In the years leading up to April 29, 1969, when the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) designated the Greenwich Village Historic District, the LPC photographed the over 2,200 buildings within the district. Fifty years later, Village Preservation followed in the footsteps of the photographer(s) who documented the largest historic district in the city, retaking photos across more than one hundred blocks. We have recently released a new interactive map tool in honor of the 50th anniversary, Greenwich Village Historic District, 1969 – 2019: Photos and Tours, which includes side-by-side photos of nearly every one of the buildings in the district in 1969 and today, as well as tours of the district’s architectural and cultural history.
The 1969 designation photos were generously provided to Village Preservation by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which uses these images to evaluate changes proposed and made to buildings within the district. Landmarked buildings, when undergoing changes, must retain or recall their architecture at the time of designation (or a historic condition), which may be evaluated by the LPC using photographic archives such as these, or deemed an “appropriate” change. From November 2018 through February 2019, I was tasked with photographing the 2019 version of each of the 1969 designation photos, giving the public a chance to see the Greenwich Village Historic District as it has evolved over the past fifty years.
Without information from the photographer(s) who took the district’s photos in the 1960s, I relied upon the 1969 photos themselves to indicate how I should navigate documenting the district: what order I should take the photos in, where I should stand in order to capture each building or streetscape from the correct vantage point. In many cases, the designation photos follow a clear pattern: they capture each block or half-block section of each side of each street. But other streets prove more unruly. Many of the buildings on Charles Street and Gay Street were individually photographed, while the buildings of West 8th Street were photographed in multiple sections.
Walking through the district on bright, cloudy days this past winter, I carried a folder of packets containing the designation photos for each street I intended to photograph, organized numerically and divided by sides of the street. I hoped that the low-hanging clouds would linger for a few hours, as any sunlight over the Village’s narrow streets would cast shadows on at least a portion of the buildings on my route, disguising or distracting from their architectural details. In order to best imitate the designation photos, I tried to align the architectural features of the buildings with the infrastructural elements of the surrounding area just as they appeared in the designation photos. When shooting 12-34 East 11th Street, for instance, I made sure that the water tower at 54 East 11th Street balanced just above the facade of 34 East 11th Street.
In cases where the designation photos were zoomed in too far to see the surrounding environment, I often used the buildings’ fire escapes, many of which remain from the time of designation, or even earlier, as reference points. When photographing 17 Gay Street, I tried to line up the top right corner of the fire escape landing with the bottom edge of the building’s cornice.
Inevitably, my photos emerged somewhat differently from the designation photos. Whereas the 1969 images display the Village’s buildings rising from the street at crisp ninety-degree angles, my photos, captured with a digital camera, could warp the sides of the buildings. Also, my photos are in color, in contrast to the simple black-and-white of their predecessors. Their content, too, shows a changed Village. The landmarking of the Greenwich Village Historic District has ensured that minimal architectural alterations have taken place over the past fifty years. Nevertheless, much has shifted regarding the district’s infrastructure, the businesses that inhabit its storefronts, and the people who walk its streets.
Perhaps the biggest challenge in photographing the buildings today is the amount of scaffolding, a much rarer sight in 1969. This is largely due to the passage of Local Law 11 in 1998. Following a tragic incident in which a piece of architectural ornament fell off a building and killed a young girl, the law requires a conditions assessment every five years or less on all buildings six-stories and higher regarding the condition of the façade, certified by an engineer. Consequently scaffolding is a much more common sight today than it was 50 years ago.
There were other challenges to photographing the district. While St. Luke’s Place has boasted gorgeous trees since the 1800s, most of Greenwich Village’s streets were lacking in foliage 50 years ago, unlike today. The streets of Greenwich Village are now dotted with over three thousand trees that block the district’s buildings. The designation photos show some streets with trees in their young form, but even more have been planted since designation, following city and neighborhood efforts to improve the health and beauty of these urban streetscapes. Bike lanes and Citi Bike stations have been added to numerous Village streets, expanding the neighborhood’s accessibility and safety for bikers. It also seems that there are many more cars driving through and parked in Greenwich Village today than there were in 1969.
Washington Square Park has changed dramatically since the time of designation as well, I realized, walking up and down the park trying to figure out why the central fountain seemed so much bigger today than in 1969. As it turned out, the park has been redesigned since the designation of the district. In the early 1960s, following the elimination of cars from Washington Square Park, Community Planning Board No. 2 worked with representatives of local organizations to plan for the park’s post-automobile life. The Board appointed nine Village architects to redo the park in partnership with the Park’s Department. In 1970, the central area around the park’s fountain was opened to create a sunken plaza, which has become a critical Village site for musical and cultural expression.
Finally, in a few places across the district, new buildings have been constructed. This photo labeled by the Landmarks Preservation Commission as 70-72 Eighth Avenue was particularly difficult to place and retake, and was only identifiable due to the presence of 77 Eighth Avenue on the left side of the image. The 2019 photo shows One Jackson Square at 122 Greenwich Avenue, which was constructed in 2010.
The pleasure of these photos, however, is that they largely show a neighborhood that retains many of its 1969 features. The White Horse Tavern and the Cherry Lane Theatre, for example, appear nearly identical to their 1969 selves.
The preservation of these Village staples is not secure, however. In response to the recent purchase of the White Horse Tavern, which threatens this historic site, Village Preservation is working to secure interior landmark status for the space.
These images are a delight to explore and compare to their present-day counterparts, and Village Preservation hopes that both the 1969 and 2019 images will serve as a useful archive for the next half-century. Fifty years after designation, Greenwich Village remains a charming, vibrant, evolving neighborhood that cherishes its past as it moves into the future. Even as institutions, developers, and politicians threaten to weaken and destroy its cultural and historic character, Village Preservation, along with many local businesses, individuals, Community Board 2 and other advocacy groups, works every day to advocate for and protect the cultural and architectural heritage of the Greenwich Village Historic District, which makes the neighborhood all the more vital in the present day. Click here to explore Greenwich Village Historic District, 1969 – 2019: Photos and Tours, and see for yourself!