“Our Village is Star in an Uptown Exhibit” — September 26, 1990
Village Preservation has been, and continues to be, the guardian of many different archives. Still, our repository continues growing, and our newest online resource, the Preservation History Archive, is somewhat distinct from all the rest. Instead of relaying the broad history of our neighborhood, the Preservation History Archive holds original documents on the history of preservation advocacy by our predecessors, compatriots, and ourselves. Looking through it, one can see the ways past efforts have laid the groundwork for recent progress we have made. One example is the exhibit we opened on September 26th, 1990, “Greenwich Village on the Water’s Edge: The Survival of a Neighborhood,” part of our early work to seek protections for and preservation of the Far West Village.
The exhibition, based upon the book The Architecture of the Greenwich Village Waterfront, edited by our then-executive director Regina M. Kellerman, was held at the Urban Center Galleries on Madison Avenue and 51st Street, co-sponsored by the Municipal Art Society. On display from September 26th to October 25th, the showcase centered around a large-scale model of the Greenwich Village Waterfront, which measured 20 by 8 feet, and sought to illuminate the neighborhood’s centuries-long past, present, and future. The Society’s archived newsletter “The Anthemion,” offers a glimpse of the story the gallery would have told of the waterfront. The book holds original research on the architectural history of every one of the 350 buildings and 10 piers along the 36 square blocks of the Greenwich Village waterfront, along with photographs of each one. Sound familiar? This is one of our earliest archival research studies, which shaped both our advocacy around this area and the way we conduct research to support our mission.
The waterfront, like all parts of the Village, has a long and dynamic history as a shipping hub, a market district, a font of industrial innovation, and an artist and LGBTQ enclave. Before European settlers colonized the area now called Gansevoort, it was known as “Sapokanikan” and served an Algonquin trading station. In 1633, Wouter Van Twiller, the third director-general of New Amsterdam, established his tobacco plantation at this site, which was renamed Noortwijck on the Northriver. Following the English takeover of the colony, the early 18th-century settlement had expanded to a network of estates and farms. Noortwijck, linked by the three main roads of present-day Gansevoort Street, Christopher Street, and Greenwich Street, had a new name yet again: Greenwich. During this time, the border of land and water was located around today’s Washington Street.
One of the earliest institutions to dominate the area was the State Prison at Greenwich, otherwise known as Newgate. Erected in 1796, Newgate was the site of numerous prisoner uprisings. Oddly enough, this made the prison a tourist attraction drawing people to the area, which would soon become a popular residential destination. The city bought Newgate and facilitated the transfer of the inmates to a new upstate prison by 1829, at which point Jacob Lorillard purchased most of the property, turning it into a health spa in 1831. Just a few years later, his sanitorium was demolished, setting a new era of the waterfront into motion.
In these early years of the 19th century, new buildings, piers, and wharves cropped up quickly as the neighborhood became one of the country’s busiest ports. Residents arrived en masse, fleeing Lower Manhattan’s yellow fever epidemics spanning 1798 through 1822 and cholera epidemics in the 1830s. While the Greenwich Market had thrived here since 1813, a new era of markets had begun. The Weehawken Market operated from 1834 until 1844, giving way to the Jefferson Market of southern Christopher Street, founded around the same time but even more successful. Landfill pushed the riverfront outward, and new industries, especially between 12th and 14th Streets, churned out new inventions. De Lamater Iron Works, from the 1850s to 1890, gave us the first torpedo, the steam-powered rock drill, the ammonia ice machine, and the caloric engine, which brought water to top floors of skyscrapers. The Manufacturing Company of Enoch Morgan made the famous and lucrative Sapolio Soap. The Industrial Revolution was well underway, filling the area with lumber yards, stone works, plastic factories, a lard refinery, coal yards, galvanizing works, shipbuilders, and even a piano factory and a distillery. Oyster barges cluttered the area between the piers, and ferryboats chugged back and forth between the Village and New Jersey, transporting produce and passengers.
The advent of the railroad transformed the area still, maintaining its status as a center of commerce. The Hudson River Railroad, which stretched to Gansevoort Street by 1854, was the first railroad below 14th Street. James Harvey invented the Greenwich Street elevated rail line in the 1860s, known as the “el,” which distributed goods sold at the bustling Gansevoort and West Washington markets, opened in 1884 and 1887 respectively. The Eclectic Romanesque U.S. Appraiser’s Warehouse was erected in 1899, followed by the Bell Telephone Laboratories building in 1900, where mechanical and electrical engineers invented the transistor, chain broadcasting, the transatlantic telephone, and the talking picture.
It may have seemed that the change and chaos would never slow, but in 1926 the Department of Public Markets recommended closing Gansevoort Market, which earned little tax revenue for the city, and restructuring the entire area into a centralized wholesale meat distribution center. In turn, by 1931 the city had approved removing the “el” and spent $150 million for new tracks and yards. However, the competition of new markets in other boroughs and the proliferation of smaller grocery stores throughout the city made this new waterfront plan less economically viable. The Gansevoort Meat Center was constructed in 1950, and was still active by the 1980s, but the transportation network around it had faltered.
After World War II, artists, writers, musicians, and actors moved to the riverside Village from other parts of the district. By 1970, the Bell Telephone Laboratories building became Westbeth, a federally-subsidized cooperative of artists’ housing where a number of successful writers and artists lived: poet Galway Kinnell, actor Robert DeNiro, dancer Merce Cunningham, photographer Diane Arbus, journalist Bettye Lane, actor Vin Diesel, and the Martha Graham School. New nightclubs opened in the area in the 1970s, many for the LGBTQ folks who frequented the Christopher Street and Chelsea Piers. And in the 1980s, sex clubs like The Anvil, The Manhole, the Mineshaft, and the Hellfire Club, among others, dotted the district.
This is around the time the “Greenwich Village on the Water’s Edge: The Survival of a Neighborhood” exhibit debuted, drawing attention to the unwarranted exclusion of the waterfront strip from the Greenwich Village Historic District, designated in 1969. At a fundraising preview to the gallery opening, playwright John Guare read selections by Chelsea resident Herman Melville, who spent time walking along the Hudson River in his middle age. The exhibition argued that the area was one of the last relatively undisturbed water’s edge neighborhoods and discussed threats to – and possibilities for – the area, which included plans to build a park and esplanade, renovations to Route 9A, crime management, abandoned pier maintenance, and highrise building development. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation called for a balanced preservation policy that would include special protective zoning and landmark designation that would link Greenwich Village with the waterfront in perpetuity.
In the years since, with the help of this exhibit and other advocacy efforts, Village Preservation successfully proposed and advocated for the Far West Village downzoning in 2005, the C6-1 rezoning in 2010, and the prohibition of Hudson River Park air rights transfers in 2016. We have also secured designation of the Gansevoort Market Historic District in 2003, the Far West Village Extension of the Greenwich Village Historic District, and the Weehawken Street Historic District in 2006, as well as a number of individual landmarks along the waterfront.
There is so much more to learn about the history of preservation efforts in our neighborhoods, which has greatly influenced their present state. Our sizeable Preservation History Archive collections share the papers and correspondence of Otis Pratt Pearsall, who spearheaded the landmarking of the city’s first historic district in Brooklyn Heights in 1965. It also holds newspapers, clippings, letters, and articles from 1961 to 1997 by the West Village Committee, founded by activists including Jane Jacobs to fight Robert Moses’ urban renewal plan. And, as demonstrated here, the archive reveals Village Preservation’s own historic documents, spanning from the organization’s founding in the 1980s through the 1990s, when it was known as the Greenwich Village Trust and then the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.
While we continue to create new online resources, every month we add to the Historic Image Archive using donations from photographers and applications to the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission. We regularly expand our Civil Rights and Social Justice Map, our East Village Building Blocks and our new Greenwich Village Historic District, 1969-2019: Photos and Tours map, all of which document the buildings and individuals who have shaped, and been shaped by, the Village over time. We also have a robust oral history collection showcasing the personal voices of the people who have called the Village home. Together, these resources contribute to preserving, recalling, and revisiting the ever-evolving history of this wonderful place.