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Close, But Not

Two pictures from Berenice Abbott’s “Changing New York” project today, taken about a year apart. The 1936 photo above is titled “Manhattan: 7th Avenue – 12th Street (West)” which is a good description of the location but tells little. That’s Rhinelander Row, a group of reasonably famous rowhouses that look badly out of place in twentieth-century Manhattan. You can see the tops of a few large modern buildings peeking over the roofs of the houses.

Like a lot of stories set in New York, this one starts with speculative real estate development. The Rhinelander family bought the entire blockfront between 12th and 13th Streets for this group of 1849 houses which had large front yards (rare in the current-day Greater New York, vanishingly rare in Manhattan) and big wood front porches for all three floors. People forget that prior to gentrification, much of the west half of Greenwich Village was known for cheap apartments, and these houses were converted to that use well before 1900. While the rowhouses on side streets in the Village have generally survived, most of those on the avenues were demolished and replaced by apartment houses in two big waves, in the 1920s and the 1960s. This row apparently barely escaped demolition for the first wave, but was torn down in 1937. 

In Abbott’s second photo, the third floor is already gone, and there are demolition workers on site.

Nothing much took the place of the houses for twenty years. (That alone shows the difference between the city then and now: it’s hard to imagine a lot this big and this well located remaining more or less empty for so long today.) The site was then taken by the large and pleasantly weird National Maritime Union building, which was later bought by St. Vincent’s Hospital and is now other medical offices. 

If the houses had made it past 1940 they might still be there. Or they might have been torn down in the early 1960s for the second wave of apartment construction on the Greenwich Village avenues. Had they somehow survived until 1969, they would have been included in the Greenwich Village Historic District and protected against demolition. The Village is not short on historic houses and the NMU building is fun to have around, so it’s hard to say if things worked out well or badly, just that they went the way that they did.