Monday, March 5, 2007

Charlton Street between Varick Street and 6th Avenue

A Shrine of Covet

By David Crohn

The Bible says it’s bad to covet things. I’ve always assumed that’s not because of the harm you can inflict on your object but rather the way envy can handicap your judgment or screw up a perfectly nice stroll downtown.

Well, the Bible never tried sharing a one-bedroom, illegally converted Greenpoint storefront with his coke-snorting former college roommate. Or walked along Charlton Street between Varick Street and 6th Avenue.

With its whistle-clean stoops and breezy elegance, this is a shrine of covet. To the Things You Will Never Have. Hardcore real estate porn.

And I suspect some of the people who live there like it that way. How else to explain the way in which one woman sat, in the middle of her luxuriously appointed living room, laptop splayed open, windows wantonly flung open with curtains pushed aside, the light of early afternoon pouring in? And to think, she flashed me a dirty look when my neck went rubber and I peered in as I ambled by.

This immodest woman lives on the north side of the street, in one of a long row of homes that provide the perfect primer on Federal Architecture. So named because it was born during the late 18th century, Federal Architecture was “the first of our new republic,” says the “AIA Guide to New York City.” “Dignified and restrained, it emphasized geometric form and harmonious proportion and was executed in both wood and masonry.”

Inside, the homes are stately and bright, the epitome of what can only be called high class.

The southern side of the block isn’t as luscious as the northern side—which is a little like saying Veuve Clicquot tastes better than Dom Perignon. The Elisabeth Irwin High School, which boasts Robert De Niro and former “Nation” editor Victor Navasky as alums, sits here, in a large building with an ornate and very collegiate façade. On the southeast side of the block are several old townhouses of the kind that are a common site in the best-preserved parts of Greenwich Village and SoHo.
But no matter how often I pass the townhouses downtown, and the two- and three-story homes on the north side of the street, I still salivate when I see them, and I often have to temper my envy with rhetorical thanks that I do not live in Greenpoint anymore.

Renting and Buying
The only listings to be found on this block right now are at 2 Charlton Street, the large box that is uncharacteristic of the historic beauty of the rest of this block. Charlton House, as it’s known, has studios starting at $1,575. In lieu of regality or style, it has in-house laundry facilities and 24-hour doorman service. There are two one-bedrooms for sale: one for $785,000, and the other for $889,000. If, on the other hand, you have the dough and don’t mind waiting for the opportunity, expect to pay millions for one of those Federal-style homes on the northern half of the block.

What Happened Here
Often when we talk about historical places downtown, we are talking about the history of the city itself. Not here. At the corner of Varick and Charlton Streets once stood Richmond Hill, a colonial mansion built in 1767 that served as the military headquarters for George Washington when he was commander of the Revolutionary Army. Vice President John Adams and Aaron Burr slept there. According to, in 1831 Richmond Hill was converted into a theater that featured Isaac Van Amburgh, an early pioneer of the circus, um, arts. Legend has it he was the first to stick his head in a lion’s mouth. The culmination of his act was to make a lamb lie down with a lion—a riff on the Book of Isaiah, in which the lamb actually gets with a wolf, but same diff. The theater was demolished in 1849.

None, which is not entirely a bad thing. The length, architectural uniformity (on one side) and dearth of commercial establishments on this block give it the feeling of an enclosed mini-district, kind of like housing projects in Utopia. There is a high-end deli at the southeast corner of the block, as well as a bodegaesque mini-grocery nearby on 6th Avenue. Keep heading west on Charlton, through MacDougal Street, and the sudden shrinkage of the buildings and narrowing of the street herald your entrance into SoHo proper, which is Amenity Central.

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