Saturday, December 7, 2019

Close Call -- The Amputated No. 70 Grove Street

In 1858 John T. Boyd advertised "To Let--The convenient three story house with large yard, No. 70 Grove street."  It was most likely being operated as a rooming house three decades later when Colden Robinson, his wife Sarah, and her sister, Elizabeth Whitehurst lived there.  Their lives would drastically change on March 30, 1888.

Colden and Sarah apparently became involved in a violent argument.  It ended with Colden slashing his wife's throat with his razor, and cutting Elizabeth (described by The Evening World as "a neat-looking colored woman) when she attempted to intervene.  Robinson's first-degree murder trial began on the morning of June 27.  The first witness called was Elizabeth Whitehurst, who "was dressed in deep mourning."  Three days later Robinson was found guilty and sentenced to hang.

The house where the murder occurred sat about midway on the long block of Grove Street, between Bleecker and West 4th Streets.  It was purchased by Maria Fossier in 1899.  She demolished the old structure and hired the firm of Small & Schumann to design a five story brick tenement with a ground floor store on the site.  The construction cost of the 22-foot wide building was $15,000; in the neighborhood of $468,000 today.

The shop was leased to M. Cowperthwait & Co., a furniture retailer with stores throughout the city.  The company would remain for several years.  Maria Fossier seems to have over-stretched her finances and in April 1901 the building was sold at auction.

At the time major change to the neighborhood was on the near horizon.  Around 1904 Real estate agent Charles C. Hickok began lobbying to have Seventh Avenue, which began at 11th Street, extended south to Varick Street.  Years of pressure paid off an in 1913 the extension began in concert with the construction of the 7th Avenue subway.  Scores of buildings, including the historic 1840 Bedford Street Methodist Church, were demolished.  Portions of other buildings, like No. 70 Grove Street, were simply sliced off, their interiors exposed like a child's doll house.

When the project was completed in 1917 fully half of the front facade of No. 70 was lost, leaving only 9.5 feet on Grove Street and an open wound along Seventh Avenue South where the corner had been.  Its owner, May C. Fay, had to decide whether to finish the demolition or reconstruct her oddly-shaped property.

On September 27 1919 the Record & Guide reported that architect George McCabe had prepared plans to alter the apartment building.  The cost of reparations, which included rebuilding the diagonal Seventh Avenue South wall and installing new beams, was a quarter of a million dollars in today's money.  The missing corner was patched with full-width grouped windows and pressed sheet metal spandrel panels with embossed diamond designs.  

A subsequent remodeling came only two years later, which resulted in a store on the first floor.  The stories above held "non-housekeeping apartments."  The term meant that there were no kitchens and no cooking was allowed.

The peculiar looking apartment building was home to middle class renters throughout the 20th century.  A renovation was completed in 1972 which resulted in an "eating and drinking establishment without restrictions" on the ground floor, three apartments each on the second and third, and two each on the fourth and fifth floors.  

In 1993 Down Beat open in the store space.  It was described by New York Magazine on January 3 that year as "an intimate new jazz club;" and on December 31 The New York Times said it was a favorite of "jazz's hard-bop mainstream."  A week later the newspaper's journalist Peter Watrous called it "a welcome addition to what is already the jazz capital of the world."

The pedimented entrance is original to the 1899 design.
No. 70 Grove Street's bizarre proportions testify to the close call it survived when a massive urban project destroyed so many Village structures and left others without their corners.

photographs by the author

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