For 95 years now, a curious mosaic has sat, undisturbed, in the ground at Seventh Avenue South and Christopher Street, right in front of Village Cigars. The plaque, though a bit worse for wear, reads clearly: “Property of the Hess Estate Which Has Never Been Dedicated for Public Purposes.”
This is the Hess Triangle, and not only was it once the smallest piece of privately-owned property in New York City, it’s also one of the few bits of “spite” real estate—which is exactly what it sounds like—in the five boroughs.
Though the plaque was placed in 1922, the little triangle’s story actually begins in 1910. According to the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, more than 300 buildings in the area were slated for demolition to make way for the street improvements, as well as the incoming IRT subway line (now the 1 train). The city claimed eminent domain to seize the buildings, and despite the protests of landowners, they were gone just a few years later. (The Christopher Street subway station opened in 1918.)
One of those buildings was The Voorhis, a five-story apartment building that stood on the corner of Seventh and Christopher. It was owned by Philadelphia landlord David Hess, who’d fought against losing his building. But eminent domain can’t be stopped, and the Voorhis was torn down by 1914.
But the city goofed when it surveyed the land to be claimed; it missed a tiny parcel on the corner, measuring just over two square feet, that was still owned by Hess’s heirs. When the city realized its error, it asked the Hess family to donate the parcel of land—but they were still angry over losing their building, and said no. Per the GVSHP, the Hess family eventually “went to court to avow their property rights, and won the case.” And so to mark their victory—and to thumb their noses at the city—the Hesses had the mosaic plaque created and placed on the corner on July 26, 1922, an occasion that was curious enough to merit a mention in The New York Times.
The Hess family held onto the land until 1938, when they sold it to the owners of Village Cigars for $1,000. At some point—possibly when that building sold to Yeshiva University in the 1990s—the Hess land was lumped into the parcel at 110 Seventh Avenue South, losing its claim to the title of New York’s smallest piece of privately-owned land.
But the plaque remains, and is now one of those beautiful bits of New York City ephemera documenting the myriad quirks that make New York, well, New York.