NYC’s Unusual Street Signs

“Give me comrades and lovers by the thousand! … Give me the streets of Manhattan!”
—from ‘Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun’
by Walt Whitman (1819–1892)

Most street signs in New York City are attached to light posts or traffic signal poles. In Paris and Tours, Madrid and Granada, Rome and Florence, as well as other cities across the Continent, street name signs are affixed to buildings. Occasionally, a more European version of street identification can be seen in NYC. Here are a few, all of them below 14th Street, that bring a touch of Old World charm to the Big Apple. We begin Downtown, move north up the west side to Greenwich Village, and then travel east to the East Village.

Streets, Street Signs, Signs, New York Streets, History, Walt Whitman, Washington, Trinity Church, Greenwich Village, East Village, Downtown, Columbia University, Financial District, St. Luke’s Place, Bleecker Street, Washington Street, New York City, NYC, Manhattan

A reminder of a former campus.

Now serving as a residential building, with commercial space at the ground level, 84 West Broadway, is an ordinary-looking, red-brick building at the northwest corner of West Broadway and Warren Street. On its West Broadway-facing side is a reminder of a former name for the street, College Place. What began as King’s College in 1754 by royal charter granted by Britain’s George II, and then renamed Columbia College in 1784 because a kingly association was not wanted in a newly independent country, and is now Columbia University had its first campus here. Columbia relocated to what would become Rockefeller Center in 1857; by 1900 the school moved again to its present-day campus on Broadway in Morningside Heights. A little-noticed street sign, although hiding in plain sight, is not the only reminder of Columbia’s 18th- and 19th-centuries days in downtown. At the nearby Chambers Street subway station for the numbers 1, 2 and 3 lines a 1914, ceramic-tile mosaic depicts the school’s first building; discover this original subway art when you take our Subway Art Tour Four.

A street sign using fancy terra-cotta.

On the northwest corner of Hudson and Beach Streets, Number 135 Hudson is an 1886 red brick building. A simple, rectangular warehouse was given interest with Roman arches, created with squat brick columns, at street level. Unique craftsmanship was used to great effect for the cross-street identification. Leaf motifs surround the street names in a mix of high and low relief. Now used for residential purposes visitors can easily find the building.

Streets, Street Signs, Signs, New York Streets, History, Walt Whitman, Washington, Trinity Church, Greenwich Village, East Village, Downtown, Columbia University, Financial District, St. Luke’s Place, Bleecker Street, Washington Street, New York City, NYC, Manhattan

More street sign using fancy terra-cotta.

The name ‘Beach’ is a corruption of the surname of Paul Bache, the son-in-law of an area landowner. Traveling east-west Beach Street covers but a three block stretch without a beach in sight. The name first appears in 1790. Once part of tony St. John’s Park, Beach Street attracted genteel families from the late 18th century until the Hudson River Railroad came to this part of town in the 1860s. Because the land was outside the crowded city citizens moved there to escape the yellow fever epidemics of the 1790s and early 1800s; it was the country!

Streets, Street Signs, Signs, New York Streets, History, Walt Whitman, Washington, Trinity Church, Greenwich Village, East Village, Downtown, Columbia University, Financial District, St. Luke’s Place, Bleecker Street, Washington Street, New York City, NYC, Manhattan

A painted street sign.

The street signs are painted at the corner of the former headquarters for the Grocers Steam Sugar Refining Company, which then sold it to the United States Sugar Refining Company, when the area, which has been called Tribeca since the 1980s, was undergoing industrialization. Now an upscale condo, it is known as the United States Sugar Building; its ten stories were the tallest in the city in 1853 when it was built. Washington Street, running north and south, begins at its southernmost point at Battery Place in Battery Park City, and ends in the north at 14th Street in the Meatpacking District. Named for America’s first president George Washington (1732–1799), Trinity Church ceded its land for the street to the city in 1808.

Streets, Street Signs, Signs, New York Streets, History, Walt Whitman, Washington, Trinity Church, Greenwich Village, East Village, Downtown, Columbia University, Financial District, St. Luke’s Place, Bleecker Street, Washington Street, New York City, NYC, Manhattan

Another painted street sign.

And across the street 414 Washington Street, home to the Pearline Soap Factory in the late 1880s, has had a recent celebrity tenant, Justin Timberlake. He has since moved because the paparazzi were hanging around outside to snap his photo. The building has one condo loft unit on each of its seven stories. Although the painted Washington Street sign is mostly worn away, the one for Laight Street (the building is co-numbered 78 Laight) is clearly readable. Named by Trinity Church in 1794 for one of its vestrymen, Edward William Laight (1753–1852), a successful merchant, Laight Street is five blocks long in the Tribeca (which is an acronym from the three words, TRIangle BElow CAnal) neighborhood.

Streets, Street Signs, Signs, New York Streets, History, Walt Whitman, Washington, Trinity Church, Greenwich Village, East Village, Downtown, Columbia University, Financial District, St. Luke’s Place, Bleecker Street, Washington Street, New York City, NYC, Manhattan

One building, two address.

Built in 1910, 420 Hudson Street/One St. Luke’s Place is a four-story, four-unit residential building. It has both addresses listed on this thin piece of stone. Hudson Street is a north-south running commercial thoroughfare; St. Luke’s Place, on the other hand is residential and most unusual. When Trinity Church was granted a charter in 1696 by England’s William II gave the church land, extending along the west side of Manhattan from present-day Wall Street to Greenwich Village. The church established St. John’s Cemetery, covering a two-block area east of Hudson Street, in 1812. For ease of access the city wanted to extend Leroy Street, which stopped on the east side of the burial ground and continued on the west side of it. Using its power of emanate domain to push through the cemetery in the early 1850s, half the cemetery remained; the other half had some of its graves moved, others not. On the north side of the street Trinity developed the land with a string of elegant houses. To help sales this newly-created stretch of Leroy Street was given some cachet by renaming it St. Luke’s Place; a consecutive, rather than alternating, numbering system was used too. After a succession of wealthy,19th-century merchants home owners, like the rest of Greenwich Village St. Luke’s Place took on a bohemian air in the early to mid-20th century. Max Eastman (1883–1969), editor of the revolutionary journal “The Masses,” lived at 11 St. Luke’s Place. Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945) began his novel “An American Tragedy.” At No. 16. Marianne Moore (1887–1972), Pulitzer Prize winner poetess, lived at No. 14 in the 1920’s when she was editor of the literary magazine, “The Dial” and working at the NY Public Library branch across the street. Painter Paul Cadmus (1904–1999) lived at No. 5 in 1934 when the U.S. Navy censored his painting “The Fleet’s In,” from an exhibition of WPA artists at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC.

Streets, Street Signs, Signs, New York Streets, History, Walt Whitman, Washington, Trinity Church, Greenwich Village, East Village, Downtown, Columbia University, Financial District, St. Luke’s Place, Bleecker Street, Washington Street, New York City, NYC, Manhattan

With a curious abbreviation of “Washington” this sign identifies this street corner on the sides of 92 Horatio Street, located in the West Village. Built in 1920 when this area was still rough not only around the edges but at its heart because of its proximity to the active piers of the waterfront; 100 years on this is now called in real estate lingo ”a boutique cooperative apartment building.” Divided into 77 units spread out over five floors this building is on the edge of the gentrified Meatpacking District.

Streets, Street Signs, Signs, New York Streets, History, Walt Whitman, Washington, Trinity Church, Greenwich Village, East Village, Downtown, Columbia University, Financial District, St. Luke’s Place, Bleecker Street, Washington Street, New York City, NYC, Manhattan

A most unusual wooden street sign.

Not a vehicular street but a secluded, gated courtyard off Sixth Avenue, Milligan Place is only big enough to hold four late 1840s dwellings. This area of Greenwich Village was part of the 300 acres belonging to Vice Admiral Sir Peter Warren (1703–1751). Some of the estate was sold to Samuel Milligan in 1799. Aaron Patchin, who married Mr. Milligan’s daughter, Isabella, surveyed the land that same year. The father-in-law gave his name to cute little Milligan Place and the son-in-law gave his to Patchin Place, around the corner and backing onto the former. Tradition tells us that the three-story structures on both places were originally built as housing for the Basque staff of the first hotel built on Fifth Avenue, the 1854 Brevoort Hotel, only three blocks away.

Streets, Street Signs, Signs, New York Streets, History, Walt Whitman, Washington, Trinity Church, Greenwich Village, East Village, Downtown, Columbia University, Financial District, St. Luke’s Place, Bleecker Street, Washington Street, New York City, NYC, Manhattan

A Beaux-Arts street sign.

Known as the Waverly Building, 24 – 28 Waverly Place is one of four corner Beaux-Arts buildings at Waverly Place and Greene Street. New York University’s Department of Music is located here, and the building is used for classrooms. Named in 1833 for Sir Walter Scott’s 1811 novel, though spelled differently, Waverly Place runs between Broadway to the east to Bank Street in the west. Number 24 Waverly Place is close to Broadway. For fans of “Mad Men,” Don Draper’s bachelor pad is located on Waverly Place in Greenwich Village.

Streets, Street Signs, Signs, New York Streets, History, Walt Whitman, Washington, Trinity Church, Greenwich Village, East Village, Downtown, Columbia University, Financial District, St. Luke’s Place, Bleecker Street, Washington Street, New York City, NYC, Manhattan

A second Beaux-Arts street sign.

A general-office, multi-tenant building, 99 University Place dates from 1900. Running north and south University Place travels from Washington Square Park at its southern end and comes to an end at East 14th Street, near Union Square. Once part of Wooster Street, it was renamed in 1838, the year after New York University moved to the east side of Washington Square. The street has been the location of several education-related institutions, the Union Theological Seminary in 1838, the New York Society Library in 1856, and the Industrial Education Association, the precursor to Teachers College, in the late 1880s. The street is home to shops and restaurants, many catering to students at NYU and The New School.

Streets, Street Signs, Signs, New York Streets, History, Walt Whitman, Washington, Trinity Church, Greenwich Village, East Village, Downtown, Columbia University, Financial District, St. Luke’s Place, Bleecker Street, Washington Street, New York City, NYC, Manhattan

A third Beaux-Arts street sign.

On the East 12th Street side of 99 University Place, the Beaux-Arts flourishes continue for this street sign. Part of the NYC’s east-west street grid, adoped in 1811, East 12th Street at this point is a mix of residential, commercial, and business properties. The neighborhood is kept young and lively with students from NYU and the New School.

Notice the periods following ‘Avenue’ and ‘Street.’

With a double address—101 Second Avenue and 240 East Sixth Street—this five-story apartment building dates from 1877. Its ground floor houses Block Drug Store, which was established in 1881. The street names are chiseled into two of the original stone quoins. Although this part of town is known today as the East Village, from 1870 to the mid-20th century it was Little Ukraine. Centered on Sixth and Seventh Streets between First and Third Avenues at its height 60,000 Ukrainian immigrants called this area home. A more diverse neighborhood in the 21st century, and few remember its nickname, some reminders, such as the Ukrainian Museum and some restaurants, such as Veselka, remain of the time when this area was a magnet for Ukrainian immigrants.

Streets, Street Signs, Signs, New York Streets, History, Walt Whitman, Washington, Trinity Church, Greenwich Village, East Village, Downtown, Columbia University, Financial District, St. Luke’s Place, Bleecker Street, Washington Street, New York City, NYC, Manhattan

Set in stone, likely marble.

As part of the limestone trim, the stone identifying the corner of First Avenue and Nineth Street is set into the façade of what was originally Public School 122. Built in 1885 by the architect and superintendent for school buildings, Charles B.J. Snyder (1860–1945), the school was abandoned in 1976. A community center was established at 150 First Avenue soon after; and it still operates within the building. Artists, including Keith Haring, and dancers, including Charlie Moulton, Peter Rose, Charles Dennis, and Tim Miller began to work there. Director Alan Parker filmed “Fame” there in 1979. Money paid to use the former school for filming allowed for renovations, including a dance floor. In 1980 Performance Space 122 was established within the building, and “performance art” in the early 1980s was defined by artists who worked there. The careers of Karen Finley, Spalding Gray, John Leguizamo, and others got their start and encouragement at Performance Space 122.

Streets, Street Signs, Signs, New York Streets, History, Walt Whitman, Washington, Trinity Church, Greenwich Village, East Village, Downtown, Columbia University, Financial District, St. Luke’s Place, Bleecker Street, Washington Street, New York City, NYC, Manhattan

A standout sign, white against red.

Dating from 1883 the building at 36 Bleecker Street has a white marble street identifier that stands out against the red brick. Built to house the Schumacher and Ettinger Lithography Studio, it has housed the operations of other printer-related businesses during its lifetime. The seven-story, Queen Anne and Romanesque-styled building was converted to condos in 2013. Since 1991 the corner of Mott and Bleecker has been co-named for Margaret Sanger (1879–1966), the founder of Planned Parenthood, which has its executive offices at 26 Bleecker Street. Named for Anthony Lispenard Bleecker (1741– 1816), an early 19th-century landowner and farmer, travels from The Bowery in the east to Eighth Avenue in the west. Tradition tells us that Mott Street was named for Joseph Mott, a butcher and innkeeper; but the name is of uncertain origins.

See unusual and unexpected sights when you take our guided walking tours of New York City. Take the Tour; Know More!

ALL PHOTOS AND TEXT, EXCEPT CREDITED QUOTES, © THE AUTHOR 2020

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