Neighborhood at risk: SOuth village

South Village has been partially desinged as the Greenwich Village Historic District Extension II

East side of MacDougal Street, between West 3rd and West 4th Streets While the South Village is deemed by many as the heart of Greenwich Village, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries this neighborhood was developed and transformed into an archetypal immigrant neighborhood from New York’s last great wave of immigration, and remains remarkably physically intact as such. As home to a thriving Bohemian community, it was also the birthplace of some of the last century’s most important and transforming social, cultural and artistic movements. Many of the area’s most charming and iconic streets – Bleecker, Carmine, MacDougal, Sullivan, Thompson, Downing, Cornelia, Jones and Minetta – are found here. In spite of this, the South Village was left out of the original Greenwich Village Historic District designation nearly 40 years ago. To right this wrong, a district of about 38 blocks south and west of Washington Square Park has been proposed for designation, focusing on the area’s working-class architecture and immigrant and cultural history. The area is close to early districts designated in the 1960s and 1970s, bordering on the Greenwich Village and the Charlton-King-Vandam Historic Districts with the SoHo-Cast Iron and NoHo Historic Districts nearby. The MacDougal-Sullivan Gardens Historic District is within the proposed area as well as 11 individual landmarks.

42-46 Carmine StreetIn the early nineteenth century, large estates were divided and sold for development creating a residential neighborhood in Greenwich Village. Although fell of the row houses here were designed by professional architects, they were built with classically-inspired details of the Federal and Greek Revival styles. Over 200 of these homes remain in the South Village and can be found, some still intact, on nearly every block. Many were converted to commercial and multi-family use in the mid-nineteenth century, as the largest African-American community in the city was joined by German, Irish and French immigrants. By the 1890s, the majority of South Village’s residents were Italian.

As the years went on, the small row houses could not accommodate the growing number of residents, and around 1870, purpose-built tenements were constructed. Their construction continued into the first years of the twentieth century in various forms based on laws that sought to make them safer and healthier. The South Village is one of the city’s rare neighborhoods with well-preserved pre-law, old law, new law, and reform tenements. Despite originally containing few if any amenities on the inside, these buildings have extraordinary details on their exteriors. Our Lady of Pompeii Roman Catholic ChurchWindow lintels and sills, cornices, decorative fire escapes, masonry of varying patterns and color, cast iron, terra-cotta and other details come together to create Italianate, Neo-Grec, Queen Anne, Romanesque Revival, Renaissance Revival and Beaux-Arts style tenement buildings. There are also a number of significant examples of reform housing including Ernest Flagg’s 1896-1897 Mills House built for working men.

South Village is also home to many community and social institutions that served the working-class, immigrant neighborhood. Catholic churches such as St. Anthony of Padua, built in 1886 (the first church built for an Italian congregation in the Americas), and Our Lady of Pompeii, built forty years later, ministered to primarily Italian-American parishioners. The First Presbyterian Church built the Bethlehem Chapel and Memorial House in 1918 as a missionary church and settlement house, while the Greenwich House settlement established a ceramics studio. The Children’s Aid Society’s Sullivan Street Industrial School designed by Calvert Vaux in 1891 is still in use by the Society. A row of buildings overlooking Hudson Park includes a Carnegie branch of the New York Public Library, a public bath (now the Tony Dapolito Recreation center) and the C.B.J. Snyder designed P.S. 95, reflecting the city’s involvement in the Progressive Era of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

St Anthony of PaduaThe South Village was noted in James McCabe’s 1872 Lights and Shadows of New York Life as “the headquarters of Bohemianism.” In the opening decades of the 20th century the streets south and west of Washington Square became nationally famous as the center of bohemian life and culture attracting artists, writers, political radicals, gays, lesbians and others seeking to break away from traditional society. Theaters, galleries, music clubs and bookshops flourished. This bohemian life attracted others, including young career people who moved into row houses updated and redesigned with studio windows and mansard tiled roofs in the nineteen-teens and twenties. This creative, anti-establishment aura continued with the beat and hippie cultures of post-WWII. Cafés, an Italian tradition that flourished in the neighborhood, was popular with these residents too, becoming a symbol of the overlapping cultures and histories of the South Village.

The streets of the South Village are lined with an extraordinary array of row houses, tenements and public buildings that reflect the area’s architectural and cultural development and redevelopment from the nineteenth century into the twentieth. The proposed district has been deemed eligible for the New York State and National Registers, but the architectural intactness that makes this neighborhood so notable is at risk. The charm and stability created by the neighborhood and bordering historic districts has made the South Village an attractive spot for developers. Buildings like the Tunnel Garage, an early art deco automobile garage with distinctive terra cotta ornament, have been recently demolished. Others such as the famous Circle in the Square Theater have been altered beyond recognition. Now is the time to designate this neighborhood of great architectural, historical and cultural significance while it is still largely intact.

For more information, visit:
The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation

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