Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Pie-Shaped 1846 House at No. 45 West 12th Street

The circular metal plates in the facade anchored tie rods which were necessary to stabilize the triangular structure.

In the first half of the 19th Century, the Minetta Brook still babbled southward, gently turning westward around Washington Square to continue through Greenwich Village.   

When Elizabeth Calhoun purchased the lot on West 12th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in 1846 for her new home the creek sliced through it creating a triangular plot on which to build.  Mrs. Calhoun’s red brick house was not intended to be grand or imposing – it was a middle class home for a respectable woman.   Three stories tall plus an attic, it was accessed just one step above street level with a basement below.  Above the simple cornice, three dormers lined up with the windows below.

Minetta Brook flowed southeast through 12th Street when Elizabeth Calhoun built her home -- Viele Watermap

From the street the little brick house appeared charming and normal; however the east wall slanted back to the west creating an unusual pie-shaped building.

Little by little the Minetta Brook was redirected and culverted.  Fully two decades before Mrs. Calhoun built her home, the waterway was diverted to the south in order to create Washington Square Park.  By the time the Civil War had ended the project had extended to 12th Street.  The brook was covered over next to No. 45 and a handsome residence was built on the site.  But the quirky little house erected by Elizabeth Calhoun retained its triangular shape.

At the turn of the century dressmaker Mary E. Robbins owned the house.  Her brother Matthew, a Civil War veteran, lived here with her, along with a female roomer.    Matthew, who had been captured in the war by the Confederates and imprisoned in Andersonville (from which he managed to escape), was working on the furnace in the cellar early in February 1901.

Robbins cut his thumb on the furnace door, but thought little about it.   But an abscess later formed and was operated on; but the condition worsened.   After a week the man’s throat was swollen and he became delirious.  Mary summoned Dr. Ellsworth Elliott who sent the sick man to Presbyterian Hospital where his swollen arm was amputated near the elbow.

The patient died within a week.  Before the year was out Mary Robbins lost her home to foreclosure.

As time passed, the house received gentle renovations – sheet metal windowsills and lintels, a charming metal hood over the doorway and enlarged dormers – but basically remained as it appeared in 1846.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s sister, Mrs. William Pope Barney, purchased the house at one point, and in 1957 it was converted to a two-family residence with on apartment on the first floor and another taking up the upper floors.

If the exterior of No. 45 remained essentially unchanged, the interior was to see staggering renovations.  In 1997 it was purchased and renovated back to a single family home.   Architect Roberto Gerosa was commissioned to completely redesign the space.  Anything that Elizabeth Calhoun or Mary Robbins would have recognized was obliterated.

photo by
Gerosa created an “Italian Renaissance” villa inside with Venetian glass walls and gold-leafed ceilings in the living area.  The new interiors included a Florentine brass bathtub and vintage marble sinks, kitchen counters imported from Italy and an enormous skylight in one of the three baths.

photo by
The charming triangular house was listed in 2011 for just under $6 million by owner Gambaccini Alessandra

uncredited photographs taken by the author

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