When 23rd Street Was the Country
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
The city has few more charming enclaves of old houses than Charlton, King, and Vandam streets between Varick Street and Sixth Avenue. It’s an industrial neighborhood, but one in which large printing plants loom picturesquely over diminutive row houses.
In the 18th century, when this was part of the countryside north of the city, Major Abraham Mortier bought land from Trinity Church and erected upon Richmond Hill — one of many hills that were a defining feature of Manhattan topography — a splendid mansion in 1767. It later served as an office for General Washington, where he was attended to by both Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.
The house became the home of John Adams when he was vice president. After the capital relocated to Philadelphia, the house was purchased by Aaron Burr, who already knew it well. This is where Burr lived when he was elected vice president — and when he shot Hamilton. Later, the ever embattled Burr platted the land of the Richmond Hill estate into the street grid we see today. But he was never able to develop the land as he apparently wanted to, as his finances — also ever embattled — forced him, in 1817, to sell to the “landlord of New York,” John Jacob Astor.
Astor moved Mortier House (it remained standing until 1849) and leveled the hill — 19th-century New York went nuts with the hill-leveling — and in place of house and hill he created a row house neighborhood that included the splendid bits we see today. It was a wealthy enclave. Clement Clarke Moore had his city house here when his country house, “Chelsea,” was north of the city at 23rd Street. In the 1820s, development began with what we call “Federal-style” houses — a funny name for what was, essentially, no less an English style than any of the colonial Georgian styles that came before it.This was, in any event, the architecture of “good breeding and good taste,” as critic Ada Louise Huxtable once put it.
After reading last week’s Abroad in New York column on Greek revival houses in Brooklyn Heights, you should soon be able to distinguish the Federal of the 1820s and 1830s from the “Grecian”of the 1830s and 1840s.Both types are present in this district.
The Greek revival, remember, has shelf-like entablatures pushed out from the entryway, and carried on full columns or boxy pilasters. The Federal, by contrast, has a doorway that is practically flush with the front of the house. Often there are columns between the paneled door and flanking leaded sidelights, but the Federal columns are slender and delicate, in the mode of the late 18th-century British architect Robert Adam.The Federal also often has lovely leaded transoms or, better still, semi-elliptical fanlights, above the front door. Stoops are lower than in the Greek revival. One way to view the difference is that in Federal houses you can often bound right from inside to the sidewalk — a reminder that houses once contained workshops or other business premises as well as domestic quarters. The later emphasis upon the house as the familial sanctum came with the Greek revival.
The famous architecture critic Montgomery Schuyler wrote in 1899 that Federal houses were “the most respectable and artistic pattern of habitation New York has ever known.”