“It’s obviously not the Statue of Liberty, but for New Yorkers, it’s a beloved and treasured piece of the cityscape,” said Andrew Berman, president of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.
In Greenwich Village, the charming brownstone-lined streets don’t always comply with the city’s uniformed grid system: in fact, three roads collide haphazardly outside 110 Seventh Avenue South. At first sight it’s an unremarkable New York intersection. Yellow cabs zip past a Starbucks opposite Village Cigars, with the soaring figure of One World Trade Center further south.
In a city where eyes are naturally drawn upwards, you would do well to notice a small triangular mosaic set into the pavement just 3ft in front of the cigar shop. Composed of faded black-and-white tiles, the triangle measures roughly 2 sq ft and reads: ‘Property of the Hess Estate Which Has Never Been Dedicated For Public Purposes’. A cryptic message that alludes to a story that “has come to embody the struggle for personal identity in this area,” continued Berman.
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Greenwich Village has always been a little different: “progressive, forward-thinking and dynamic,” as Berman describes it. By the late 19th Century, the neighbourhood had become one of the most culturally diverse areas in the city. Standing at this spot in 1910, the view would have been vastly different. Seventh Avenue, which today runs the length of Manhattan, ended almost a mile north of Greenwich Village, and without the traffic brought in by the busy thoroughfare, the area felt more sedate and intimate. Where the cryptic triangle now lies stood an apartment block built by Philadelphia native David Hess, who had died three years earlier, in 1907. Maps from the late 1800s mark the building with the name Vorhes, as well as its lot number, 55.
The early 20th Century was a time of dramatic change in New York. The newly opened Penn Station, with its rail tunnel under the Hudson River, brought large numbers of commuters directly into the heart of Manhattan. The decision was taken to extend both Seventh Avenue and the subway line that ran beneath it southward in order to improve commuting connections between Lower Manhattan and Midtown, the city’s two major commercial hubs. A New York Times article from October 1913 reported that 253 structures would be torn down to accommodate the thoroughfare. One of those slated for destruction was the Vorhes building.
New York City had enacted an eminent domain order, a provision within the Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution, in which “the government has the right to take someone’s private property for public purposes,” such as for the construction of roads or schools, Jonathan Houghton, a lawyer at Goldstein Rikon Rikon Houghton PC, one of the city’s oldest eminent domain firms, explained.
Angered by what they considered bureaucratic overreach, the Hess family dug its heels in and refused to sell. Over the next few years the family fought valiantly against the order, but “stopping an eminent domain action in New York is extraordinarily difficult,” Houghton said, and by 1913 the Hess family had exhausted all legal avenues. The apartment block was demolished shortly after, with the Seventh Avenue extension eventually passing directly through where lot 55 had once stood.
That should have been the end of the story.
If you peer very closely at city maps from 1916, you might just be able to make out a tiny triangular-shaped speck that remained of lot 55. “One point often overlooked is that there were many small, irregular-sized lots left over after the destruction – but the Hess Triangle was the smallest,” Berman said. The building was of course gone, but a surveying mistake meant that a portion of lot 55 had survived, and was still legally owned by the Hess Estate.
What happened next isn’t entirely clear. The traditional story goes that upon realising the mistake, the city requested that the Hess family donate the tiny plot, assuming that such a small piece of land would have no commercial value. But once again the Hess family refused. The case returned to court, but this time the Hess family prevailed over the City of New York, and their legal right to the small triangle was ensured.
However, an article published in The Philadelphia Evening Ledger on 29 July 1922 contradicts this, reporting that the previous year the City of New York had called upon the Hess Estate to pay the accumulated property taxes on the remaining portion of the lot. But Frank Hess, David Hess’ son, claimed to be unaware any portion of the lot still remained in his family’s name.
We do know that on 26 July 1922, the mosaics were installed. A New York Times article the next day reported that the triangle had been ‘assessed on the tax books for $100’, presumably referring to the property‘s annual tax bill. After visiting the lot, Frank negotiated a lease deal with the cigar shop that included the requirement that the plot be marked as private property. The Hess Triangle was eventually sold to Village Cigars in 1938 for a lofty $1,000 (which, after adjusting for inflation, would equal around $17,500 today), and it has been preserved exactly as it was ever since.
More than 80 years later, the facts of this much-loved tale have begun to blur; some versions wrongly tell of David Hess himself fighting the New York City government. Nevertheless the Hess Triangle has evolved beyond its origin story into a symbol of defiance, which, according Berman, is “emblematic of the little guy taking on City Hall and, in one small way, winning”.
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