image of tiny Greenwich Locksmiths storefront in New York City

Greenwich Locksmiths, at 56 Seventh Ave., occupies Manhattan’s smallest building with its own lot number.

While the West Village has no shortage of charm, perhaps one of its most unique buildings is a diminutive triangle of a store called Greenwich Locksmiths. Located at 56 Seventh Ave., between Commerce Street and Morton Street, the Greenwich Locksmiths store spans just 125 square feet, making it the smallest freestanding building in Manhattan with its own lot number.

Phil Mortillaro bought the property in 1980 for $20,000 and rented it out to a fortune teller for less than a year. A locksmith by trade, Mortillaro moved his existing business into the building (it was erected in 1921 as a tire repair shop). Mortillaro’s son, Phil Jr., grew up going to the store and now works there with his dad.

image of Greenwich Locksmiths in New York

Phil Mortillaro, Sr., and Phil Mortillaro, Jr., owners of Greenwich Locksmiths

“We used to put him in a little basket in that corner,” Phil Sr., 67, said of his son. It turns out that that same corner is Phil Jr.’s favorite. It’s what he calls “the office” corner, as opposed to “the workshop” corner, just two steps away.

There’s only enough room for one or two people to step into the store and lean against the wooden counter. Doing so is quite a treat for the eyes: There are hundreds of rows of keys hanging closely, but neatly, on the walls. Not an inch of wall space is visible; keys surround an air conditioning unit like metal drapes. Phil Jr., 30, said that Greenwich Locksmiths has the largest collection of European bit barrel keys on the East Coast. These are old-fashioned keys with decorative handles, made by the same manufacturer that created original keys for antique doors.

image of Greenwich Locksmiths

There’s only enough room for one or two people to step into the store.

Apart from its distinctive size, Greenwich Locksmiths has become famous in the neighborhood for a whimsical metal mosaic that covers the store’s front facade. It is a latticework of approximately 10,000 keys that Mortillaro Sr. completed in 2010. He spent a year creating it — melding each key together, one at a time. Judging by the intricacy of the design (which is partially inspired by Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night”) and the fact that Mortillaro did this in his spare time, this masterpiece seems to prove that speed and artistry are not mutually exclusive.

Mortillaro said he was inspired to do the metal work by Jack Levine, a well-known painter who lived in the neighborhood and used to frequent the store. In 2008, Mortillaro covered the front door in a similar key mosaic and then made a chair of keys.

image of Greenwich Locksmiths in New York

Tour guides regularly pass the building to point out the unique key mosaic, which took a year to create.

“[Levine] liked the door and the chair,” Mortillaro Sr. said, “and we were talking one day, and he said ‘it’s too bad you don’t just cover the whole front of the building in keys.’ ”

Levine passed away at 95, just months before the façade was finished and the panels of keys affixed to the building.

“Everybody likes it,” Mortillaro said of the key mosaic.

That’s an understatement. Tour guides regularly pass the building to point out the unique facade, and tourists take out their phones to capture a building covered in keys.

“I know how the Venetians feel,” Mortillaro Sr. said, acknowledging all the tourists that now swarm around the West Village neighborhood. But he doesn’t really mind. “The tourists keep the restaurants open, and the restaurants give me business,” he said.

The father-son pair have matching smiles and exude a modest, old-fashioned friendliness. They also create a sense of stability and continuity in a neighborhood that Mortillaro Sr. says is more transient than it was when he opened the store.

He remembers when the West Village was filled with artists who had lived there for decades. Young people come and go more quickly now, he said.

image of key mosaic chair at Greenwich Locksmiths in New YorkLast year, he received an unusually high offer for his 125-square-foot space: $2 million. The offer came from Chase Bank, which wanted to turn the building into an ATM kiosk. Mortillaro declined the offer.

“What am I going to do with the money?” he said. “Isn’t money supposed to make you happy? I’m already happy.”

Furthermore, he said, “They [would be] buying an icon. They wouldn’t just be buying a building. They’d be buying something everybody knows. How many tourists come by here? How many magazines has this thing has been in?”

I’s true: Over nearly 40 years, Greenwich Locksmiths has been featured in The New York Times, the Daily News, the New Yorker, and on NPR, ABC News and NBC News. The list goes on.

Montillaro Jr. noted that the store would be a wonderful advertising opportunity for Chase, because of the thousands of drivers that pass Greenwich Locksmiths everyday on their way to the nearby Holland Tunnel.

Others, including larger locksmiths, have tried to buy Mortillaro’s building for lesser amounts, like $750,000. But so far no one else has approached Chase’s $2 million.

Is there any price Mortillaro would accept for the building?

“If you’re going give me $100 million, sure, that would change everything,” he says. “$10 million? It doesn’t change all that much. But if they want to call me again, they can call me and we’ll talk about it.”

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