Stone Street, an alley rich in history and present-day culinary delights
When restaurant owner Peter Poulakakos was scouting locations for his new downtown café and pub, he decided to build the two upscale eateries on a street as old as the city itself.
Stone Street, the narrow, cobblestone alley first developed by Dutch colonists in the 1600s, rests with unassuming charm among the concrete canyons of skyscrapers and multi-tier parking garages of the Financial District. With its two neat rows of picturesque, mostly low-rise brick buildings, dotted by zigzagging fire escapes and old-fashioned black lighting fixtures, the centuries-old pathway recalls the magic and ambience of nineteenth century New York.
"It's a beautiful street," says Poulakakos, 27, who built his Ulysses' bar and Financier café here. "It's historic and quaint. It's the whole package."
Said to be the first paved street in the city of New York, Stone Street has quietly withstood hundreds of years of shifting politics, financial ups and downs, and public disasters. Designated a historic landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) in 1996, the Stone Street Historic District, which includes the area bounded by Stone, Pearl, Hanover Square, and South William Streets, did suffer a period of relative decline during most of the twentieth century: Storefronts stood vacant, and Stone Street itself was used as a virtual parking lot.
"The buildings weren't very well maintained" says Andrew Dolkart, an adjunct associate professor of historic preservation at Columbia University. "There was no reason why people would go there."
But today, thanks to the efforts of Stone Street enthusiasts, including both public and private groups, the historic neighborhood has reinvented itself, attracting upscale restaurants and shops and once again becoming a popular destination for tourists and New York natives alike.
|Poulakakos outside his Financier cafe
"The whole idea was to make it a destination where you can sit and eat," says Suzanne O'Keefe, vice president of design for the Alliance for Downtown New York. "When you're there, you feel that you've stepped into a different time."
A Street Rich with History
Sandwiched between South William and Pearl Streets, the slender alley today known as Stone Street has enjoyed many different names, its changing titles reflecting the different world powers who historically governed the downtown community.
As the LPC reports, the Dutch West India Company first sold what is now the Stone Street Historic District to European property owners in the 1640s, including today's Stone Street, originally called Hoogh Straet (High Street). A few years later, Hoogh Straet was moved to connect with Brouwer Street and the connected roadway, in 1658, is said to have become the first paved street here in Gotham.
As the colony came under British control, however, the names of streets changed, with Hoogh Straet becoming Duke Street in honor of the Duke of York. But that name, too, wouldn't last. In 1794, the then politically self-determining New Yorkers renamed it Stone Street, according to the LPC.
Because of the neighborhood's proximity to the waterfront, the Stone Street area bustled with commercial activity throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
"The East River was the most important commercial waterfront in the city," says Steven Jaffe, senior projects historian at the New-York Historical Society. "You had warehouses, and supporting industries, sail-makers, all kinds of maritime businesses. That prevailed throughout the whole area, really from the 1700s into the mid-1800s."
Even after the Great Fire of 1835, a blaze of destruction that leveled some 700 commercial buildings, the area not only rebounded but flourished.
"New York was the place by the 1830s," says Jaffe. "It was the leading maritime port in the country. It was inevitable that it would bounce back."
But as vibrant and resilient as the Stone Street district was, as the nineteenth century drifted into the twentieth, the area was gradually neglected, and buildings fell into disuse and disrepair.
The decline resulted, in part, from a shift in the location of the maritime industry. "By the early twentieth century, although New York was booming as a port, the action shifted to the Hudson River side," says Jaffe. "The lower East River waterfront went into a kind of decline. The businesses there were secondary. They weren't the big movers and shakers."
|Ulysses is located at 58 Stone Street
With the lack of demand and interest, Stone Street, where soldiers in the West India Company's service purchased tracts of land, where British merchants traded and sold goods, where American colonialists spoke of independence and political freedom, had, as the twentieth century drew to a close, become a forgotten backwater.
As detailed by the LPC, a six-story office building at 42 Stone Street was demolished in 1971-72; the southern portion of Stone Street between Broad and William Streets was closed and demapped in 1980; Coenties Alley, located between Stone and Pearl Streets, was demapped and relocated northward.
Community Support Helps Ensure Street's Bright Future
The area might have become a historical footnote, if not for renewed support in the community. Those aware of its rich and varied heritage and inherent charm and beauty set about transforming the district and revitalizing the winding little alley.
Starting in the mid-1990s, the Alliance for Downtown New York, the business improvement district (BID) serving the area south of Chambers Street, provided money to the City's Landmarks Preservation Commission to hire architectural and economic consultants to determine how to restore the vicinity. After officially designating Stone Street a historic district in 1996, the Commission applied for and received federal funds with the aim of refurbishing the historic nineteenth-century appeal of the area.
With additional financing secured from New York City and the Alliance, Stone Street -- at a cost of about $1.8 million -- received a well-earned makeover, including a new street bed that duplicated the street's original cobblestone paving, and new bluestone sidewalks lined with quaint, traditional looking lighting fixtures.
"Food is Everywhere"
|Guests enjoy Scandanavian cuisine at Smorgas Chef
Drawn to the redecorated, spruced up neighborhood, businesses began returning and investing in the area. Today, just a few short years after those minimal restorations took place, Stone Street boasts an alley full of fashionable eateries -- a regular "restaurant row" of chic, international dining experiences.
"Food is everywhere," says the operations manager of McRoberts Protective Agency, a security company located at 57 Stone. "It's a benefit of working here, unless you're trying to lose weight."
Hungry for Swedish meatballs or sea bass tajine? Head to Smorgas Chef, a Scandinavian restaurant at 53 Stone. Min Ye, one of the owners, opened the relaxed, inviting restaurant, with its exposed brick and canary yellow walls, in September 2003.
"New York is kind of a symbol of modernism, but it is one of the oldest cities in the U.S.," Ye says. "So to be on the oldest paved street is very exciting. Also, we like being part of the downtown community. It means a lot to be here and contributing to the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan."
Across the street, those looking instead for more Mediterranean cuisine can stop by Cassis at 52 Stone, where wood fans circle gently above diners enjoying grilled vegetables with warm goat cheese and braised short ribs.
Owner Evelyne Gaidot, who opened the restaurant just last spring, appreciates the way that Stone Street feels like "a village." Gaidot, who lives downtown, only looked in Lower Manhattan when searching for locations for her new business.
"I love the neighborhood," she says, "and I want to see it bounce back."
On this one compact, gray-stoned street, visitors can also enjoy a basic sandwich at Subway, located at 55 Stone, or drop by the two eateries owned by Poulakakos. Relax with a cold pint at the spacious Ulysses' at 58 Stone, or sit back with a hot espresso and apricot tart at Financier at 62 Stone.
And the young Stone Street entrepreneur isn't done yet. "We have another space here on the street," Poulakakos says. "We're thinking pizza."