The Local: The Weathermen Townhouse

weathermentownhouse The Local: The Weathermen TownhouseOn first glance, all of the five-story townhouses lining West 11th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues blend together, lending the block the same charming and unaffordable air of any other in Greenwich Village.

The sharp, three-story bay windows at No. 18 quickly pierce the illusion, jutting four feet past the facades of the neighboring buildings. A Paddington bear doll in an orange cloak and black witch’s hat stands next to a ceramic jack o’ lantern in the first-floor window. The starkly modern building begs to be recognized, for its incongruity and its history.

On March 6, 1970, five members of the radical Weather Underground accidentally detonated dynamite at a makeshift bomb factory in the basement of 18 West 11th Street. The bombs were, according to rumors, destined for a military compound in New Jersey and for Butler Library at Columbia University.

Instead, seven separate explosions leveled the townhouse that belonged to the father of one of the two Weathermen who survived the accident, and rocked the peaceful Village block. Residents of the identical, neighboring building at No. 16, including actor Dustin Hoffman and his family, who rented the first-floor apartment, never returned to their homes, according to a New York Times article on the blast’s 30th anniversary. Mr. Hoffman told the Times in 2000 that the explosion was a “philosophy-changing” experience that shook him out of a “chrysalis.”

While the incident may still reverberate for those who experienced it, otherwise today it seems to have faded into the neighborhood’s distant collective memory—despite the media scrutiny over Barack Obama’s tenuous connection to Weatherman co-founder Bill Ayers. Coincidentally, one of the few passersby who immediately recognized the building was another famous local, actor Andrew McCarthy.

But most of the 20-odd people I spoke to over the course of two days were only vaguely aware that something had happened at 18 West 11th nearly four decades ago, if at all.

“Wasn’t there an explosion there or something in the 1960s?” asked Prudential Douglas Elliman broker Leonard Steinberg over the phone Saturday.

He put a nearby townhouse at 24 West 11th Street on the market three weeks ago for $17.5 million and has yet to hear a potential buyer mention the incident. “They don’t care about a building’s history in Soho,” he chuckled. “They just care if it’s pretty.”

The doorman at 40 Fifth Avenue; the bellman at the Larchmont hotel across the street; a construction worker from a nearby townhouse; and a pair of middle-aged, female joggers all had similar reactions.

“Wow,” said Drew, a local dog-walker, when I told him what happened 38 year ago. “I’m here every day and, even with McCain on the attack lately, this is the first I’ve heard of it.”

The four Danish tourists passing by Friday evening were much better informed. They had come to West 11th Street specifically to see the “Weatherman House,” because it is the 10th stop on Lonely Planet’s “Village Radicals” tour. Other destinations include the Oscar Wilde Bookshop, Bob Dylan’s former haunt Fat Black Pussycat, and Washington Square Park. Jesper Selch said the best part of the tour so far had been a decidedly anti-radical urban phenomenon.

“We just saw the funniest thing we have ever seen,” Mr. Selch said incredulously. “The place [in Washington Square Park] where people bring their dogs to play. We never saw that before in our life.”

“I guess it’s another way to socialize,” his wife offered.

Before the group moved on to dinner in the West Village, to be followed by the Empire State Building “to see the lights,” Mr. Selch doubled-back. “You don’t work for Fox News, right?” he asked worriedly.

Some people seemed more offended by the motives of No. 18’s architect than by those that motivated the Weathermen to concoct bombs in a basement of an upscale Manhattan neighborhood.

“Why did they do that?” asked former Greenwich Village resident Rebecca of the townhouse’s current design. “It doesn’t fit in the face of the neighborhood at all,” she said. “That forceful geometric shape is too modern in a bad way.”

 

THE LESS CONTROVERSIAL, ORIGINAL structure at 18 West 11th Street was one of four matching, Federal-style townhouses Henry Brevoort Jr. built for his children in the 1840s. Merrill Lynch co-founder Charles Merrill lived there in the 1920s; and his son, the poet James Merrill, was born there. The younger Mr. Merrill would go on to write an eponymous poem about the “dear premises vainly exploded” called “18 West 11th Street.”

Broadway lyricist and film executive Howard Dietz bought 18 West 11th Street in 1930, according to The Times, followed by radio executive James P. Wilkerson in 1963. In August 1970, Mr. Wilkerson sold the property, just four months after his daughter Cathy reportedly emerged naked from the wreckage and went into hiding.

No. 18 remained vacant for the next eight years while architect Hugh Hardy, a partner at Hardy, Holzman, and Pfeiffer, battled with Community Board 2 and the Landmarks Preservation Commission over an exterior design plan that opponents said was too radical for the traditional block.

Enter David and Norma Langworthy, who quit Greenwich Village and the theater life for Philadelphia shortly after their 1943 marriage. The former set designer and his Broadway bride settled into their new roles as business executive and mother, but they vowed to return to New York. Nearly four decades and as many children later, the couple made good on their promise. In June 1977, they bought the vacant land at 18 West 11th Street, city records show, just a few doors away from the rented, basement apartment where Mr. Langworthy proposed.

Ms. Langworthy told The Times in 1981 that her tears at a 1978 Landmarks hearing ultimately swayed community opponents. The Langworthys moved into their new home—a slightly-modified version of Mr. Hardy’s original vision, to preserve the scale and character of the block—in 1978. The bear has reportedly remained in the window ever since, but his ensemble changes according to the season.

Few remnants of West 11th Street’s more radical past remain, save for a pink peace sign spray-painted onto the trash container in front of No. 26, to the left of No. 18.