On West 12th Street, the Horse Walks Sold the Houses

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In 1859, an unknown real-estate developer set out to build three lovely red-brick townhouses on West 12th Street in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, each with a basket-woven wrought-iron doorway beside the stoop. The construction of this unique trio may have represented a larger stylistic transition from the Greek Revival era to the age of the Italianate, but these graceful West Village townhouses were embedded with utilitarian features, which still function over 150 years later.

“The nature of the row, generally speaking, means that it was a speculative development,” says Gregory Dietrich of Gregory Dietrich Preservation Consulting, a Manhattan-based preservation consultant who has studied “live-work” uses in townhouses across New York City. Looking to set his houses apart from other developments, our mystery builder was seeking equine-dependent buyers, especially those in need of a rear workshop or stable. His trump card was the “horse walk,” a covered passageway that runs from the sidewalk directly under the parlor floor to the rear yard and carriage house.

The fortunate first owner of 336 West 12th Street was Samuel B. Ferdon, a blacksmith who fashioned architectural wrought-iron—a necessary and stylish feature that adorned nearly all townhouses built during that time. For Ferdon and his family, the new location was perfect; they were situated in the middle of a bustling waterfront commercial center, and the real-estate business was booming.

In its heyday, the house likely served simultaneous residential and commercial purposes, with a stable and blacksmith shop in the back building. “Live-work buildings were a big part of certain neighborhoods,” points out Dietrich, who has found evidence of back buildings used by blacksmiths, carpenters, and textile tradesmen who settled into houses around the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. In that community, back buildings allowed tradespeople to work from home and stay near the centers of commerce. Similarly, on West 12th Street, Ferdon clanked hammers next door to a carpenter and two doors from a “carman,” or horse-drawn delivery driver.

After about 50 years of equine and industrial use, the trio of Italianates on West 12th Street were sold off by their original owners. Changing economic tides on the waterfront caused a partial exodus of industry, and the neighborhood tradespeople were slowly replaced by the artistic class. By the 1930s, the house had its stoop removed and it was divided into almost a dozen studio apartments. A large painter’s skylight was added to the top floor, which reflects the changes that took place around the Great Depression and into the middle of the 20th century, when Greenwich Village became the artistic epicenter of New York.

Then, after the turn of another century, a complete historic restoration of the exterior took place, paired with a complete interior reconstruction that included poured concrete floors and steel reinforcement. The extensive rebuild included new brick on both facades, bigger and brighter window openings on the south side of the house, and—of course—a ground-up re-imagining of Ferdon’s rear workshop as a luxurious and private two-story home office.

336_W_12__SPonte-4-Edit-EditAs a result of its rebirth, the 24-foot-wide townhouse now features elevator service on six levels, approximately 7,500 square feet of interior space, and six bedrooms. Almost 2,000 square feet were added by excavating a new lower level, which spans the entire lot and conveniently connects the two buildings underground.

With impeccable materials having been selected throughout the interior, the house is a work of art that pays tribute to the past. Custom millwork is on display in the open and expansive parlor floor and the dining room, while custom paneling wraps around the newly built steel-core staircase. All of the hardware throughout the house is made by Nanz, fabricated in brass and forged glass by using traditional mid–19th century methods.

Lest we forget, the house has no shortage of modern comforts, either. A Crestron system controls the air conditioning, lighting, window shades, security, and hidden speakers in nearly every room. There are 19 zones of air conditioning with humidity control, and a security system with over a dozen exterior cameras. It proves quite the upgrade from the gaslights used from by the Ferdon family.

Although the houses and horse walks have seen drastic changes over the years, there’s no doubt that Samuel Ferdon would once again feel right at home. The bigger mystery is whether he’d choose to walk up the stoop and to the double doors, or through his beloved horse walk.

For more information, contact Randall Gianopulos (randall.gianopulos@sothebyshomes.com) at 212.606.7622 or Stan Ponte (stan.ponte@sothebyshomes.com) at 212.606.4109.