By Justin Matthews
The houses at 18 and 20 Christopher Street, built in 1827, are typical in style (and in size for the medium density of older American cities of the time) of the greater Georgian (Federal in the U.S.) style of Britain and its cultural offshoots.
The houses are of the simple and elegant Federal style by the builder, Daniel Simonson. Both are faced with red brick in the ornamental Flemish bond bricklaying style with bricks of alternating size, most common before the 1840s, and were later painted white. The doors are ornamented with subtle neo-classical touches—a simply designed fanlight at 18, and a decorative wooden entryway with two pairs of light entry columns—the inner two, flatter and more pilaster-like—on either side at 20, topped respectively by cornices.
These and many houses built at the time in the West Village, likely belonged to a settlement influx caused by the cholera epidemic starting in the late 1820s (before which, much of the village was farmsteads and row-houses rare) further south, near the tip of Manhattan—then the core of the city.
This house and the broadly similar houses at 4-10 Grove Street and at 12 and 14 Gay Street are of the type built largely for craftsmen and more modest merchants, and created by skilled carpenters and masons rather than by professional architects.
In general, in these and many contemporary houses of the grander type, the classical decorative features were often subtle, lightly applied, and subordinated to an overall English or Palladian design. Entry columns are absent at 18 Christopher, and small, delicate, and unimposing at 20 Christopher, with un-elaborate capitals.
Entry columns in early Federal and Georgian townhouses, when present, were often of modest scale and sometimes delicately rendered, in contrast to those of some townhouses in the succeeding Greek (or classical)-Revival style toward the later Federal (mid-century), which at times used larger, or more emphatic columned entryways suggesting temple portals. Ironically though, the later trend was—in this respect—less authentically Greco-Roman, since even in grander Roman houses in cities—as distinct from religious and civic structures or country villas—most entry column motifs, if at all used—were simple and understated (and in Greek houses still rarer), less detracting from the (often large and decorative) door itself.
The dormers of the two houses (and 14 Gay) vary from those of similar buildings, being built as one arched “super-dormer” instead of in two smaller peak-roofed garrets, and provide much of the space of a full third storey.
The decorative motif of the Christopher Street dormers, above the windows is most likely, and resembles most closely, the rising sun motif or half-sunburst, known in Federal decoration.
The motif is also vaguely like the scallop or clam half-shell, also common in Georgian and Federal domestic art, often in door canopies and moldings, sometimes as a symbol of an owner’s link to maritime activity—and here perhaps made more flat, schematic, and lower in its arc by the limits of the carpentry medium. The neighborhood’s proximity to the water, and its and the city’s importance as a port, home to sea captains and international traders, could support the second possibility.
This design seems to repeat the theme of the fanlight above number 18’s door, and this may support the first interpretation, since fanlights often portray sunbursts. But fanlights were made to evoke a variety of forms, including shells (and fans as the name suggests). Because 18’s fanlight is so rudimentary in design, the intent is not entirely clear. Glass-windowed storefronts were later added to the houses’ first floors at the turn of the century, and repeat the light decorative column-motif of 20’s entryway.