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Lafayette Lollygagging

Lafayette St. between E. 4th and Astor Pl. has a concentration of extraordinarily handsome buildings. Many are landmarked, most dating to the 1880-1900 period, and one goes back to 1831. Is there a better single block in Manhattan?

Lafayette St., named for the French general, is a relatively new addition to the Manhattan map. It was created in the early-1900s by extending it south from the formerly exclusive Lafayette Pl. (running for one block south of Astor Pl.) and combining it with the roadbeds of the former Marion and Elm Sts. A cutoff section of Elm St. is today’s Elk St. near City Hall.

Probably the most famed building here is the landmarked Colonnade Row (LaGrange Terrace) on today’s Lafayette St., constructed from 1831-1833 (on the much shorter and exclusive Lafayette Pl.) by architect Seth Geer, and originally consisted of nine houses, of which only four remain. When first built, the houses were occupied by social bright lights of the era such as the Astors and Vanderbilts. Washington Irving, Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray all stayed here and President John Tyler got married here on the sly. Since its plummy days, Colonnade Row has chipped, molted and deteriorated into a fabulous ruin.

The whereabouts of the five missing Colonnade Row buildings was a mystery, after John Wanamaker, the Philly department store king, bought them and removed them in the first decade of the 20th Century. It was thought the missing columns and facades were lost forever. It turns out they’ve been on the grounds of the Delbarton School, run by St. Mary’s Abbey in Morristown, NJ, for many years.

The Schermerhorn Building can be found a block south of E. 4th, on the NW corner of Great Jones St. It was designed by prolific architect Henry Hardenburgh and built in 1888. The architect also claimed the Plaza Hotel and the Dakota Apartments among his accomplishments.

DeVinne Press Building, 393-399 on the NE corner of E. 4th. When researching the building, from my Photo-Lettering type days, I remembered the Bodoni-esque DeVinne type font. Thomas DeVinne was a giant of print on either side of 1900, publishing then-popular but now forgotten magazines such as Scribner’s, Century, and St. Nicholas Children’s Magazine. The DeVinne name was famed for innovative type fonts and high-quality books and magazines.

411 Lafayette is also called the Durst Building. It features a cast-iron front on the bottom, including two-story columns, and masonry with “echoic” columns between the windows on the three floors above. It’s a former men’s clothing store and factory completed in 1894. As the National Register of Historic Places plaque affixed near the entrance says, the DeVinne Press Building boasts tremendously thick load-bearing walls as the building was completed in 1885, before the era of steel skeletons. Note the five different types of arched windows.

It’s a tossup about what’s the most distinctive building on old Lafayette Pl., between Colonnade Row and the Joseph Papp Public Theater, which face off across the old drag. Since the Colonnade hasn’t been taken care of over the years, and several units have been carted away, I suppose the Papp should take the prize. The building was built as the Astor Library and it forms such a cohesive unit today, you wouldn’t think it was completed in stages (1853, 1859, 1881) by three different architects. The Astor Library combined with two other libraries for form the NYPL and this was its flagship building before Patience and Fortitude, took their place at the “new” building on 5th and 42nd in 1912.

In 1967, stage impresario Joe Papp (1921-1991) got the City Council to authorize the purchase of the building as the new permanent home of the NY Shakespeare Festival, now the Public Theater. Both the inside and outside of the building were then meticulously rehabilitated.

436-440 Lafayette seems relatively modern but it’s older than it looks; it was on old Lafayette Pl. by 1870 and was constructed for men’s clothier Alfred Benjamin & Co. There are interesting touches like six escutcheons, or shields, each featuring two eagles and a ram’s head. Gerard Wolfe, in “New York: 15 Walking Tours,” thinks the haberdasher’s initials can be made out on them, but I don’t see it. There’s also a grand old brass clock left over from Mann Refrigeration’s tenancy in the building.

Fronting the narrow plot on Lafayette between Astor Pl. and E. 8th is the Astor Place Hotel, formerly known as the District 65 union hall, and before that, Clinton Hall and the Mercantile Library, completed in 1892. This Romanesque Revival building was designed by George E. Harney and constructed by the McCabe Brothers in 1890-92 for the Clinton Hall Association, which installed its Mercantile Library on the sixth and seventh floors. The mercantile library was founded in 1820 by the· clerks of downtown merchants as a private reference and circulating library. Originally located on Fulton St., the organization erected the first Clinton Hall in 1830 at Nassau and Beekman Sts., moving in 1854 to the former Astor Place Opera House on the site of the present building.

Old Clinton Hall has the distinction of being one of two stations to have a direct entrance from a subway platforms underneath it. A long bricked-up entrance can be found near the turnstile on the downtown Astor Pl. platform. The stations were built when you were sold a ticket and gave it to a second person who would take it and put it in a ticket chopper, and so buildings constructed above subway stations often placed entrances right onto the platforms. The building stands on the site of the Astor Place Opera House, where, in 1849, Nativist theatergoers rioted against the appearance of British actor William Macready. Twenty-two “patrons” were killed.

The classic Cooper Union building still anchors Cooper Sq. as it has since 1859. The school was founded by inventor Peter Cooper, who laid the first transatlantic cable, ran the first successful railroad, and was the first producer of edible gelatin (the father of Jell-O). The school’s great hall was where Abraham Lincoln launched his presidential campaign in 1860; other speakers have included Mark Twain, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony and presidents Grant, Cleveland, Taft, Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, Clinton and Obama.

—Kevin Walsh is the webmaster of the award-winning website Forgotten NY, and the author of the books Forgotten New York (HarperCollins, 2006) and also, with the Greater Astoria Historical Society, Forgotten Queens (Arcadia, 2013.)

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