CIRCLE ROUTE through NYC’s Villages

by Kevin Walsh

On a midweek summer day in 2014, to relieve boredom and get some exercise as much as anything else, I walked a large circular route through lower Manhattan, beginning and ending in Greenwich Village but also entering SoHo, the Lower East Side and the East Village along the way. Sometimes I will just draw up what route to take at home, jotting it on a post-it® note and inserting it in my wallet and referring to it if I have to. I reserve the right to make a detour if I want to, if I see something interesting along the way. Sometimes these detours create material for additional Forgotten New York pages, as I’m sure it did today.


You can see it’s more of a rectangle than a circle but I pretty much would up where I started, and it’s impossible to travel in a circle on Manhattan’s grid.

I began by getting off the #1 train at Christopher Street-Sheridan Square at 7th Avenue South, which is one of two NYC avenues extended south above subway excavations. 7th Avenue South was created in 1912 by the extension of the original IRT subway through Manhattan’s lower west side from Greenwich Avenue south to what had been the junction of Varick, Clarkson and Carmine Streets, while 6th Avenue (which wasn’t given the suffix “South”) was rammed south from Carmine and Minetta Streets to Franklin and Church Streets in 1928 when the new Independent Subway needed a right-of-way. Both of these street map alterations required the condemnation and demolition of countless properties, and the alterations of almost as many.

If you think about it awhile, 7th Avenue South shouldn’t be cutting through Greenwich Village as it does, and I doubt in 2014 that such an engineering project would pass muster with the community board or the City Council even if there was still no subway there. I suspect that a subway tunnel would be accomplished by deep bore instead of the old cut and cover method, which demolished all the properties and set the stage for the pedal to the metal speedway that 7th Avenue South developed into. (Can you imagine if Jane Jacobs was around in the early 1910s!)

Consider the corner building at #70 Grove Street at 7AS, which I’ll type from now on to save time. Though it was built in 1899 only a small, narrow portion of its original Grove Street facade remains, which thankfully retains the original entrance with the 5-pointed star above the door. (Notice that you can draw a pentagon inside a 5-pointed star.) This is just one of a number of buildings along 7AS that have had to have such surgery, as they face an avenue that didn’t exist when they were built.

I don’t see it referenced often, but Casa Oliveira Liquors has two of the city’s greatest old skool neon signs in a city that can claim dozens of grand old neons. It has both a functional awning sign and overhanging sign! What’s more, there’s vintage window stenciling against a gold backdrop. I don’t drink a drop, I just admire liquor store neon. The store has been a staple at #98 7AS since 1935, and these may be the original neon signs. Here’s what the signs look like when lit.


7AS slices through what was first an X-shaped intersection of Bleecker and Barrow Streets. The center building, #289 Bleecker, was likely built with its three stories and an attic in about 1870-1875. Would you like to stay in that attic and watch the passing parade? I would.


Barrow Street is one of the Village’s many tree-lined side streets running up from the Hudson River to the center of the neighborhood, the Sheridan Square area. Many of the small brick residences on both sides were constructed in the 1820s. Barrow Street was named for artist Thomas Barrow, who drew a famed picture of Trinity Church, but its earlier name was Reason Street, named for Thomas Paine’s pamphlet The Age of Reason, Parts I-III,  which addressed events in both the American and French Revolutions. Arriving in France, he ran afoul of the Jacobins and was sentenced to death, and escaped that fate only because his jailer marked the wrong cell door! Paine resided in the Village, in what would later become Grove Street, and a plaque marking the spot is affixed to the same building that houses the piano bar Marie’s Crisis.

The story goes that locals had taken to calling Reason Street “Raisin” so the Board of Aldermen decided to make the change.


You occasionally see lamppost glass reflector bowls painted black on one side, as residents of adjoining buildings find the bulb to be too bright (when LED lamps arrive, they don’t use reflector bowls, so this will likely be a moot point. I wonder if permission must be granted from the city to obscure the maps this way, and if that’s the case, do DOT workers do the deed?

Bleecker Street looking southeast from 7AS. The building in the center is notable because it houses the Village’s longstanding meat market, O. Ottomanelli and Sons. The Ottomanelli family also runs butcher shops in the Upper East Side and in Woodside, Queens, but all are separate operations. The Woodside shop is notable because it specializes in game meats such as venison and even kangaroo, while it also runs a separate burger joint a few doors down that is a favorite of your webmaster. The business was founded in 1900 on a Delancey Street pushcart.

The building it’s in is something special, as well, since the cornice displays the original architect or owner and date of construction: M. Puels, 1874.


The corner of Commerce Street and 7AS features an unusual structure that was once a gas station that was in this location from 1922 to 1974. The small glass-enclosed structure was built in front of it and it’s now apparently serving as a gym.

#11 and #15 Commerce Street go back to 1826 and are part of two handsome rows of Federal-style dwellings on both sides of this L-shaped street. Commerce Street house numbering begins at #9; the construction of 7AS demolished buildings numbered #1-#8. Number 11 features a plaque calling it the home of Washington Irving Junior, though the famed author remained a bachelor following the death of his fiancée when she was 17. Perhaps whoever installed the plaque didn’t mean the Washington Irving Jr.


From 7AS we can see the back yard and enclosed porch of #16-18 Commerce. Some of the houses on Commerce are quite old, going back to as early as 1821.

Commerce Street gets the full FNY treatment here. Many Villagers assume that it was called Cherry Lane at some time in the past, but the name is a construct of the modern-day Cherry Lane Theatre, as the page explains.


At Morton and Bedford Streets  is one of the many traffic triangles formed when 7AS was built in a rough north-south axis right through the Village’s grid, which orients to the northwest. Here, traffic is controlled by a Donald Deskey post used as a stoplight. The Deskeys were built to be modular and adaptable.


Leroy Street cuts across 7AS intact, but an odd thing happens west of here. The street takes a bend to the southwest and changes its name midblock to St. Luke’s Place — but only on the north side! I explain the phenomenon on this FNY page.


7AS (foreground) where it meets Clarkson, where it meets the northern end of Varick. Judging by the traffic it’s hard to believe that 7AS did not exist at one time. However…


… you can see what the Village map looked like without a 7AS in this 1892 atlas plate. Varick Street, named for Col. Richard Varick, George Washington’s secretary and an early NYC mayor, came to an end at Carmine and Clarkson Streets. The cemetery shown on the map has a story behind it, which I get into on the Leroy Street link above.


Colorful wall mural at Varick and Downing Streets. Downing Street has been an equine hideaway of sorts.

From the link: The naming of Manhattan’s Downing Street has been speculated about by historians for many years. London’s Downing Street, where #10 is the Prime Minister’s residence (hence Churchill Square) was named for Sir George Downing, who changed political affiliations like the rest of us change shirts. He was one of Harvard’s first nine graduates in 1642. He returned to England and joined up with Oliver Cromwell in his overthrow of the Crown, becoming minister to the Hague and France. After Cromwell’s death he joined the Royalists, and Charles II returned him to the Hague, representing England again; along the way he betrayed a friend who was a colonel in Cromwell’s forces, sending him to the executioner. 


There’s a couple of interesting things going on here, at the NE corner of Varick and West Houston Streets. Note the font on the “New York” on the corner building awning. It exactly matches the logotype of New York Magazine, designed by the magazine’s co-founder (with Clay Felker) Milton Glaser. I wonder if he knows about this…

Also note the painted ad on top of the Houston Street building, which says “Martin’s Bar & Grill Great Food and Drink.”


Here’s a photo of Martin’s from 2005 after it closed, but before the space became one of Subway’s nearly 10,000 NYC locations. I exaggerate slightly.


Going south along Varick Street, whose character changes completely once south of Houston Street. It’s lined on both sides with zigguratted office buildings constructed in the 1920s. This is just one of them, #180 Varick at King Street, known as the Roanwell Building. At one time Dover Books had its corporate offices here as well as a discount outlet, and on my lunch hour from uptown Macy’s one day, I availed myself of the place. Since Dover published a lot of books of historic photos at one time, as Arcadia does today, I always wanted to publish with them or work for them, but not to be.


“Faded ad” on Vandam at Varick, and I mean faded. All I can make out is “rugs” or drugs” but if anyone has a better take, let me know.


Varick at Broome Street. another building facade identifying the owner and date of construction: “Waring’s Building, 1870.”

Whether you’re religious or not that’s one badass poster deign.


My prescribed route turned east on Broome, or I had to turn left here, but before doing that I got a shot of the Holland Tunnel Varick Street entrance, as well as the Building of 1000 Windows, a.k.a. the Holland Plaza Building, now One Hudson Square, built in 1930 and designed by architect Ely Jacques Kahn. It is actually owned by Trinity Real Estate, the real estate arm of downtown’s Trinity Church. For many years It held dozens of printing firms; I interviewed at one of them in the late 1990s, but I bet they’re gone by now. The building is the putative future home of the Jackie Robinson Museum. It acquired NYC Landmark status in 2013.


Turning onto Broome, I found the former home of Marine Engine Specialties Corp. I know that because it says so.

The Marine Engine Specialties Corp. was headquartered in San Francisco and had branches in Long Beach, California and New York. The Long Beach branch was opened in 1967. There was also a service facility in Hoboken. The company supplied power plant equipment, such as boilers, and pumping systems to the commercial maritime industry as well as to the Defense Department. They also serviced ship pumps made by other manufacturers. The New York harbor, one of the busiest in the world, must have been a great market for them, but at some point after 1974 they apparently went out of business. Comment on Frank Jump’s Fading Ad Blog


I like the combination of beige and brown, so I like this grand old pair at #550 and #552 Broome Street. Broome’s house numbers proceed from east to west, so the high numbers are way over here. A block south, Grand Street’s house numbers proceed from west to east, so the high numbers are on the east end. I fail to see the logic in this, but it’s likely that when the streets were laid out the city surveyors and engineers felt no obligation to stick to a set way of doing things.

There are some amateur mosaics on the Broome Street side of 121 6th Avenue, apparently commissioned by The Door, a social services agency.

As we’ve seen, forcing 7AS through the Village produced some unusual intersections. Likewise, forcing 6th Avenue through in 1928 created others. At Broome Street, a two block street runs northwest from Broome to Spring, and Sullivan proceeds north from Broome and Sixth. The short 2-block street is officially called 6th Avenue on street signs, but it is actually Clark Street, or was before 6th Avenue was forced south. I discuss other streets that were impacted by 6th Avenue on this FNY page.


Northeast corner of Sullivan and Broome Streets. These flat topped residences from the mid-2000s provide quite a contrast from mid-19th Century buildings adjoining them. I’m a fan of wraparound corner windows.


A clear view of #1 World Trade Center is available from Sullivan and Broome Streets. I haven’t yet warmed to the building, which is supposed to begin accepting tenants, most notably the Condé Nast magazine empire, in 2015.


Lower 6th Avenue has a number of hooklike structures on its utility poles. A number of them still support medallion signs representing members of the Organization of American States, which has members in North, Central and South America. The USA is a member state.


40-42 Thompson Street, seen from Broome at Watts Street, was constructed in 1928 as a power company substation, but was apparently meant to echo the now-vanished Tunnel Garage’s appearance. Like the old garage, it’s now used as a big billboard ad holder. A succession of bars and clubs, and most recently Babylon SoHo, a Turkish club/restaurant [2014] have held down the ground floor.


55 Thompson Street at Broome, a chi chi residential building, takes the shape of, and occupies the space of, the old Tunnel Garage building, a grand old pile that had some of the city’s greatest terra cotta work and very unusual lettering on its signage.

Speaking of terra cotta there are several examples of the art on #100 6th Avenue, which extends through to Thompson at Broome. It too was designed by Ely Jacques Kahn, (see above One Hudson Square) in 1928. It was originally called the Green Sixth Avenue building and the terra cotta depictions above the second floor show workers at various tasks.

Joe Brennan, in Comments on the Lower Sixth Avenue pageThe workers seem to be smoothing or sharpening things. Their machines are powered by a belt turned by an overhead axle. The axle would have been turned by a stationary steam engine in the building. You can see similar overhead axles in mills powered by a waterwheel. It’s an old way of distributing power, with no electricity required. The building is from 1928, so the images were historical (or at least old fashioned) when made. I wonder what the idea was.

Hate to fade out so fast, but it’s Sunday night, I have dinner to make and a full night of sci fi to look at.

Here’s Part 2.




Stephanie July 21, 2014 - 8:26 am

The corner of Commerce and 7AS isn’t really serving as anything at the moment, besides a convenient place to hang advertising posters. The last time I saw any activity in there, it was being used as some kind of storage facility.

Neil J Murphy July 21, 2014 - 8:44 am

I don’t think the bas reliefs on the 100 Avenue of the Americas building are terra cotta. I briefly worked in that building in the late 1970s, and worked in the area throughout the 80s and 90s. As you will see in the two photos in my link, they seem to be sculptured stone that were painted some time around the turn of the last century. I distinctly remember them being plain stone during my tenure in the neighborhood during the 1990s.


Tal Barzilai July 21, 2014 - 7:59 pm

According to Google Maps, 7th Avenue South isn’t considered part of 7th Avenue itself, which is probably the same for Park Avenue South not actually being part of Park Avenue itself and Flatbush Avenue Extension not being part of Flatbush Avenue itself.

Dr A. J. Lepere July 22, 2014 - 12:43 pm

When I started Brooklyn Tech High School in 1964, many of the machine shops still had had equipment powered by belts. We used to call them the “Belt Jungle”!

steve July 22, 2014 - 9:59 pm

IMO the faded ad’s second line of text appears to be ROOMS

Renee Neumann July 23, 2014 - 2:07 pm

Kevin, thanks once again for your detailed eye. You notice things I never saw despite walking by some of these buildings numerous times. (The blacked out bulb reflector bowls were a first for me but it makes sense if you’ve got a powerful light shining into your bedroom all night.) Keep up the great work!

chris July 26, 2014 - 12:39 pm

When you started Brooklyn Tech many of the machine shops had belts running the lathes?
You mean Tech still had belted systems or the industry itself?
I’m confused


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