Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Cobble Court

I wrote the following essay three years ago, when Cobble Court, aka the "Goodnight Moon" house,  was under threat of possible demolition. (It seems to be safe now.) I interviewed Mrs. Bernhard, who moved the house to the Village, but never posted the story. This week marks the 50th anniversary of the house's move. So here's the story--as written in July 2014.

New York Times

There is a house on Charles Street in Greenwich Village that captivates every passerby. Long ago named Cobble Court for the cobblestones that have surrounded it, the two-story dwelling looks like something out of a storybook. In its white clapboard and blue trim, the house slants at odd angles, standing asymmetrically on a green sheet of grass framed by a high wall covered in ivy and climbing roses. In spring, a cherry tree lowers its bright red fruits over the wall, almost low enough to pluck. If this fairytale wooden farmhouse looks out of place among the hulking bricks of former tenements and warehouses, that’s because it is. Twice saved from the wrecking ball, the house traveled here in 1967 from York and 71st Streets. Now, many fear that the wrecking ball has caught up with the runaway house and aims to try for a third time.

In her Connecticut home, Ingrid Bernhard has filled an entire wall with photographs and newspaper clippings on the subject of Cobble Court. She and her late husband, Sven, were its saviors.

“I am an old lady now,” she says, with her native Swedish accent. “I was just thinking I should do something to tell the story of the house, before it’s too late.”

She was shocked when she heard the recent news that the house has been put on the market--with a $20 million price tag and a realtor’s listing that coolly calls the historic home a “blank canvas for a developer or user to execute a wide variety of potential visions,” including “boutique condominiums.” The Bernhards didn’t haul the house across five miles of New York streets for it to be destroyed for condos.

“It was enormously difficult to save it,” Ingrid says, recalling struggles with the Archdiocese of New York, who had purchased the house as part of a parcel to be demolished for a nursing home. Though the Bernhards were only renters (paying $65 a month), Sven went to court and told the judge, “I will agree to move only if I can take the house with me.” Once they got possession of the house, with help from Mayor Lindsay, the Bernhards had to obtain a vacant lot to put it on, along with permits for just about everything. Then they had to physically move Cobble Court, stones and all.

Formerly part of a dairy farm, in the 1940s the house became the writing studio of Margaret Wise Brown, author of Goodnight Moon and many other children’s books. “The reason the house got into Scandinavian hands,” Ingrid explains, “is, well, it just happened that way.” She tells a story that begins with the untimely death of Ms. Brown, felled by appendicitis on a book tour in France. The author had willed the keys to the house to her young fiancée, James S. Rockefeller, Jr., a socialite sailor with a passion for all things Norwegian. He went on to marry the ex-wife of ocean explorer Thor Heyerdahl of Kon-Tiki fame, and his subsequent social connections led him to rent Cobble Court to a series of young Norwegian men, one of whom had a Swedish friend named Sven Bernhard. An opera fan, Sven traveled by sea to New York—paying his way by washing dishes on the Swedish American Line--for the sole purpose of seeing Arturo Toscanini conduct live at Carnegie Hall. When Sven arrived, however, the conductor had cancelled his New York concerts. Dejected, Sven crashed at his friend’s place. The young Swede fell in love with Cobble Court, vowing, “If I ever come back to New York, I’m going to live in this house.”

It was here that Sven took Ingrid when they were dating and later married. “When I first saw the house,” she recalls, “I was not crazy about it at all.” It was cold and damp, and the gas heat emitted a foul odor. “But then, with its charm and coziness, I got to like it very much.” When the Bernhards learned the fate of Cobble Court, Sven told Ingrid, “I want to save this house for other generations to come.”

And so, on a cold morning in March of 1967, the 18th-century farmhouse rolled down the island of Manhattan. It was a rickety little thing and must have looked wonderfully strange as it rumbled and swayed down the rain-wet streets, like a houseboat rocking on the waves, precariously balanced atop a wooden cradle towed by a 16-ton truck. Watching it, young Ingrid cried, “It’s saved, it’s saved!” She told the New York Times at the time, “The house, the move, everything, cost all the money we have. But this house is so important, it’s a way of life.”

The Bernhards lived at Charles Street until 1985, when they moved to Connecticut. It wasn’t easy to leave. “That house,” Ingrid says wistfully. “You’d be busy at work, in the bustle of the city, and then you came inside and you closed the door and it was like a different world. A very pleasant world.”

The house changed hands a few times and soon ended up with its current owner, Suri Bieler. Like Sven Bernhard, she also had a chance encounter with the house, fell in love with it, and made a vow. As a girl, Bieler spotted the house from the window of her father’s car as he wandered lost through the streets of the Village. “She saw a man out front, wearing a bowtie,” Ingrid recalls Suri telling her. “That was my husband, of course. And Suri said to her father, ‘The people who live there must be very happy.’ She vowed to one day live in the house. When she returned to New York years later, there was a For Sale sign out front. She bought it.”

Ingrid wonders why the beloved house is being sold today, and why it’s being marketed as a development site. But if you walk a block or two in any direction, you can’t miss the rising tsunami. Richard Meier’s towering triplets of glass front the river, blank and cold. Futuristic 166 Perry glitters spastically on a once-cozy lane across from 150 Charles, a mega-development that neighbors have called “The Rape of the West Village.” Cobble Court is somewhat protected within the Greenwich Village Historic District, and preservationists vow she won’t go down without a fight. As Ingrid says, “Cobble Court is part of New York. So it should stay there. I like to see it there.”

Many people like to see it there. You don’t have to live in it to love it. Knowing this, when the Bernhards built their wall, they added a wide gate because, says Ingrid, “We wanted people to be able to look at the house. We thought it would be nicer if people could just look and not have to feel embarrassed about peeking through a fence.”

On the night that Cobble Court first arrived on Charles Street, the great New Yorker writer Maeve Brennan went out to have a look at it. In The Talk of the Town, she wrote that stories like this one “remind us that we are always waiting, and remind us of what we are waiting for—a respite, a touch of grace, something simple that starts us wondering.”

It may have been the Bernhards’ house, but they saved it as a gift to the city, to us all, so that we might look and simply wonder.


James said...

There's the often-deciphered dichotomy here: a landmark few people even suspected existed now in danger of being taken away from a population that never heard of it. It becomes a matter of "who cares" vs. "now we'll all know the Good Night Moon house is threatened".
There's something horse-before-cart in this. To mount a campaign, the story itself must be known - that Margaret Wise Brown wrote a true classic of a children's book in that very mythical enclosure that so many children saw as belonging neither to time nor place but a continuum of imagination. Did Clement Hurd base his drawings on that particular Great Green Room? Was there actually a Great Green Room to inspire the sequence, and was it there? Yet, the birth did happen there - a very significant thing, even if one wants to stand at 71st and York and just breathe the air for a moment while picturing the bliss of childhood bedtime and the fading objects in the "great" room.
The book's mise-en-scène is not really a wooden addendum pulled down from 71st Street and York but a place in the mind. Yet, New York developers are intent in squeezing cash out of every floorboard, nail, and plot with the convenience of so easily being able to wipe memory down to the "blank canvas" of indifference. Once the cat is out of the bag, as it were, it's not going back. A show of hands, please, for those who have NOT read the book. Very few hands.
Oh, for a more imaginative world.

Moofie said...

My father William Shopsin is the architect who oversaw the move and the work to make Cobble Court habitable on the other end. He ended up living a few blocks away from the house in the Village, and we heard the store of the move many times as kids when we walked by the house. The lot on Charles Street was purchased from a Mr. Shakespeare for what I assume was a modest price.

Annie said...

Wonderful story - I hope the house survives. Congratulations on the book!