Greenwich Street was laid out in 1761 as First Street, but the name soon changed based on its being the main route from New York City to Greenwich Village. It was intersected in 1809 by east-west running Canal Street, so named for the eight-foot wide drainage canal that was to run down its center.
John Y. Smith began construction on his dual-purpose structure at the southwest corner of Greenwich Street in 1818.
Smith was a manufacturer of hair powder and starch. He leased the oddly-shaped plot from Alexander L. Stewart and his wife, Sarah (who was the daughter of Leonard Lispenard, whose name still survived in the area’s common name, Lispenard Meadows). The name of Smith’s architect is unknown, but he produced a striking Federal-style double building on the site.
Three stories tall, the structure almost doubtlessly had a peaked roof with dormers.
Smith and his family lived in the upper floors, while he operated his business at street level. He moved on in 1829 and title to the property was transferred that year to Alonzo Alwyn Alvord. Alvord was the owner of a highly-successful hat store on the Bowery. The same year he purchased Smith’s house and store he completed construction of a row of speculative houses on MacDougal Street, just south of Washington Square.
By now the former Smith house had been given an address, No. 478 Greenwich Street. It would not be until around 1852 that a second address, No. 502 Canal Street, would be added. The division may have had to do with the two storefronts—one on both streets.
In 2003, it was purchased for $3 million as the reborn Tribeca neighborhood promised residential potential. But if the new owners were interested in rehabilitating the property, they moved very slowly.
On October 29, 2012. scaffolding girded the decrepit structure. That night Hurricane Sandy arrived in New York City. The massive blow the storm dealt to the building seemed to be irreversible. The Department of Buildings marked it with a giant red X which declared it unsafe. A red sign on the door warned “Do Not Enter or Occupy.”
While the owners, Ponte Equities, promised to make repairs, nothing happened. Two months later, in January 2013, a wall collapsed. Preservationists and historians were outraged. Among them was George Calderaro of the of the Historic Districts Council who called the inaction “demolition by neglect.”
The owners insisted, however, that they intended to “remove the Canal Street facade by hand” and restore it with the original bricks. And after an ignominious start, they came through. Under the direction of SRA Architecture, the nearly two-century old facade was restored and the interiors renovated to a single-family house. The survival of the Federal-style building with its remarkable curved corner and equally remarkable history is just short of miraculous.
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