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Downton Abbey on the Upper West Side

A few weeks ago Kenneth Rosen at (the excellent new) Narratively gave us an inside look at Pomander Walk — a sweet little village hidden away on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The secluded enclave consists of two rows of houses set inside the block bounded by Broadway, 94th Street, West End, and 95th Street. The homes, accessible only by a private walk, seem fresh out of a time warp from Old England:

Painted in bright reds, greens and blues with decorative window shutters and miniature gardens, they resemble the cottages of a quaint, sleepy village—the backdrop to a fantastical play about dukes and early European colonies. Perhaps the village in “Downton Abbey.” Enclosed by a stone arch and iron gate at either end, the Walk caters to the fantasies of many passersby while simultaneously squashing them—the half-timbered houses are off-limits to anyone but residents.


Flickr user PilotGirl under a Creative Commons license. 


Flickr user ShellyS under a Creative Commons license.

Pomander Walk dates back to the early part of the 20th century and the mind of a Irish restaurateur named Thomas Healy. In 1921, Healy announced his intention to build the London-style homes on the property, which he owned, inspired by sets in the Louis Parker play, "Pomander Walk." Parker told the New York Times the architect of the original homes "had taken a slyly humorous delight in making them miniature copies of much more pretentious town mansions."

Healy may have intended the Walk as an interim project while planning a larger hotel on the property, but he died in 1927, long before any such effort was realized. No surprise, as the Upper West Side grew, real estate developers fixed their eyes on the area. To keep their village-in-the-city — and, in many cases, their rent-controlled rates — the tenants banded together to secure landmark status for the Walk in 1982.


Flickr user ShellyS under a Creative Commons license.

In reaching its decision, the landmark commission cited the Walk's "unique sense of place," and also liked the idea of preserving a charming cultural getaway for New Yorkers [PDF]:

The architects designed Pomander Walk to evoke the atmosphere of an idyllic English village street through the use of intimate scale, Tudoresque detailing, and complementary landscaping. … Built by an immigrant Irishman able to indulge his "dream," Pomander Walk is a delightful architectural whimsy which now everyone can enjoy.

That's not quite what happened in the end. Today, the gates to Pomander Walk are locked, and if one recent unannounced visit is any indication, residents and servicemen alike are on guard against curious passers. (A top-notch insider photo gallery was collected by Untapped Cities last fall.) That's understandable for security reasons, of course, but a little unfortunate for cultural ones.

Then again, it's not too uncommon for New York landmarks to be somewhat inaccessible to the public. And Pomander Walk has had its share of intrusions: in the late 1990s, construction began on a major apartment tower adjacent to the Walk, on the Broadway side. Residents lamented the loss of sunlight and wondered what would become of the village gardens. Ah, the range of problems in New York.

All uncredited images are by Eric Jaffe.

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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