Village author lives in landmarked home, champions local treasures
It’s fitting that Judith Stonehill lives in a historically protected house in the West Village.
“New York’s Unique and Unexpected Places”— her latest book — hit the shelves last week. “The house was landmarked before the Village was,” Ms. Stonehill informed me as we sat down in her living room (with her daughter/collaborator Alexandra) to discuss her book — and her life as a longtime Village resident.
The book, published by Universe, highlights fifty lesser-known landmarks throughout the five boroughs. “The original idea was that some of the forty seven million visitors who come here every year would be intrigued and want to go beyond Midtown and Ground Zero, but in fact I’ve discovered that a lot of New Yorkers are just as interested and haven’t ever been to some of these places,” said Ms. Stonehill. She set out to write a book for “adventurers and dreamers.”
It was important that all of the locations in the book be close to public transportation. Half of the spots are located below 14th Street (such as Economy Candy, Merchant’s House Museum and Film Forum). “There could have been five hundred places,” said the author. “The hardest part was cutting back.” It was also important that every place mentioned be open to the public.
The majority of the stunning photographs that accompany Stonehill’s descriptions of the featured locations were taken by the author’s daughter, Alexandra. This is not their first mother and daughter collaboration. Alexandra also enjoys finding archival photographs from the city’s past. These photographs were used in her mother’s prior books: “Greenwich Village: A Guide to America’s Legendary Left Bank” and “Brooklyn: A Journey Through the City of Dreams.”
Alexandra is no stranger to the Village. She grew up in the home that her mother currently resides in and now lives in the East Village. Judith Stonehill was reminded of E. B. White’s quote on the three different types of New Yorkers: “the ones that are born here, the commuters, and those that came from somewhere else with a dream.” Ms. Stonehill, who moved here in 1960 from the Finger Lakes region with her husband — the late architect John Stonehill — falls into that last category.
The book documents a mix of museums, cultural centers, and family-owned shops that are not visited by throngs of people on a daily basis. Some of the highlighted spots are locations within a location. Judith pointed out that “Everyone has been to the New York Public Library, but many people have not been to the Map Room — which has an incredible collection.”
A number of green spaces were also deliberately featured. As Alexandra pointed out, “Many tourists think that the only green space in the city is Central Park.” Some of these outdoor areas include Battery Park City’s Irish Hunger Memorial, The Museum of Jewish Heritage’s Garden of Stones, and the Lower East Side’s Hua Mei Bird Garden.
In addition to forgotten treasures, the book also highlights some newer attractions. The mother and daughter team noted that Lower Manhattan’s Poets House, SoHo’s Museum of Chinese in America, and Washington Street’s High Line were only opened to the public after the book was sent to print.
The longtime Villagers also included some of their favorite local spots — such as the Gardens at St. Luke in the Fields and Three Lives & Company. On a mini-tour of both locations, Judith explained: “Many people walk by and think this is a private property.” It was easy to tell that the space is well cared for and a hidden refuge that would be enjoyable in all four seasons. When we entered Three Lives & Company, owner Toby Cox was delighted to see two of his favorite customers and provided the time and attention that one would never see at a franchise bookseller.
Of course there are other locations, not listed in the book, that the Stonehills frequent. Alexandra likes to go down to the piers and also enjoys the Strand Bookstore. “I think one could easily do fifty places in the Village,” Judith comments — clearly regretting that the room afforded to her within the context of one book meant some worthy gems didn’t make it into print.
More so then any particular spot, she loves the character of the neighborhood she’s called her own for over four decades. Stonehill has always been attracted to the color of Greenwich Village. “My husband thought of the city as one building and in general the colors are silver, and gold, and grey; but the Village is red. Rosy, brick red.”
Judith and Alexandra also reminisced about places in Gotham City that are now defunct. Judith misses some of the antique stores that used to line Bleecker Street. She also remembers the old candy store on West 11th, and a comic book store that her son, David, liked to visit as a kid. She still misses her favorite restaurant — Trattoria da Alfredo — which used to be on Hudson and Bank. Alexandra points out that not all change in the neighborhood over the years has been bad — noting how a lot of the new stores that have opened up in recent years try and include the neighborhood with gestures such as having candy ready for children Trick or Treating during Halloween. “It is easy to think about all the ones that are gone, but it’s also important to focus on what’s there.”
Judith Stonehill has always had an interest in preserving the city’s past and future. She has sat on the board of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation for years. In the past, she served as a vice-president for the South Street Seaport Museum and as the director of the Corporate Fund at Lincoln Center. She was also co-owner of New York Bound Bookshop — which was located at Rockefeller Center for over twenty years. She reminisced, “It was completely and obsessively about New York.” Alexandra was involved there too — having organized over nine-hundred archival images of the city that were sold as prints. Judith pointed out that, “When Michael Graves designed [the New York Hotel] for Paris, all of the photographs were from our collection.” The store was also instrumental in bringing formerly out of print books on New York back to the market at prices most consumers could afford. This included Miroslav Sasek’s classic children’s book, “This Is New York.”
Appropriately, the first event for “New York’s Unique and Unexpected Places” was held October 7th at the New York City Fire Museum — one of the places mentioned in the book. Upon arriving, I momentarily thought the event would be poorly attended — until I realized Judith and Alexandra’s friends and fans were gathered around the security guard’s 13-inch TV — attentively waiting for a local news feature on the book that was set to air. Once it did, the party truly started.