Chenault Spence, a Southern Accent in The Village

By Brian and Joy Pape

Chenault in front of his red front door. Credit: Brian Pape.

Born in the old south of Concord, N.C., Chenault Spence grew up surrounded by marvelous historic architecture and people who were fond of old houses. Davidson, N.C. was a “family seat” for the Spences where their great-grandmother had established a big house called the Sparrow’s Nest, adjacent to Davidson College. Later, when the big house was demolished, the former slave quarters in the back were rehabbed for new uses and took the name Sparrow’s Nest.

Chenault grew up in the midst of “old south” buildings, arts and aesthetics. He recalled, “My grandmother’s brother was Robert Sparrow, the business partner of J.E.R. Carpenter. He was responsible for the construction of buildings… way up north in New York. Later, I learned that they were important big buildings. His apartment at 1170 Fifth Avenue was on the 7th floor. His theory was that mosquitos could only fly up to the 6th floor. This was my first connection with architecture in New York.”

After majoring in theater and lighting for dance and opera at the University of North Carolina, Chenault moved to NYC to be in the theater capital. He lived mostly in the Village from 1960 until moving into his townhouse in 1972. “This 1832 vintage home had documents from 1837 approving a stable to be constructed in the back. There was no reference to how horses could get there from the street, so we assume there was an alley from one end of the block,” he noted.

I got my first job in New York in 1960 at the original Duplex on Grove Street where I used five rotary household dimmers to provide lighting. This led to lighting work and set design in the early years of The Fantasticks and Dames at Sea. Then, I landed my first job with a dance company in 1965—Erick Hawkins, who lived at Patchin Place and had a studio on lower Fifth Avenue.”

Chenault’s career would take him to 70 countries. He worked with 50 or so dance and opera companies, including the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. “Working in opera houses around the world, especially Philadelphia, Buenos Aires, Paris, Prague and Milan, afforded an opportunity to live in great architectural works of the world and among the best-preserved buildings in any city,” he said.

Chenault told us about changes in the Village and how the pandemic altered his life. “I love to travel,” he said. “When the pandemic hit, all travel stopped. My Myanmar trips, summers in the Berkshires and even the Christmas family holidays in N.C. for the first time in my life! When I began traveling less, I took more notice of the Village and changes around me. For example, many antique shops that lined Bleecker Street slowly became retail and clothing shops or vacant. There were more people then, with enough money to support the mom-and-pop stores, but now it is less so.

Many multi-family buildings have been reverted to single-family homes with welcome attention to restorations of stoops and windows.”

Speaking about his interest in architecture, he said, “I became a public member on the Landmarks Committee of the Community Board 2 (CB2) over 25 years ago and I was later appointed a full member. I stuck with it, becoming the chair. Since I joined the Community Board, my work in preservation has made me give more attention to the issues, studying up on rules and regulations. I am a great flâneur and strolling about becomes a happy combination of a relaxing walk and “working,” in that I am always on the lookout for a special detail on a historic building or a horror that needs to be reported to the Landmarks Commission.”

For the last 10 years, Chenault spent two months of each year in Myanmar as president of The Cetana Educational Foundation, which provides English language training to underserved young people throughout the country. He has also worked with the Yangon Heritage Trust to preserve historic architecture, especially in the downtown colonial Yangon area. The trust was founded by Thant Myint-U, grandson of UN Secretary General U Thant.

His old favorite restaurants have all closed, with only Gene’s at 73 West 11th Street, called “Authentic New York, 1919-2023” remaining with its nostalgic interiors and food. His favorite places now are the Commerce and Bedford blocks of the oldest houses in the Village and the Cherry Lane Theater corner. He also likes the Tenth Street to Bank Street sequence of townhouses, apartment buildings and shops with their interesting variety of architecture.

“The best thing about the Village is living here; it is a real village, a village apart. I know my neighbors and the postman,” he said. “I know which market has the best lettuce and cheese (West Side Market) and the lowest price for my favorite yogurt (Brooklyn Fare) and the best avocado oil when it is in stock (Lot-Less). I know the few weeks when the asparagus are at their prime at Mary’s stand in Abingdon Square. I also love giving tourists directions to the Friends house on Bedford Street and I then insist that they walk south to see my favorite section of the Village!”

When asked where he got his particular accent, Chenault credits his N.C. boyhood, his Irish grandfather and his unconscious need to modify his accent with impatient NYC taxi drivers.