Volume 81, Number 10 | August 4 - 10, 2011
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Photo by Lincoln Anderson

The enigmatic Hess triangle has puzzled generations of pedestrians.

Tiles underfoot recall owner who put his foot down

By Betsy Kim

At the corner of Seventh Ave. South and Christopher St., in front of the Village Cigars shop, a cracked, tile triangle in the sidewalk stubbornly proclaims, “PROPERTY OF THE HESS ESTATE WHICH HAS NEVER BEEN DEDICATED FOR PUBLIC PURPOSES.”

The small (27½ inch by 27½ inch by 25½ inch) sign sometimes causes passersby to smile, though with some curiosity.

“I don’t know. Maybe, it’s someone trying to state a message. Some message about private property? I like it,” said East Villager Maxiliano Siñani, who was strolling past the spot recently.

“While it’s a tiny triangle, this piece of land really tells you about emerging forces at work in the 20th century,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. “It really speaks volumes about how our model city came to be.”

The preservationist explained that in the 1910s, using the power of eminent domain, the city destroyed hundreds of buildings in the area, taking land to cut a new avenue — Seventh Ave. South — through the Village and extend the I.R.T. subway. Under the law, the city had the right to pay landowners fair value for property taken and used for the public good.

In an April 16, 1995 article, “F.Y.I.,” published in The New York Times, Jesse McKinley wrote that according to “Greenwich Village and How It Got That Way,” by Terry Miller (Crown, 1990), the city destroyed a five-story apartment building, called the Voorhis, owned by the Hess estate.

In an article, “Gotham Every Day,” published in The Hartford Courant, on Jun. 2, 1928, Ross Duff Whytock wrote that the triangle was a portion of a large piece of property that once belonged to David M. Hess of Philadelphia, who had died.

“The city decided to cut Seventh Avenue through the property, and after the job had been completed the Hess heirs discovered that the triangular plot had been overlooked in the survey and they proceeded to set up their notice of possession,” Whytock wrote.

The administration wanted the Hess estate to donate the triangle to the city since the space clearly lacked any other functional, private purpose. But according to McKinley, “the Hess estate obstinately refused and took legal action to keep their tiny plot, leaving the smallest piece of property in the city. And they covered it with the headstrong message that you saw.”

Subsequently, Berman noted that Yeshiva University obtained both the property where the Village Cigars shop stands, at 110 Seventh Ave. South, and the corner triangle of sidewalk. The last link in the chain of ownership dates back to 1995, when the university sold both properties to the 70 Christopher Realty Corporation, which rents the building to the store.

While the triangle is a tiny piece of land, Berman feels it tells a larger story about the emerging municipal forces in the early 20th century. The five boroughs merged in 1898, followed by the groundbreaking of the subway’s construction in 1900 and the opening of the city’s first subway in 1904.

“There have always been pressures on the Village to conform to the wishes of city government and the desires of big developers,” he noted. “But the Village, while not necessarily winning every battle, has always been able to maintain its quirkiness, human scale and distinct identity, and the Hess triangle is very emblematic of that.”

A spokesperson for the Hess oil corporation, said the company’s founder, Leon Hess, was not related to David Hess of the Christopher St. sidewalk triangle plaque.

Another New Yorker who was recently passing the triangle, also gave his nod of approval.

“I think it’s cool,” said William Alvarez. “It’s a great piece of art. It gives the city a little bit more history and culture.”

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