Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Endearing 1827 Houses at Nos. 18 and 20 Christopher Street

photo by Alice Lum

In 1825 the streets of New York were overcrowded and unsanitary.  Two years earlier the city had endured a yellow fever epidemic and now doctors noticed an outbreak of another terrifying disease: cholera.

Within two years there was a full-scale epidemic and by July 1832 thousands were dying.

Following a trend begun with the first crisis, panicked citizens with the means to do so fled northward.  The New York Evening Post wrote “The roads, in all directions, were lined with well-filled stagecoaches, livery coaches, private vehicles and equestrians, all panic-struck, fleeing the city, as we may suppose the inhabitants of Pompeii fled when the red lava showered down upon their houses.”

The doorway at No. 20 retains its original 8-paneled door, handsome carved framing and overlight -- photo by Alice Lum
The wealthiest of these frightened refugees headed to the Bloomingdale area at the northern end of the island. Most went as far as the Village of Greenwich where the country air was clean and safe.

A flurry of building resulted in Federal-style homes ranging from modest working-class dwellings to refined brick mansions like Samuel Whittemore’s imposing residence.

The 19th century renovations resulted in charming, country store-like storefronts -- photo by Alice Lum
In the earliest days of the development, builder Daniel Simonson constructed two frame houses at Nos. 18 and 20 Christopher Street.  Completed in 1827, the little two-story buildings were faced with brick. Entrance doors, set to the side, were ornamented with unpretentious Federal details – fanlights and delicate side columns.

Unlike the prim, formal dormers of their neighboring houses, these boasted ambitious grouped dormers.  The AIA Guide to New York City would later describe them as “superdormers;” giant, arched structures that encompassed several windows each and offered nearly a full-floor of usable space in otherwise cramped garrets.

After taking this shot in June 1933, photographer P. L. Sperr wrote on the reverse "18-20 are especially prized for their quaintness."  -- photo NYPL Collection
Before the turn of the century both houses were converted to accommodate commercial space on the first floor. The front walls were knocked out and in their place wood-and-glass storefronts were installed; what the authors of “One Thousand New York Buildings” describe as “perhaps the most charming to be found anywhere in New York…Their show windows and doorways are sheltered under unusual hoods.”
In 1934 shutters adorned the second floors and the large dormers had just begun to sag -- Photo NYPL Collection
Sleepy Greenwich Village changed slowly, but the old-fashioned houses at Nos. 18 and 20 Christopher barely changed at all.  In 1924 the Department of Buildings described both as having a store and “non-housekeeping apartments” above.

Fantastic details include the sunburst in the "superdormer," delicate paneled pilasters framing the dormer windows, and carved brownstone lintels, now painted -- photo by Alice Lum
Nearly two centuries after being built, these two picturesque remnants of a nearly-forgotten period in Greenwich Village remain. The weary-looking over-sized dormers sag backwards with age, perhaps adding to their charm.

Throughout the past few years the Department of Buildings has fought the owners’ attempts to alter the buildings. Somehow, however, the two little houses remain, if not untouched, much-loved.

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