Amanda Davis, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation
West 8th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues has not always been the most beloved street in the Village, but it certainly has a character all its own. I recently came across this John Barrington-Bailey “Then” photograph of 53 West 8th Street from the mid-1960s. Taken a few short years before the Greenwich Village Historic District was designated, the snapshot offers a glimpse into a not-too-distant past when the folk scene was alive and well here.
The tenement at no. 53 was built in 1890 and replaced an 1848 stable. Interestingly, these two buildings illustrate a changing neighborhood: the stable likely served the family of a stately townhouse on Washington Square while the Queen Anne style tenement housed a growing number of immigrants in this area. Another little known fact is that West 8th Street at the time of the tenement’s construction was actually known as Clinton Place. It was not until 1898 that it took its present name.
As the Barrington-Bailey’s photograph suggests, by the 1960s the ground floor had been altered and finished with stucco and a projecting hood above. It also seems as if two birdhouses were installed just below the hood, which would be a wonderfully quirky feature of this building’s past. In 1890, tenants very likely accessed the upper floors through a centrally-located stoop (you can see the remnant of this opening in the mid-1960s photo). Retail at the basement, seen in this “Then” photograph, is likely original to the building too.
Fast forward almost 50 years later to the “Now” photograph and this basement and ground floor configuration has been completely lost. The sunken areaways in front of the basement entries have been leveled with cement and customers now enter at sidewalk level. The Village Jeweler, Phillip Harris Beauty Salon, and the Renaissance Print Shop have all been replaced by one shoe store that occupies the entire ground floor.
The terra cotta details, beautiful brickwork, and ornate cornice still remain 123 years later. They provide a glimpse into 8th Street’s past just as we are seeing more and more storefronts along this block undergo transformation.