Friday, July 9, 2010

The 1831 Jacob Romaine House - 7 Leroy Street

At the time of the American Revolution Richmond Hill was the large country estate of Major Abraham Mortier, paymaster of the British Army. The mansion, which sat a mile and a half from New York City where Varick and Charlton Streets are today, was used by Sir Jeffrey Amherst as his headquarters in the French and Indian War.

Washington used it as his headquarters in 1776 before it was taken and occupied by the British. Ironically the house later became the home of the first British Ambassador to the United States, Sir John Temple, then the official residence of the Vice President, John Adams. Abigail Adams wrote of Richmond Hill, “In natural beauty it might vie with the most delicious spot I ever saw.”

Aaron Burr purchased the estate in 1797 as his country home. In 1820s his creditors sold off much of the land, now part of Greenwich Village, to John Jacob Astor who resold the building lots.

Within the decade, Greenwich Village was growing quickly, partly because residents of Lower Manhattan were fleeing the regular cholera outbreaks and other diseases in the densely crowded city. In 1830 Jacob Romaine began construction of his home at 7 Burton Street, later to be renamed Leroy Street, on what had been part of the Richmond Hill estate.

Completed a year later, his chubby red brick house was two and a half stories tall with stylish wooden dormers in the steep roof. Plain brownstone lintels and sills complimented its clean Federal lines. Below the stoop a deep basement floor held the kitchen and work areas. The Flemish bond brickwork told passers-by that Romaine could afford extra touches.

In the 1820s and 1830s row houses such as Romaine’s were built snugly one against the other fully encircling the block. Within the circle of homes were rear lots that often held stables, workshops or smaller dwellings with no means of access other than “horse walks.”

Jacob Romaine included such a horse walk in his house – a plain wooden door opening to a passageway into the rear yard above which was a small four-paned window. Romaine either did not own a horse or stabled it elsewhere, because the building to the rear of his residence was a small house.

Romaine did not live at 7 Leroy very long. By 1840 four families were living in the house, the men of the households being carters or draymen. Just before the Civil War, in 1860, there were 12 people in the main house and a washerwoman and her sister in the back house.

Henry Kingsley shared the house with Josephine Hutchinson at the turn of the century; Kingsley was a 49 year-old lamplighter and Hutchinson, at 44 years old, was a buttonhole maker. In the back yard Hugh Mack lived. Mack described his occupation as "a junkman."

Throughout the 20th Century the house continued to be shared by multiple residents; in the 1940s Broadway theatre director Brobury Ellis and Randolph Echols, a stage manager, were living here.

Through it all the house was little altered. Today the original white frame dormers are crisp and while the fa├žade is, perhaps, a little less straight than it was in 1831, no major changes have occurred. The fine Federal doorway with its flanking wooden pillars and narrow overlight survives intact.  The interiors retain much of the original detailing.  There is now one apartment to each floor.

Jacob Romaine’s two and a half story residence is a rare and beautiful survivor of early Greenwich Village. Romaine would no doubt be pleased with the increase of value for his property.  It sold in January 2011 for $3.9 million.


  1. Have you ever seen a picture of the building that used to be next door at 5 Leroy Street? In the 1890s my great grandfather, Christopher York lived there.

  2. No. I haven't. Do you have a photograph of it? These are the stories I love.

  3. When I asked the question, I had never seen a picture of 5 Leroy but, after asking you, I decided to nose around and found three. Google NYPL digital gallery. Search for Leroy Street (resist the temptation to add NYC-it narrows the choices). The best picture is in the middle of the 3rd row down. You can just see #7 behind it. By the time this pic was taken in 1932, my grandmother was already 25 years gone having moved to Ridgewood, Queens shortly after the turn of the century. She was born in 1882 and lived to be 85. The Walker family lived in the middle of the next block and she told me her brothers used to hang out with their son Jimmy. After I saw the Bob Hope movie Beau James, I asked Grandma about Jimmy. She kind of shrugged. I don't remember her exact words but she implied he had gotten what was coming to him.

  4. I wrote about this house as part of a general article on Federal Architecture in NYC and was very excited to find such a rare, intact, example. Last year, I was out with friends and totally unintentionally passed by this house and I practically yelped with joy at seeing it in person. I hoped someone would buy it and take good care of it. I only wish I would have gone to an open house because it would have been quite lovely to see the inside as well. - Suzanne @ RowHouse Magazine

  5. This house is a wonderful surviving example and I love when other people are as exciting as I am.