Monday, April 5, 2010

Twin Sisters on Commerce Street

Linger in Greenwich Village long enough and you will hear the local story of the two mirror-image free-standing houses at 39 and 41 Commerce Street.  The enchanting tale tells of a sea captain with two feuding daughters.  He built them matching houses joined by a walled garden with few windows on the garden sides so the sisters would not have to see one another.

It is a wonderful story.  But it's not true.

In fact the two houses were built as an investment in 1832 by a New Jersey milkman, Peter Huyler.  Greenwich Village was growing quickly as businesses and banks moved north from Lower Manhattan to escape cholera and yellow fever epidemics in the early 1800s.  In 1826 paving on Commerce Street was started.  By the following year it extended to the point where Commerce curves into Barrow Street.  At the curve a 72-foot nearly-rectangular plot was available for development.

Huyler's houses originally had peaked roofs with dormers -- the fashion for mansard roofs being decades away -- and the doorways faced the street.  The houses provided Huyler with a steady income as he rented them to middleclass families.  The commodius shared garden may have had roses and other flowers, but in all probability vegetables grew there as well.
After his death, Huyler's heirs modernized the homes in 1873 by retaining Daniel Topping Atwood to make some changes.  Atwood was at the height of his career, the main thrust of his work being large Queen Anne-style homes outside of metropolitan areas.  He had already written Atwood's Country & Suburban Houses and Atwood's Modern American Homesteads, both published in 1871.  His commission for the twin houses could not have come inexpensively.

Although the mansard roofs had been added, the doorways still faced the street in this view.  photo New York Historical Society

Atwood's renovation replaced the peaked roofs with fashionable mansards, essentially adding a full story.

By the first decades of the 20th Century both structures had been divided into apartments and sometime before 1932 the doorways migrated from Commerce Street to the garden.  In 1948 a Greenwich Village businessman and amateur photographer, James G. Lambrakis, converted No. 41 back to a private house.  Today it is still in private hands.

Although No. 39 remains broken into apartments with the obligatory fire escape as well as unsightly window air conditioners the charming 19th Century feeling remains.

The twin sisters of Commerce Street with their picturesque linking walled garden create one of the most charismatic corners of the Village.

non-credited photographs taken by the author

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