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Tribeca, Hudson Square, and the Creation of a Neighborhood

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Welcome back to Curbed Classics, a column in which writer Lisa Santoro traces the history of a classic New York City building. Have a building to nominate for a future installment? Please suggest it to the tipline.

As recently as thirty years ago, Tribeca as we know it did not exist. The corner of the city now filled with upscale retail and restaurants and luxury real estate has, in fact, seen many cycles of development and decay since the 1630s, when it was still under Dutch ownership. One building that epitomizes this is the American Thread Building, but understanding its place in the history of the neighborhood requires traveling far back into the area's history.

Although this area was to become very desirable, its earliest form suggests the opposite. Prior to colonial settlement, the area abutted a stream bed located along present-day Canal Street, creating a marshy, frequently-flooded landscape. Despite these conditions, Trinity Church leased the land in 1700 and five years later received ownership of the property under a patent from Queen Anne. The land was used as farmland until 1800, when Trinity revealed plans to build a satellite church there and, in doing so, solidified its presence in the area. The church, St. John's Chapel, was to be located on the east side of Hudson Square?which, appearing on both the 1787 Taylor-Roberts and the 1800 Goerck-Mangin plans, was one of the oldest squares in New York City. The square originally extended from North Moore to Laight Streets between Varick and Hudson streets; by the time the chapel was completed, the southern boundary had moved one block north to Beach Street.

In May 1803, Trinity selected plans prepared by John McComb Jr. and his brother Isaac McComb. John McComb Jr. was an accomplished architect who designed Hamilton Grange (1802) and Castle Clinton (1808) and won the prestigious competition to design City Hall with fellow architect Francis Mangin (designed in 1802; built from 1810-1812). But McComb's presence didn't forestall debate over the chapel, because its location was perceived as unsuitable for development. In fact, the Lutherans declined an offer of land for a new church on the grounds that it wouldn't be worth the cost of fencing it in. But the land was drained and filled within the next decade, proving the soundness of Trinity's investment. Ignoring the opposition, Trinity moved forward with the building of St. John's Chapel. Constructed between 1803 and 1807, the Georgian-style church, inspired by London's St. Martin-in-the-Fields, features a nearly 215-foot-tall oak clock tower with a multi-storied spire.

The new chapel and the bucolic open space around it created just the country feel that would appeal to the wealthy elite eager to move north to escape the hustle and bustle of downtown. Creating a coveted destination took more than twenty years, but eventually Trinity was successful. The centerpiece of the development was the creation of St. John's Park, to be laid out on an adjacent lot bounded by what is now Laight Street, Varick Street, Ericsson Place and Hudson Street. Sixty-four parcels of land surrounding the park were to be leased for residential development. The owners were given private use of the park with one stipulation: if they failed to maintain it properly, the square would be handed over to the city. Eventually, stately brick townhouses surrounded a square with fancy modern amenities: gaslight, fencing, paved streets and curbstones, and planted vegetation.

But the industrial expansion along the Hudson River and the opening of commercial establishments on the major thoroughfares meant that by the mid-19th century, even St. John's Park was no longer a pristine residential enclave. The wealthy residents left their homes and relocated to the more fashionable areas of the day, such as Washington Square and Chelsea. An editorial in the Times described this time:

"For a dozen years or more the houses around St. John's Park have been filled up with cheap boarders; the fine old mansions are crammed with clerks, and tradesmen and mechanics, and the locality is so distinctly appropriated to these purposes as to be known chiefly as "Hash-square." Only the grave old trees and the dilapidated church (with its offensive pews labelled "for the poor") remain of the glories of a past age. Along the fine iron fences hang penny songs; peanut boys squat on the stone foundations: dirty tramps haunt the walks at night, and in every way the glory has departed."

The final blow occurred in 1866 when St. John's Park was sold for $1 million to Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt's Hudson River Railway Company. By 1867, the park was decimated?200 trees were removed and a railroad freight depot, the St. John's Park Depot, was built. According to the Times editorial quoted above, this was perceived as a necessary, albeit painful, endeavor:

"As a park it has never been available, save to the few who rented property near by. The people now living there are tenants and wanderers, and there are very few property rights that can be damaged by the change. The establishment of a great freighting business there will pretty surely open up all the streets from Franklin to Canal for mercantile business, and add vastly to the wealth of the west side of the Ward, as the magnificent warehouses between Broadway and Church-street are adding to the east side.." Unfortunately, losing St. John's Park was not the only casualty the area would face in the name of development. In the 1890s, Trinity announced plans to demolish the chapel, which had fallen into disrepair and lost parishioners. Despite the push for preservation from politicians, historical societies and even the Times, Trinity held steadfast to the plans and in 1918, St. John's Chapel was demolished and the site was sold for a sum exceeding $200,000. Today a commercial building, 50 Varick Street, stands on the spot. And not too far away lies the approach to the Holland Tunnel, on the site where St. John's Park used to be.

These actions ushered in progress and new growth. With the freight depot came an era of factory and warehouse construction that would leave us with the built fabric of modern Tribeca. From as early as the 1850s, the area became known as a center of textile manufacturing and this legacy would continue well into the 20th century. One building that encapsulates the area's new role is 260 West Broadway, today referred to as the American Thread Building and located in close proximity to where St. John's Chapel and St. John's Park once stood. In 1894, the New York Wool Warehouse Company commissioned prominent architect William B. Tubby (known for such Brooklyn structures as Pratt Institute's Library, the Charles Millard Pratt House and the William H. Childs House) to design a building exclusively to serve the wool trades, in the hope that the wool industry of the city, and even the country, might be eventually centered there. In addition, the building would also house a wool watch house, a wool bank, and the New York Wool Club, of which membership would be limited to a maximum of three hundred in the industry. The most significant entity would be the New York Wool Exchange, a trading organization to rival the established wool exchange in Boston.

Completed in 1896, the eleven-story Renaissance revival building conformed to the street, creating a stately façade that curved nearly 175 feet from Beach Street along the building's south façade onto West Broadway. The building's three-story base, comprised of an alternating limestone and Roman brick pattern, was to house the Wool Exchange. The interior of the building was designed to have the offices along the street wall, to maximize the available light, with showroom space in the center. The building features various decorative elements that distinguish it from the factories and warehouses prevalent in the area; such features include round arched windows, scrolled iron cartouche spandrel panels, keystones, medallions and Roman Ionic columns around the entranceway. Unfortunately the building's grandeur did not equate success for its owner?the Wool Exchange never came to fruition and the New York Wool Warehouse Company would close in 1898, after only two years of operation.

Although its original owner would have an abrupt tenure, the building would last. The American Thread Company, which had already occupied three floors of the building while under the previous owner, purchased the building in 1907 and remained there until the mid 1960s.

Within two decades, this area would undergo another monumental change that has left us with the "TriBeCa" we are familiar with today. Similar to the previous redevelopments, this transformation?the conversion of warehouse and factory space into residential lofts?thoroughly revitalized the area, reestablishing its reputation as an upscale and fashionable enclave once more. Given the City Planning Commission's recent approval of the nearby Hudson Square Rezoning in January 2013, it is a fair assertion that this area will continue to be redeveloped and transformed to suit the needs of its current inhabitants.
?Lisa Santoro

Further reading:
· Jackson, Kenneth T, Ed. The Encyclopedia of New York City. 2nd Edition. Yale University: 2010.
· A Chapel the City Fought to Save [NYT]
· Name that Neighborhood: Tribeca Not So Triangular [The Bowery Boys]
· American Thread Company [Walter Grutchfield]
· St. John's Lane [ENY]
· Lost City's Guide to Tribeca [Lost City]
· Curbed Classics archive [Curbed]