The Skinny on the Skinny House
By Laurie Lewis
One of the earlier areas of the city to become settled, Greenwich Village has some old and unusual houses. One that isn’t that old, dating from 1873, certainly is unusual. The house at 75½ Bedford Street has the distinction of being the narrowest house in New York City. It abuts the oldest house in the Village, built in 1799, which doesn’t look that old because it’s been renovated so many times.
The narrowest house in New York City, in the center.
To the right is the oldest house in Greenwich Village.
The standard residential city lot is 20 to 25 feet wide and 100 feet deep, although lots do vary from these dimensions. The house at 75½ Bedford is only 9½ feet wide—not even half the size of a typical lot. That’s the exterior measurement. Take off a foot or so for the broadest interior span.
The narrow space was originally an alley for commercial carts. According to urban legend, the residents at 77 Bedford and 75 Bedford, on either side of the alley, squabbled about who owned the lane. The folks at No. 75 decided to settle the matter by building a house in the space. A modified version of their address eliminated any doubt about the property’s ownership.
Size isn’t 75½ Bedford’s only claim to fame. A plaque over the door notes that this was the home of the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. Indeed, she did live here, but only for about a year, in 1923 and 1924. This was the period when young writers were flocking to the Village. Millay and her writer friends thought it would be fun to start a theater where they could stage their own plays and those of their pals and also offer work to their actor friends. Millay didn’t have to look far for a place. She found the theater’s home right around the corner on Commerce Street.
The building that became a theater originally was a brewery, erected in 1836. Horse-drawn carts doubtless traveled down the alley where Millay’s home would someday rise, bringing supplies to the brewery and carrying out the finished product. Later, the building was a tobacco warehouse. It was a box factory in 1924 when the writers converted it to the Cherry Lane Theatre. The previous uses of the building explain why the structure doesn’t look like a typical theater.
Cherry Lane Theatre
The skinny house around the corner provided temporary residence for several actors over the years, probably when they were performing at the Cherry Lane, including Cary Grant and John Barrymore. Other famous people who lived at 75½ Bedford, usually for a fairly short time, included anthropologist Margaret Mead and her sister and brother-in-law, the cartoonist William Steig, who created the original Shrek (not the animated films of recent years). Much later, Ann McGovern, author of a children’s book called Mr. Skinner’s Skinny House—wonder where she got that inspiration!—occupied the residence.
The narrow little house nearly bit the dust in the 1950s, but a Village resident and preservationist scooped it up. It remained in his family for several decades. In the 1990s, an architect bought the dilapidated structure for $270,000 and spent $200,000 on renovations. Once the house was fixed up, he rented it for $6,000 a month. The owner sold it in 2000 for $1.6 million. A decade later it sold for $2.175 million, and it changed hands again in 2013, going for $3.25 million. Small size doesn’t mean small price in New York.
Despite its narrow footprint and diminutive interior spaces, the house is filled with light, thanks to renovations that included a skylight and walls of windows in the back of each of the three above-ground floors. These windows overlook a rear garden (where the alley used to be). In the galley kitchen, the stove’s four burners are laid out in a single row to fit the limited space.
A house that is so unique and has such a celebrated list of former residents attracts a constant stream of gawkers. All day long, tour groups stop to look at the narrowest house in New York City. Some go around the corner to peek through the iron gate at the little garden. Ah, the price of fame!
Most Take a Walk New York tours cover 1 to 2 miles, last 2 to 2½ hours, and cost $25 per person. Advance registration is required. To register and to learn the meeting place, email the guide (email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org). Please arrive a little before the start time. Tours are cancelled if nobody has registered or if the weather is extreme; if in doubt, call or text Laurie (917-306-2868) or Alan (917-363-4292).
Greenwich Village: In the Footsteps of Writers
Many writers and other creative people have called Greenwich Village home. On this tour, you’ll meander through charming Village streets and peek into hidden cul-de-sacs as you learn where some famous writers lived. You'll see the narrowest house in New York and a theater begun by young writers in the 1920s that is still going strong today.
Laurie gives this tour on Sunday, August 4, at 1 PM. To reserve a place and to learn the meeting location, email her at email@example.com.
Central Park: Marvels of the Northern Half
The northern end of Central Park features some of the city’s most surprising landscapes. Take a hike in the woods, and you’ll feel as though you’ve left the city. Discover New York’s own Secret Garden. If history rather than nature is your thing, fear not. You’ll learn about the role this area played in early American wars.
Join Alan on Wednesday, August 14, at 10 AM to explore the northern part of Central Park. To reserve a spot and to learn where to meet, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lower Washington Heights
Washington Heights is a microcosm of New York, steeped in history from the American Revolution to the assassination of Malcolm X and beyond. Discover the Hamilton connection in northern Manhattan. This vibrant residential neighborhood boasts beautiful brownstones, a brick-lined street with three-story wood-frame homes, and the oldest house in Manhattan.
Join Alan on Wednesday, August 28, at 9 AM to take a walk through Lower Washington Heights. Please email him (email@example.com) to reserve your space and to learn the meeting location.
Parks of the East 90s
A park in this concrete and steel city may be unlike parks elsewhere. On this walk, you’ll see different types of parks in two adjacent Upper East Side neighborhoods, Yorkville and Carnegie Hill. See how these parks vary to serve the unique needs of their communities.
Take a walk with Laurie through parks of the East 90s on Saturday, August 31, at 1 PM. Email the guide (firstname.lastname@example.org) to reserve a spot and to learn the meeting location.