The artist Georgia Chambers keeps coming back to 11 Commerce Street, one of four neat Federal houses on one of the most picturesque streets in Greenwich Village.
The street, too, has a notable creative heritage, which includes the famous Cherry Lane Theatre, the first to present Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days with his muse, the actress Billy Whitelaw (The Good Witch in the Wizard of Oz), in the lead role.
The Cherry Lane continues to present plays on the main stage (Jesse Eisenberg recently performed here) and supports new playwrights with its Mentor Project.
Just off Commerce Street is the Bedford Street home of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, opposite which lived Paul Stookey of the '60s folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary.
Opposite the Washington Irving House is the art gallery of local resident Philip Mortillaro.
Despite the fame of some former residents, or of current ones like Carly Simon, the street exudes the quiet, unassuming quality of village life. People chat on stoops, have their hair cut, their penchant for cookies satisfied, and their cultural side scratched, with an evening at the theatre and an after theater meal at the destination restaurant at the bend of the street, called, itself, Commerce. A walk down neighboring Barrow Street past the Greenwich House Music School brings strains of music as students practice or evening concerts are performed. And once a year the BBC (Bedford Barrow Commerce Block Association) throws a shindig, a village fair open to all.
In the middle of the street three small houses built in 1821 sit quietly among the shade of ample trees.
While at the beginning of the street its openness to the sun floods the larger corner houses, inside and out, with light.
Friendly neighbors, chatty dog walkers, oodles of creativity, and dappled sunlight on two blocks of village perfection, are not all Commerce Street has to offer. The history itself is a treat.
Commerce Street was named after one of the virtues of the French Revolution, alongside Art, Science, and Reason Streets. Commerce Street was mapped out in the late 1790s when such ideals as art, science, reason, and commerce were to be woven into the fabric of daily city life. It was believed that these principles, founded in individual endeavor, were more powerful than the church hierarchy or the authority of hereditary aristocracy, and could be used to combat tyranny, superstition, and ignorance. (historical detail courtesy of Perry L.van der Meer)
The three small houses, numbers 24-28, were built by two shoemakers when residents of “The City” first came north to inhabit the Village of Greenwich. They built three houses on two lots so the builders could each have a house and rent one. 11 Commerce Street is one of four houses 9,11,13, and 15, built by Charles Oakley in 1826. The original residents of 11 Commerce Street were stone cutters most likely involved in its building.
Color and light bounce across the stoops and brickwork of homes that have seen generations raise their families since 1826, when it stretched across what is now Seventh Avenue South to Bleecker Street. Many Commerce Street residents have lived there for 20 years or more, on a street that has not changed with every new fashion, where they experience the pleasures of local shops run by their owners, and of knowing who lives next door.
No wonder Georgia Chambers keeps coming back to paint the Washington Irving House. It is picture perfect, part of a social history that stretches back more than 150 years, celebrating the artistic heritage that is the essence of Greenwich Village.
The current owners of the Washington Irving House are putting their house on the market and passing on a family home. It is time for a new generation to discover this village way of life.
All photos provided by Rachel Paine