Thursday, May 3, 2007

Brick and Cobblestone Oasis: Stone Street between William Street and Coenties Alley

Dining in the olde style

By David Crohn
(from Our Town Downtown)

Near Broadway and Nassau Street many lines converge: the blue A and C, the brown J and M, the red 2 and 3, the green 6.
It’s like the Financial District itself, a busy adventure of winding ways, canyons and alleys. It’s easy to get lost, and if you’re just visiting, wonderful.

And just as those subway lines come in several species, so do the shapes of the buildings in Lower Manhattan. The very old and the very new coexist: reminders of the island’s earliest history next door to the engines of our country’s prosperity.

Nowhere in the District is this more apparent than on Stone Street. Before Goldman, Sachs plopped its post-modern New York headquarters down on 85 Broad Street in 1983, Stone cut straight through to Broad. Today, there is no Stone and Broad Street intersection to speak of, and Stone is a staggered street.

That’s OK, however, because that big office tower helps provide shade to the heaps of tourists and well-to-do financial professionals who come to this restaurant-lined block, between William Street and Coenties Alley, to dine. (It’s still called Coenties Alley, but here at the end of Stone Street it’s more of an office courtyard-style sitting area.)

Narrow streets that enclose neighboring sidewalk cafes may be commonplace Little Italy and real Italy, but not in most of Manhattan. And certainly not in the Financial District.

Of all the well-kept secrets the city hides, this block has to be the one that affords the most pleasure when it is discovered. (I would never have seen it were it not for the help of a local. He was determined to prove that you really can sit outside and sip a Bloody Mary in the Financial District on a Saturday afternoon.)

Neighborhood boosters justifiably consider it a jewel, not just for the restaurant line-up but for the well preserved row of old townhouses, which provide a refreshing dose of classic brown brick and iron in an area dominated by towering office buildings. “It just makes you happy to go on that street,” the then-president of the Alliance for Downtown New York, Carl Weisbrod, told the New York Times in 2003.

What Happened Here
The block’s easy leisure is a testament to a long history and a lot of hard work.

The first step in Stone Street’s renaissance came with the city’s recognition of its special status as one of the city’s first paved streets. It was added to the tip of the island in about 1655, and made into a mini-historic district in 1996. Not only did that close it off from automobile use, but it allowed the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to apply for and receive federal funds to revitalize the area. It had fallen into blighted disuse at around the turn of the 20th Century, when the Hudson had replaced the East River as the all-important maritime industry’s preferred body of water.

$1.8 million was spent to give the block its current 19th Century feel—complete with cobblestones and gaslight-style lampposts—returning it to its splendor from its last refurbishment, after it was trashed in the Great Fire of 1835.

Living on little Stone Street is, understandably, very expensive. There’s a 2,850-square-foot loft going for $2.49, according to Ruth Bader, an agent with Prudential Douglas Elliman.

I asked Bader about renting on the block, and she had no information. However, right around the corner at Broad and South William Streets there’s a “luxury flat” being marketed a little like a hotel. You can rent lease free for $4,450 a month, with “high-speed Internet/wireless and unlimited phone calls within the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico.” It’s a one-bedroom meant for executives in need of a place to stay while they find permanent quarters.

If it were famous at all, Stone Street would be famous for its restaurants. There are, at last count, seven of them, crammed deliciously into one small strip like an overstuffed hero. Financier Patisserie and Ulysses are the two that come most highly recommended. A Subway sandwich shop offers a low-priced, take-out alternative, as does Burger Burger on the corner. The block is also home to the McRoberts Protective Agency, the oldest security firm in the country, formed in 1876.

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