Friday, January 28, 2011

The Second Empire Charmer at No. 88 Grove Street

No. 88 Grove Street has been lovingly restored by the present owners
When William Banks and Henry Halsey built their prim, matching Federal-style homes at 88 and 90 Grove Street in 1827, Greenwich Village had just begun to attract families from the congested New York City to the south, lured by the fresh air and open space.

The orange brick homes featured handsome doorways and paneled brownstone lintels. Wrought iron fencing protected the English basements.

Thomas A. Wilmurt and his wife, Anne K. Wilmurt, purchased No. 88 in 1862 as the Civil War was raging. Wilmurt would become well-respected as “one of the oldest picture-frame and looking-glass dealers in New York,” as characterized by The New York Times decades later. Sadly, two years after moving in, the family held the funeral for their 6-year old son Walter in the parlor.

By now the Federal style of the home was dated and the Wilmurts set about remodeling it in the contemporary and fashionable French Second Empire style. The style originated in Paris and quickly spread to the United States.

The roof was raised to accommodate a modish mansard roof with two slightly-projecting dormers. The parlor floor windows were extended to the floor, a smartly paneled cornice board was added beneath the eave and intricate iron cresting added to the roof.

Stately solid wooden double entrance doors replaced the Federal entrance on the exterior, while exquisite foyer doors with intricate acid-etched windows depicting flowers in vases were added inside. Stylish Victorian ceiling plasterwork and mantles completed the updating.

By 1880 the family had moved to 54 East 13th Street; although Wilmurt retained possession of the house, apparently renting it. Records show his taking out a 3-year, $3000 mortage on the building from the Greenwich Savings Bank on August 8, 1900.

A year later, on November 19, 1901, Herbert A. Sherman purchased the house at auction for $10,500. Sherman, a major player in New York real estate (he represented the U.S. Government in the $3.5 million sale of the Custom House site in 1899 and would later negotiate the deal for Andrew Carnegie’s 5th Avenue and 91st Street property), most likely purchased the house as a rental property.

Sherman, interestingly, went by his mother’s maiden name. The son of Edward Standish and Catherine Augusta Sherman, he was impressed that his great grandfather, Roger Sherman, had signed the Declaration of Independence.

Italian landscape architect Ferruccio Vitale bought No. 88 in 1909. He was a favorite of New York’s upper crust and designed extensive gardens for their Long Island estates, as well as numerous parks. In 1914 the Lenox Garden Club was invited to view the garden he designed for Brookside, the Great Barrington estate of Mr. and Mrs. William Hall Walker. The New York Times called it “the masterpiece of landscape planting” and said it “is considered to be one of the most sympathetic landscape treatments in formal gardens done in American and is said to have cost $250,000.”

Vitale and his wife lived here until 1915 when the “millionaire Socialist” James Graham Phelps Stokes purchased the home; next door to his sister Helen Olivia Phelps Stokes at a much-remodeled No. 90. Perhaps because of their somewhat radical political leanings, Stokes and his wife Rose eschewed the Fifth Avenue visibility of their wealthy peers in favor of Greenwich Village charm.

No. 88 Grove Street in 1940 -- photo by Alexander Alland
Although Stokes ran for several political positions as a Socialist, his wife created the most waves. The woman whom The Times once called the “storm centre of many Socialist and Communist troubles” shocked society by distributing birth control pamphlets in front of Carnegie Hall, was convicted of “seditious utterances” and was arrested at No. 88 Grove in November 1918, charged with “illegal registration” to vote.

J. G. Stokes divorced Rose in 1925 when he discovered her “misconduct” with a hotel owner. The trial lasted 30 minutes. A year later he married Lettice Sands.

Apparently James Stokes and his sister next door got along extremely well, because doors were cut through the common walls allowing easy access between both houses. When Helen died in 1945, her brother and his wife retained her house, using both homes as a single residence. Stokes died in 1960 and Lettice in 1988.

Both homes were sold in 1996 for a total of around $2 million. Although at some point after Lettice Stokes’ death the wonderful etched glass foyer windows were removed, the rest of No. 88 was essentially intact – a Civil War period snapshot of comfortable Greenwich Village life.

The buyers commissioned architect Kathryn McGraw Berry to upgrade the buildings, including bricking up the Stokes’ communal doors between the two houses.

Facing the bucolic little triangular Grove Park, No. 88 Grove Street is a remarkable survivor of mid-century Victorian architecture.

Unaccredited photographs taken by the author


  1. my good friends lived in 88/90 Grove St. in the late 1990s when the houses were tied up in some dispute over the deed. the houses were still connected. i think there was a religious institution of some sort that the estate designated as caretaker of the properties. somehow, my friends ended up living there, rent-free, for years in exchange for looking after the house. It was magical inside...considerably dilapidated, but grand. Other than the individual rooms the two had chosen for their private apartments, the interior was unaltered. the garden was overgrown and enchanting--a favorite gathering place for a lot of young and interesting people. eventually, the deed dispute was settled and the dream was over.

    1. The property was bequeathed to St Vincent's Hospital to be used as Nursing housing, and owing to the cost needed to convert it to such the hospital hired me and my firm to sell it (and use the proceeds for Nursing housing - thus the dispute with some distant heirs) was a grand dame for sure and the rear garden was uniquely beautiful....the parlor in the 90 building was approx 2.5 stories tall and had light flooding in via the huge windows facing Grove St. Needless to say I showed the property to many celebrities including the Sports Illustrated Model Frederique (gorgeous). I brokered the sale for the Hospital to two families who intended to restore the buildings and enclose each from one another the for their primary residence (or so I was told) after a bidding war of sorts with one of George Soro's children who reportedly wanted to convert it to a Buddhist monestary....Interesting history per the write up above and happy I had a small role its recent revival. I would love to see it again now....Last but not least- I also learned about the historic Stonewall Inn which is across the street from regards, VLM

  2. I am so thrilled to come across this article! I’ve been sleuthing around all morning researching family history. Lettice (“Tuce”) was my great grandmothers’ little sister! And yes, she was named after salad leaves 🤗. I (west coaster) was able to visit her a few times many years ago, and she always appeared so “put together” in her tailored suits with pearls as we walked through the NY streets to her favorite restaurants. I had no idea she was so well-know….AND A SOCIALIST. I could not be more proud!