New York City is a place where everything is big. It is the Big Apple. It has enormous skyscrapers. It is the largest city in the United States. Its rental prices are through the roof. For all of its size, there just doesn’t seem to be room for anything associated with smallness.
How did it happen, then, that a little triangle of 350 square inches of land became New York City’s smallest parcel of real estate?
To understand how this oddity could occur, it is necessary to take a look at the way New York City’s streets are laid out. A cursory glance at a street map shows that most of the city’s streets follow a consistent grid system, running about 30 degrees off of true north and east. When you get down to Greenwich Village, however, in the southwest part of the city, the pattern falls apart. Some roads run east to west. Some are north to south. Others follow a route that fits no pattern whatsoever, making that part of the city look like a medical student’s final exam on the human vascular system.
In the early 20th century, New York City wanted to expand its subway and widen Seventh Avenue. To do this, it required taking over a lot of private property and demolishing quite a few buildings. Most landowners who were affected by this worked out a satisfactory arrangement with the government and sold their property to the city. There were a few who resisted, and the government was able to use its eminent domain powers to take the property, anyway. In total, 253 buildings were demolished to make way for the improvements to the infrastructure.
One holdout to all of this was David Hess. He owned a 5-story apartment building called the Voorhis, and he was adamant that the city was not going to take his property. He fought a legal battle that lasted from 1910 to 1913, but his efforts were in vain. With all legal remedies exhausted, the city took control of the Voorhis and demolished it, clearing the way for the city improvements.
When it was all said and done, despite all of the planning and throughout all of the legal battles, everyone overlooked the fact that the city’s petitions to seize the property did not quite cover everything. Because of the unusual shape of the real estate tracts and the weird angles involved, it is understandable — but still quite embarrassing — that a little piece of David Hess’ land did not get seized. How big was the piece? It is an isosceles triangle, with a 25 1⁄2-inch (65 cm) base and 27 1⁄2-inch (70 cm) sides. That makes it about the size of an extra-large piece of pizza.
By the time this oversight was discovered, David Hess had passed away. His heirs learned that the survey had missed this small corner of Plot 55. When the city found out about this, it asked the family to donate the parcel to the public. Instead, the family decided to stake it out as a monument to one man’s battle against City Hall.
July 27, 1922, the Hess family unveiled what is now known as the Hess Triangle. They decorated the diminutive parcel with mosaic tiles and these words: “Property of the Hess Estate Which Has Never Been Dedicated For Public Purposes.”
The day after the triangle’s dedication, the New York Times ran an article about it, noting that the tiny piece of property had been assessed on the tax books for $100. Adjusted for inflation, that would be $1,550 in 2020.
The mosaic remains on the corner of Christopher and 7th Avenue. Village Cigars bought the triangle in 1938 for $1,00. Later, it was purchased by Yeshiva University. In 1995, 70 Christopher Realty Corporation purchased the property. Throughout all the changes in ownership, the mosaic proclamation in the sidewalk has remained unchanged. It remains as a monument to property rights and the unwillingness to give up, even in the face of overwhelming opposition.