Meet 20th Street
It was summer when I finally entered the twenties – home to sprawling trees and lovely gardens – removed, yet set within the busy bounds of the avenues that span Union Square, Madison Square Park and several other busy intersections. The summer is a perfect time to discover the hidden gems of Manhattan. The days are longer, allowing people to extend their time outdoors, either soaking up the sunshine or sharing drinks and a meal in the gardens well into the evening hours.
To the East, 20th Street runs the length of Gramercy Park, which comes as a respite for New Yorkers strolling from the numerous bars and restaurants that line the stretch between Broadway and Park Avenue South – Flute, a champagne bar, Mari Vanna, a Russian tea room, Elan, contemporary American cuisine, and famed, award-winning restaurant, Gramercy Tavern, to name a few. The park is the only private locked garden in the city. The beautiful stone and brick surrounding it and the blossoming flowers and abundance of trees provide some much needed shade, cool, and quiet.
It comes as a surprise to many that on 20th Street lies the birthplace of President Theodore Roosevelt. Demolished in 1916, his 20th street townhouse has been rebuilt to mimic the character and structure of his original home. Today, tours are given daily, inviting those interested to explore its interior and ogle at artifacts that have remained in Roosevelt’s family line. (As of the spring of 2015, the house is closed for renovation).
Following this rich presidential history, I came upon Gramercy Park’s Players Club and The National Arts Club, which date back even earlier. In 1888, Edwin Booth opened the Players Club as a place for men, passionate about theater and the fine arts, to gather and share their interests. While initially a club for men only, in 1989, the club extended a hand to Helen Hayes, inviting women to become Players themselves. The group produced Broadway plays in the 1920s and continues to meet and fraternize today. Similarly, the National Arts Club was founded in 1898, acting as a hub for artists to gather and promote the arts. Among the members was Theodore Roosevelt himself, Woodrow Wilson, painter Robert Henri, sculptor Augustus Saint Guadens, J.P. Morgan, and many other renowned politicians.
Stepping forward in time, I stumbled upon two delectable chocolate shops: L.A. Burdick‘s owner Paula Burdick welcomed me warmly and shared her award-worthy hot chocolate and sweet treats. If it is possible to overdose on chocolate, this is the place to do so. And one block further westward, a special space removed from the pathway, Chocolat Moderne is nine stories up.
The cute and the quirky also mark this portion of the street. City Treehouse has an imaginative play space for young children and Hannari & MG, a Japanese company, opens its doors to those who want to adorn their dog.
The Western portion of the Flatiron District on 20th is replete with furniture and home décor shops, including the lovely Ann Gish, whom we adored meeting and where I enjoyed learning about the history of her bedding, blanket and pillow shop. And let us not forget Kleinfeld, the enormous wedding department store that has its own reality television show.
Continuing West, 20th is largely a haven of calm and quiet. Almost entirely residential, the long, tree-lined streets of brownstones and brick row houses in the Chelsea area are stunning, even bucolic. At 337 West 20th lies a landmarked building entitled the Muffin House, a residential building that still holds the original brick ovens of Samuel Bath Thomas of Thomas’ English muffins fame. The ovens are built into the building’s foundation, so alas, they could not be transplanted to the current Thomas baking factory. Nearby, and somewhat hidden, I found Café Grumpy, a neighborhood coffee shop with a backyard patio.
Between Ninth and Tenth Avenue lies the massive General Theological Seminary, a verdant, open quadrangle, built in the 1820s and surrounded by old church structures that have recently been converted into luxury condominiums. A bit further west, there are several of the great Chelsea art galleries, including the Annabelle Selldorf-designed building for David Zwirner. And as I neared the Hudson River, I finally found myself under the metal, planted trusses of The Highline Park – always a pleasant place to end the day.