A History of Greenwich Village's "Main Street"
Eighth Street is one of New York City's most historic and iconic thoroughfares. It has seen major transformation over the centuries. First developed in the 1820s, it was New York's cultural main street in the 1840s and 50s; during the late Victorian era, it was part of the Ladies Mile high-class shopping district. In the early 20th century, it was bohemia's main street; and from the 1930's to the 1960's, along with St. Marks Place, it was New York's downtown nightclub district and the place where American painters gained world fame as the leaders in art. It became a tourist destination; and today, while still a magnet for sightseers, it also flourishes as a commercial and residential district.
1600s - 1700s – Tobacco Farms and Indian Trail
The farmhouse of the Dutch colonial governor Wouter Van Twiller stood at what is now the southwest corner of MacDougal and Eighth Street. Van Twiller's tobacco farm and other farms covered this section of the island until the 1830's. An old Indian trail crossed the island about the latitude of present day Eighth Street; named Greenwich Lane in the English colonial era. It was closed when the new streets were created in the 1820's. Remnants of old Greenwich Lane exist today as Greenwich Avenue, Astor Place and Stuyvesant Street.
1810s – The Boundary of Old and New
For Manhattan's new street plan, the city commissioners defined Eighth Street, between Sixth Avenue and the Bowery as one of the grid-conforming streets separating the old city from the new. The land below Greenwich Avenue and Eighth Street, west of the Bowery, was already considered too developed (i.e., too many house moves required) for strict imposition of the new grid plan. Streets from the old city developed in the 1700's were extended to, and stopped, at Eighth Street. These streets- Mercer, Greene, Wooster, Laurens, Thompson, Sullivan and MacDougal -- named for heroic generals of the Revolution, all ended at Eighth Street until aptly named Washington Square was carved out of them in the 1820's, terminating Laurens (now LaGuardia Place), Thompson and Sullivan. The fact that none of these streets, except for University Place as an extension of Wooster Street, were extended north of Eighth Street caused a major traffic headache for the city.
1820s – Eighth Street Graded and Land Developed
Land owners welcomed the new streets for development of their properties. In the early 1800's there were two major owners of land crossed by the future Eighth Street: the Rogers family who owned the western section from what is now Fifth to Sixth Avenues, and Sailor's Snug Harbor, a trust for retired and disabled sailors, which owned the land east of the Rogers property to the Bowery. Rogers daughters married into the Chisholm and Rhinelander families, and these three -- Chisholms, Rhinelanders and Sailor's Snug Harbor -- have influenced the life of the street to the present day. Sailor's Snug Harbor's 99-year leases inhibited large scale conversion of properties to commercial buildings, and most of its original houses were converted to loft space and stores.
1830s – First Houses and New York University Opens
The area begins to flourish. In 1835, New York University opens its first building (now called Silver Center) on the corner Washington Square East and the Park. The first non-farm houses were built on Eighth Street. The eastern end of the street intersected then ultra-fashionable Lafayette Place and Broadway. The western end of the street ended at Greenwich Avenue and the new Jefferson Market complex. A number of private and public stables were built on this western end of Eighth Street. The Jefferson Market (1832) at one end and the Tompkins Market (1836) at the other (Bowery and 7th Street) were major factors in eventually turning Eighth Street into a commercial strip.
1840s – Eighth Street becomes Clinton Place and a Literary Scene Emerges
Dr. John Mason's church, built in 1812, once the most influential in the city, was moved stone-by-stone from Murray Street, at the head of the original Columbia campus, to Eighth Street at the head of Lafayette Place. A group of wealthy gentlemen built the new home of Italian Opera at the intersection of Astor Place and Eighth Street. On May 10, 1849, it was the sight of the notorious Astor Place Riots which left 25 dead and more than 120 injured making it the worst civic disturbance of its time.
Evert Duyckinck, a publisher and important intellectual, established his library (a founding part of the New York Public Library) in his home at what is now 50 East Eighth Street. Eighth Street (Sixth Avenue to the Bowery) was named Clinton Place in memory of Dewitt Clinton, an American statesman, whose widow lived a few doors away on University Place. The street kept the name Clinton Place until the turn of the century.
Ann Lynch began her literary salon at 116 Waverly Place off Washington Square, and moved to the house that formerly stood at 37 West Eighth Street in 1848. She attracted so many notable authors and editors to her salon that she not only became the city's recognized literary hostess of the mid-century, but was the precedent for writer's gatherings in Greenwich Village.
1850s – A Cultural and Academic Center Develops
In 1859, Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art was established at the eastern end of Astor Place. It was created to be a world-class education in art, architecture and engineering. The school was free for the working class and it was open to women as well as men and taking people of all races.
The Century Association, an arts and letters association whose members included Winslow Homer, Stanford White and Frederick Law Olmsted, moved uptown to what is now 46 East Eighth Street to be closer to its members. Bible House, an early office building, housed the presses and offices of the American Bible society. These institutions together with the Opera House, the nearby Astor and Society Libraries and the Studio Building created one of the foremost cultural centers in the nation.
The Brevoort Hotel was created from three houses at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and Eighth Street. It was also Fifth Avenue's first hotel. The Brevoort later expanded into additional adjoining houses and became a gastronomical and cultural landmark in the city. It closed in 1952.
John Taylor Johnston was the son of one of wealthy founders of the Row on Washington Square. He enhanced his fortune by developing railroads and built an opulent marble house on the S.W. corner of Fifth Avenue and Eighth Street. This house contained an art gallery which was open to the public one day of the week. Johnston, a businessman and connoisseur, was the first president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
1870s - 1900s – Commercial Business Grows
In the first wave of apartment house building in the 1870's, several small-scale apartment houses replaced stables and houses on the less opulent western end of the street (west of MacDougal Street). This, probably more than any other factor, prevented major commercial growth on the street for many years. At the same time, elevated railroads were being built on Sixth Avenue and the Bowery with stops at Eighth Street; and a cross-town streetcar line was constructed on Eighth Street in 1876. This transportation development ensured that Eighth Street became a commercial strip.
The first major commercial structure built on Eighth Street was an office building on the southwest corner of Broadway and Eighth. It housed the offices of the Dodd, Mead & Co., then one of the important publishers in the city. The publishing and garment trades were fast encroaching from the eastern end of the street, and by the turn of the century nearly all of the buildings from the Bowery to Fifth Avenue were devoted to trade.
In 1904, John Wanamaker, a Philadelphia department store magnate, took over the famous old A.T. Stewart store on Broadway between 9th and 10th Streets, and created a mammoth extension of the store on the block south. This large department store rivaled the city's other big department stores and anchored the "Ladies Mile" carriage trade at Eighth Street until the 1950's. Mass movement of population to the suburbs after W.W.II finally caused the store's closing. The remaining store extension at Eighth Street is now an office building.
1910s - 1930s – Bohemia's Main Street
Artists, including well-to-do ones like Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and Daniel Chester French, began moving into MacDougal Alley stables and West Eighth Street houses shortly after 1900. Sailor's Snug Harbor took advantage of this trend and secured the leases for the houses and stables on East Eighth Street and Washington Mews between Fifth Avenue and University Place. In 1916, most of these structures were demolished for a unique complex of housing and studios for artists. This complex reversed a trend toward complete commercialization of East Eighth Street, and its success inspired restoration of the surrounding area to residential use. This nucleus of an artist's community and cheap housing attracted the growing bohemian element which would later make Greenwich Village famous. Significant Eighth Street sites during the first decades of the 20th century were Gonfarones hotel and restaurant on the southwest corner of MacDougal Street, the Washington Square Bookshop at 17 West Eighth Street, Charles Edison's Thimble Theater on the N.W. corner of Fifth Avenue, and the Brevoort Hotel. The Lafayette Hotel, the less-pricey sister hotel of the Brevoort, was another important bohemian hangout a short block away on the S.E. corner of Ninth Street and University Place. The A Club, one of the early associations of bohemians had their cooperative living quarters at 3 Fifth Avenue, just below Eighth Street; and Mabel Dodge, patron of bohemians, held her famous salon in her home nearby on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 9th street.
"Papa" Strunsky, a West Eighth street resident at number 19, was a landlord famous in the city for his leniency to deadbeat artists. His daughter Leonore married Ira Gershwin. Another daughter, Emily, married a writer; and, during the 1920's, Saturday evenings in Emily's apartment at 18 West Eighth street attracted George and Ira Gershwin and many others involved with new ideas related to the theater, music and painting.
The skyscraper hotel One Fifth Avenue was built during 1927, and the strikingly modern movie theater, Eighth Street Playhouse, was built on the site of a number of old wooden buildings near Sixth Avenue. The movie theater, in particular, helped reverse a serious decline on that end of the street caused in part by the building of the Sixth and Eighth Avenue subway lines with mass destruction of buildings over the route.
Charles Lindbergh accepted the $10,000 prize for his famous flight across the Atlantic at the Brevoort Hotel in 1927.
As the artist community grew around Eighth Street after 1900, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney became a benefactor of the Ashcan School and other American painters. She converted hers and the three adjoining West Eighth Street houses into the first home of the Whitney Museum in 1931. This museum became one of the most influential factors in American art, a role it continues to play. The Whitney moved uptown in the 1950's, and the building continues today as the New York Studio School at the home of the 8 West Eighth Street.
At the far western end of the street another development, the new Women's House of Detention, would spell trouble for Eighth Street. Considered the latest in prison design when it was built in the Jefferson Market complex in 1929-32, its influence over the years impacted Eighth Street values until its inmates were moved to Riker's Island in the 1970's.
Following the end of Prohibition in 1933, Eighth Street west of University Place became one of New York's premier entertainment spots. The #1 Bar in the One Fifth Avenue Hotel where Bob Hope met Dorothy Lamour starting out as a singer, the dining room and bar of the Brevoort, and the Village Barn in the Eighth Street Playhouse building were early attractions. Later the Bon Soir just west of MacDougal Street was host to entertainers like Lenny Bruce, Barbara Streisand and Joan Rivers. This era ended in the 1970's with the closing of the Bon Soir and #1 Bar. The Cookery, a latecomer on the northeast corner of Eighth Street and University Place lasted until the 1980's.
In the 1930's another generation of artists settled on and around Eighth Street, who would transform the world of art and America's role in it. This group became known as the New York School of abstract painters. Hans Hoffman began his studio and school in the Eighth Street Playhouse building in 1938. Jackson Pollock had moved into a 5-story walk-up apartment in an old building at 46 East Eighth Street in 1935. Other New York School artists moved into lofts and apartments in and around Eighth Street, establishing their meeting places there. The main gathering places of the New York School artists were in loft space in old houses at 35 and 37 East Eighth Street and the Cedar Bar, which was located in a loft building a few doors above Eighth Street on University Place. As this group became famous throughout the 1940's and '50's the Cedar Bar became a tourist attraction. The bar closed in 1962 when the building was demolished for the Brevoort East apartment building.
1950's – Residential Boom on East Eighth Street
By 1950, the post-W.W.II building boom was well underway and both the Rhinelander Estate and Sailor's Snug Harbor converted blocks of their property to apartment houses. The Rhinelander Estate proposed a building covering the eastern end of the block bounded by Washington Square North, Fifth Avenue, and West Eighth Street up to the Whitney Museum. This proposal resulted in an early landmarks preservation fight with the community which succeeded in reducing the size of the building on the Washington Square side. Sailor's Snug Harbor, which had begun demolishing some old buildings on East Eighth Street began in the 1950's to demolish entire city blocks from Fifth Avenue to Broadway between Eighth and 9th Streets, including the revered Brevoort Hotel. Similarly, a large parcel on the south side of Eighth Street between University Place and Broadway was razed.
On these properties Sailor's Snug Harbor began developing relatively low-scale apartment buildings with stores on Eighth Street. As the building boom continued into the 1960's two high-rise apartment developments reinforced the residential quality of East Eighth Street.
The 26-story Brevoort East was built on the eastern end of the Brevoort Hotel block, and Rose Associates built a 33-story apartment building on the south side of Eighth Street between Broadway and Mercer Street. From the 1950's to the present, this combination of residential units and stores has made Eighth Street between Fifth Avenue and Broadway a pleasant neighborhood shopping street.
1960s - 1970s – Eighth Street Changes Again
By 1965, successive generations of bohemians and the press had created a tourist mecca on MacDougal Street, which soon spilled over onto West Eighth Street. One of the first effects of this influx of sightseers was the conversion of two shops to fast-food outlets in 1965, replacing a women's wear shop and a neighborhood pharmacy. The trend continued with the loss of neighborhood bookstores on West Eighth Street.
West Eighth Street over the years had become increasingly commercial, first with neighborhood-oriented stores at street level. Following the building of the Women's House of Detention and a huge multi-line subway stop at Sixth Avenue, West Eighth Street became lined with more and more tourist-oriented shops. By 1966, with the street filled with old housing stock, the street's future unclear and landmark preservation legislation immanent, the Chisholm Estate demolished four houses' 16-22 West Eighth Street, for a two-story taxpayer. Landmark Preservation laws enacted in 1967 have prevented further such changes on this section of Eighth Street.
The House of Detention closes following the mid-1970's recession. The building was demolished in 1973, and replaced by a community garden which in part contributes to resurgence in Greenwich Village generally. The One Fifth Restaurant opened in 1976 with new decor and management as one of the most exciting downtown restaurants.
1980s -1990s – Eighth Street Anchor Opens
A fast-food store had occupied a taxpayer on the southeast corner of Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue since subway construction ended in the early 1930's. By 1980, Nathan's, a hot-dog outlet, occupied the location with many neighborhood complaints. One of the more dramatic changes occurred when B. Dalton booksellers built their store on the site, restoring a cultural element to the street, and creating a precedent for future developments. The block also attracted alternative fashion retailers and becomes identified as "shoe alley" for the variety of footware establishments that can be found there. It also becomes a tourist destination for both shopping and its cultural history.
The 21st Century – Continued Growth
Building off of the East Eighth Street Improvement Plan by Rose Associates, local merchants form the Village Alliance Business Improvement District in 1993. The Alliance works with area constituents to ensure the vitality of its district which runs along Eighth Street from 6th Ave to 2nd Avenue; from Sixth Avenue from West Fourth to West Twelfth Street and University Place from Eighth to Thirteenth.
Since 1996, the Alliance has been offering free walking tours and summer information booths for tourists. For the past ten years the Alliance has been enhancing the area's streetscape with hanging baskets during the summer time. A big victory came for the organization when the Alliance petitioned the City to widen Eighth Street sidewalks and install special historic lighting and street trees in 2001/2002.
Beginning in the 1990s, the eastern end of Eighth Street has seen a lot of development. In 1997, the original Art Theater at 34-42 East 8th Street is renovated by NYU to become the Cantor Film Center and houses classes and independent films. 770 Broadway, originally home to the Wanamaker department store, was renovated as a Class A office building attracting high tech and fashion tenants such as AOL, Huffington Post, JCrew and Kmart.
Astor Place transformation begins in 2006 with the opening of a high end glass residential tower developed by The Related Companies and designed by Charles Gwathmey and Robert Siegel at 445 Lafayette Street. Cooper Union develops a new academic center at 45 Cooper designed by Thom Mayne in 2009. More change will be coming to Astor Place in the next few years with the City's redesign of the street grid to create a grand new civic space and the opening of 51 Astor Place, a 400,000 sq ft Fumihiko Maki designed office building, developed by Edward Minksoff on the site of Cooper Union's old engineering building.
West Eighth Street has diversified itself by becoming an arts center alongside a local neighborhood retail corridor. The artistic heart of Eighth Street is still strong with Electric Lady recording studios, Lomography, a mecca for photography enthusiasts, and the Textile Arts Center, a creative center for people interested in making and working with fabrics. Restaurant cuisine varies from Spanish, Japanese, French and Indian. The café culture of the street will come alive again with the opening of Stumptown Coffee in 2013. Eighth Street will continue to evolve over the centuries but will surely remain a cultural and artistic mainstay for the Village.
Written with contributions by Luther Harris