Thursday, March 11, 2010

Grove Court, Greenwich Village

What makes a walk through New York's Greenwich Village especially satisfying, aside from the quaint charm of the varied architecture, are the hidden treasures the visitor stumbles on.

Such is the case with Grove Court.  Midway down the block between Hudson Street and Bedford on Grove there is a tiny opening between a row of perfectly-preserved two-story Federal homes and later, grander Greek Revival townhouses.  The locked, iron-gated entrance displays a simple plaque:  PRIVATE COURT No Trespassing.

And beyond the gate we can see another of New York's wonderful hidden spaces; a quiet retreat for those lucky enough to live there.  Insulated from the traffic and bustle of the city outside the gate, six mid-19th Century houses whisk the observer back a century and a half.

Because of the irregular property lines in the Village a vacant seemingly unusable lot was left over as the Federal rowhouses sprouted up along Grove and Bedford Streets.  A narrow passageway remained between numbers 10 and 12 Grove.  An enterprising grocer, Samuel Cocks, who owned the Cocks & Bowron grocery store down the street at #18 Grove hatched a plan.  By developing the lot into "backhouses" for working class families he could increase his grocery business.

In the middle of the 1800s in the North, a home that did not face the street was highly unconventional; essentially unheard of.  While well-to-do families in Charleston, for instance, routinely built their fine residences with entrances opening onto side gardens behind brick and stucco walls, New York houses sat directly on the sidewalk.  Nonetheless, Cock's plan worked.

Construction began in 1848 and by 1854 the last brick was laid.  While some label them Greek Revival, it is hard for me to find any such distinguishing features.  I call them mid-19th Century vernacular.  And it is their lack of decoration, their unabashed simplicity that makes them even more charming.

The name "Grove Court" came later.  Originally this little hide-away was termed "Mixed Ale Alley" by the locals.

The setting for O'Henry's short story "The Last Leaf," today Grove Court is very exclusive, ironic considering its lowly beginnings.  Although I lived mere blocks from the Court for decades, I never tire of stopping at those iron gates and peering inside at a page from yesterday.

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