Monday, March 8, 2010

And They All Lived Together in the Crooked Little House -- 121 Charles Street

What's better than knowing something about New York that hardly any New Yorkers know?

Hidden behind an ivy-covered wall at the corner of Charles Street and Washington Street in Greenwich Village is one of the most unexpected structures in the city.  A tiny clapboard farmhouse, it has a side yard, a miniature driveway, and hardly a right angle to be found.

This crooked little house looks as though it had been sitting there watching the Village grow up around it for 200 years.  In fact, it is a relatively recent resident of the neighborhood.

Originally located at York Avenue and 71st Street, the little house became surrounded by tenement buildings until it was no longer visible from the streets.  Interestingly, this is not the only farmhouse in Manhattan so disguised.  A similar little house in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood between 38th and 39th Streets off 9th Avenue is now temporarily visible after 19th century tenements and commercial buildings were pulled down in 2009.

During the Depression years, the Glass family, who had owned the property for decades, opened a tea room in the house.  By the 1940s, according to The New York Times, it was Healy's Dining Room.

The wooden house was leased to children's author, Margaret Wise Brown in the late 1940s and early '50s.  Among her most popular works is Goodnight Moon.  

In 1965 the Glass family sold the property to the New York Roman Catholic Archdiocese.  The following year, its tenants, Sven and Ingrid Bernhard, faced a problem.  The Archdiocese planned a home for the aged on the site.  The quirky little house that the Bernhards called Cobble Court (along with surrounding tenement buildings) was slated for bulldozing. 

The couple was successful in purchasing the house, but had to relocate it to make way for the Mary Manning Walsh Nursing Home.  The Bernhards purchased the 3,600-square-foot lot on Charles Street and in the pouring rain on March 5, 1967, the entire house (including the cobble stones from the courtyard) was packed up on a flatbed and moved.

Not long afterward, a little girl peered out of the car window as her father drove past 121 Charles Street.  She never forgot the fairy tale house behind the wall.  Nearly two decades later, she stumbled across it while roaming Greenwich Village with her husband.  There was a FOR SALE sign on the gates.  But not for long.

Suri Bieler and her husband Eliot Brodsky gently restored the tiny lopsided house.  When their son came along, they sympathetically extended the house with such compassion to the original structure that even the windows are crooked, earning them an award from the Greenwich Village Historical Society.  

In 2014 the property was listed online as a "potential development site."  It triggered an explosion of preservationist outcry.  It all turned out to be for nothing, as the property was not, in fact, for sale and is protected within the Greenwich Village Historic District.

Today, the side yard is peaceful and idyllic with flowering shrubs and a lush lawn.  A 1920s style garden seat and a birdhouse that is a scale version of the crooked little house completes the picture.   A one-of-a-kind house, this one barely escaped the bulldozer and is a wonderful find on a Village stroll.

non-credited photographs taken by the author


  1. It is on the selling block and may be bulldozed after all

  2. Liz Lee here (we corresponded back in Apr 2018 about Marymount School). Regarding the Greenwich Village Farmhouse, back in 1965-66 my Dad and I were walking the dog on 72nd between First and York Aves and he pointed out the existence of said farmhouse tucked away behind a new build. It had been moved to a point between 72nd and 71st streets. At that time he revealed that the farmhouse was the residence of Margaret Wise Brown while she was writing the classic children's story, Goodnight Moon. Best Regards.

    1. Thanks for the additional info. The York Avenue site you mentioned is now occupied by the Mary Manning Walsh Nursing Home.