Originally published in summer 2007. Photos: Christine Halkiopoulos.
As a connoisseur of the old, I’ve always enjoyed walking the streets of New York’s Greenwich Village. Unlike the orderly structure of the upper neighborhoods, The Village harbors small secluded alleys and architectural treasures abound. One of my favorite blocks is the Washington Mews, located between Fifth Avenue and University Place. I knew this charming row of homes housed some of the foreign language offices associated with New York University but I had no idea of the colorful history of the block.
Prior to 1801, the land the Mews occupies belonged to Captain Richard Randall. When he died, he willed the property to what would become the “Sailors’ Snug Harbor” for a home for the care of elderly and disabled sailors. Instead of using the land for the home, the institution built a sprawling complex on Staten Island using income from the rental of subdivided plots on the Manhattan land. These newly built homes, lining the north side of Washington Square Park and the south side of Eighth Street, created an alley. Two-story stables were built in 1830 along the alley.
In 1916 the “Sailors’ Snug Harbor” Association decided to convert the stables into residences for local artists as Greenwich Village was fast becoming a haven for many influential artists of the early 20th century. Twelve of the original stables were renovated in a Mediterranean style with stucco and tile detailing designed by architects Maynicke and Franke. Later in 1939, new two-story homes with the aesthetic of the original stables were built across the alley. Although the alley was originally open, over the years, gates at either end have been erected for increased security. Currently there is a plain red brick gate along the University Place entrance. On the 5th Avenue side there is an elegant gateway with arches and iron work.
Indeed artists did occupy the homes, including Paul Manship and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the founder of The Whitney Museum of American Art. In the same house that Whitney lived, resides documentary filmmaker Jean Bach, most recently noted for making the Academy Award nominated film A Great Day in Harlem. Over the years she has entertained many artists including Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and Dizzy Gillespie. She has called the Mews home for 54 years.
In 1950, New York University leased the entire alley. Gradually, more and more homes have been vacated by their original occupants and reserved for use as faculty residences and offices. Some include the Deutsches Haus, the Gluckman Ireland House, the Institute of French Studies, and La Maison Française.
Not every alley can be truly called a Mews. In fact Mews is a British term used to describe a small street lined with homes that are converted stables. Washington Mews is a true Mews and might be the only one in New York City.
“Streetscapes: Washington Mews; Gates for Protection Against the Threatening City Beyond,” by Christopher Gray, The New York Times, November 20, 1988
“Aunt Gertrude’s Kingdom,” by Wendy Goodman, New York Magazine, Fall 2006