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Carter's View

duane park nyc Duane Park. Image by 6tocelebrate
The small, triangular Duane Park between Greenwich and Hudson streets in TriBeCa was the first open space acquired by the city for use as a public park in 1797.

It is bounded by Duane Street on the south and Duane Street on the north. The north one ends at Hudson Street where it gets a street sign a few feet short of the next cross street, Thomas Street.

Perhaps more importantly, the asymmetrical park is considerably smaller than the available street space.

Such eccentricity and history, of course, would not necessarily qualify Duane Park as a "great park."

What does make a difference is the quality of the surrounding architecture, the urban streetscapes, the views and...serendipity.

There are three mid-rise buildings of very fine quality around the park, several quite special low-rise buildings, and a very impressive jumble of platforms, shed canopies, ramps, fire escapes and eateries. Some sidewalk vault doors are angled as if building inspectors never cared, or existed.

In such chaos, the surrounding community has been dramatically gentrified in recent years. The downs and ups of the neighborhood correspond, roughly, to the park's changing presence.
The park was confiscated by the Duke of York from the English Governor, Sir Francis Lovelace, and in 1705 was deeded to Trinity Church. In 1797, it was purchased from the church by the city for $5 for a park.

It is named for James Duane, the city's first mayor (1784-1789) after the American Revolution.

It was enlarged and landscaped by 1870 and in 1887 Calvert Vaux and Parks Superintendent Samuel Parsons Jr., redesigned a plan for it with paths curving in from each surrounding street.

At the west end of the triangular space containing the park is the southernmost of the three, 40-story towers of Independence Plaza and the northern section of the extremely charming Washington Market Park.

The former was erected in 1975 with striated concrete, cantilevers and "toothiness," according to "The A.I.A. Guide to New York City."

The latter is highlighted by the blue metal mast of the clipper-ship play structure, the S. S. Fun and its "great lawn" with an ornate bandstand.

The eastern end of Duane Park is anchored on the south by the 13-story 166 Duane Street, an impressive 1910 apartment building with an entrance marquee near Hudson Street facing the park and on the north by the 11-story 165 Duane Street, an even more impressive building notable for its slanted base and mansard roof.

166 Duane Street was converted to 25 loft condominium apartments in 1997 and is notable for its slightly arched windows on its top floor and very nice decorative elements at the top of the building, which has a roof deck.

165 Duane Street, which was converted to 36 loft cooperative apartments in 1980, is notable for its mansard-like sloped roofline, many arched windows, and, more importantly, its impressive slanted wall supports at street-level. It was originally a coconut processing plant.

The third major building at the east end of the park is the Mohawk Atelier, which consists of two 19th Century commercial buildings that were converted in 2009 to 12 residential condominium apartments by Joseph Pell Lombardi, a leading renovation architect and developer in the city. On the northeast corner at Duane and Hudson Streets, it is the handsomest of these three buildings.

It had been leased in 1996 by David Bouley and Warner LeRoy, the restaurateurs, with an option to buy. Their plans, however, were upset by the terrorist attacks in 2001 on the World Trade Center and then the death of Mr. LeRoy, and in 2002 Mr. Bouley sold the building and the adjacent mid-block building Mr. Lombardi.

The east end of the park is also dominated by the great former Western Union Building on the northeast corner of Hudson and Thomas Streets, one of the city's major Art Deco skyscrapers. It was designed by Ralph Walker of Voorhees, Gmelin & Walker in 1930.

The eastern of the park also has vistas of the Woolworth Building to the south whose top is in the process of being converted to condominium apartments.

While the larger buildings are impressive, the park's "star" building is at 172 Duane Street, a two-story building designed by Jacob Weber that some sources indicate was home to a cheese company. Completed in 1872, the building had a double row of three cast-iron arches. The building in 1886 was taken over by Berg & Meyers, rag traders, and in 1893 by Cordley & Hayes, makers of bottle coolers and ice cream freezers. Around 1910, H. W. Covert Company took over the space to sell fireplace throats and dampers and a couple of years later W. W. Johnstone and F. M. Coughlan ran a butter-and-egg business at the address. This is what makes the city's retail history so rich....

In 1999, a new owner commissioned Vincenzo Polsinelli to restore the cast-iron facade and to create a new glass-block front six feet behind the two-story cast-iron portico. It was soon occupied by Damon Dash, a hip hop impresario who sold it last year and the new owner commissioned Polsinelli to create a four-story single-family residence. The plans, however, were not approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission and are being reworked.

A history of the area by Friends of Duane Park has noted that "as the city laid out the streets of the neighborhood in 1794, Duane St. turned out to be inconveniently wide at the point where it intersected a grid with a slightly different axis. The triangle that occurred was too small for building, too big for a street."

"In the last resizing, in 1954," according to the Friends' document, "the western end was lopped off...and paved as part of Duane St., probably to help cars entering and leaving Staple St., and the sidewalk on the south side was taken away and made a part of the street, probably to increase the back-up area for trucks loading food from the butter, pickle, and cheese warehouses."

"In 1994," it continued, "as the neighborhood was once again changing and the butter, eggs, pickle, and electrical warehouses were shutting down, a group of neighbors looked at the park with dismay. The city could not keep up with litter, the planted areas were mostly barren and hard-packed, dogs had done their damage, and the design was no longer suitable, either....The restoration design that Friends of Duane Park proposed was created by Signe Nielsen....The design finally won approval from the essential authorities" and was completed during 1999.
No matter how nice the architecture might be, the retail quality of a street is very important. A blank wall is the bottom of the barrel and a bank space that closes early is not too lively. Changing show windows in boutiques can be amusing and interesting but nothing beats restaurants for New Yorkers who like to watch people more than buildings.

People-watching, however, has its limits. There can be just too many people like in Times Square, or at Prince Street and Broadway, or Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. You don't want to fear for your life because of cars and pickpockets and rampant cyclists and skate-boarders or cell-phone-pre-occupied individuals totally unaware of life and their environments.

This is where Duane Park shines. It's off the beaten track even though it's not far from a subway station, the World Trade Center, Battery Park City and City Hall. It's just a wonderful secret, especially the cherry danish at Duane Park Patisserie in its antique decor behind wooden doors at 179 Duane Street.

It's just to the east of a row of several restaurants with sidewalk cafes and down the block from the larger, more formal and much more expensive Scalini Fedeli at 165 Duane Street.

The Duane Park Patissiere does not front directly on Duane Park and is directly across the open street from the Laughing Man at 184 Duane Street, which is a tiny coffeehouse with a sidewalk bench on which, the other day, sat its owner, Barry Steingard, who created it with his son, David, and Hugh Jackman, the actor. Above him, the wooden shed canopy had a few holes but across the way at 171 Duane Street is a much newer metal shed canopy that is uniformly perforated in what can only be described as an act of defiance, preservationally speaking. Laughing Man gives all of its profits to charity, including the Harlem Village Academies, and its motto is "All be Happy!"

Its store is quite impeccable compared to the accumulated patinas that can be found across the street at Duane Park Patisserie, run by Madeline Lanciani. They co-exist peacefully, and happily, in this best of all possible parks....
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Architecture Critic Carter Horsley Since 1997, Carter B. Horsley has been the editorial director of CityRealty. He began his journalistic career at The New York Times in 1961 where he spent 26 years as a reporter specializing in real estate & architectural news. In 1987, he became the architecture critic and real estate editor of The New York Post.