The weird, wild origin story of NYC's tiniest piece of private property, 100 years later

ByToby Hershkowitz via Localish logo
Wednesday, July 27, 2022
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Celebrating the weird origin story of the iconic Hess Triangle, the smallest piece of real estate in NYC (and perhaps world) history, on the day of its 100th anniversary

GREENWICH VILLAGE -- One hundred years ago today, one of the weirdest and wildest pieces of New York City lore, the Hess Triangle, was born.

Well, not born. Built.

"In some ways, it's a typical New York story of trying to maintain an individual identity in this enormous metropolis," says Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation, more commonly known as Village Preservation.

"It's a little blip that wasn't noticed until long after the fact, and a beloved symbol of this David vs. Goliath struggle," Berman says.

The saga begins in 1914. New York City had launched an ambitious expansion of the Seventh Avenue subway line to connect midtown and lower Manhattan, which meant dozens of properties in the tangle of streets known as Greenwich Village needed to be demolished.

"A little piece of what made the Village unique and different from the rest of New York was lost," Berman says of the subway construction project.

Property owners were upset, including the Hess Estate, which owned an apartment building called The Voorhis at what is now the corner of Seventh Avenue South and Christopher Street. Reluctantly, they ceded their property to City Hall. But then, the city made a crucial mistake that would eventually lead to the creation of this iconic relic of old New York.

"It seemed like it was a surveyor's mistake that a tiny corner that didn't need to be demolished, was left over," Berman says. "The city tried to get the Hess Estate to donate it so it would just become part of the sidewalk."

But the Hess Estate wasn't having it. In an act of defiance, on July 27, 1922, they sunk a mosaic into the tiny tract of land, bearing an unmistakable message of protest against the city:

PROPERTY OF THE HESS ESTATE WHICH HAS NEVER BEEN DEDICATED FOR PUBLIC PURPOSES

Measuring approximately 26.5 inches on the long sides and 24.5 inches on the short side, with an area of approximately .0000797113 of an acre, this isosceles symbol of spite is the smallest piece of private land ever owned in New York City, and perhaps, the entire world.

After 16 years, the Hess Triangle was sold to the neighboring property, which is now Village Cigars, and has subsequently changed hands. Despite that, the lore has only grown over the decades, with locals and tourists alike stopping by all the time to admire the Hess Triangle, or ask the local store clerks about the strange shape on the sidewalk.

The lasting impact of the Hess Triangle is apparent to Village Preservation, which has a stated goal of preserving the architectural and cultural history of the iconic lower Manhattan neighborhoods of Greenwich Village, the East Village and NoHo.

"It's important not just to these neighborhoods, but to New York City as a whole," Berman says. "In New York, you want your neighborhoods to maintain their own individual sense of identity."

That's exactly what Village Preservation has done, by educating folks about Greenwich Village's rich history through media stories, and preserving a historic image archive from the turn of the century with stunning pictures, several of which are featured in this story.

So how has a tiny tile triangle endured for a century? What does it all mean?

"Change is good, change is vital," Berman says, "but we also want to hold on to what we hold dear about the past. The apartment building that the Hess Estate owned is gone, but they were able to hold on to this one little symbolic testament to the fact that something had been here before and that somebody did struggle to maintain their piece of old New York."

To learn more, visit www.villagepreservation.org