In the Village, Another Piece of the City’s History Is Coming Down
One Monday in late November, preservationists, politicians, neighbors and looky-loos gathered at dusk on Manhattan’s tiny Gay Street, a slim crescent in the heart of Greenwich Village, to protest the demolition of a nearly 200-year-old house there. The place in question, 14 Gay Street, is one of a clutch of six winsome but precarious early 19th-century buildings on Gay and Christopher Streets that were owned for decades by Celeste Martin, a singular character devoted to her properties and to the often eccentric cast of tenants she nurtured.
Ms. Martin died in late 2018, at 94, with no will and no close relatives, so the city took over her holdings, selling 14 Gay Street and its siblings for about $9 million to a buyer who flipped them last April to Lionel Nazarian, a 37-year-old developer, for about $12 million. Since then, Mr. Nazarian has done foundation work that has destabilized 14 Gay Street and imperiled its neighbors, so the city has ordered its demolition, a slow, laborious process that began just before Thanksgiving.
Chillingly, this scenario is one that is playing out all over the city, said Andrew Berman, the executive director of Village Preservation and the organizer of the November protest: As developers have been buying up vulnerable landmark properties, they are either allowing them to deteriorate or doing work that compromises public safety. In the last year, he said, more than a dozen such buildings have come down.
Mr. Berman blames the lack of oversight and coordination by city agencies. “As a result,” he said, “our neighborhoods are paying the price, our city’s history and heritage are paying the price, and the irreplaceable historic landmarks that distinguish New York from everywhere else are being lost.”
The city, along with the Landmarks Preservation Commission, said in a statement it had approved plans for the work on Gay Street and that Mr. Nazarian’s construction crew did not follow their instructions. Preservationists like Mr. Berman and local politicians like Deborah Glick have cried foul, declaring that the city and the commission should have been overseeing the work and described Mr. Nazarian as a bad actor. In 2017, he was accused of creating hazardous conditions and tenant harassment in a property he owns in the East Village. Mr. Berman wondered if his actions were deliberate, to insure he wouldn’t have to restore his new holdings, but be allowed to tear them down and start fresh. For his part, Mr. Nazarian said the construction workers made a terrible mistake, adding that he loves historic architecture and just wants to preserve the buildings.
The doughty but fragile antique buildings that Ms. Martin left behind “are part of this incredible surviving collection of very early houses,” said Andrew S. Dolkart, a professor of historic preservation at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. “Dozens were built in the 1820s, but not many are left — certainly not in groups on a small, intimate street. They are really precious.”
The building at 14 Gay Street dates to 1827; its siblings, a year later. “They were originally built for the mercantile class,” Mr. Dolkart said. “They weren’t built for the wealthy. They aren’t pristine museum pieces: You can see they had lived, and been lived in, over time.”
That’s significant, because the early 19th century was the last period “that modest people, shop owners and small business owners, could afford to live in a single-family home in a built-up section of Manhattan,” he continued. “You can still see a number of these houses peppering the Village.”
By the end of the century, many had evolved into boardinghouses and multifamily dwellings. By then, Gay Street was an integrated block, with a large Black community and a melting pot of immigrants from Ireland, Denmark, France, Italy, Germany and Belgium.
All six buildings are landmarked — Gay Street is in the Village’s historic district — but No. 14 is especially noteworthy as a literary artifact, the onetime home of Ruth McKenney, who memorialized her dodgy subterranean apartment there in “My Sister Eileen,” a collection of stories about her adventures as a young writer in the city that was published in 1938 and inspired the fizzy early 1950s musical “Wonderful Town,” with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and music by Leonard Bernstein. (For years, a longtime tenant of the apartment, David Ryan, was awakened by tourists belting the refrain of the musical’s signature number, “Why, oh why, oh why-oh/Why did I ever leave Ohio?” and peering through the bars of his bedroom window. When the play was revived on Broadway in 2003, he suffered acutely.)
Ms. Martin’s father, Edmond, who was French, bought the six buildings that now belong to Mr. Nazarian in the 1920s, along with several other properties in the Village, including a fanciful pink Moorish-looking townhouse on Waverly Place, where Ms. Martin grew up. While his father wanted him to join the family’s sail-making business, Edmond fancied himself a real estate mogul and an artist. With the help of his wife, Ramee, he turned the Gay and Christopher Street buildings into a complex of furnished studio apartments, decorated by Ramee and outfitted with slipcovers and curtains sewn by their nanny.
In her short story “Mr. Spitzer and the Fungus,” Ms. McKenney renders Edmond as a pompous landlord with artistic pretensions — his character was called Mr. Appopolous in the musical — and her $45 a month basement flat, where she lived with her sister, Eileen, as a dimly lit dump sprouting with mold, including a particularly aggressive fungus that draped from the ceiling. “Every night we cut it down with Eileen’s manicure scissors,” she wrote, “and every morning it was long enough to braid. Eileen thought there was something shameful about the fungus, and she always carefully cut it down before we had a party.”
Edmond was said to have been miffed by his portrayal in Ms. McKenney’s work; he felt his artistic talents weren’t appropriately recognized. He was not a bad painter, said Matt McGhee, who for decades sold exquisite Christmas ornaments out of his fairyland boutique at 18 Christopher and lived in a one-bedroom next door.
Notably, though, Edmond was a racist, cited by the city for refusing to rent to Black people. At one point, he hung a sign in his office at 16 Gay Street declaring this policy. In 1959, The Daily News reported, he filed a suit against the city, claiming that its anti-discrimination housing law interfered with his “aesthetic freedom.” Needless to say, he did not prevail.
When he died in 1985, Ms. Martin inherited his properties, but not his bigotry. However, she was never the most assiduous steward of the houses.
As Jeanne Kelly, the former director of fossil preparations at the American Museum of Natural History and a Gay Street neighbor for two decades, put it, they were held together with spit and a prayer, and the haphazard ministrations of a retinue of helpers that at one point included a super who was blind and a physics teacher with a number of aliases.
But Ms. Martin was generous to her tenants, offering to waive rent if they were in extremis and delivering Christmas gifts of pink Champagne and sweets. (One year, Mr. McGhee said, the gifts included stuffed animals; he received a dog.)
She doted on many of the tenants, but Mr. Ryan, who moved into the McKenney apartment in the early 1970s and decorated it with distinctive, decaying élan, English country style, was a favorite. When “Wonderful Town” was in revival on Broadway in December of 2003, they saw the musical together. A few weeks later, on Christmas Eve, Mr. Ryan died in a fire that consumed his apartment, and Ms. Martin never quite recovered.
Instead of renovating the apartment, neighbors said, she left it to rot and to the rats. “It was the beginning of her decline,” Ms. Kelly said.
Since 1976, Denise Marsa, a singer-songwriter, has lived in her tidy studio around the corner, in the building Ms. Martin once owned at 18 Christopher Street. (She can still remember the original rent: $174.24.). She tried to help Ms. Martin in her final years, urging her to make a will, but her landlord “lived in a fairy tale,” she said.
Today, Ms. Marsa, 68, is the last residential tenant in the building, her cheerful apartment, with its kitchen tucked into a closet, an object lesson in small-space living and the promise of studio life as a launching pad. She, too, has rendered her home in song, as Comden and Green once did, in a number featured in “The Pass,” her one-woman show about making it in the big city, which she performed at United Solo, a theater festival in Manhattan, in the fall of 2021. (The storefronts below her are full; John Derian, the purveyor of his own brand of charming decay, took over the spot occupied by Mr. McGhee four years ago.)
Back at the rally organized by Mr. Berman, the mood was festive, despite everything. The growl of a bulldozer interrupted the protesters. Its driver, a private contractor, said he was there to do work under the road in front of 14 Gay Street. When questioned, he said he did not know who had hired him, and beat a retreat. Across the street, Joan Goldberg, a broker with Brown Harris Stevens, was holding a quasi-open house at 13 Gay Street, a modest Greek Revival built around 1840 and owned by Margaret Kunstler, the widow of the civil rights lawyer William Kunstler, who died in 1995 and was known for representing some controversial clients. (The house is on the market for $6.9 million.)
“It was a wonderful street to live on,” Ms. Kunstler said. “We had big Halloweens. Sometimes we would shut down the street for birthday parties. The house was open; there were constant comings and goings.”
These days, from the top floor of Ms. Kunstler’s house, you can see into the dark cavity that is all that’s left of where Ruth and Eileen McKenney once lived: two gaping window frames braced by wooden beams.
Representatives from the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the city said that the city will be taking action against Mr. Nazarian for what they say was illegal work done there. Furthermore, the city is requiring that the demolition of 14 Gay Street be done by hand and its material saved for use in a reconstruction that the city and the Landmarks Preservation Commission will oversee.
“I never intended to just let them rot,” Mr. Nazarian said of the buildings.
Asked to estimate what it might cost to restore them, he said, “More than I thought.”
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