By Brian J. Pape, AIA, LEED-AP
As I look across Christopher Street from my living room window I see the Weehawken Street Historic District buildings and think of the changes that took place in the past.
Utility workers are digging pipe trenches in the street into the 200-year-old landfill at the river’s former shoreline.
Jane Jacobs wrote to the newly formed New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1963, prior to the 1965 passage of the Landmarks Law which enabled designations, urging that any consideration of a Greenwich Village historic district include the area from the far western section of the Village to West Street, particularly Weehawken Street. Yet, it wasn’t until the 2003 Gansevoort and 2006 Weehawken designations (which provided data for this article) that some waterfront lots were finally included in the historic district.
The land within the (2006) Weehawken Street Historic District was part of the four-acre Newgate State Prison, constructed during 1796-97 between Washington Street and the Hudson River (aka North River) shoreline, from Christopher Street (formerly Skinner Road) to Perry Street. In 1824 a vote deemed that Newgate was to be closed and replaced by Sing Sing, a new prison in Ossining. Now, all that’s left to remind us of Newgate are the ceramic plaques on the Christopher Street #1 train station walls, showing a rough rendering of the prison walls.
The Newgate land was platted and sold by the city in 1829, reserving the west blockfront between Christopher and Amos Streets for a public market connected by name to Weehawken NJ (the site of the famous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804). The name helped differentiate the new market from other older ones, yet the market was abandoned in 1844 and soon its little 30’ deep lots were sold off.
A public Greenwich Market had existed on the south side of the widened Christopher Street to accommodate the market businesses and wagon traffic since 1813 (now the Archive Building site between Greenwich and Washington Streets), but it was closed in 1835.
In 1846 the Hudson River Railroad was constructed along West Street with a depot built within the old market building in the 1850s; it helped spur commercial activity in this vicinity, along with the apex of maritime shipping piers.
After a period of decline prior to World War I, Greenwich Village was becoming known for its historic and picturesque qualities, the diversity of its affordable housing, population, and social and political ideas. As early as 1914, Village property owners, merchants, and social workers had embarked on a campaign to combat the scruffy image of the community. An alliance between the Greenwich Village Improvement Society and the Greenwich Village Rebuilding Corporation rallied to arrest the district’s physical deterioration, reinstate higher-income level families and young professionals in the Village, and stimulate its economy. By the late 1920s the desirability of this area as a residential community was exemplified by the conversion of buildings to middle-class apartments buildings. These various factors led to a real estate boom, reporting rent increases during the “Roaring 20s” of 140 percent and in some cases 300 percent.
Little has changed since the Depression on this little street.