09 October 2008

Colonial Chinatown

New York history can surprise you. You might assume that the oldest standing townhouse in Gotham might be somewhere in the Financial District, where the City began, or in Greenwich Village, which was really a separate village once upon a time, or a lonesome home near the north tip on Manhattan. But no.

Recently I discovered that the oldest surviving townhouse in Manhattan sits at the corner of the Bowery and Pell Street, surrounding the human tumult and riotous signage of Chinatown. It's 18 Bowery and, despite some Chinese letters on its austere red brick facade, it looks like a building from another planet, completely out of context with its surroundings.

It was built sometime in the 1780s for one Edward Mooney, in a mix of the Georgian and Federal styles. (Owing to the Great Fire, that's as old as Manhattan gets.) How it survived all these years, I'll never know. Being a brothel in the per-Civil War years perhaps helped a little bit. It's a pristine little building I must say (it was restored in 1971). Being a brokerage helped it hold on to its dignity. The spiderweb window above the door is pretty fantastic, as are the ornate windows on the side. It's doubtful that any of the tourists who venture down here for a meal, or the trendoids on their way to the new cocktail joint Apotheke, know what they as passing by.

1 comment:

Rebecca said...

Wow that is fascinating! I live in Chinatown and have walked by this building many times and every time it seems to catch my eyes. I always wondered if there was any historic significance to it (I agree that it seems completely out of context with the adjacent buildings)and voila, thank you for your informative posting!