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West 10th Street, From Fifth Avenue to Waverly Place

With the steamy, stormy, and unpredictable weather of late in New York, though not as devastating as the floods in the Midwest, for sure, I've been sidetracked from my usual longer walks in favor of shorter outings. Yesterday afternoon, I walked up from Washington Square Park north on Fifth Avenue and then west on W. 10th Street. I didn't have anything special in mind, other than enjoying the elegant architecture that lines the street just off Fifth. Writer Christopher Gray, in the July 6, 1997 issue of the NYT, began an essay about the street with the line, "For some people, West 10th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues is the most beautiful block in New York City." I am one of those people.

At the northwest corner of 10th and Fifth, the Church of the Ascension was just letting out the 11 a.m. service. A beautiful 19th century church with a diverse Episcopal congregation, the interior is worth visiting for the stained glass by painter John La Farge and altar by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. A service is worth attending for the exceptional professional choir. Just across the way on the south side of the street at number 14, Mark Twain lived in the townhouse in the years 1900-1901. Farther down is an elegant row of townhouses at numbers 20 to 38 designed by James Renwick in 1856-58 (Quick, class, where have we seen Renwick's architecture recently?). Beyond, apartment houses in the Federalist style give a classical feel to the street. Most everyone maintains pretty window boxes outside their windows and a mix of formal and informal plantings by the doorways. At 51-55 once stood the Studio Building where artists Winslow Homer, Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt, among others, once worked and where the sublime American West was painted.

Crossing Sixth Avenue necessitates the adjustment downward of scale but not before passing the looming Jefferson Market Library. Once a women's prison, the Victorian Gothic building makes for a fun local library experience, necessitating walking up an awe-inspiring spiral staircase in order the check out books. I continued my walk west, passing by the intersection with Patchin Place, a little street where Theodore Dreiser, e.e. cummings, Djuna Barnes, and Marlon Brando, among others, lived. Given W. 10th street's connection with Twain, Bierstadt, Dreiser, and the others, the way we think about the Midwest and West derives from what was imagined here along this short stretch of Manhattan.

At the corner of W. 10th St. and Waverly Place, I stopped in Three Lives & Co., a perfect bookstore, and ended up buying two New York-related books, Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, a new novel that has received rave reviews, as well as Hermione Lee's gigantic biography of Edith Wharton, now out in paperback. Leaving the store, I noticed storm clouds gathering in the west, so I decided to head back home and start reading.

Image: Along W. 10th, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Sunday afternoon, June 15, 2008.
More images of W. 10th St. at Flickr WOTBA.

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