I’ll never forget the day I first spotted the 19th century West Village farmhouse that shouldn’t exist.
I was driving down Greenwich Street when I happened to glance over and notice a strange little building poking through the trees.
I pulled over and headed down Charles Street…
…and came upon what has to be the single most unusual house in all of Manhattan:
This is 121 Charles Street, a Manhattan farmhouse believed to date to the early 1800s. And, as reported in the news last week, there is now a very sad possibility it could soon be torn down and replaced by a modern development.
The farmhouse, known to some as Cobble Court, is actually a transplant to the Village, having been moved here from its original location at 71st and York Ave. Little is known about its past, though it is believed to have been a restaurant in the early 1900s, and later, the studio of Margaret Wise Brown, who you probably know for having written this book (among over a hundred others)…
By the 1960s, the farmhouse was being rented by a couple, the Bernhards, when the Archdiocese of New York purchased it and the surrounding properties, to be demolished for the creation of a nursing home. Though the archdiocese tried to pay the Bernhards to leave, the couple had fallen in love with the farmhouse and weren’t interested in the money. Finally, an agreement was reached: they would leave, but only if they could take the house with them.
And so, on March 5th, 1967, the farmhouse was loaded onto a flatbed and brought to a vacant lot off of Greenwich Street, which the Bernhards had purchased for $30,000. As the truck pulled away, Mrs. Bernhard exclaimed “It’s saved! It’s saved!”
To me, 121 Charles Street is one of the most charming residences in the city.
Everywhere you look, the house seems to delight in the merging of the most unlikely angles imaginable.
It’s almost as if, after being dropped into place, the house let out a sigh and slumped down into its final, very relaxed resting spot.
The Bernhards even transported the original cobblestones from the property…
…and put up an extra wide gate because Mrs. Bernhard didn’t want passersby to feel embarrassed for looking.
The house features a beautiful garden typically overflowing with flowers, along with two Concord grape trees, a sour cherry tree, two fig trees, a magnolia and a dogwood…
…and could this be the only front door doggy flap in Manhattan??
In 1988, the house was purchased by its current owners who, according to this 2008 NY Times profile, seemed to be as enchanted with the the property as the Bernhards. As detailed in the piece, they worked hard to restore it, with a small addition earning them an award from the Greenwich Village Historical Society. One of the owners even gushes about first falling in love with the property when driving past as a child, thinking whoever lived there to be “the luckiest man in New York.”
Then, something very unexpected appeared on the internet a week or two ago: a real estate listing for the property as a $20,000,000 development site:
There is not a single mention of the farmhouse in the entire listing. Instead, the property is described as a “4,868 square foot lot creating a large blank canvas for a developer or user to execute a wide variety of potential visions, from boutique condominiums, apartments or a one-of-a-kind townhouse” (as you can see above, the “blank canvas” line was later removed).
Then, on July 18th, Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, wrote an intelligent and strongly worded letter condemning the possible destruction of the farmhouse, noting that “because this structure is located within a designated historic district, no changes can be made to it without a long public hearing process and ultimately the approval of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.”
Since then, it appears the listing has been taken down (you can still read the archived original here). Not sure what this means, if anything, but if you’ve never had the pleasure of peering through the gates at 121 Charles Street, I highly recommend you take a look (while it’s still there).
I’ll keep you posted on this one. Let’s hope this little farmhouse’s 200+ year string of good luck continues for another century or so…
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