What Does Pre-War Mean in the Village?

By Gordon Hughes

RESEARCH TELLS US THE OLDEST BUILDING STILL STANDING in the West Village is the Isaacs-Hendricks House built in 1799 and located at 77 Bedford Street (above). Photo by Bob Cooley.

People in New York love to talk about real Estate. They love to define the buildings as “pre or post-war.” They are referring to the “big one,” WWII, as the dividing line between old and new.

I tell my real estate friends that my co-op is pre-war, built before WWII, WWI, the Spanish American War and even the Civil War. My building was constructed in 1858. So where do you find a building of that age protected by the city? The West Village. Now, there are other parts of Manhattan and the other four boroughs that are protected but none have the cachet and mystique of the West Village.

Research tells us the oldest building still standing in the West Village is the Isaacs-Hendricks House built in 1799 and located at 77 Bedford Street. There is more to the history of our village than old buildings. The Village has been said to be a state of mind. I think there is real merit to that. Since its earliest days north of the wall, or what today is Wall Street, much like north of the wall in Game of Thrones, the Village has been mysterious, innovative, glamorous, politically fraught; an artistic enclave for those who are just a little different from the rest of those folks who inhabit New York City.

I love this quote from Wikipedia—“The West Village was historically known as an important landmark on the map of American bohemian culture in the early 20th century.” It is still true today, with layers of bohemian mixed with an influx of deep pockets wishing to have the aura that separates denizens of the Village from those uptown folks. So, we can thank the Lenape tribe who gave us the twisty, turning present streets. We can remember the Dutch settlers who would leave the south tip of Manhattan during the summer escaping the various diseases and in so doing developed farms.

Most of us who have lived in the Village know that Christopher Street is much wider at the Hudson River. Because of the early shipping trade, it moved over from the East River. Shipping created the first major change in the demographics of the neighborhood. Dutch and English were quickly surpassed by Italian and Irish immigrants who worked the docks and brought their life styles to the Village. This included restaurants, bakeries, churches— and the first coffee houses and taverns which began in the 1870s. The White Horse Tavern was one of the first. Patrons in the early days were stevedores and workmen who began to mingle with the likes of Jack Reed and other political activists.

Then a whole new crowd moved into the West Village. This period of the early 20th century up to the 1960s saw the development of a series of new residents because of the low rents. Workers began to follow their industries and relocate to other parts of NYC. Groups like the Beat Generation, then the hippies and gays all mingled and gave the Village its roguish reputation. It was a fun and exciting place for those north of 14th Street to spend evenings. Many of those joints have disappeared of late: Arthurs Tavern, Chumley’s and Cedar Tavern.

The VW vans are gone along with Condomania and Rebel Records. Range Rovers are parked all over and apartment sales are priced over the moon as are rents. The inhabitants, well, they still have their meeting places. They eat more salads than steaks and they pay a lot more for the green leafy dishes than they used to pay for a steak.

But you know what? I, for one, wouldn’t want to live any place else.