Now, what shall I say of Greenwich Village?
`What,’ asks Will Irwin, `would you say now if I, who have frequented Greenwich Village for twenty-two years, pronounced this Greenwich Village a myth? At least, it was a myth in the beginning. Afterward a little commercial exploitation made it for a time almost a reality. And then it faded back into the ghostly world of fancy…. The true story centers around a real-estate scheme which had a success wholly unexpected both in volume and in character.’
Greenwich Village (and of course you know it’s called Grenidge) is, next to the Battery, the oldest settlement of white men on Manhattan. The second Dutch governor had a tobacco farm there, and erected a farmhouse that was the first dwelling north of New Amsterdam. When the English came, Sir Peter Warren (who is buried in Westminster Abbey) had a 300-acre farm there and built the Warren Mansion. His wife was Susannah DeLancey, whose girlhood home was the house we now know as Fraunces’ Tavern. As the eighteenth century wore on, Major Abraham Mortier, of the English army, built a handsome house called Richmond Hill House at what is now the intersection of Hudson and Charlton Streets. There Washington had his headquarters in April, 1776. There John Adams went to live as Vice-President. There Aaron Burr lived from 1797 till he set out from it to fight his duel with Alexander Hamilton on July 10, 1804. He never returned to the house after that fateful morning. The years Burr spent at Richmond Hill were, in spite of political feuds, the happiest of his life. His shot that killed Hamilton also killed him though he survived it for more than thirty-two years. At Richmond Hill he entertained Jerome Bonaparte, Talleyrand, Louis Philippe, Jefferson, Madison Hamilton!
About the time that Burr and his beautiful wife, Theodosia, moved to the Village, there were frequent epidemics of small-pox and yellow fever in New York, and many people took refuge in the open country to the northwest. One settlement centered around what is now Spring Street, and another went farther afield to the vicinity of what is now Bank Street. Many of these `refugees’ never moved back into New York; and Greenwich Village began to be a populous and pleasant suburb, soon to be absorbed by the fast-growing city, but long to retain its character as an ultra-refined section where people of taste and culture lived. Some of the New York business men who lived in the Village rode their horses into the city, and some were driven in by their Negro slave coachmen. There are many parts of the Village which even today seem not too remote from that past.
Will Irwin, resident of the Village for many years, devotes to it three long and delightful chapters in his `Highlights of Manhattan.’ I would that many might read them before going thither. He tells the story of how, as rents in the Village decliDed, a real-estate promoter employed a press-agent to get `the Montmartre of Gotham’ into the papers. He tells how some of the youngsters of the `art colony’ co-operated by posing, for visitors, as Flaming Youth, disciples of Free Love, etc.
He tells how, along with all this ballyhoo, this line for patrons of the rubberneck wagons, there went forward some of the most substantial work ever done anywhere for the advancement of art in America.
Relatives of mine used to live, when I was a little girl, in Horatio Street, and in Jane Street where Alexander Hamilton died; but that was long before anyone ever thought of the Village as `picturesque.’ They lived there partly because it was convenient to the old Covenanters’ Church in West 12th Street, where the psalms of David were sung to the pitch of a tuning-fork. Certainly they were far from foreseeing a day when their quiet neighborhood would be invaded by rubberneck wagons filled with tourists looking for the Haunts of Purple Passion, the Haven of Free Love.
If you are exploring Greenwich Village unguided, and are approaching it from the north, begin at Fifth Avenue and 12th Street where the stately old First Presbyterian Church is, dating from 1845. (A Sunday morning congregation there, or one at the Church of the Ascension at the corner of 10th Street and Fifth Avenue, will show you many lineal or spiritual descendants of New York aristocracy as it used to be in the days before well, shall we say before Elsa Maxwell?)
I am fearful about mentioning any place in New York, and especially in Greenwich Village, lest it disappear between the time I read proof on this book and the time the book gets into circulation.
You may or you may not find all the places I indicate; but you will certainly find some of them.
In West 12th Street, at No. 66, you will find the New School for Social Research, where many interesting and important things are done toward the end of making new Americans feel more a part of this new world.
West 11th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues is some-times called the most beautiful block in the Village; but it really belongs, rather, to Washington Square and Lower Fifth Avenue.
At 12th Street and Seventh Avenue, Georges Clemenceau lived during what he termed the three happiest years of his life, writing about post-war conditions for the Paris Temps; teaching French to young ladies at Stamford, Connecticut, and studying the workings of democracy in the United States. That was in 1866 to 1869. A movie theater now occupies the site.
You can look in that direction and think of Clemenceau; but turn south on Sixth Avenue. Tenth Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues has some charmingly `redeemed’ houses, and many studios. At the junction of Sixth Avenue and Greenwich Avenue and 10th Street, is the famous old Jefferson Market Police Court, with a tall new Women’s House of Detention in the rear. Many an evening I spent there when the Women’s Night Court was held there and I was writing about `the girl problem.’ Those were the days of `willow plumes,’ which cost quite prodigiously. Not to flaunt a willow plume was to be unendurably `low-caste.’ And the way of the willow plume, for many low-paid girls, led to the Night Court.
In a near-by saloon (which I did not frequent) was then a weedy young bartender’s helper who had been a sailor. His name was John Masefield.
Back of the Market, in a little opening off 10th Street between Sixth and Greenwich Avenues, is Patchin Place, a bit of Old London. See it, by all means. Around the corner from it, on Sixth Avenue, is Milligan Place, another picturesque `bit’
Eighth Street between Sixth Avenue and Fifth Avenue has many bookshops and `arty’ little teashops and restaurants. At No. 10 West 8th Street is the Whitney Museum of American Art, founded by Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney better-known, now, as a sculptor than as a Vanderbilt.
McDougal Street, where the Provincetown Theater was, runs south from the southwest corner of Washington Square; and McDougal Alley, with its former stables turned into studios, is north of Washington Square and just south of 8th Street, west of Fifth Avenue.
Out of the Provincetown Players and the Washington Square Players came the Theater Guild, Philip Moeller, Susan Glaspell, Eugene O’Neill, and many another shining ornament of the American stage.
In a little bookshop at No. 37 McDougal Street, in 1915, a group of young men conceived the idea of publishing the Little Leather Library of classics, which within eight years had become one of the largest publishing enterprises in the world, its books selling by the millions of copies.
Bank Street is one of the Village streets you shouldn’t miss; it runs west of the river from Waverly Place near the western end of West 11th Street, and it looks as if it belonged to some sweet, somnolent town in Kent. Writers make up no small part of its population; and Will Irwin, who ought to know, says that ‘no other spot in America produces so much real literature.’
After you’ve had a look at it from the Waverly Place end, turn down Waverly Place and note the stately Church of St. John the Evangelist, a late rector of which did a great deal to restore dignity and beauty to this vicinity. See the charming close he created between his church and the Baptist Church on West 11th Street, a half-block away. And the outdoor altar for summer weddings.
It is Will Irwin who tells us that ‘this patch of Greenwich Village Bank, West 11th, and Perry to the west of Seventh Avenue has a unique history. Between 1820 and 1920 its fine residences degenerated from the state of mansions almost to that of rookeries; and then, without losing much of their original form, came back to affluence and respectability. One of the houses which Dr. Wade (rector of St. John’s) reverently refurnished and added to his building scheme was known to the police not so many years ago as the Tub of Blood!’
If you turn south from West 11th Street when you come to Hudson Street, you will soon have on your left hand Grove Street, running west; and on your right hand, St. Luke’s Chapel, dating from 1821, one of the very few churches in New York where worship is still being held on the original site.
Grove Street School used to be famous as the best public school in New York; it was the third to be established in the city, and was visited by Lafayette in 1824. The structure he visited survived till 1905.
Between Nos. 10-12 Grove Street you will find an enchanting Pomander Walk said to have been the scene of O. Henry’s story ‘The Last Leaf.’
See the ‘story-book’ twin houses at the junction of Commerce Street and Barrow, about which most Villagers will hazard a different legend. See the Cherry Lane Theater on Commerce Street, and the tiny twelve-foot house where Edna St. Vincent Millay lived.
What is said to be the oldest existing structure in the Village is at the corner of Grove and Bedford Streets; and tradition maintains that the two-story house in the back yard was slave-quarters to the larger house.
Poe enthusiasts should continue down Bedford Street to Carmine, where the unhappy Edgar lived, at No. 113, in a little wooden house, before he moved to Fordham.
Those who wish to visit the site of Richmond Hill, with its memories of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Burr, should continue south in Varick Street to Charlton and then turn west one block to Hudson; Charlton Street is delightful.
Lovers of the picturesque and venerable should see if the wreckers have still spared the row of very old wooden houses on Christopher Street between West Street and Weehawken Street, supposed to have been built before 1763. The fronts on the West Street side give no hint of their antiquity; to realize it, you must go through Weehawken Street to 10th Street, and see their rear view.
These are not all the `fine points’ of Greenwich Village; a good guide who has specialized a bit in Village history and topography will tell you a very great deal about the Village that is fascinating if you care about New York’s past, and especially about her artists and authors. I repeat, if you want to `feel’ the Village as one does who has known her long and well, read the three chapters about her in Will Irwin’s `High-lights of Manhattan.’
Washington Square is so close to the Village as to be nearly inseparable from it; yet in many respects it is quite remote.
Washington Square was once the Potter’s Field and the site of the gallows tree. It became a park in 1827, and soon after that date New York University took up its quarters on the east side of the Square. There, in 1837, Samuel F. B. Morse exhibited his telegraph instrument and demonstrated its practicability. There Samuel Colt invented the revolver.
The beautiful Washington Arch was designed by Stanford White to commemorate the centenary of Washington’s inauguration. Originally it was of stucco, and stood across Fifth Avenue at 8th Street. It was so greatly admired that a public subscription was started (and raised) to duplicate it in a permanent structure standing fifty feet south of the Avenue.
Many, many stories have their locale in Washington Square real stories and fiction. Arthur Bartlett Maurice, whose `New York in Fiction’ you should know if you are interested in literary backgrounds, said that ‘an imaginary circle, with its centre in the white memorial Arch and a radius of five or six hundred yards, would hold fully one-half of what is best in the local color of New York fiction.’ But the proportion may be smaller now; for Maurice (who used to edit The Bookman) wrote his book some thirty-odd years ago.
With the exception of the northwest corner, Washington Square originally formed part of the Bleecker farm. The north-west corner was part of the Randall farm which included all the property between the Square and 10th Street and over to Broadway with an extension to Fourth Avenue. There were twenty-one acres in the farm, and in 1801 Robert Randall left it as a home for old and disabled seamen, to be called Sailors’ Snug Harbor. This seemed ‘sort o’ land-locked’ for seamen; so the trustees decided to lease it, and build the sea-men’s home on Staten Island.
The farm was worth about $25,000 in 1801. Today the property is worth more than fifty millions. Seamen are fewer, but none of the vast income can be used for any other purpose; it has to be spent on Snug Harbor and its ancient mariners. Alexander Hamilton made Robert Randall’s will; and no one has ever been able to break it though it ought to be broken.
The handsome old-fashioned houses on Washington Square north were built on ninety-nine-year leases of the Snug Harbor property, which have recently expired. Some New Yorkers were fearful that the old dwellings which enshrine so many memories would be pulled down to make room for towering apartments like those west of Fifth Avenue. But the Snug Harbor trustees say No at least not now. More towering apartments would merely add to their ’embarrassment of riches.’
Back of the mansions which are east of Fifth Avenue is a charming row of what used to be the stables of those houses: Washington Mews. There many notables in the art and literary world have lived: Paul Manship, Richard Washburn Child, and others. I have lived there myself; but there is no tablet in consequence! In fact, I was living there not as a house-holder but as a house-sharer in 1923, when the manuscript of `So You’re Going to Paris’ came back to me from the first of several publishers who assured me there could be no sale for such a book.
Much might be said, and doubtless ought to be said, about the south side of the Square, including the Judson Memorial Church; but it can’t be said here.
Much should be said, also (and may not be), about Fifth Avenue between Washington Square and 14th Street. All I must take space for is the house on the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 9th Street, which was built by James Renwick (architect of Grace Church and of St. Patrick’s Cathedral) for his father, who kept a room always in readiness for Washington Irving, a frequent guest. A much later occupant of the house was Mark Twain who lived there for four and a half years.
I think I ought, too, to tell those readers who delight in treasure-hunting among shops which are frankly ‘second-hand’ and not `antique,’ that if they will turn east in 9th Street just a block, to University Place, they may find there at very low prices many things which will cost three to ten times as much when they reach the smart shops of Madison and Park Avenues. Fourth Avenue below 23d Street also has some second-hand shops that are worth investigating if you have the time.