Mystery Owner Pays $14 Million for Village Townhouse with Secret Treehouse in Yard

A round cedar tree house in the backyard at the W. 12st St. townhouse was once at the center of a bitter battle between an artist and single mom who had it built for her three daughters in and a cranky neighbor and the city Department of Building that wanted it torn down.

| 29 Jan 2024 | 12:36

There is a treehouse in Manhattan that was a the center of a battle nearly two decades ago when the city and a cranky neighbor sought to have it torn down. Now the townhouse at 50 W.,12th St. with the was just sold for $14 million by the artist who owned it and spearheaded the battle in 2006 to save the treehouse.

The identify of the new mystery buyer has not been divulged. But since the treehouse is now landmarked, the new owner can’t tear it down.

Since the 1850s, that property has housed residents artists, dancers and rockers. The most famous transaction came about in 2005 when Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, David Bryne of the Talking Heads sold the property to artist Melinda Hackett, a single mom who moved into the townhouse with her three young daughters.

Shortly after she bought the home., which city records say she paid $5.8 million for, she had a round cedar tree house built in the back yard around a stately London Plane tree.

The family had moved from North Salem, NY, about 50 miles north of the city where her kids had free reign to run and play outside and she wanted to replicate some of that experience for her kids even as they took up residence in one of the most densely populated urban areas in the country. And so she paid two carpenters about $5,000 to build the now iconic treehouse in the backyard. “To have a tree house would be an extra special thing for them [the kids], and it turned out that it has been,” Hackett once said in an interview with AP.

It sure was special for the kids, but not initially for the city. Shortly after Hackett spent about $5,000 she got a complaint from the city and a stop work order from the Department of Building. Apparently a cranky neighbor had complained about a “suspicious structure” in the backyard attached to a tree that the neighbor complained “looked unsafe” and did not have a building permit. The police and fire department were also summoned, she recalled at the time.

Fortunately local allies sprang to Hackett’s defense. Robert Strong, an architect helped defend Hackett in court. ”I wanted to help Melinda because I liked her tree house,” he said at the time in an interview with AP. “I thought it was a beautiful structure and it didn’t deserve being torn down,” Strong argued that the treehouse was a recreational structure and did not need a building permit and after a year and a half legal battle, the court agreed. The treehouse was then approved to be a part of the already existing landmark district because it was “unique,” Strong argued. The treehouse remained and now has landmark status itself. The new owner, whoever that may be, can’t tear it down.

Her sale of the property was represented by Louise Phillips Forbes of Brown Harris Stevens, who confirmed the property sold for $14 million, after a price cut from the original asking price of $15.5 million.

Even before the great treehouse battle, the home had a storied past that stretches back to the mid-19th century. The home’s first owner Robert N. Freeman was charged with retaining “a number of gold watches,” followed by Henry J. Smith who in 1905 was fined $3 for intoxication after allegedly being robbed of $4.

In 1915, things began looking up, apparently. Irving Simon bought the townhouse house and committed $8,000 to a list of renovations which included “a large skylight studio on the fourth floor, modern plumbing, electricity, and steam heating.” This also marked a new era of “artistic types,” which included artist Adolf Lawson and dancer August Duncan as residents of Greenwich Village in its Bohemian era.

Today, this property is a five-bedroom single family home that is almost 5,000 square feet with some of the same original details including a skylit studio from 1915, now a skylit lounge.

“It had great architectural details that gave the house a tremendous soul,” Forbes said. “Houses with stoops—it sets the stage differently. It’s really what gave such great scale. And every floor had extraordinary 14 feet ceiling heights on the ground level, the parlor and the second floor. It’s also unusual for every floor to have the intricate plaster crown molding that this had.”

Some of the other newly added details of the property include a large open kitchen, five wood-burning fireplaces, and an artist studio..

And the treehouse also falls under protected landmark status in a historic neighborhood where past residents including Mark Twain and Eleanor Roosevelt once resided.