A West Village Walking Tour
New York City’s narrowest building, one of its few remaining wooden houses, the oldest continuously running off-Broadway theater, and a hidden garden are among the stops we will make on our tour of the West Village’s most notable locales.
99 Gansevoort Street (at Washington Street)
The Whitney specializes in 20th- and 21st-century American art; its permanent collection includes works by Alexander Calder, Keith Haring, Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, Man Ray, and Mark Rothko, to name just a few. Many would say that its current home is a work of art in and of itself. Designed by Renzo Piano and completed in 2015, its cantilevered entrance and the 8,500-square-foot plaza just below it sit by the southern entrance to the High Line. The 200,000-square-foot, eight-story structure includes 13,000 square feet of terraces and outdoor galleries overlooking the High Line; the top stories offer spectacular views of the Hudson River to the west. For nearly 50 years prior to moving to this building, the Whitney was located on the Upper East Side, in what is now the Met Breuer. The relocation to the Village was something of a homecoming; when sculptor/collector Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney founded the museum in 1929, it was located on Eighth Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.
487 Hudson Street (between Barrow and Christopher Streets)
Completed in 1822, this brick Federal-style church is certainly handsome, but it’s the gardens that are truly exceptional. Open to the public, they span more than two-thirds of an acre and include lawns, benches, paved walkways, and a lush variety of trees, shrubs, and flowers. People in search of quiet (no cell phone conversations are allowed) and natural beauty amid the clamor of the city are not the only ones attracted to the gardens; St. Luke’s has recorded more than 100 species of birds and two dozen of butterflies among their visitors.
666 Greenwich Street (at Barrow Street)
When this 10-story building was completed in 1899, it was the largest structure in all of Greenwich Village. A monument to Romanesque Revival style, with rounded corners, dramatic arches, and pale granite cornice providing stark contrast to the red-brick facade, it was built as a warehouse for U.S. customs, where appraisers would evaluate imported goods before determining the duties on them. The building subsequently became a general federal warehouse, then offices for the National Archives Record Center before being converted into 479 luxury apartments in 1988 and renamed the Archive.
17 Grove Street (at Bedford Street)
In terms of scale, this charmer is the antithesis of the Archive. One of the few remaining wood houses in the city, its first two floors were built in 1822 by William Hyde, a maker of window sashes; the third floor was added in 1870. The price of the corner lot when Hyde purchased it? A hundred dollars.
77 Bedford Street (at Commerce Street)
On another corner lot just down the street from the Hyde House stands the Isaacs-Hendricks House. Completed in 1800, it is believed to be the oldest building in the West Village. Originally faced in clapboard, it acquired its brick facade in 1836. Joshua Isaacs commissioned the house to be a freestanding structure surrounded by open land. When Isaacs went bankrupt just a year after moving in, his son-in-law, Harmon Hendricks, bought the house for him. Hendricks was said to be the first American millionaire, and among other business interests, he and his brother were the New York agents for a Boston silversmith by the name of Paul Revere.
75 ½ Bedford Street (between Morton and Commerce Streets)
Wedged next to the Isaacs-Hendricks House is another three-story building, deemed the narrowest house in New York. At its most slender, it is just two feet wide. Built in the latter half of the 19th century on the former carriage entrance between the Isaac-Hendricks House and 75 Bedford Street, the building had been a cobbler’s shop and a candy factory prior to 1923, when poet Edna St. Vincent Millay moved in. It was during this time that the house acquired its Dutch-style gable, a gift from Millay to her husband, a Dutch coffee importer. Millay and her husband lived here for less than two years, but she was not the last of its famous occupants. In the 1930s illustrator/writer William Steig, whose works included the picture book “Shrek!”, lived here with his wife and his sister-in-law, groundbreaking anthropologist Margaret Mead.
38 Commerce Street (between Bedford and Hudson Streets)
New York City’s oldest continuously operating off-Broadway theater, Cherry Lane Theatre debuted in 1924 with “Saturday Night” by Richard Fresnell. Not a propitious start, perhaps—both the play and the playwright are all but forgotten today—but in the decades since the theater has produced works by such innovative playwrights as Edward Albee, Lorraine Hansberry, Eugene O’Neill, Joe Orton, Harold Pinter, Gertrude Stein, and Tennessee Williams. “Happy Days” by Samuel Beckett had its world premiere here in 1961; “True West” by Sam Shepard, starring relative unknowns John Malkovich and Gary Sinise, debuted in New York here in 1982; Bea Arthur made her professional debut here in 1947, in a production of “The Dog Beneath the Skin” by W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood. Before being converted into a theater, the modest brick structure was the site of a brewery, a tobacco warehouse, and a box factory.
25 Carmine Street (at Bleecker Street)
A three-story bell tower topped with a copper dome and cross ensures that this limestone church, completed in 1928, stands out among the more-sedate brick structures surrounding it. The interior is no less impressive. Depictions of the Mysteries of the Rosary grace the walls and the vaulted ceiling; marble Corinthian columns line the nave; mosaics adorn the altar walls. Near the entrance is a shrine to Mother Frances Cabrini, patron saint of immigrants; the parish was founded in 1890 in association with the Saint Raphael Society for the Protection of Italian Immigrants. The church also includes, among the plaques honoring church donors, one noting that the bell tower was restored by the parents of Vincent Gigante. Vincent “the Chin” was a boss of the Genovese crime family who for 17 years feigned insanity to avoid being brought to trial. The ruse came to end, however, and Gigante ultimately died in prison in 2004.
The Northern Dispensary
167 Waverly Place (at Grove Street)
It may seem odd that a building down in the West Village includes “Northern” in its name, but when it was built in 1831, this triangular brick structure was north of the city’s original dispensary—a nonprofit clinic for the poor—near City Hall. It may also seem odd that this handsome chunk of prime real estate now stands empty and unused, but that is because the deed requires that it be used solely to provide medical care to the “worthy poor.” (Edgar Allen Poe was among the worthy when, in 1837, he was treated here for a cold.) The building served as a clinic well into the 20th century, though by the 1960s it offered only dental care. It closed in 1989, after the city’s Human Rights Commission accused it of refusing to treat people with AIDS. For a time the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York intended to turn the dispensary into an AIDS hospice, but instead it sold the building to investor William Gottlieb in 1998; he died a year later, leaving the fate of the structure in limbo.