A Brief History of Tribeca’s Historic Districts

North, south, east and west — five historic districts protect the coveted buildings of Tribeca.

Like most Downtown neighborhoods, Tribeca has enjoyed a rich and varied past that has included use as farmland and residences, rapidly evolving manufacturing and commercial development, and a slow reclamation for residential purposes as industrial businesses largely vacated Manhattan. Due to its waterfront position, the area formerly known as The Lower West Side was especially popular for markets and wholesalers dealing in perishable food and dairy trades, hence its early designation as the “Butter and Egg District.”

Filled with a number of notable industrial warehouses and cast-iron structures, the majority of Tribeca’s buildings now fall into one of five official historic districts overseen by New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. Throughout the five boroughs, historic districts preserve the exterior features of buildings, especially those visible from the street, in order to maintain irreplaceable architecture and rich historic character, not just building by building, but block by block.

Below we explore the five Tribeca historic districts and a few notable buildings in each.


Tribeca West Historic District [PDF Link]                         


2-6 Harrison St. (Image: Wikimedia)

Designated on May 7, 1991, the Tribeca West Historic District was the first historic district designation in the neighborhood. Extending roughly from Hubert to Reade streets between Greenwich and West Broadway, the Tribeca West district is also the largest in Tribeca.

The most common early commercial building type in Tribeca West is the store-and-loft building. Typically modest affairs, four- to seven-stories tall, — as perishable goods didn’t require large storage spaces — these buildings included storefront space on the ground floor, offices directly above, and storage or manufacturing on the remaining floors. Designed in 1868 by John B. Snook, the four identical five-story buildings at 176 – 184 Duane Street are excellent examples of the store-and-loft design.

The 1885 Mercantile Exchange building, at the corner of Harrison and Hudson streets, exemplifies the importance of the area’s dairy trade. A group of dairy merchants joined forces in 1872 as the Butter and Egg Exchange to better organize pricing and distribution of their wares. By the time the group built their handsome Romanesque Revival headquarters at 2-6 Harrison, they’d become the New York Mercantile Exchange, a nod to the addition of groceries, canned goods, and poultry to their exchange and an indication of the growing importance of this lively section of Tribeca.


Tribeca North Historic District [PDF Link]

Designated on Dec. 8, 1992, the Tribeca North Historic district, along with the East and South districts designated on the same date, expanded the protection for Tribeca’s important buildings. Starting at Tribeca West’s upper border at Hubert Street, Tribeca North extends toward West and Canal streets and included 67 buildings at the time of its creation. In addition to smaller store-and-loft buildings, this section of Tribeca is populated by massive warehouses and manufacturing buildings, including the oldest storage facility in the district, The United Sugar Building at 79 Laight Street. Built in 1853 by the Grocers Steam Sugar Refining Company, this 10-story structure occupies the entire blockfront on Laight between West and Washington streets. The structure was soon passed to the United States Sugar Refining Company whose name graces the building, now outfitted with 33 fine condominium homes.


Tribeca South Historic District [PDF Link]                       


The Cary Building (Image: Wikimedia)

Covering 70 buildings on just over four blocks between West Broadway, Chambers, and Thomas streets, the Tribeca South Historic District was established on Dec. 8, 1992. The majority of the building stock in the Tribeca South district was erected prior to the Civil War, with Cary Building at 105 West Broadway being a prime example. This 1856 Italianate dry goods warehouse was erected for the firm Carey, Howard and Sanger and once featured more than 1,500 goods that merchants could review and purchase for their stores. The building stretches the length of the Church Street blockfront between Chambers and Read with attractive cast-iron facades on each end by Daniel D. Badger’s famed Architectural Iron Works.


Tribeca East Historic District [PDF Link]

Also designated on Dec. 8, 1992, the Tribeca East Historic District runs southeast from Church and Canal streets and contains the original sliver of land that earned the entire neighborhood its Triangle Below Canal portmanteau. As the story goes, inspired by their SoHo neighbors to the north, a group of artists and residents joined forces to gain live-work zoning for their neighborhood. Drawn to the triangle shape formed by Church, Canal, and Lispenard streets, the group dubbed themselves the Triangle Below Canal Block Association, and the shortened “Tribeca” was soon applied to the whole area.

Within this district, we see an emergence of buildings designed not for storage and manufacturing, but for housing the businesses that supported the surrounding trades. The handsome Importer’s Building (now the Textile Building) at the corner of Leonard and Church streets is emblematic of this type of office construction. Designed by Henry J. Hardenbergh, best known for the iconic Dakota apartment building, the turn-of-the-century, 12-story, neo-Renaissance building housed office space until its conversion to luxury condominium homes in 1999.


Tribeca South Historic District Extension [PDF Link]


120 Chambers (left) and 122 Chambers (center) (Image: Wikimedia)

The most recent addition to Tribeca’s family of historic districts is the small southern extension designated on Nov. 19, 2002. Bounded roughly by Church and West Broadway between Chambers and Murray streets, the South Extension includes 28 buildings of mostly five-story Italianate store-and-loft design built in the 1850s. The consistent size and purpose of the buildings lends an attractive uniformity to this small area not often found on the other Tribeca blocks. The Swift, Seaman & Co. building at 122 Chambers Street, a New York City Landmark, is a lovely example of the district’s Italian Renaissance Revival-style and a fitting companion to neighboring 120 Chambers, one of the oldest surviving cast-iron buildings in New York City. The two structures were erected by brother and sister, William Henry Jones and Emily Jones. Their father Isaac Jones was the third-ever president of Chemical Bank.

With five historic districts protecting a large swath of Tribeca buildings, we can rest assured that the vibrant cultural history of this important American neighborhood is preserved well into the future.

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