Finding Repose in New York City’s Hidden Spaces

Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Pomander Walk is a century-old gem hidden among the high-rises of the Upper West Side. The English-style alleyway, modeled in the manner of cobbled London streets flanked with timber-framed homes, is gated and private.

An anomaly for the neighborhood, Pomander Walk is one of a few precious mews and mews look-alikes still in existence in New York, despite the encroaching modernity all around. The street and its ilk have a special allure for citydwellers hungry for a taste of the architectural past — so much so that developers elsewhere in the city often attempt to create a similar sense of privacy and exclusivity by offering imitation carriage-house facades, interior courtyards or even just the word “mews” to conjure a bygone era.

Glass-clad towers that climb ever higher give quiet spaces like Pomander Walk added poignancy: The alleyways offer pockets of respite that are hard to come by. They also help preserve New York’s low-rise legacy while hearkening to a quieter and more communal way of life. “Today the mews provide a nice break from the street grid,” said Michelle Young, a professor of architecture at Columbia University and the founder-editor of Untapped Cities. “It’s a quaint surprise to happen upon a mews, especially with the high skyscrapers that surround them.”

A mews traditionally housed horses — the term originally referred to the royal stables in London, which were built where the king’s hawks had been mewed, or confined. But the livery stables once abundant in New York are now mocked by recent developments that bear the name but resemble neither stables nor barns: Carnegie Mews, SoHo Mews and Stonehenge Mews, to name a few, are all residential towers. The word is now used to signify places of prestige or charm. Ms. Young has tracked the proliferation of so-called fake mews. “It’s become a real estate marketing term that is completely disconnected from the original usage,” she said.

Credit...Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

The Pomander Walk complex, named for a popular British stage comedy of the day, is not technically a mews. Stretching from 94th to 95th Streets between West End and Broadway, it was conceived by a restaurateur named Thomas Healy and built in 1921 “to reproduce as nearly as possible that little London colony of sentimental seclusion which George C. Tyler represented so faithfully on the stage some years ago in Louis N. Parker’s play of that name,” reported The New York Times on April 21, 1921. It encompasses 27 buildings, including townhouses interspersed with timber-framed cottages. The townhouses were built to have two apartments, but many have been converted into single-family homes.

Brelyn Vandenberg and her husband, Gregory, a fresh fruit importer from New York, had searched high and low for a New York apartment. They wanted something that felt neighborly and unique. They began their search in the West Village and went to more than 30 open houses.

“I was resistant to moving to Manhattan,” said Ms. Vandenberg, a native of North Carolina. “I thought it would be too citylike.”

Feeling dejected, the couple started looking in Westchester and Yonkers but did not like the idea of an arduous commute. Then Ms. Vandenberg saw the listing for a Pomander Walk apartment: a small, roughly 750-square-foot unit that retained its old-world charm and compact kitchen. They purchased the lower level of the townhouse in 2008 for about $799,000.

The plan was always to grow into the space. When the couple had two young boys, they began eyeing the upstairs apartment. They ultimately bought it in 2014 for about $1 million.

“We spend most of our afternoons with the door open,” Ms. Vendenberg said.

An open door invites welcomed guests, like their neighbor, Priscilla Hartung.

“It looks so pretty, all those brass knobs,” Ms. Hartung said, referring to the family’s recently renovated kitchen cabinets. “Hi, Natey,” she said to one of the children. Stoops along the walk are often decorated for the season. The feeling is neighborly, almost suburban.

When today’s high-rises grow, low-rise neighbors fear the shadows will block sunlight and kill backyard gardens. “Everything’s in jeopardy from the super-talls,” said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, who is not inclined to favor much that replaces something historic.

But that sentinment goes back at least a century. Developers in the early 1900s often constructed apartment buildings, like Astor Court on the Upper West Side and Graham Court in Harlem, with central plaza gardens and multiple entrances because residents did not want to feel that they had to walk in the same entrance every day. In many ways, the blocklong Astor Court was a model for both community and privacy, like a small village.

In fact, New Yorkers have long focused their lives within a tiny radius of their homes. In E.B. White’s 1949 essay “Here Is New York,” he described how moving a few blocks away could upend a denizen’s whole world. By doing so, they’d have to say goodbye to everyone, including a favorite grocer or dry cleaner.

The advent of high-rises created not just plusher apartments but cushier commodities like gyms, indoor pools and children’s playrooms, tightly focusing that sense of community on the building itself. For many residents, the block on which one of these new buildings sits can seem almost like a pointless extension.

And yet, the nostalgia for tucked-away spaces remains strong.

“I see the hidden enclaves as more important than ever in a market full of celebrities and boldfaced names,” said Jonathan J. Miller, the president of the real estate appraisal firm Miller Samuel. “It is a mistake to write off Manhattan’s residential nooks and crannies.”

Most of the ones that remain — like Warren Place Mews in Cobble Hill, Washington Mews in Greenwich Village, Love Lane in Brooklyn Heights, Sylvan Court in Harlem, and Sniffen Court in Murray Hill — are accessible to the public, but usually just for gawking. Apartments in these hidden byways, some of which have been designated historic districts by the city, rarely come on the market and are priced for their exclusivity. In 2016, for example, a townhouse rental on Washington Mews was listed at $30,000 a month.

Despite the city’s rich architectural history, these authentic spaces are rare in New York. Two centuries ago, New York City decided against maintaining the rear alleyways and mews that are still common in many other cities. Elsewhere, like in New Orleans and Savannah, Ga., they are still used as spaces for trash collection, horse stabling or garages. When the New York grid layout, instituted by the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, sought to expand Manhattan development above Houston Street, it excluded rear alleys. Even at that time, few people owned horses or carriages, preferring to walk through the city. By the First World War, the automobile had come to dominate horse power.

Mosette Broderick, the director of urban design and architecture studies at New York University, longs for the days when more of these small-scale spaces existed and when “people had community with each other.” She recalled that when she “first came here, in the early ‘70s, if the bank was closed you’d go to the liquor store where you could get your check cashed. I think we’ve gone to a non-community very quickly.”

Ms. Broderick added that it isn’t so much the high-rises that have put unique spaces at risk, but rather the transience of people now living in “safe-box” apartments, meaning residences purchased as investment properties rather than primary homes.

Julia Vitullo-Martin, a senior fellow at the Regional Plan Association, said her interest lies in gardens and courtyards for their “brilliant introductions of light” within the constraints of New York zoning laws. She also finds herself “very taken by secret, hidden spaces that become yours.” Pointing to certain corners of Central Park, she said, “It’s hidden and it’s private and its unique and it’s also yours. Mews are like that, too.”

Ms. Vitullo-Martin once lived on the Upper West Side, high above Pomander Walk. She longed to see inside, but never had the chance. “I wanted someone to invite me in, but no,” she said. “Pomander Walk is the ultimate of the hidden spaces. You can see it, but it’s not yours.”

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