This post by Dana Schulz originally ran in 2011.
This secluded alley of beautiful pre-Civil War homes made recent real estate headlines when one of its houses, 5 Grove Court, went on the market for $4.2 million. The Corcoran listing describes its drool-worthy details: “exposed beams, 3 fireplaces, handsome working kitchen and a rooftop garden.” In fact, in 2003, Architectural Digest featured the gorgeous interior renovation of this specific “cottage.”
In Greenwich Village, there is no doubt that a large part of the appeal of a home such as this is its history. Ironically, however, when examining that history, one finds that this enclave was not always so sought after.
First laid out in 1848, Grove Court is set off of Grove Street between Bedford and Hudson Streets. It is entered through an iron gate and corresponding passageway between numbers 10 and 12 Grove Street. In 1848, the merchant Samuel Stryker, who had been leasing the land from Trinity Church, sold to Samuel Cocks the backyards of numbers 6 and 8 Grove Street along with all of number 10. Cocks was a partner in the law firm of Cocks & Brown, located nearby at 18 Grove Street. At the time of the transaction, Cocks already owned a small strip of land to the East of 10 Grove Street, providing for the perfect passageway to his newly acquired ‘gore’ lot (a gore is “a triangular tract of land, especially one lying between larger divisions” and was commonly used in the nineteenth century). According to the designation report for the Greenwich Village Historic District, “The present six connected houses on the rear of this lot were built for Cocks and finished in 1854; however, they were taxed as a single building on a single lot, referred to as No. 10 1/2 Grove Street, until well into the present century. It was not until 1921, when the lot was subdivided by Alentaur Realty and the six houses sold and altered individually, that Grove Court took on its present delightful appearance and name.”
The three-story Federal houses were originally used to house the working class. Cocks had opened a grocery store nearby and felt that by populating this enclave with working class people he would be guaranteed patronage of his store. The alley was first known as “Pig’s Alley” or “Mixed Ale Alley,” a reference to the drinking habits of those living there. A gang, the Pig’s Alley Gorillas, even existed in the early twentieth century. According to architectural historian Andrew Dolkart in The Row House Reborn, the majority of those who inhabited the alley between construction and 1922 were Irish families headed by women. Further, he notes, upon their 1921 conversion into individually-taxed properties, local newspapers scoffed at the idea that they would be a desirable place to live. However, slight renovations were made, including interior modernization, conversion into 2-family units, and the additions of entrance porticos, window shutters, a wrought-iron entrance gate, and a lawn with a sundial. It was thought that the area would become a Bohemian artists’ colony. Instead, however, according to Dolkart, the now renamed Grove Court attracted single women and widows, many of whom were teachers and office workers. The remodeling of Grove Court was such a success that, according to a 1923 NY Times article, it was used as an example to remodel the Minettas into a more artistic outlet.
Grove Court is also well-noted for being the setting to O. Henry’s “The Last Leaf.” In 1907, this short story was included in the collection The Trimmed Lamp. “The Last Leaf” tells the story of a young girl dying from pneumonia who watched the leaves fall off the tree outside of her window. She believed she would die when the last leaf fell, but an old artist neighbor risks his own life to save her. O. Henry begins his story: “In a little district west of Washington Square the streets have run crazy and broken themselves into small strips called ‘places.’ These ‘places’ make strange angles and curves. One Street crosses itself a time or two….So, to quaint old Greenwich Village the art people soon came prowling, hunting for north windows and eighteenth-century gables and Dutch attics and low rents.” In 1952 a film, O. Henry’s Full House, was made, depicting several of his short stories. “The Last Leaf” was one story included and was filmed at Grove Court.
Today, residents maintain the ‘place’s’ grounds themselves, planting lush beds of ivy and flowers in both the facades’ flowerboxes and in the public space. Popular design blog Apartment Therapy even gave Grove Court its Flowerbox Award. $4.2 million may be a hefty sum, but wouldn’t it be worth every penny to live in this quiet, secluded oasis? We can all dream, right?