Vicarious Living

Vicarious Living

The Houses of Greenwich Village
By Kevin D. Murphy, photography by Paul Rocheleau
Abrams, $45.00

New York is a city of neighborhoods. Many appear in fiction, but very few get architectural coverage. Greenwich Village is the exception. As the most storied place in Gotham, the Village has been well researched, has its own historical society, and its streets have been photographed by everyone from Edward Steichen to Annie Liebowitz. Nearly every New Yorker has her favorite haunt, a bistro, bar, or street corner with an indelible memory attached.


One might, then, be nonplussed to find another book on the quaint row houses that make up most of this intimate place of twisted streets and artsy cafes. Kevin Murphy’s new treatment has an advantage that no previous book can boast: beautiful photographs of the interiors of many houses not normally open to the public. As in his previous book on the American town house, the author gets right to the heart of his subject and provides fascinating stories on both the houses and the people who built them. Paul Rocheleau provides the splendid photographs.

The two have chosen 20 of the most interesting houses in the Village and devoted a substantial photo essay to each, with accompanying text. Their book is nicely designed and produced by Abrams, the noted art book publisher. This book would make an excellent gift for your friends with an interest in New York and its architecture.

Murphy’s short essay on the history of the Village covers no new ground, and might well have been more specific about the kinds of houses that were chosen for case studies. It has the advantage of presenting street scenes in historic photos from the collection of the Historic American Buildings Survey in the 1930s, a nice contrast to the vivid color photos by Rocheleau. But most of the interesting narrative is reserved for the individual houses, and there is a lot more behind these brick facades than meets the eye.

Unlike most coffee table art books, this one marries probing, insightful photography with equally analytical text. Since Murphy is a noted art historian with expertise in American architecture, he seldom misses a chance to educate the reader about the subtleties of Federal and Greek Revival details, or the impact of economic development on New York in the 1830s, when the Village had the hottest real estate market in Manhattan.

He points out that the John Grindley house (1827) owes some of its remarkable elegance to the fact that it was built by John Jacob Astor as a means of converting a former country estate, “Richmond Hill,” into a real estate development that presaged the eventual expansion of housing northward on the island. As each house is presented chronologically, beginning in 1827, Murphy is able to relate the social history of the eras to the features and styles of each example. Modest dwellings such as the David Christie house (1824), built for the middle class, are contrasted with lavish houses for “swells” such as Irad Hawley, president of the Pennsylvania Coal Company, whose Fifth Avenue mansion (1852-53) is home to the Salmagundi Club.


The lives of original owners are not the only ones examined, for many houses became significant after the Village was a mecca for artists and intellectuals during the 20th century. An 1827 house was renovated in 1893 to become the studio of Robert Blum, an artist associated with Whistler and early Japonisme America. The design, by Carrère & Hastings, reminds us of the bohemian atmosphere that existed in New York around 1900, when modern art was in a period of gestation on both sides of the Atlantic. The building later served as the studio of the noted architectural painter, Jules Guérin.

At the end of the book are two patently modernist interventions into the fabric of this charming corner of New York, and both seem very much at home. One, designed in 2003, is a clever insertion into an 1801 row house. The other, from 2005, is a new house occupying a small slice in the streetscape. One quibble with this necessarily abbreviated story is that little is said about the period of the “Brown Decades,” from the 1860s until 1900, when many sandstone-fronted Italianate and Richardsonian houses were built in Manhattan. Though the Village was by this time a mature neighborhood, there are significant examples from this period, such as the twin houses designed by Robert Mook at 74 and 76 Perry Street in 1866. Perhaps we’ll see a second volume.

One of the best things about The Houses of Greenwich Village is its intimate, insider’s point of view. Both Murphy and Rocheleau bring us as close as possible to the artifacts and lives of the people who made these domestic environments. My favorite is the restoration/conversion by contemporary photographer John Dougdale of the 1828 Cornelius Oakley house. The contrast between the Greek Revival décor and his wonderful collection of artifacts offers a compelling story of rebirth. Before he arrived, the house had been converted to apartments, destroying its character. He lovingly restored every original room. Today he makes old-fashioned photographs in a charming top-lit studio, just as his bohemian brethren did a century ago.

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