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Not Quite Art

I’ve been vaguely aware of this group of small buildings on Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village for quite some time. Or, more accurately, I’ll walk by, remember they exist, think about them for a few minutes, and then gradually forget about them as I walk away. Once again, the ubiquity of cell-phone cameras has changed something: I managed to break that decades-long pattern by taking a picture. (In passing, not related to the main topic, the big trees are there because there’s a lot going on behind these buildings. The block, defined by Sixth Avenue to the east, 11th Street to the north, Greenwich Avenue to the southwest, and 10th Street on a course bent to the southwest not parallel to the grid – welcome to Greenwich Village – is much chunkier than a normal Manhattan block and so has two small semi-private streets cut into it to serve buildings not visible from the exterior. There are some large yards and a bunch of rowhouses hidden behind that avenue group.)

The buildings were constructed in 1835, which is early enough that they almost certainly did not have storefronts. The Sixth Avenue storefronts (on the right) are distressingly modern; the 10th Street storefronts on the left are closer to whatever the original (nineteenth-century alteration) storefronts would have looked like. So far, a fairly ordinary story for old rowhouses on main streets in Manhattan. The reason that this group has caught eye my multiple times is its resemblance to “Early Sunday Morning” by Edward Hopper. (In the interest of preserving copyright on a work of art, you can see a digital reproduction of the painting: here.) There are a bunch of differences between the group of small buildings in the painting and the group above: Hopper’s buildings were on Seventh Avenue (although still in Greenwich Village), they’re newer (the heavy-bracketed cornices Hopper painted are a 1870s-1880s phenomenon in New York), they appear to have been built with storefronts (see below), and most noticeably they’re two stories tall rather than three. All that said, there’s enough similarity that for a split second, every time I see the Sixth Avenue buildings, I think they’re Hopper’s models.

Hopper’s painting is detailed enough that you can make out cast-iron columns in the storefront, holding up the lintels above the glass, as well as wood columns the are part of the storefront but not supports for the second floor above. The presence of the cast-iron columns, the last-quarter of the nineteenth century architecture, and the fact that the storefronts in each segment are all identical strongly suggests that the buildings in the painting were constructed with the storefronts. That makes sense: in 1835, Greenwich Village was what its name suggests: a suburban retreat from the city nearby. In 1880, the Village was already incorporated into the city and was quite busy; it was becoming an immigrant neighborhood with industry nearby. In 1835, there would be no reason to construct houses with stores at the ground floor; in 1880, there would have been no reason not to.