A Tiny House in Manhattan Has a Link to the Underground Railroad

In a city of showy skyscrapers climbing ever higher in their bids to catch the eye, the beguiling little brick-and-wood house at 2 White Street in TriBeCa is striking precisely because of its humble scale and design.

Built in 1809 by Gideon Tucker, a school commissioner who ran a nearby plaster factory, the two-and-a-half-story, Federal-style corner house is exceedingly rare as a Manhattan home whose sloping gambrel roof and original dormer windows have survived more than two centuries.

The ground floor of the little house was divided into multiple storefronts, which in the 20th century held a variety of mom-and-pop shops serving a working-class neighborhood known until the 1970s as Washington Market: a corner barbershop with a candy-striped pole, a cigar store, a liquor store, a travel agency and a footwear shop with a distinctive shoe-shaped sign suspended above West Broadway. Now combined into a single storefront, the current retail space retains raffish details of its liquor-store days, including a retro red-and-blue neon sign and period gilt window lettering advertising cognacs and cordials.

In the past 14 years, the building has become a fashion destination, as two haberdashers — first J. Crew and now Todd Snyder — have sold men’s wear from the evocative corner storefront.

Less well known, however, is 2 White Street’s antebellum incarnation as a destination of a very different kind: the home of a prominent Black abolitionist minister and a possible stop on the Underground Railroad, the network of Black and white activists who helped African Americans flee Southern slavery before the Civil War. From 1842 until his death in 1847, Rev. Theodore S. Wright lived in the house, helping conduct fugitives to freedom in more-Northern parts of the country or Canada.

Although 2 White Street was declared an individual landmark by the city Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1966, followed by the house’s inclusion in the Tribeca East Historic District in 1992, neither designation report even mentioned Wright. In the years since, the minister’s obscurity has persisted. In interviews, three tenants who operated out of the corner storefront over most of the past 28 years said they had never heard of Wright or the building’s abolitionist history until informed by a reporter.

“It gives me goose bumps,” said the men’s wear designer Todd Snyder, who opened his own boutique in the building in 2019 after overseeing the J. Crew store that opened there in 2008.

Born free in Rhode Island in 1797, Wright was educated at the Free African School in New York City and graduated in 1828 from the Princeton Theological Seminary, the first African American to receive a degree from such a seminary in the United States.

The Rev. Theodore S. Wright lived in a house which is now a men’s wear store. As an active member of the Underground Railroad in New York, Wright helped conduct Southern fugitives to freedom, and his house was likely used as a hiding place.Credit…Randolph Linsly Simpson African-American Collection. James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection in the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

As pastor of the First Colored Presbyterian Church of New York City, which congregated in a schoolroom near Duane and Hudson streets before obtaining a church on Frankfort Street, Wright denounced slavery from the pulpit and relentlessly organized the Black community in defense of its civil liberties.

In the 1830s, he served on the first executive committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society and was one of the earliest members of the New York Vigilance Committee, which aggressively aided those fleeing bondage and hired lawyers to argue in court to keep kidnappers from forcing free Black Americans into slavery. In the 1840s, while living on White Street, he served as the group’s president.

“To me, Wright is really one of the founders of the Underground Railroad,” said Eric Foner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad.” “In New York, that’s a small number of people, but they were very active — and no one could give you an exact figure, but they were very successful in helping fugitive slaves who reached the city and then sending them off to New England or to Canada where they could be free.”

By 1841, the New York Vigilance Committee claimed to have helped more than 1,000 fugitives, crucial work at a time when the city was run by a pro-Southern government and was economically intertwined with the slaveholding South through the cotton trade.

Mr. Foner said that Wright probably harbored fugitives from slavery in his home.

“We know from some of the correspondence that he was in touch with the Boston sort of branch of the Underground Railroad, and they exchanged letters about Wright and others in New York City sending fugitives on their way to Boston who had gotten to New York City,” he said. “There weren’t a heck of a lot of places where you could hide fugitives in New York, so I would say it’s quite likely” that Wright’s home was used as a hiding place.

Deeply committed to the principle of passive resistance, Wright was “an early giant of the civil rights movement, the Martin Luther King of his time,” said Tom Calarco, a co-author, with Don Papson, of “Secret Lives of the Underground Railroad in New York City.”

At a Princeton event in 1836, the minister did not fight back as he was severely beaten by a white anti-abolitionist, “and Wright said later he was glad to be able to remain true to his nonviolent principles,” Mr. Calarco said.

After Wright’s death, the funeral procession down Broadway was a quarter of a mile long, and the sidewalks “during the whole route” were “filled with women belonging to the colored congregations of the city,” Lewis Tappan, a leading white abolitionist, wrote in the Emancipator and Republican newspaper at the time.

Through the years, the house, seen here in the mid-1920s, has been home to a barbershop with a candy-striped pole, a cigar store, a liquor store, a travel agency and a footwear shop. Credit…Eugene L. Armbruster/The New-York Historical Society, via Getty Images

Wright’s White Street home carries special significance because it is one of just 18 city sites with landmark protection that are associated with abolitionism or the Underground Railroad.

The nearby homes of two other major African-American Underground Railroad figures — the publisher and New York Vigilance Committee leader David Ruggles, on Lispenard Street (where the fugitive Frederick Douglass was hidden), and the indefatigable Underground Railroad conductor Louis Napoleon, on Leonard Street — were long ago demolished.

Today, most people familiar with 2 White Street, which is also known as 235 West Broadway, associate it with one of its several liquor-related incarnations.

In 1994, Martin Sheridan, an Irish-born “roadie” for rock musicians, rented the corner storefront for $2,000 a month and opened the Liquor Store Bar, a glass-enclosed jewel box lent period charm by the old-school Liquor Store neon sign that hung over West Broadway.

“It was catching the downtown artist wave,” Mr. Sheridan recalled. “It was the last wave before they all moved to Brooklyn or wherever.”

Most of the bartenders at Mr. Sheridan’s watering holewere artists or musicians who lived in TriBeCa, which helped suffuse the bar with a creative, neighborhood atmosphere distinct to that time and place.

“My biggest fulfillment as a patron anywhere was at the Liquor Store Bar,” said Charles Coleman, a composer who has lived in the neighborhood since 1975. One of his favorite aspects of the place was that it allowed him to discuss with painters how both he and they created something out of nothing except their imaginations.

“It’s wonderful to get into a discussion about that,” he said, “especially when beer is involved.”

The Liquor Store Bar closed in 2004, Mr. Sheridan said, when he could not obtain a lease renewal. The following year, Michele Angerosi, an Italian-born bartender at nearby Puffy’s Tavern, rented 2 White Street with the intention of opening an upgraded version of the popular haunt.

In the basement, Mr. Angerosi said, “we found old alcohol bottles, probably from the 1920s, that looked almost like pharmacy bottles.”

A neon liquor store sign still hangs over the West Broadway facade of the building.Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times

He poured $250,000 into his new venture, he said, knocking out a wall to combine the building’s two storefronts and installing, at a cost of nearly $40,000, a 49-foot mahogany bar adorned with elegant wraparound molding.

But no drink was ever sold at that bar. When Mr. Angerosi applied for a liquor license, he ran into fierce opposition from some neighbors.

High-profile area residents like the “Sopranos” star James Gandolfini wrote letters supporting his application, but New York State denied Mr. Angerosi a license, determining that the Liquor Store must remain dry because there were already three or more businesses with full liquor licenses within 500 feet. Mr. Angerosi was compelled to abandon his dream.

The custom-built mahogany bar he installed was meant “to last a hundred years, and it’s still there,” he lamented recently.“It’s beautiful, and every time I go by my heart gets squeezed.”

J. Crew’s decision to open its first stand-alone men’s wear store in the Liquor Store in 2008 was championed by the marketing guru Andy Spade, who pitched it to top J. Crew executives.

“It wrote itself,” said Mr. Snyder, who was then J. Crew’s head of men’s design. “Andy had a story like, ‘A man walks into a bar, and he comes out with a madras.’”

The store became an incubator where the company tested many items that became J. Crew staples.

It was a turning point for both the brand and Mr. Snyder.

“That was the place where I learned not only how to design apparel but really to create the environment that apparel lives in,” he said. “A light bulb went off in my head, and that’s when I decided to go off on my own.”

Mr. Snyder opened his first store in 2016, and after J. Crew left the Liquor Store in 2019, he jumped at the opportunity to put a shop of his own there, adding crown moldings and square ceiling soffits to give the space a clubby, old-world style.

Todd Snyder, the men’s wear designer, was not aware of the full history of the house that is home to his Tribeca store. “It gives me goose bumps,” he said.Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times

“I’ve always been inspired by British pubs and gentlemen’s clubs where you go to smoke and drink,” he explained.

Behind the shop’s bar is a small framed portrait of Wright, nestled amid the whiskey bottles. Mr. Snyder said he did not know how it got there.

Ryan Taylor, who managed the store until January when he left to focus on acting, said it was he who had decided to honor Wright by displaying the portrait.

Mr. Taylor had never heard of Wright until 2019, when Rabbi Andy Bachman, executive director of the nearby Jewish Community Project Downtown, stopped in and told him about the minister. Rabbi Bachman gave Mr. Taylor the portrait of Wright andlater led a community meeting at the Liquor Store to discuss efforts to mark abolitionism-related city sites with plaques as part of a Freedom Trail.

“Some of our African-American clients didn’t understand that history,” said Mr. Taylor, 54, who is also African American. So when shoppers of any race came in and asked about Wright’s portrait, Mr. Taylor made a point of telling them why he felt they were standing on “sacred ground.”

“In this building was a very powerful man who risked his life to make a difference — he wasn’t safe, but he did it,” Mr. Taylor said, adding, “As you stand here enjoying your $40-a-glass Japanese whiskey as you’re buying a suit — and your fiancée is standing there and you’re dropping $4,000 to $10,000 on a Tuesday — there’s an opportunity to reflect and look back.”

Mr. Taylor’s voice rose to a crescendo: “You didn’t know you were coming here to get an education, but you got it, and you learned not just about the building but about humanity.”

For weekly email updates on residential real estate news, sign up here. Follow us on Twitter: @nytrealestate.

Related Articles

Back to top button