The Snail and the Hummingbird
O. Henry slept here. Washington Irving didn’t.
By David Crohn
Time is the most relative of all things.
There’s infinite time, which is less a neverending story than it is a concept separate from time itself.
When we jump from the abstract to the real, we encounter what the puny human brain perceives as the pokiest: cosmic time, in which stars many millions of years old are considered newborns, and anything deemed venerable can recall the dawn of existence itself.
Back on the earth-rock, our slowest mode is geologic time, the speed at which glaciers commute and mountains dissolve.
When living things are considered, we often look to the hummingbird and the snail as the two extremes of moving and not moving—the one that can’t get anywhere fast enough and the other just splendid exactly….where…it…is.
Where the hummingbird lies down with the snail is in the always strange, always mercurial world of Manhattan real estate.
Things here can mutate blindingly fast, sometimes dishearteningly so. Like when you step out of a cab returning home from a three-day weekend jaunt to find your favorite Chinese joint shuttered, the boards over the windows already collecting dust.
Thus, the architectural and visual patchwork of then and now that is downtown Manhattan.
In low-density, mixed-use neighborhoods like Gramercy, if you trust your eyes and your memory, it’s easy to distinguish the old from the new, the handiwork of the hummingbird and the slog of the snail.
Newer buildings are big and boxy; they wear muted colors like white, off-white, light gray. Older structures, built when the City didn’t have to accommodate as many residents, are small and rectangular; they often have rich, earthy hues like reds and browns.
It’s a simple formula, really. Or at least it is on Irving Place, between 17th and 18th Streets, where old and new cohabitate and the seams of the patchwork are conspicuous.
Gramercy Plaza, pallid, imposing, 16 stories high, inhabits a quarter of this block, and looms over its ruddy little neighbor, the townhouse at 56 Irving Place. The former was built in 1963; the latter dates back to the 1840s. That’s a fleck in Geologic Time, and a trifling fleck in Cosmic Time. But for Manhattan real estate, an epoch of formidable proportions.
What Happened Here
One of the great, yet-to-be-written graduate theses is the story of how so many private clubs and intellectual societies ended up on Irving Place and in Gramercy Park overall. The National Arts Club, “The Dial,” a onetime Transcendentalist literary magazine edited by Margaret Fuller and then Emerson, the New York branch of the Rosicrucian Order, Helena Blavsky’s Theosophical Society—all were headquartered, at one time or another, within blocks of each other in this neighborhood.
This block had the Ingersoll Club, at number 54. Dedicated to the life and work of Robert G. Ingersoll, a famous 19th century orator and agnostic, the club met here “for some years,” according to historian Andrew Dolkart. The building was converted into the Cooperative Cafeteria in 1921, “one of several cooperative organizations founded shortly after World War I that sought to provide working people with quality services,” Dolkart wrote in a report published by Gramercy Neighborhood Associates.
In 1904, O. Henry returned home from Pete’s Tavern (at 18th and Irving) to 55 Irving Place. He sat down and, in three hours, wrote his most famous story, “The Gift of the Magi.”
Gramercy Plaza is just the kind of place—and I don’t mean this pejoratively—where you might want to set up your grandma in her later years. It’s centrally located, there’s an elevator and full-time doorman, and a built-in garage. And chances are Bubbe won’t mind the no-frills, decidedly unhip exterior (just as the co-op board won’t frown on your Bubbe’s). One-bedrooms start at $895,000, and are offered by CityRealty.com.
Renting on Irving Place isn’t cheap, but it’s not way above what you’d pay anywhere Downtown. Adina Azarian, CEO of Adina Equities, told me her company lists a $2,000, 400-square-foot studio at 53 Irving Place. The entrance is right around the corner, behind an iron gate that is characteristic of Gramercy Park. “People come here because it’s charming,” Azarian said.
Few, but all are top notch. In the street-level storefront of the former Ingersoll Clubhouse sits Pure Food and Wine, a critically acclaimed organic-food eatery without a stove. That’s right—everything is raw. And it’s not just sushi and veggies, but lasagna and chocolate cake, which TimeOut New York describes as “confoundingly fudgy.” At the corner of 17th and Irving, Casa Mono (“Monkey House”), Spanish food from the corpulent-but-telegenic restaurateur Mario Batali.