(Originally published in Our Town Downtown 1/29/07)
Discussed: Belgian bricking, Romanesque arches, boule availability
By David Crohn
Before I set foot there, it was the name that turned me on. Mews. Or, to locals, just The Mews.
I wanted to go, if only to find out what a Mew was (and whether or not they can exist as a singular entity, or if, like “commons,” they are always plural).
Then I went, and discovered a place so special that, as it turns out, deserves a word as strange as Mews to name it.
Strange, because specific. Mews: noun, “a row or street of houses or apartments that have been converted from stables or built to look like former stables.” We didn’t invent this one—it comes from Britain, where one can assume there are lots of rows of houses that used to be stables. In New York City, private homes that used to be stables can be found nowhere else but here, according to the Luther Harris, a historian who lives next door to the Mews. No other alley in the city is called the Mews, because the city has no other mews of which to speak.
“Quaint” does not even begin to describe the essence of this alley, and thanks are due to New York University, which owns the Mews, for keeping it as an open source of delight and musings for the rest of us. At night the gates are closed. And although this is a private alley, during the day Washington Mews remains open to the public, allowing the masses to take the short stroll from one end to the other. There are few, if any, other public spaces kept quite as pristine as the Mews; if there were more blocklets like this in Manhattan, the Vespa people would have taken over ages ago.
Tourists and sentimental New Yorkers like me are drawn to the Mews because unlike, say, the Empire State Building or Rockefeller Center, its aesthetics are distinctively old-fashioned and highbrow—wisteria vines, Romanesque arches, Belgian-style bricks-in-concrete streets. (They aren’t cobblestones, according to ForgottenNY.com. The stones have just eroded over time to look like them.)
While NYU has been a favored bogeyman for preservationists over the years, the school has done a hell of a job at preserving the Mews. Along with faculty housing, it’s lined with the headquarters for the university’s German, Irish and French Studies Departments, respectively: the Deutsches Haus, Glucksman Ireland House, Maison Francais. The Haus, House and Maison host lectures and events, and are home to research libraries and professors’ offices.
Don’t even think about it. As you’ll find below, even those lucky enough to live on the Mews don’t own their apartments.
Want to live in New York’s Little Paris? Hit the books. The Mews alley is home to NYU professors and their families only. They rent their homes from the school. Although an NYU spokeswoman couldn’t get more information to me before deadline, I was able to confirm that not all the profs there year round. Get straight As, and maybe you can earn a sublet opportunity.
What Happened Here
The Mews were (was?) born in the early part of the 19th century, when residents who were leasing the property from Sailor’s Snug Harbor—a kind of old folks’ home for retired sailors—built homes along the north side of Washington Square Park and 8th Street’s south side. They needed a place for their horses, so they plopped down stables in a back alley that divided the developments on either side. That’s how it was used, for the most part, until 1916, when the automobile had replaced the horse and carriage. The stables were remodeled and offered up as airy and light studios for artists attracted to the bohemian atmosphere burgeoning in Greenwich Village even then. See how the buildings along the south side all look the same? That’s because they were built all at once, in 1939. The artists’ era ended in about 1950, when NYU acquired the entire property from Sailor’s Snug Harbor. The painter Edward Hopper was one of the last artists to live there; he died at home in 1967.
If I lived here, I’d want Continental amenities to match the Parisian character of my block. You know—baguettes, a different store for each meat, wine sold out of vats on the street. The closest you can come to all that is a Le Pain Qoutidien franchise, at the corner of 8th Street and Fifth Avenue, which sells fresh baguettes, boules and ciabattas. No vats or fish stores though. Just the rest of 8th Street, which is famous for its shoe stores, cheap-jewelry stores and combination tattoo parlor/head shops.