December 13, 2008

A Walk for a New York Christmas: Part II. Exploring 16th Street, From Chelsea to Irving Place

The Christmas-themed walk that began in Clement Clarke Moore's Chelsea continues now to Irving Place. Once there, we'll celebrate the short story writer O. Henry and his holiday stories, especially "The Gift of the Magi." While it's an easy walk from west to east (and almost any street from 14th to 20th Streets would do), 16th Street, with its variety of architectural facades and some little-known wonders, affords a very nice way to connect the west and east sides in this part of Manhattan.

I was clued into the virtues of 16th Street while thumbing through the AIA Guide to New York City (Fourth Editon) by White and Willensky. All self-respecting New York walkers and flâneurs need this entertaining reference book, and if they don't own a copy, they certainly need to get with the program. Well, anyway, the guide notes several places along W. 16th worthy of our attention, especially between Seventh and Fifth Avenues, including apartment buildings from the 1870s with intricate brickwork and balconies. Also of note, see the French Evangelical Church (126 W. 16th) and the Queen Anne cottage-picturesque architecture of the Young Adults Institute next door at 120 W. 16th St. The latter, built in 1878, was founded to help poor women learn how to sew.

Between Sixth and Fifth Avenues, the neo-Baroque Church of St. Francis Xavier (1887) at 40. W 16th Street stands out in much contrast to the surrounding structures, and then so does the modernist facade of the Center for Jewish History ahead and across the way. W. 16th street is eclectic throughout, including some modernist swagger with balcony apartments near the intersection of Fifth Avenue. Crossing Fifth Avenue, the buildings grow more massive in scale, clad mostly in popular styles of the 1890s.

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Cutting through Union Square, pick up E. 16th on the other side and follow to Irving Place. Here we see Washington Irving High School and a nice bust of Irving himself out in front of the school on the Irving Place side. We can even look straight through his nostrils! Irving, as we know, helped create the way we think of Christmas. Alas, too bad he never lived over here, on the street that's named for him. It was just a fiction that an early 19th century developer made up. Even O. Henry, a fiction-monger living at 55 Irving Place, believed it.

The walk will continue to Pete's Tavern and reflections on the New York Christmas stories of William Sydney Porter (better known as O. Henry).

Earlier posts:

A Walk for a New York Christmas: From Clement Clarke Moore's Chelsea to O. Henry's Irving Place (Introduction)

A Walk for a New York Christmas: Part I. Clement Clarke Moore's Chelsea

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