Many Layers of History at 6th Avenue and 11th Street
Once again, another date has come that lines up with an intersection in the Village, but as the calendar starts to climb, our focus also starts to move westwards. In honor of today’s date, we are taking a look at some of the buildings and history on and around the intersection of 6th Avenue and 11th Street.
“Heard it through the Grapevine?”
According to research by our Executive Director Andrew Berman:
on August 6, 1966, the first known recording of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” was made by the Miracles. Written by Motown pioneers Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, the song was re-recorded several times; Marvin Gaye’s cover landed on the top of the charts for seven weeks in early 1969. While the song now a Motown standard, the famous saying about receiving important news or information through a person-to-person chain of communication significantly pre-dates the Motown era. In fact, plentiful evidence and credible sources trace it back to a beloved tavern on the corner of 6th Avenue and 11th Street in Greenwich Village.
A wooden two and a half story house built in the 1700s that stood at the southeast corner of this intersection housed a saloon called the Hawthorne. Originally a private home, by the early 19th century it had become a refuge for those escaping the beehive of activity in Lower Manhattan. But by the late 19th century, as the city grew around it, the tavern took on a different role. In 1877, the Tavern became a noted hangout for lawyers and politicians, including future presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Chester A. Arthur. There they shared information from and speculated about the many goings-on at the nearby courthouse, and the tavern became known as the best place to hear political gossip in New York. Also in the 19th century was the growth of an ever-expanding grapevine along the 11th Street façade of the building. So prominent was the climbing plant that the Hawthorne simply came to be known as “The Grapevine.” And thus, at least according to legend, this fertile ground for gossip and reconnaissance became the source for the figure of speech that information could be “heard through the grapevine.” In 1915, the old Grapevine Tavern was demolished to make way for the six-story apartment building which now stands at 78 West 11th Street.
Second Cemetery of Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue, Shearith Israel
Just west of 6th Avenue on 11th Street is the Second Cemetery of Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue, Shearith Israel, the second cemetery installment of the Congregation Shearith Israel, a congregation of Sephardic Jewish immigrants and the oldest Jewish congregation in North America. The First Cemetery of Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue, Shearith Israel — also known as Chatham Square Cemetery — was established in 1683 at 55-57 St. James Place in Lower Manhattan. One hundred twenty two years later in 1805, when the cemetery had started to exceed their allotment and push against development in Lower Manhattan, the Second Cemetery plot was purchased and established on a much larger plot that had extended into what is now 11th Street. This plot operated until 1829; during that time the establishment of the Manhattan grid system began its process of cutting 11th Street, which once again ran aground with the bodies in that cemetery space. A Third Cemetery space was then purchased at 98-110 West 21st Street, where those displaced bodies were re-interred. The third plot was in operation up until 1851, right before the law was passed banning burials within New York City limits (which then covered today’s Manhattan). Further burials after 1852 took place in Glendale, Queens. A section from a 1928 New Yorker article discussing the cemeteries sums up the spaces’ histories while also highlighting their importance and reverence within their community:
“There remain two cemeteries to visit, built by descendants of the first Portuguese Jews. One of these is the tiny triangle with twenty headstones familiar to Greenwich Villagers, on Eleventh Street, east of Sixth Avenue. The cemetery of those who died by plagues, particularly the dread yellow fever of 1798, it once covered many acres. The second, on Twenty-first Street, west of Sixth, has perhaps a hundred and fifty tombstones. Burials were made here as late as 1851, although it was against the law then, and several of the bereaved families had to pay a fine of two hundred and fifty dollars. The Portuguese Jews formed the Congregation Shearith Israel whose present congregation – their synagogue is at 99 Central Park West – has repeatedly rejected offers of hundreds of thousands for the Twenty-first Street site. Once a department store wanted to arch a building over the cemetery, leaving it undisturbed, but that plan was rejected, too.” — (The New Yorker “Where Time Has Stopped,” 25 February 1928).
Founded in 1867, Grammar School No. 41 first opened on what is now Greenwich Avenue and Charles Street. It was touted as having “been erected with great care,” and as “one of the most elegant and substantial School Houses yet erected.” In the 1950’s, the Board of Education announced a plan to construct or renovate 119 public schools across NYC, PS. 41 being one of them, and the new PS. 41 opened at its current location in 1957, quickly reenergizing the community and reaffirming its core values and belief in the importance of public education.