The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation has proposed enlarging the 1969 Greenwich Village Historic District, extending it south through half a dozen blocks of tenements, almost to Canal Street. Little on these blocks suggests they were once home to a distinguished residential neighborhood, of which the most prestigious address was Bleecker Street, known today for its clubs and cacophony.
Bleecker's showpiece, one of the most unusual groups of houses in the city, was the 1840 Depau Row, between Thompson and Sullivan Streets, which was demolished more than a century ago.
Francis Depau, a French-born shipping entrepreneur, came to America via Haiti, and as early as 1807 was in Charleston, S.C., where he also owned a group of buildings called Depau Row. By 1838, he was living in New York, on Broadway near White Street, and began work on a row of houses on the south side of Bleecker, from Thompson to Sullivan.
A 1913 article in The New York Times quoted an unidentified newspaper advertisement from 1840, offering for sale "one of the elegant houses recently erected and known as Depau Row, " with a "pump of excellent water and two cisterns in the yard" (piped water was still two years away). The ad said the house was "finished in a costly manner, the hall lined with Italian marble. " Depau split the 200-foot length on Bleecker into six lots, giving each corner house a 42-foot frontage, the inside lots 29 feet. They interrupted the Bleecker Street numbering with their own: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 Depau Row.
Although generally of plain brick with simple fenestration, the row stood out because of its long second-floor veranda. Was it an import from Charleston?
In "Ogden Codman and the Decoration of Houses" (Boston Athenaeum/David R. Godine, 1988), Pauline C. Metcalf quotes a letter from 1892 by the young Boston architect Ogden Codman. Evidently Depau Row was already well known in the design community. "I had always heard of this place, " he wrote, describing large doors in the party walls between the houses, so "when they had balls, all the drawing rooms which were on the first floor were en suite and you could go the entire length of the block. "
Perhaps they were thrown open in the fall of 1841, when Dr. Valentine Mott, first occupant of 1 Depau Row, gave a ball for the Prince de Joinville, a French naval hero, in "a style of magnificence which we have not witnessed for a long time, " according to the entry for Nov. 27 in the diary of Philip Hone, a former mayor of New York.
The Mott house, No. 1, was on the southwest corner of Bleecker and Thompson. The Depaus lived in No. 2. In the next three houses were their daughters and sons-in-law: Amelia and Theodosius Fowler in No. 3; Silvia and Mortimer Livingston in No. 4; and Eliza and Samuel Fox in No. 5.
The initial occupant of No. 6 is not clear, but by 1850 the house was occupied by the dry-goods entrepreneur A. T. Stewart, who in 1857 served as pallbearer at Mortimer Livingston's funeral. Certainly, they were a well-to-do group: an ad in The Times in 1852 directed potential buyers to the rear stable of the Livingston house to see a "Rockaway" carriage "in perfect order, and a pair of Canadian ponies, very fast. "
Richard Grant White, writing in The Century magazine in 1883, noted that its creator had intended the row for "people of a certain and identical social standing, and that they should be hereditary family residences. "
But 19th-century New York is full of residential streets that were trump cards in one decade, only to be moved to the discard pile in the next. In 1866, the dry-goods king Stewart moved to his new mansion at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue, and the 1869 city directory lists boarding houses at 1, 4, 5 and 6 Depau Row. By the 1870s the name "Depau Row" began vanishing, as the houses were reabsorbed into Bleecker Street — Nos. 158 through 168.
In 1881, the daily press recorded a shootout on the sidewalk in front of the old 2 Depau Row during a detective raid that turned up 382 boxes of stolen cigars.
By the 1890s, most writers saw Depau Row as a wretched place. In 1902, The Galveston Daily News ran a recollection of a visit made to A. T. Stewart's old house in the 1890s. Many of the rooms were now sweatshop operations "inhabited by scores who filled the high-ceilinged rooms with the odors of garlic. " In one bedroom, the newspaper reported, a family of five lived in squalor under the original ceiling, a trompe l'oeil painting "to resemble the firmament. "
A photograph of the period shows the cornice falling off, the shutters rotting away. The parlor floors of the houses were occupied by an Italian barber, a coal and ice dealer, and the Caffè 20 Settembre, named for the anniversary of Italy's unification in 1870.
What happened to the grand vision of Depau Row? Richard Grant White described it as a casualty not only of the powerful ebb and flow of a great city but also of New World attitudes. "Its social design was incongruous with the spirit of the country, " he wrote, meaning that to the American rich, mobility was more important than kinship and tradition.
The proximate cause of Depau Row's physical disappearance: In 1896 the millionaire Ogden Mills, wanting to provide clean, sanitary housing in what was now a slum district, decided to build a bachelor hotel and was searching for a large plot of land. The other blocks in the area had long since been split up, but the Depau successors had kept their parcel intact. Depau Row attracted Mills's eye because it was available.