New push to create So. Village historic area


By Albert Amateau

The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation last week dropped an 80-page report, three years in the making, on the desk of Robert Tierney, chairperson of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, in a call for a South Village Historic District comprised of 38 blocks and about 800 buildings.

The report, by Andrew S. Dolkart, associate professor of historic preservation at Columbia University’s School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, covers an area south of W. Fourth St. to W. Houston St. roughly between Seventh Ave. and LaGuardia Pl., with an extension from W. Houston St. down to Watts St. between Sixth Ave. and the midblock line west of W. Broadway.

“Our historic South Village Preservation Project will be one of our top goals for 2007,” said Andrew Berman, G.V.S.H.P. executive director, who commissioned the report in 2003 after receiving grants from the Preservation League of New York State and the New York State Council on the Arts. “Landmark designation of this area is one of the great pieces of unfinished preservation business for Greenwich Village and, indeed, for New York City as a whole,” Berman said.

“The South Village Historic District would really be the city’s first largely tenement-based historic district and the first to focus largely on…the history of a home to immigrants, especially Italian-Americans,” said Berman. “Very important to the story is the area’s history of the city’s largest African-American community in the 19th century; the center of the city’s gay and lesbian life in the early 20th century, and as the great hub of bohemian and countercultural life in New York — and possibly the world — throughout a large chunk of the 20th century,” Berman said.

Although the neighborhood has seen less development pressure than other places, like the recently landmarked and rezoned far West Village, it is home to several buildings beloved of preservationists. Berman cited the demolition of the Tunnel Garage on Broome and Thompson Sts., the Circle in the Square Theater on Bleecker St., the Sullivan St. Theater and the Poe House and Judson Memorial Church Community House at Thompson and W. Third Sts.

The Soho Alliance has signed on as a supporter of the proposed historic district along with the Central Village, Carmine St., Bedford-Downing, West Houston, Morton St., Vandam St. and Charlton St. block associations.

The proposed district abuts the large Greenwich Village Historic District to the north, and the three-block Charlton King Vandam district on the west. The large Soho Cast-Iron Historic District extends east from West Broadway a half block from the boundary of the proposed district.

In a preface to the report, Berman notes that what many consider the heart of the Village — streets including Bleecker, Carmine, MacDougal, Sullivan, Thompson, Cornelia, Jones, Minetta and Minetta Lane — are included in the proposed South Village district but were missed when the Greenwich Village Historic District was designated in 1969.

The proposed district includes Our Lady of Pompei and St. Anthony of Padua churches, important in the history of Italian immigration.

“This proposed designation is…compelling because so much of the 19th- and early 20th-century built fabric of the area is intact. This is one of the few places where the landscape of working-class New York remains virtually unaltered,” the report says.

The area surveyed in the report could encompass a single South Village Historic District, or could be divided into subsections, with major streets and avenues serving as a divide.

The recorded history of the land within the study area begins in 1644, when New Netherlands Director General William Kieft transferred property north of the New Amsterdam settlement to African freed slaves to serve as a buffer against incursion by Native Americans. The report notes that Gracia D’Angola and Paulo D’Angola were among those of African descent who owned property in “the Negro land” that became today’s South Village.

But by the late 1600s those properties had been sold to large landowners and most of the land in the South Village had become the property in 1690 of Nicholas Bayard, grandson of the original Dutch settler of the same name, the report says.

By the 1820s and 1830s, major residential development was taking place with houses both modest and grand. Later, row houses were the fashion on St. Clement’s Pl. — now MacDougal St. between Bleecker and Houston Sts. — on Varick Pl. — now Sullivan St. between Bleecker and Houston Sts. — and Depau Pl. between Thompson and Houston Sts.

The tenement era began around 1870 and reached its peak in the first years of the 20th century. The tenement was legally defined in 1869 as a building for more than three families living and cooking independently from each other. In 1887 the definition was expanded to buildings that housed just three families. And the term was used just to describe housing built for the poor with few amenities. Various changes in the housing laws mandated private toilets, running water, gas lines and one or more windows in every room.

“The South Village provides an opportunity to study and understand the entire history of tenement design, construction and use, with archetypical examples of pre-law, old-law, new-law and reform tenements,” according to the report, which, block by block and almost house by house, lays out the neighborhood history.

Among the advisory board members of the Historic South Village Preservation Project are Ann Arlen, former Community Board 2 Environment Committee chairperson and current public member of the committee; Katy Bordonaro and Zack Winestine, co-chairpersons of the Greenwich Village Community Task Force; Mary Elizabeth Brown, author of “From Italian Villages to Greenwich Village;” Miriam Cohen, Vassar College professor of history; Terri Cook, author of “Sacred Havens: A Guide to Manhattan’s Spiritual Places” and member of St. Veronica’s Parish Council; Karen Cooper, director of Film Forum; Dave Ethan, co-owner of Grey Dog Cafe; Margaret Halsey Gardiner, Merchant’s House Museum executive director and resident of MacDougal-Sullivan Gardens; Robert Kaufelt, owner of Murray’s Cheese; and Jerome Krase, Brooklyn College emeritus professor, board member of both the American Italian Coalition of Organizations and the American Italian Historical Society.