Saturday, June 11, 2011

The 1819 Wooden House at No. 132 Charles Street


Before 1825 when the devastating outbreak of cholera forced hundreds of panicked New Yorkers to flee the claustrophobic conditions downtown, the Village of Greenwich was a sleepy semi-rural community.

Matthew Armstrong, a carpenter, was one of the residents here and around 1819 he built a small, two-story wooden home with a co-owner at No. 132 Charles Street.  Armstrong’s carpentry skills were evident in his broad, clapboard home with a modest but handsome door frame and simple overlight.

With the influx of new residents after 1825 the neighborhood, and indeed all of Greenwich Village, changed.   Two new piers were constructed in 1828 at the foot of Charles Street and neighboring Christopher Street. (both streets traced their names to Charles Christopher Amos who had owned the land).  A year later the state abandoned the mammoth Newgate Prison on Christopher Street and began planning the Weehawken Market in its place which would operate until 1844.

Charles Street and the surrounding neighborhood quickly developed and brick Federal style homes and other structures filled the area around Armstrong’s little frame house. 

In 1845 Nash, Beadleston & Co. opened a brewery in part of the old prison, and before long there would be a coal yard across the street from No. 132. 

John and Levi Springsteen owned the house in 1853 when a third story was added.

The flood of unappealing businesses in the immediate area – a soap plant, an iron works and a lime shed, for instance – made the Charles Street area a decidedly undesirable residential neighborhood by the end of the Civil War.  Most of the homes along Charles Street became boarding houses or were converted for commercial purposes.

Once-refined Federal homes on Charles Street were renovated for commercial purposes -- photo NYPL Collection

Although in 1897 little had changed in the blocks near the riverfront, the grand Beaux Arts style Charles Street Police Station was erected, offering some dignity to the neighborhood.   And as the 20th Century progressed and Greenwich Village became the new Bohemia for artists and poets, conditions generally improved.

At some point well-intentioned owners slathered No. 132 with a coating of stucco in an attempt to modernize the fa├žade.  In 1998 a gut renovation was done on the venerable structure and, in 2005, the stucco was removed, reproduction wooden clapboards were installed and the stoop, which had been bricked over, was restored.

The little wooden house that Matthew Armstrong built for himself nearly two centuries ago is a rare and delightful surprise on a street that is unquestionably no longer undesireable.
photograph by the author

7 comments:

  1. I love this blog. Keep up the good work.

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  2. Thanks so much! Glad you're enjoying it!

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  3. Hi Tom!

    The historial detail you provide is wonderful! I just passed this house and was so curious about it! Are you in nyc? I would love to talk further as I write a similar blog about the history of nyc.
    Iconwanted.blogspot.com

    Thanks! Julia

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    1. I certainly am in NYC. Glad you're enjoying the blog.

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  4. my parents were married in 1949 and the new owners of the house gave them their reception there...The owners were my brothers godparents Mr. Joseph O'rielly and Bernice O'reilly I grew up visiting them for holidays etc. remembering The Sazerac House ...best burgers on earth...Joe was a writer and so we were introduced at tender ages to jane Jacobs and th e writing of the folks on The Village Voice...One Thanksgiving we passed My uncle drove past the newly poured slurry walls of the Twin Towers ...Time and tide and my parents moved us away from them...My last visit to the house was in April 2012 my first visit to N.Y. after 911...I went there first because I knew if I saw it standing I could probably handle paying my respects to Ground Zero... I am have been writing a book on 132 Charles ...thank you for the preservation and the new information...I have always loved this house I know the O'riellys did ..It seems you have as much of an affection for it too...Noel Fairbrothers

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    1. I was a friend of Joe and Bernice, albeit, young enough to be a daughter or maybe a granddaughter. There home was always so welcoming. I appreciated that they were night owls so they never seemed to mind if I called them late in the evening to stop by. The most important characteristics of the house are that the kitchen was in the basement, and that the front room in the street level had Joe's grand piano. The top floor was a rental to a single man - years he lived there. He good play a mean jazz, having honed his chops in Paris after his WW II service. Bernice loved to sing, albeit, rarely in the same key Joe played. Joe convinced his lifetime friend, Fred Mason, to join them in Paris, with Fred learning bass so that they could be a trio. By the way, Joe and Bernice were the godparents of Carol, to whom they introduced me. D D Jeffery

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  5. Thanks for the additional background. It's a true treasure and good luck with your book!

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