121 Charles Street: A Chat with Ingrid Bernhard
Long-time Off the Grid readers will remember the stir that was caused last summer when an ill-informed real estate listing described the property at 121 Charles Street as a development site. GVSHP was quick to let people know that the property’s location in the Greenwich Village Historic District meant that any proposed work would require permits from the Landmarks Preservation Commission. So far nothing has happened to cause concern, but, of course, we will continue to keep you updated.
One of the positive experiences that came out of all this was the opportunity to meet Ingrid Bernhard, who along with her late husband Sven moved the house to the Village in 1967 after it was threatened with demolition at its previous Yorkville location. The Bernhards had been living in the house as renters at the time. Read more about their incredible story in a report I wrote last fall.
After I gave a presentation on the history of the house at a GVSHP public program this past January, I sat down with Ingrid to discuss her former home. Here in this post are just some of the interesting things she shared with me.
To recap, Sven first moved into the house as a renter in 1960 and had already been making repairs when Ingrid moved in after their marriage in 1964. I was curious to find out how Sven found the house in the first place. This wasn’t just any house; set back on its Yorkville lot, it had been hidden by a brick house and other buildings for close to a century when Sven moved in.
A native of Sweden, Sven first came to New York by boat in the 1950s in the hopes of seeing his favorite composer, Arturo Toscanini, conduct live at Carnegie Hall. Although the performance was cancelled, Sven first saw the wood house when he visited some of his Norwegian friends who were living there. A few years later, Sven was living on 25th Street and worked for the Norwegian American Lines. It was then in 1960 that he moved into the wood house on York Avenue between 71st and 72nd Streets.
After Sven and Ingrid married and the Archdiocese gave them notice that the house was to be demolished to make way for the Mary Manning Home for the Aged (still located on the site), Sven was the one who decided they had to save the house rather than accept money to leave. They went to court in an attempt to win ownership of the house, even though their own lawyer thought Sven was crazy for wanting to save it. When Sven told the judge he would agree to move out of the house if he could take it with him, the judge replied, “You mean like a snail? Take the house with you?”
The next day, the Bernhards won ownership of the house, to which Sven happily remarked, “I’m a homeowner in Manhattan!” Of course, the next big task was finding a new lot for the house and moving it there. And then all the events that followed.
There’s much more to the story, but I will leave you with one more interesting fact that Ingrid told me about the house. The brick piers at the entry gate on Charles Street were constructed of bricks found during the excavation of the house’s foundation in 1967. The bricks, buried in the ground for years, were part of the foundations of rowhouses that had long been demolished. A pretty great piece of history as you walk by this beloved Village house.
GVSHP is in the process of putting together an oral history interview with Ingrid. We will let you know when that has been completed, but until then please check out our other wonderful oral histories featuring influential Villagers on our Oral History Collection page.