Monday, April 23, 2012

The Lost 1848 Cottage Row -- 7th Avenue between 12th and 13th Street

On March 30, 1936 famed photograph Berenice Abbot captured Rhinelander Row, known popularly as "Cottage Row." -- photo Library of Congress

As Greenwich Village transitioned from a sleepy rural hamlet to a thriving extension of New York City in the first half of the 19th century, William C. Rhinelander purchased vast tracts of real estate for development.   The Rhinelander family amassed enormous fortunes by recognizing northward growth of the city, purchasing land and developing blocks of rental properties that it would hold for decades.

Epidemics of cholera and yellow fever epidemics of the 1820s forced panicked New Yorkers to flee northward.  But before that, in the gently rolling hills to the east of the village were the sprawling country estates of landed gentry.  Here were the country mansions of Sir Peter Warren, “The Manse,” and “Richmond Hill,” the estate of British Major Abraham Mortimer, later to be home to John Adams and Aaron Burr.

But by the middle of the century things had changed.  Avenues and streets were laid out and row houses lined blocks that checker-boarded former pasture land.  Around 1842 7th Avenue was extended to just above 13th Street, in land owned by William Rhinelander.

Looking back, in 1904, an old-time Greenwich Villager would recall that “it was all farms, with cornfields and other crops, with which it was laid out.  There was one very large frame mansion that I remember, and the avenue cut directly through it, so that two large houses were made of it.”

Around 1848 Rhinelander filled the 7th Avenue block between 12th and 13th Streets with eleven three-story homes above English basements.  The simple, straightforward residences were intended for middle-class families and their design took into consideration the tenants’ comfort.

The homes sat more than twenty feet back from the street, providing grassy lawns and garden space.  In a time when summer heat was not only stifling but sometimes lethal, each floor of the had deep verandas that provided shade and caught the cooling breezes.  Mattresses could be pulled out onto the upper balconies for sleeping in the most oppressive nights.

Floor-to-ceiling windows and long, louvered shutters guaranteed air flow through the houses in hot weather -- photo Library of Congress.
Called “Rhinelander Row,” the eleven houses became familiarly known by locals as “Cottage Row” toward the end of the century.  Families stayed on in the homes for generations in some cases and the Rhinelander records showed that the homes were constantly occupied from 1848 through 1914.  The New York Times reminisced in 1937 that “the front gardens were fragrant with flowers from early Spring until late in the Fall.”

But then things changed.

Seventh Avenue, the southern end of which was 11th Street, was extended down to Varick Street in 1914 and the Seventh Avenue subway line opened in 1918.  With these two factors, “a marked change in the character of the neighborhood took place and the popularity of the houses began to decline,” reported The Times.

In 1936, with their simple balconies and wooden porch stairs, the old houses looked oddly out of place.  The 7th Avenue subway entrance is at the left. -- photo Library of Congress
By 1927 occupancy had dropped to about half and a realty syndicate took a long lease from the Rhinelander estate “with the intention of building a large apartment house.”   But the Great Depression came along and Cottage Row received a brief reprieve.  In 1930 the Rhinelander estate took back the property.

Finally, in May of 1936, the few remaining tenants were requested by Rhinelander agents to vacate the premises.  A year later demolition of the buildings began.

Politician John Byrnes took advantage of the vacant dwellings to display campaign posters where once tenants relaxed in the shade of the porches -- photo Library of Congress

With a sigh of regret, The New York Times said that “these houses constitute the most characteristic landmark surviving to the present day of the upper Greenwich Village section.  With their wide piazzas and ample balconies on the upper floors they have been for many years refreshing reminders of the simple but comfortable residential days in that interesting part of the city.”

In 1937 the WPA was busy demolishing Cottage Row.  Already the top floor is gone.  -- photo Library of Congress

The property was turned over to the City Housing Authority with the stipulation that it would remain undeveloped for one year.  The Authority said the empty plot might be used as a temporary playground for children.

On December 16, 1938 the Rhinelander estate had made its decision.  The announcement was made that “the property has been vacant and now will be used for a gasoline station and lot for the selling of used cars.”  The 20th century had arrived on 7th Avenue.

Unlike Cottage Row which had survived nearly a century, the gas station and car lot were gone by 1964.  They were replaced by the masterful Mid Century modern Joseph Curran Building which remains today.

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