Construction History: Down On The Farm

I sometimes set out to write about one topic but the reality of the issue forces the discussion in another direction. I took the picture above on 47th Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, because there are some amusingly narrow buildings in Manhattan – leftover lots from subdivision – and I thought I could write about that skinny brown tenement behind the red car.

When you look at the block’s layout, things get much more interesting.

The “skinny” building is 426 West 47th and it isn’t skinny – it’s an almost triangle. It’s side light wells mark it as an Old Law tenement, saved from the name “dumbbell” by its peculiar lot. (433 West 46th Street is a classic dumbbell. Most of the buildings here are early rowhouses, like 425 West 46th Street, or are pre-Old Law tenements without even the narrow light wells, like 432 West 47th Street.)

Given Manhattan’s fairly relentless grid, how did that diagonal lot line get there? The built-up urbanized city started at the southern tip of the island and grew north at varying speeds through the 1600s, 1700s, and most of the 1800s, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the island was unoccupied. There were little clusters of houses (Greenwich Village being the most famous, Seneca Village is another example) elsewhere and there were small farms and larger estates. The boundaries of the properties for the farms and houses often predated the Commissioners’ Plan, and therefore did not confirm to the grid. Here are the old farms of the west side, with the grid overlaid:

And here’s the block in question:

The land to the west of Anthony Post’s farm was owned by John Jacob Astor. The boundary between their properties looks to be the diagonal line that still interrupts the block. Given that the east boundary of Post’s farm, where he abutted Wiliam Dodge’s land, has been erased, that line may be a remnant of some kind of dispute between Post and Astor.

There are random diagonal property lines scattered around the grid, almost always remnants of old farm boundaries. There’s nothing surprising in that really, but Hell’s Kitchen is rather unfarmlike and it takes some imagination to picture what it must have looked like 200 years ago.

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