Big Deal | Fully Furnished With Anecdotes

Sometimes a glance at properties for sale in a given week reveals a lot more than prices in the ever-changing — or not-changing-fast-enough — New York real estate market.

The history of three town houses on the market winds through the worlds of poetry and the Harlem Renaissance; art and Norman Rockwell; and genteel old Murray Hill, where a polo champion called Lawrence Waterbury once lived.

Mr. Waterbury, an uncle by marriage of Eleanor Roosevelt, was a bit of a character. One night in the winter of 1914, the top floor of his town house at 132 East 38th Street caught on fire as he was dressing for dinner. He paused while the Fire Department extinguished the blaze, then finished with his attire and trotted off to the meal, according to an account in The New York Times.

Mr. Waterbury’s town house is listed for $2.695 million by Vandenberg, the Townhouse Experts. On a recent tour, Dexter Guerrieri, the president of Vandenberg, seemed to delight in the oddity and history of the place. The strange thing about this 2,000-square-foot, four-story residence, which has an English basement and a 400-square-foot roof deck, is that when you walk in, the distance from the front door to the rear kitchen wall is only 24 feet, and you wonder: Where is the rest of the house?

Up a series of narrow stairs is where. Each floor has just one main room; Mr. Guerrieri describes the floor plan as “a frosted cake.”

The East 138th Street town house has a typical 20-foot frontage, and from the outside looks like many others within the Murray Hill Historic District.

Town houses tend to be 45 to 65 feet in depth; the typical depth is around 60 feet, Mr. Guerrieri said. But in 1869, when Murray Hill had become a popular place to live, a developer and architect built five smaller-than-average town houses, No. 138 included, so as to squeeze more of them on one lot, according to a Landmarks Preservation Commission report.

Mr. Guerrieri described the town house, which has not been renovated recently, as a bargain, considering that two neighboring renovated town houses have commanded much higher prices.

No. 133, which has an asking price of $4.995 million, has gone into contract, and nearby No. 124, which has an elevator, sold for $4.2 million last February, according to StreetEasy.com.

Uptown in East Harlem, the former home of the poet and writer Langston Hughes, which has been on and off the market, is on again.

The town house, at 20 East 127th Street, between Fifth and Madison Avenues, is listed at $1 million. That’s a rock-bottom price for a five-bedroom four-bath home in Manhattan. But as the listing says, “Bring your architect and contractors!”

Built in 1869, this is a serious fixer-upper.

Still, says the listing agent, Michael Pellegrino of Sotheby’s International Realty: “It’s almost a no-brainer. Five years down the road the house would be worth twice as much.”

There’s no telling what a no-brainer is in this market, and buyers have tended to avoid properties that are not in move-in condition. But the area is experiencing something of an uptick, with the construction of several condominiums in the last few years and sales picking up, if slowly.

Mr. Hughes, who was considered a pioneer in what became known as jazz poetry, traveled and lived in various places across the country and around the world before moving to the house in the late 1940s. He lived out the rest of his days there, dying in 1967 at age 65.

Heading downtown and way up in price, the Corcoran Group has listed a Greenwich Village town house for $12.995 million. The house, at 280 West Fourth Street, between Perry and West 11th Streets, was the home of Charles Webster Hawthorne, the American Impressionist painter, who bought it in 1919. Mr. Hawthorne founded the Cape Cod School of Art and was a teacher of Norman Rockwell.

The five-floor Greek revival-style town house is divided into four units and is a family affair, with the owners, Lloyd and Susan Ross, who live in Virginia, keeping their first-floor apartment for their visits to the city. The couple’s two sons live in two of the other apartments and their daughter, a photographer, in the fourth-floor apartment. There is an art studio — once Mr. Hawthorne’s — on the floor above that.

The building has 5,000 square feet of space and, according to the listing, could easily be converted into a single-family house. Now, the children want to leave home, Mr. Ross said. The two sons want larger spaces, and their daughter had a baby and wants to move to Virginia.

“So all of a sudden we’re sitting with a beautiful building that we spent lots of time to refurbish,” Mr. Ross said, “and everybody wants to move out except us.”

He and his wife have bought a condo at One Jackson Square, a new development also in the Village.

“It’ll be a totally different experience,” he said.

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Highlights from this week’s Real Estate section: An updated look at real estate issues in 2010, the new green roof at Zeckendorf Towers in Union Square and a Staten Island neighborhood that has managed to remain below the radar, despite its exalted views.

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