The Many Lives of a Village Dowager Even among the oddball buildings of the West
Village, 45 Grove Street defies all typology:
it is an 1871 apartment building created
from an 1830 mansion.
A new owner is now uncovering the multilayered
history of this remarkable structure, just off
Bleecker Street, which has ties to both John Wilkes
Booth and Hart Crane.
The house was built by Samuel Whittemore, a wellto-
do manufacturer, and the census of 1830 records
nine members of the Whittemore family, as well as
two “free colored persons,” living there.
Though it now has four floors, it began life as a
two-story structure. The surviving Federal-style
lintels on the second floor windows and the rich,
molded door surround are of that period. It is not
clear whether the house was originally free-standing,
but it is now sandwiched in between
Whittemore sold the house in 1851, and seven
years later The New York Times carried an advertisement
calling it “Whittemore House” and extolling
it as a “first-class boarding house.”
Samuel K. Chester, an actor, lived there around the
beginning of 1865. According to testimony from
Chester published in The Times in May 1865, John
Wilkes Booth had gone there to try to persuade
Chester to join a “conspiracy to take over the
government” and kidnap President Abraham Lincoln,
but Chester declined. Booth assassinated the
president in April.
Through the twists and turns of history, 45 Grove
became the “Lincoln Home” for destitute soldiers
and sailors later that year.
In 1871, Elisha Bloomer, a hatter, retained the
architect Benjamin G. Wells for a most unusual alteration,
adding two stories and converting the old
Whittemore residence into an apartment house.
Instead of completely Victorianizing the structure,
Wells duplicated the Federal-style lintels on the
upper two floors, and carefully retained most of the
interior details, at least on the first floor.
He also enlarged the windows on the first floor,
perhaps for store or office use. The tenants in
1890 included a metals dealer and a barber, but
in the 1910s the Village underwent a
In 1923, the writer Hart Crane lived on the second
floor, struggling to eke out a living, and the 1930
census showed the building filled with artistic types,
like the Russian-born Zelda Dorfman, a 24-year-old
In 1937, as the Department of Buildings required
the upgrading of old apartment houses, the owners
of 45 Grove requested permission to retain the
hardwood doors to the apartments on the first floor,
“as these doors are highly ornamental.” They described
the house as “one of the landmarks in the
Greenwich Village section.” The department denied
the request, asserting that metal doors were required.
But the old wooden doors are still in place.
Somehow, 45 Grove has escaped both demolition
and restoration; it has long had the slightly ruined
quality that has almost vanished from the rest of
the Village: loose wires hanging down from the
fire escapes, and tin coverings over the main-floor
windows’ wood trim dented and askew.
Inside, crusted paint swamps the old moldings, but
the spectacular plasterwork may still leave a visitor
gaping: long intact runs of intricately worked
bead, reel, rosette and banded-reed decoration on
the ceiling, and lovely three-part Federal over-door
treatments, with swags in the center.
Just inside the front door is a sculpture niche from
the Whittemore period, framed by deeply
But there is Victoriana, too: a Minton-type tile
floor in the vestibule and heavy molded doors on
An unusually delicate door assembly at the top of
the stairs at the rear is peculiar for its out-of-theway
placement. It has an intricate fanlight at the
top, fluted columns on the sides, and a carved or
molded decorative meander, rosette and similar
details. It appears to have been moved; if it was
the original front door, Bloomer was either thrifty
about using salvage or appreciative of the piece’s
One tenant, Beverly Maher, a guitar dealer, has
an apartment that is little changed, with the same
detailing as in the lobby. In addition, she has two
remarkable black marble fireplaces, one with Ionic
columns, the other with an iron frieze of the Last
Supper — perhaps these are from the
Grove Equities, a partnership, bought 45 Grove
Street, which has 15 residential units and two commercial
units, earlier this year, and Daniel Lavian,
one of the partners, said that they didn’t quite realize
what they had acquired.
They have uncovered the ground floor front window
woodwork of 1871 — tinned up for at least several
decades — and uncovered a crazy quilt of decayed
columns, brackets and cornices.
“Our first plan was to just do the doorways,” he
said, sounding like any renovator swamped by circumstance,
“but then we saw all the intricate detail
work, and we’re starting to see our numbers
By Kelly Hushin
Copyright 2012. Hair Painters LLC. All rights reserved.