By Gordon Hughes
Rudyard Kipling once wrote, “And a woman is only a woman but a good Cigar is a Smoke.”
Now, reciting that line today will lead to one of a few results: it will get you tossed out of most social functions, confuse the women you are with, or get you sued in today’s litigious society (probably by a snow flake that has no sense of humor). Keep in mind this was written in 1886. So perhaps we shouldn’t get too worked up about it. Can’t wait to read next month’s letters to the editor. Watch out George…
All that said, one evening Kipling’s quote came to mind as I exited the subway at Seventh Avenue and Christopher Street. I always see the same setting and I hate say it but I take it all for granted. I shouldn’t, because there before me is a venerable old building that has been in place since the early 1920s. The building has housed Village Cigars since 1922.
There is a great deal of myth surrounding that plot of land. Now, there are far better historians and reporters than I that have reported that history, and probably in this very paper. However, I think it is worth a tell once again because Village Cigars is one of the last standing landmarks in our West Village. With buildings being torn down and new people moving in, history can get lost and forgotten.
The short version is that before the turn of the last century there was a five-story building, at what was the corner of Grove and Christopher Streets. This building was the Voorhis, an apartment house owned by the Hess family from Philadelphia. This is where the story of Village Cigars begins to make Village history. The first street grid for Manhattan was developed in 1811 and its design plan shows Seventh Avenue ending at West 11th Street and Greenwich Ave. According to old city records it stayed that way for the next 100 years, until 1911. Prior to then the Village had no real streets, not as we would think of them today. There had been Native American and animal trails which the Dutch and English had made into roads.
So, 100 years after the first city grid was developed the city planners developed a new street plan that would extend Seventh Avenue from Greenwich Avenue to Varick Street, and eminent domain would raze over 200 buildings, including the Voorhis Apartment Building. That was the shot heard ‘round the world, or at least in the West Village. Mr. Hess fought the city tooth and nail but by 1913 the battle was lost and the building was torn down; and the path was clear to make Seventh Avenue wider for commerce and room for the IRT subway to be constructed. Here is where the story becomes epic. In 1922 Hess discovered that the city engineers had miscalculated the dimensions of the lot where the Voorhis had stood and left a 25.5-inch by 27.5-inch part of the parcel unaccounted for, which meant that little part of Manhattan still belonged to Mr. Hess. Hess sued the city and won. It was now legally his. When the city asked him to donate the plot he said something that not even Rudyard Kipling would say. Not only did he keep it, but he erected an isosceles triangle tile mosaic in front of Village Cigars claiming the land as his. The triangle remains there to this day. After Hess passed away the family sold the small parcel to the store in 1938 for $1,000. So, what had been the smallest owned piece of Manhattan real estate was now a part of the store’s property. The store itself, which has celebrated its 98th birthday, is a true gift to our Village. You can drop in and by a hookah and a can of soda. Personally, I prefer a mild cigar, but there are plenty of others to choose from.
I wonder which cigar Mr. Kipling would select?