictures of proposed buildings, architect, links to permits, date of approval and location. Additionally, it features an overall timeline and map of the buildings making for a comprehensive study of a historic district which is nearly as old as the New York City Landmarks Law itself, which was enacted in 1965.

GVSHP’s New Building in the Greenwich Village Historic District report

Our purpose in creating this report was to take a comprehensive look at what can and has happened within a historic district, where applications for changes and new buildings are filed all the time. This is especially important because the criteria for the Landmarks Preservation Commission approving a new building in any historic district is simply that the Commission must deem it “appropriate” for the site.  This obviously leaves a lot of room for interpretation, and we thought it important to take a look at how the Commission has interpreted and carried out that mandate over the years — whether we supported, opposed, or had mixed feelings about their decision — to help inform our efforts to continue to try to preserve the character of our neighborhood.

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Mapping Civil Rights and Social Justice — A Year Later

On January 3, 2017, GVSHP launched our Civil Rights and Social Justice Map.  Something in the air told us there might be a hunger and need for this kind of information.  But even we would not have guessed that the map would receive over 70,000 views in that time, with its praises sung in BrickUnderground, Curbed, 6sqft, Viewing NYC, and The Architect’s Newspaper, among others places.

Launching the map has been a true labor of love for GVSHP.  We love maps; there are several hanging around our office from different eras showing different iterations of the city’s streets and topographies.  But we’re also passionate about civil rights social justice history, and the incredibly central, indispensable role our neighborhoods have played in so many such movements.  

We also love engaging the public, and the map has certainly done that.  You have sent us your suggestions and ideas, and as a result, the map has almost doubled in size since its launching, with new entries added every month.

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Our 2018 Resolutions

Happy New Year!

Vintage New Year Card (ca. 1911) via NYPL.

Happy New Year! We here at GVSHP hope everyone had a wonderful holiday and look forward to 2018! Like many people everywhere, GVSHP has also made some resolutions for the New Year.  Some of our biggest goals for this year center on our advocacy efforts, our Historic Image Archive, and our public programming.  In 2018 we hope to accomplish the following:

  • Advocacy– As always, preserving and protecting the character of our neighborhoods, their architecture, and their small businesses is a top priority. Here are a few of the things we hope to get done in 2018:
    • Rezoning for University Place/Broadway and 3rd/4th Avenue Corridors — One of our most talked-about efforts in 2017, this rezoning will help protect these corridors from out of scale and overly commercial development.  These areas currently lack zoning and landmark protections resulting in out-of-scale and out-of-character new developments like the 300 ft tall condo tower nearing completion at University Place and 12th Street or the 313-room Moxy Hotel at 112-120 East 11th Street.   The Mayor’s proposed Tech Hub on 12th Street is increasing the pressure for this kind of development here, and we are fighting to ensure no Tech Hub is approved without these protections for the surrounding area.  You can write to the Mayor urging his support here, the Borough president here, or thank new Councilmember Carlina Rivera pledging her support for these efforts here.  Find out more here and here.

    • Small Businesses –  We’re hoping to get the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA) passed in 2018, which would make it easier for small businesses to renegotiate leases with their landlords.  Sign a letter here to urge City officials to support the bill and to allow a hearing and a vote on it as soon as possible.
    • Protect 827-831 Broadway (12th/13th Streets) — in 2017 GVSHP saved these 1866 lofts that were once home to Willem de Kooning from the wrecking ball.  But now a developer wants permission to build a huge, jarring addition on top of them.  Urge the Landmarks Preservation Commission NOT to approve the proposed addition here.
    • Ensuring No Inappropriate New Building is Approved at 540 Hudson Street (at Charles Street) — GVSHP pushed back hard against a developer’s plan for an oversized, undulating building at this location in the Greenwich Village Historic District.  The plans is in limbo, but will probably come back soon.  Send a letter to the Landmarks Preservation Commission opposing the plan here.    
    • Stopping Plan for the Village’s Tallest Tower at 14 Fifth Avenue — In late 2017 plans were floated for an outrageously tall 367- ft tall tower at this site between 8th and 9th Streets in the Greenwich Village Historic District where a pair of altered but historically significant rowhouses now stand. We’re not sure if this plan is real and will ever see the light of day, but if it does, we will be at the ready to oppse it with everything we’ve got.  Stay tuned for more info as it becomes available.
    • LGBT Historic Sites — Urge the LPC here to protect internationally recognized sites of LGBT historic significance in the Village.

Astor Place and the Cube, early 1980s, from the Carole Teller’s Changing New York Collection of GVSHP’s Historic Image Archives

  • Image Archive– In the last year, GVSHP vastly expanded our Historic Image Archive,  with additions from long-time Village and East Village residents and their families and even their ancestors. In 2018, we hope to add even more images and continue to improve upon this wonderful resource.  You can check out the archive and images, as well purchase prints from one of our many collections, here.

Participants in the July 2017 Walk & Draw walking tour.

  • Public Programs– As always, we here at GVSHP strive to develop new and more exciting programs to help our members and constituents learn about and engage with the Village’s past and present. We have some exciting programs coming up in January and February — learn more about them and make reservations here.

As we look forward to accomplishing these resolutions, we know that they are not possible without the resolve of our dedicated members.  As a new year’s resolution of your own, we hope you will consider joining GVSHP as a member if you are not already.  In addition to supporting our efforts to protect and preserve the Village, membership to GVSHP offers other perks such as early access to program RSVPs and invitations to special events taking place throughout the year.  Learn more about how to become a member here.

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The Backstory on Backhouses

This post was originally published in 2011.

One of the many wonderful things about our neighborhoods is the seemingly limitless possibility for surprises.  Though small in scale and geography, the Village, East Village, and NoHo may have more unexpected and often unknown nooks and crannies than any other area of New York City.  And sometimes those surprises are hidden from the public, and are only revealed, ofttimes fleetingly, under unusual circumstances.

Backhouses are a terrific example.  There are literally scores of these structures throughout our neighborhoods, but almost none are visible from the street, and therefore most are virtually unknown to anyone other than their residents and immediate neighbors.

But the recent demolition of a building on East 12th Street has given passersby an opportunity for a rare glimpse at an unusual set of backhouses, and Off the Grid an opportunity to shed a little light on this delightful and surprising class of buildings.

Hidden from view for a century and a half, recently revealed on East 12th Street

First, definitions: backhouses are residential structures which are separate from and located behind other buildings (usually, but not always, residential buildings) which face the street.  In other words, backhouses are in back of or behind other buildings, and therefore don’t have entrances off the street.  Often times one has to go through the front building, then through a rear courtyard, to get to the backhouse; other times there is a narrow passageway or even a tunnel alongside or through the front building which leads to the backhouse behind.

The side and rear of this backhouse behind 10 Bedford Street were visible to the public from Downing Street because of an adjacent lot which was vacant for decades. When the lot was built on in 2009, this rare site was again hidden from view.

So how did these structures come about?  The classic and seemingly most loved example is the carriage house located behind an elegant early rowhouse.  In these cases, a single family house was built, typically in the early 19th century, with a stable for the family’s horses located behind, accessible through either a side passageway or a tunnel or “horsewalk” through the house.  As horses began to disappear from regular use in the city and fewer families kept them behind their houses, these stables were often converted to residences, sometimes called carriage houses.  Because of the unconventional nature of these spaces, and because the structures sometimes had raw open space or large openings from their prior incarnations, they often attracted artists for whom these types of living and working conditions were ideal.  In other cases, they may have attracted artists simply because such space was cheap and acceptable to them, whereas it may not have been for the general public.

131 Charles Street, between Washington and Greenwich Streets; the former horsewalk entered from the door on the left side of the building leads to a former stable/backhouse in which the photographer Diane Arbus resided from 1959 to 1967.

Some backhouses, however, had less romantic origins and lives.  Oftentimes backhouses were built behind tenements or “tenementized” rowhouses (houses which were split up and converted to multi-family dwellings) as a way of simply squeezing more living units into the tiny amount of available land.  Thus sometimes these backhouses had windows with little light or air, as they were often mere feet from the walls or windows of the front house or tenement or neighboring buildings.  Typically these were built as neighborhoods such as the Village or East Village became awash with immigrants, who payed low rents but were squeezed by the dozens into tiny spaces with sometimes unimaginably challenging living conditions. Unlike the ‘classic’ example cited above, these backhouses typically had several units, even though the buildings themselves were tiny, and could be built up as tall as the front structure, sometimes four or five stories in height.

Rear tenement/backhouse at 180 Sixth Avenue. Built in 1878, its front tenement was demolished in the 1920’s for the Sixth Avenue extension, making it the exceedingly rare backhouse to face the street without a front building. In spite of this historic significance and though located in GVSHP’s proposed South Village Historic District (www.gvshp.org/sv) , it was demolished in 2008 due to lack of action by the Landmarks Preservation Commission on the proposed historic district (go to www.gvshp.org/svltr to help save the rest of the South Village).

And while some of these tenement backhouses began as stables (sometimes with additional stories added on) like their more romantic cousins, sometimes they had less genteel origins, starting life as sheds, utility structures, and in some cases even outhouses.  As housing laws and rising expectations for living standards reduced the occurrence of outhouses for residences in New York City, these structures were often built upon or added to and converted to small backhouse housing units.

Typical late 19h century (dumbell) tenements; very high lot coverage, with little open space and no room for backhouses.

The newly- (and temporarily-) revealed backhouses at 425 and 429 East 12th Street, between First Avenue and Avenue A, present a variation on these backhouse scenarios, one which we believe may be somewhat rare.  The four-story front-buildings at 425 and 429 were both built in 1852, and appear to be very early, purpose-built tenements (i.e. they were built as tenements, not structures built as single-family homes which were converted to multi-family housing ).  While experts believe that the earliest purpose-built tenements appeared in New York City in the 1820’s or 30’s, these were rare, and by far the majority of tenements were not constructed until after the Civil War, when immigration to New York City increased exponentially.  Somewhat unusually, based upon our research on the history of every building in the East Village, it appears that the four-story backhouses behind these tenements were built at the same time as the front structures, as opposed to the other scenarios previously described which appear to be more typical.

425 East 12th Street (l.) with the backhouse behind 429 East 12th Street (r.).

The newly-revealed backhouse behind 425 East 12th Street (m.), with 429 East 12th Street (r.).

Exactly why both these lots (and seemingly several of its neighbors) were built with separate front and rear residential structures, as opposed to the seemingly more efficient arrangement of a single, larger footprint structure as was common with later tenements, is unclear.  One theory might be that early tenements seemed to basically mimic the form of single family houses on the exterior, covering only about 50% of the lot and rarely rising more than four stories.  Perhaps the conventional expectation that these still-relatively rare (and generally looked down upon) structures would at least look like a house pushed builders to use this two-building form, mimicking a house with a rear structure that was either added later or grew from a pre-existing non-residential structure, rather than the single, larger footprint tenements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

This 1853 tax map shows both the four story front and rear structures for 425 and 429 East 12th Street (at this time known as 379 and 383 East 12th Street); since neither appeared in 1850 maps, both front and rear structures were built at the same time. Image courtesy New York Public Library.

The demolition of 427 East 12th Street provides one of the rare opportunities for the public to get a glimpse of these curious and surprising structures.  Another rare opportunity for the public:  earlier this year, GVSHP had a particularly charming backhouse apartment on West 11th Street on our Annual Benefit House Tour (save the date: next year’s tour is May 6, 2012!).

Backhouse on West 11th Street; one of the most popular attractions on GVSHP’s 2011 Benefit House Tour.

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Historic Preservation 101: What is a Landmark?

This is a re-posting of a piece originally written in 2011.

Architect Phillip Johnson and others protesting the demolition of Pennsylvania Station

We speak often of historic districts, individual landmarks and national and state register sites but, what do those terms really mean?

This post will review how the designation of landmarks came to be, what a landmark is and the differences between state and local landmarks.

The Demolition of Penn Station: A Symbol of What Can Happen if Historic Sites Aren’t Protected

Pennsylvania Station

The origins of the New York City Landmarks Law are often attributed to the loss of New York City’s Pennsylvania Station in 1963. Designed in 1910 by McKim, Mead & White, this grand, pink granite structure was slated for demolition to make way for a more modern station, a new Madison Square Garden and office buildings.

Bulldozer in Pennsylvania Station

Its demolition led to a number of protests whose participants included architect Philip Johnson, art critic Aline Saarinen (widow of the late architect Eero Saarinen), and urban advocate Jane Jacobs. Its ultimate demise at the hands of the wrecking ball was seen by many as a catalyst for the creation of the New York City Landmarks Law.

Because of the loss of Pennsylvania Station and many other significant buildings throughout New York City, the New York City Landmarks Law was enacted in 1965 to protect historic sites and buildings from being demolished or altered in a way that fundamentally changes its character. The law also created the Landmarks Preservation Commission which is authorized to designate landmarks.

Wyckoff House

 

The first building to be designated a New York City Landmark was the Pieter Claesen Wyckoff House, a Dutch colonial house in Flatbush, Brooklyn that dates to the mid-17th century.

What is a landmark?

The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission defines a landmark as a building, property or object that has a special character or special historical or aesthetic interest or value as part of the development, heritage, or cultural characteristics of the city, state, or nation. New York City has more than 23,000 landmarks including individual, interior and scenic landmarks and historic districts.

Individually-designated landmarks get some special treatment under the NYC Zoning Code in order to help facilitate their preservation — for instance, the air rights of individual landmarks can be transferred across the street as-of-right, which cannot generally be done for non-landmarked buildings, and they can receive exemptions from zoning restrictions regarding allowable uses and height and setback requirements if it can be shown that such exemptions would help preserve the landmark.

The New York City Landmarks Law also includes a hardship relief provision for owners  unable to maintain their historic properties due to economic reasons.

What minimum criteria must a building or site meet to be designated a New York City landmark?

A building or site must be more than 30 years old and have historical or architectural significance as determined by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Pershing Square Overpass

 

What can be a landmark?

Since our history is defined by more than just buildings, a landmark can be many things that are reflective of history and convey significance, including building interiors, cemeteries, bridges and landscapes.

Historic Streetlight

 

 

 

New York City Marble Cemetery

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is an historic district?

An historic district is an area where a group of buildings and sites have a distinct sense of place or character. The buildings and sites that make up an historic district represent a specific period or style of architecture that represents the city’s history.

What is the National Register of Historic Places?

Administered by the National Park Service, the National Register of Historic Places was created in 1966 as part of the National Historic Preservation Act. The National Register is the official federal list of districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects significant in American history, architecture, archeology, engineering, and culture. National Register properties have significance to the history of their community, state, or the nation. Generally, properties eligible for listing in the National Register are at least 50 years old. Properties less than 50 years of age must be exceptionally important to be considered eligible for listing.  As an example, GVSHP successfully advocated for I.M. Pei’s Silver Towers complex, built in 1966, to be determined eligible for listing on the State and National Register of Historic Places though it was not yet fifty years old because of its exceptional significance.

Other National Register Listings secured by GVSHP include the 2009 designation of Westbeth Artist Housing for its significance as pioneering affordable housing for artists.

Are there financial incentives for owners of properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places?

Yes!  Owners of properties listed on the National Register may be eligible for federal investment tax credits and grants for preservation planning and rehabilitation of historic properties.

What is a National Historic Landmark?

A national historic landmark is designated by the Secretary of the Interior because of its exceptional value as demonstrating the heritage of the United States and its meaning to all Americans.  There are 2,500 such sites that meet this high standard.

The Statue of Liberty, Rockefeller Center and the Metropolitan Museum of Art are examples of local sites that are National Historic Landmarks.  As proposed by GVSHP and other groups, the Stonewall District was first listed on the State and National Register of Historic Places in 1999 and then designated a National Landmark in 2000.  This is an example of a National Historic landmark that is recognized not for its architectural significance but, for the importance of the cultural and social events that took place there.

What are the requirements of an owner of a designated property?

Simply, the owner of a designated landmark is required to maintain the building’s exterior in good repair and to secure the approval of the Landmarks Preservation Commission before any exterior alterations are made. Owners are not required to restore properties to an original condition and the appearance of the property upon designation is grandfathered.

The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation has advocated for the designation of a number of  individual landmarks and historic districts.  To learn more about landmarks in the Village, please click here.  For more resources and information about landmarks please visit GVSHP’s Resources page.  

 

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“When was my building built?”, and other tricky research questions

The following is a re-post originally written by Sheryl Woodruff in 2011:

An old photograph can help you find out more about the history of your building.

An old photograph can help you find out more about the history of your building.

The New York Public Library, whose digital gallery we here at GVSHP turn to quite frequently when looking for images to assist in our own research, recently included an article in their November newsletter entitled “Who Lived in a House Like This?” with tips on researching the social history of your home  and neighborhood. It is an excellent overview of the sources available for those interested in genealogy or even to those looking to learn who lived in their apartment before them. But for those looking to learn a little more about the architectural history of their building, we thought we would share some tips we’ve gained over the years.GVSHP has a number of resources on our website that are worth checking out at the start of your search. Perhaps your building is located in a designated New York City or State or National Register of Historic Places historic district, or is an individual city, state, or national landmark. You can find the designation reports for all of these in the East Village, NoHo, and Greenwich Village on the GVSHP resources page. The information in these reports varies, but most have historic information about each building in the district. The AIA Guide to New York City, by Norval White, Elliot Willensky, and Fran Leadon, the latest addition of which was published in 2010, lists and describes many of the outstanding buildings in New York City, and is also a good place to check for information on a building’s history.

Not sure if your building is in a historic district? New York CityMap allows you to see at a glance information about your building, including landmark status, district name, year built, and zoning. But a word of caution. Buildings built before 1900 are often labeled 1899 or 1900 in city databases.

So how do you find the real date of construction, if you happen to be searching for information about a building not in a landmark district? Your next step might be to look at the building’s file at the Department of Buildings. The Manhattan Department of Buildings was created in the 1865, and from that year forward, DOB has kept a record of all new buildings, alterations to existing buildings, demolitions, and other changes to sites.  A fairly-reliable (though inc0mplete) list of permits that DOB issued from 1865 until about 1989 can be found on DOB’s website. This is just a list, though. To see the actual permits in person, you’ll need to request the block and lot file from the NYC Municipal Archives.

Permits listed on the Department of Buildings website.

Permits listed on the Department of Buildings website.

To access the list, enter the DOB’s Building Information Search.  Type in the building address or block and lot to bring up the property profile. Scroll to the bottom and click on “Actions.” This brings up a list of many of the permits filed for the building from about 1865 until 1988. The most important permits are:

  • New Building Permits, or “NB”, which is what is filed when a new building is being constructed
  • Alteration Permits, or “Alt”, which is what is filed when an existing building is modified
  • Demolition Permits, or “DM” or “DP”, which is what is filed when an existing building is demolished

Each permit is numbered by the type of permit it is, the number of the permit, and the year it was filed.  For instance, NB 101-03 is the 101st permit filed in 1903.  Likewise, Alt. 44-94, is the 44thpermit filed for in 1894. The century that the permit was filed in can be confusing.  Since the Department of Buildings was created in 1865, any year in the decades of the 00s, 10s, 20s, 30s, 40s, or 50s you can assume is from the 1900s.  Likewise, the Department of Buildings stopped using this system about 1990, so any permit with a 90’s year is probably from 1890s.  The decades for the 60s, 70s, and 80s, can be permits from the 1800s or the 1900s, so you may have to either make a guess by looking at the building or by doing further research. These permits will also allow you to see what, if any, changes were made to your buildings, such as an addition or the removal of a stoop.

Tax photos compared to a current photo help determine changes to 23 Downing Street.

Tax photos compared to a current photo help determine changes to 23 Downing Street.

What if you want to take a look at what your building looked like in the past? There are a number of sources for historic images. The New York City Municipal Archive tax photos – taken from 1939 to 1941 and again in the mid-1980s, were taken to appraise property for tax purposes. Every building in the city was photographed. This is a wonderful record of how your building looked at the time and might help you determine what the windows or stoop used to look like. Need a photo from another time period? While there is no other photography survey of this magnitude, the New York Public Library Digital Gallery, the Museum of the City of New York’s Collections Portal, and the LaGuardia and Wagner Archive all have extensive photography collections. While it is tempting to search using the street number and address, we have found that you get better results searching on the street name and cross street.

There are plenty of other resources out there for finding out more about the architecture of your building. If this search tips here are not leading you in the right direction, feel free to contact us with a specific request.

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