March 19, 2011

New York City's "Not So Secret" Enclaves: Grove Court

(Grove Court: Gotham Walking Tours LLC)

Nestled between Numbers 10 and 12 Grove Street, one of the most charming streets of the West Village, is a row of six, brick-faced townhouses, sitting serenely in an ivy-laden patch of land.  Welcome to Grove Court, one of several private courts scattered throughout the City.  The three story structures are approximately 990 square feet in size - small structures when one considers the fact that the average size of townhouses in 19th Century New York City was a respectable 2,000 square feet.

The six shuttered townhouses, completed between 1853 and 1854, were the brainchild of an enterprising businessman named Samuel Cocks; Cocks' eponymous grocery was located at the corner of Grove and Bedford.  What better way, he reasoned, to attract even more customers to his place of business, than by building a row of houses for tradesmen and laborers who, as luck had it, would end up patronizing his store.  

(Grove Court: Gotham Walking Tours LLC)
To understand the origins of Grove Court, however, requires a brief (I promise) history of Grove Street.

It didn't start out as "Grove," as those of us who are students of the necrology of New York City streets are no doubt aware.  It was originally named "Columbia" Street, and then renamed "Cozine" Street, after a prominent family who lived in the area.  From there, it became "Burrows" Street.  William Burrows, an officer in the reconstituted United States Navy, saw service during the First Barbary War and the War of 1812.  He died while in command of his ship, The Enterprise, during a skirmish with the British brig, The Boxer.  Alas for the poor Lieutenant, Burrows Street was then renamed to "Grove" Street, so as to avoid any confusion with the nearby "Barrow" Street.

Grove Street was so named because of the lush greenery and cascading trees that once occupied the area. (It's still a wonderfully "green" block by New York City standards).  The charming row of Federal style houses to the right of Grove Court (note the Flemish bond brickwork, the six over six window panes and their clean lintels, the charming little dormers, and the wrought iron railings), were built by James N. Wells between 1825 and 1834.  This row of houses (as well as Grove Court), evokes images of Bloomsbury, a district in Central London between Euston Road and Holborn, that is famous for its garden squares.  Note the small buildings to the very far right of the following 1787 print of Queens Square, with the wonderful 1936 photograph by Berenice Abbott, also below, to get an idea of the similarities between the row houses:

(Bloomsbury: Wikipedia)

(Grove Street: Berenice Abbott, Changing New York, 1936, NYPL Digital Collection)

Difficult to believe, but Grove Court was the last place one would want to live in mid-19th Century New York City.  It lacked all the vestiges of  respectability - the houses were small, lacked the stoops so common among the brownstones of the day, and, most glaringly, were devoid of any prestigious street frontage.  They were, in short, "backhouses" designed to house the poor of the City.  So poor, in fact, that its inhabitants couldn't even afford a proper pint of ale and had to resort to drinking a foul concoction - the nasty dregs that remained in their local barkeeps' beer barrel.  Literally the "bottom of the barrel."  Hence Grove Court's old moniker - "Mixed Ale Alley."  (It was also referred to as "Pig Alley.")

In the 1920's, the Grove Court parcel was sold by Trinity Church and the Trinity Corporation to Alentaur Realty Company, a real estate concern that intended to transform the houses into a haven for the artists and writers who were flooding into the Village. (Unfortunately, the further development of the parcel meant that families that had resided in Grove Court for a generation were displaced). 

Trinity's sale of the Grove Street parcel barely made a dent in its holdings: a 1705 land grant from Queen Anne to Trinity Church deeded all of the land west of Broadway, and between Fulton and Christopher Streets, to the Church.  That huge swath of land, previously known as the "Queen's Farm," was subsequently referred to as the "Church Farm." 

(Trinity was also entitled to all unclaimed shipwrecks and beached whales in the Hudson. Now, I've lived in Tribeca, right on the Hudson, for a number of years, and have yet to see a whale, let alone a beached whale.  (Does anyone know whether whales ever frequented the river?)  As for unclaimed shipwrecks, I used to joke about that fact as well, until the construction crews at the World Trade Center site uncovered the skeletal remains of an 18th Century shipwreck in the foundation of the site. I've since taken the "shipwreck joke" out of the repertoire of stories I recount to my clients when telling them about the development of Lower Manhattan).

Times have changed . . . Grove Court is now one of the most coveted row of townhouses in the West Village; a private enclave that, somewhat like Gramercy Park, is inaccessible unless you have access to one of the coveted keys that unlock its solitary, narrow gateway.  Thankfully, Grove Court survived a 1950's plan to raze the townhouses and to replace them with a playground for P.S. 3, the elementary school located directly opposite its gateway.

So . . . the next time you're in the neighborhood . . . look for this little oasis of greenery nestled between the houses on Grove.  Close your eyes, block out the street noise (and the gaggle of natives and visitors alike who are busily taking photos of the television series' "Friends" house located at the junction of Grove and Bedford), and imagine yourself living in this wonderful little Court. 

We can dream . . . can't we?

(This is one of several articles that will focus on the City's hidden enclaves.  Please stay tuned . . . . )

Lina Viviano
Gotham Walking Tours

Walk Gotham!

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