The Real Deal New York

Real Estate Mysteries: The skinny on the skinniest house in the city

75 1/2 Bedford Street was once home to Edna St. Vincent Millay and other famous names

February 05, 2008
By Katherine Dykstra

The narrowest house in the city, a townhouse at 75½ Bedford Street, is so slim that one may wonder how this tiny slip of a building came into being — and why it still remains.

Wedged between 75 and 77 Bedford, 75½ is only nine-and-a-half-feet wide on the outside, eight-and-a-half-feet wide on the inside, and 32 feet deep.

The home’s precise date of construction is in question, but one thing is certain: This itty-bitty home has drawn a long list of famous inhabitants.

The home was constructed in the mid-1800s over a carriage drive between two homes that led to horse stables in the backyard.

It is believed to have been built in 1873, but there are some who say that based on land values and on the home’s original architectural style, Italiante, it is more in line with 1850s construction.

The list of former owners and renters reads like a who’s who of New York. There’s the cartoonist William Steig, the anthropologist Margaret Mead and the writer Ann McGovern, who co-authored a book called “Mr. Skinner’s Skinny House” about a man who lives in the narrowest house in the city.

It is also rumored that both Cary Grant and John Barrymore spent time there. And during the early 1920s, when artists began to flock to Greenwich Village, the home became an enclave for the pioneers who started the Cherry Lane Theater.

But the home’s most notable resident, and the name etched into the plaque on its façade, is Edna St. Vincent Millay, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. Millay won her Pulitzer in 1923, for “The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems,” while she was living in the house. She was the first woman to win the prize for poetry.

It was Millay and her Dutch husband, Eugen Jan Boissevain, who had the home renovated from the Italiante to the Dutch Colonial style in the 1920s. During their short stint in the home, they added the casement windows, skylight and Dutch stepped gable that passersby see today.

In the 1950s, a family with the last name Carroad purchased the home along with a couple of the properties around it. The family owned it until the early 1990s.

That was when Christopher Dubs, who has a background in architecture preservation, discovered it. Though the home was in disrepair, Dubs was intrigued, and in 1994 he bought it for $270,000.

“It was an old, ugly 1960s renovation that someone had done,” said Dubs. “It had red mosaic tile and a horrible kitchen and all these little chopped up rooms upstairs.”

Dubs had yet to start work on the house when Mayor David Dinkins came to recognize the building as the one-time home of Millay.

“The mayor came and they’re standing in front of it, and it was horrible,” said Dubs. “We put the plaque on the ugly brick facing.”

The big repairs — fixing the plumbing and getting the heat up and running — were made immediately so Dubs could rent it out. The “full cosmetic,” as he called it, came a few years later when he was able to devote the necessary time.

What he imagined would take two weeks — each of the four floors, including the basement, measures less than 300 square feet — turned into a four-month adventure.

“Once you touched one thing, you had to do the next thing,” Dubs said.

Complicating matters was the fact that the house is in a landmark district, so Dubs had to get permission from the city to make the changes he wanted. And he needed to keep the home’s appearance consistent with the time period.

That meant finding bricks circa 1920 when it came time to repoint the façade. He found them in a Long Island brickyard. Inside, he exposed the natural beams in the ceiling, replastered the walls, and installed old French doors and Juliet wrought-iron balconies in the back.

On the main floor he swapped the kitchen with the den and put a stove in one fireplace (the house has five of them) with four burners in a row, rather than the standard two-by-two configuration in order to save space.

“I knew how important space was, and in that house that was elevated to a whole other level,” says Dubs.

When he finished his renovations, which cost him $200,000, he was able to rent the house out for $6,000 a month. And, in 2000, he sold it for $1.6 million, nearly quadrupling the investment he made to buy it and fix it up.

“We had multiple offers. In fact, if I remember right, we had a bidding war on it,” said Ileen Shoenfeld of Brown Harris Stevens, who represented Dubs. “This house was very unique. And its uniqueness made it very desirable.”

“There was a bidding war,” said Patrick Lilly, senior managing director at Coldwell Banker, which represented Steven Balsamo, who ended up purchasing the house. records indicate that Balsamo still owns it. Calls to confirm this information were not immediately returned.

Lilly, who has worked in the West Village for 24 years and who specializes in townhouses, estimates that 75½ Bedford Street is now worth about $2.5 million.

“The designer buildings are going for a little over $2,000 a square foot, so $2,500 is about as high as you can get in the Village,” he said. “There was a Halstead deal on another small house that was 1,700 square feet, and that went for over $3 million. This one is 990 square feet.”

The price paid for 75½ Bedford Street is “because of its size and its pedigree and its uniqueness,” said Lilly. “You’re always going to pay a premium for uniqueness.”