The terra cotta beauty of the German Dispensary

If you walk by it on a weekly basis, as I usually do, you might start to take the red brick loveliness at 137 Second Avenue for granted.

But stop one day and behold its beauty: the rich detailing, the bas relief sculptures, and the arched portico entrance that in 1884 welcomed sick residents of what was then Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany.

This is the former German Dispensary, kind of a walk-in clinic for neighborhood folks who didn’t have the means to see a private doctor. Dispensaries not quite as striking as this one served the poor all over New York until after the 20th century.

The German Dispensary building was a gift from Anna and Oswald Ottendorfer, immigrant publishers of Staats-Zeitung, the leading German newspaper in the 19th century city (it still exists today).

The Ottendorfers were heavily into philanthropy in the city. They funded a German school, a women’s wing of the German Hospital (renamed Lenox Hill in 1918 due to anti-German sentiment), and a home for indigent German women in Astoria called the Isabella.

They hired German-born architect William Schickel to design the dispensary and a library next door, according to the Landmarks Preservation Committee report from 1976. (The photo above is from 1975.)

The library (at left) was the city’s first free public library, and Mr. Ottendorfer personally picked out the books, half in German and half in English.

Mrs. Ottendorfer didn’t live to see the dispensary or library completed. And the dispensary itself didn’t last very long; by 1905 it had decamped for another building closer to the hospital.

A dispensary run by the German Poliklinik took over 137 Second Avenue, and eventually that was bought by Cabrini Medical Center, the old hospital near Stuyvesant Square.

Little Germany is long gone. But if you stand in front of the fiery red building, with its busts of famous doctors and floral friezes, you can feel the ghosts of what was one a thriving, self-contained New York neighborhood.

[Fourth photo: Edmund Vincent Gillon/MCNY, 1975: 2013.3.2.33; fifth photo: NYPL]

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15 Responses to “The terra cotta beauty of the German Dispensary”

  1. Lady G. Says:

    I think it’s a wonderful thing that you’ve documented all these beautiful buildings and stories, as time goes on they get torn down and history is lost.

  2. petey Says:

    i passed it about 6 months ago and took pics. (now that we have smartphones, you always have your camera with you.) nice that you’ve highlighted it.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks Petey, I walked by on Sunday and realized why the heck haven’t I posted about this gorgeous glowing red building? It’s magnificent with a wonderful backstory.

  3. Zoé Says:

    I love this beautiful building & the library. I used to live on 2nd Ave. (at 6th & then 1rst Streets) & passed it all the time. But your photographs always make me really *see* things.

    Some tears reading this because my Oma (German for grandma/granny etc.) read this paper. It was delivered to our house. And when she died – two days before today in 1975 – I kept the paper you’ve written of here w/ that very date on it. My cat trashed the front pages but I still have the rest. In 1975 there were still so many Germans in Yorkville so most of the ads are from there. It was left next to her unfinished embroidery; which I also still have. (Needlework supplies purchased from Selma’s Art Shop in Yorkville).

    Seher schön! (Very Beautiful!) ☕️☕️❤️❤️🌲☀️

  4. alaspooryorick Says:

    A tragic incident lies behind the abandonment of “Little Germany:” the fire and loss of life from the “General Slocum” in 1904. The death toll was 1,021, most of them women and children on a pleasure excursion up the East River. Following the devastation of so many of its members, the community moved to Yorktown.
    Read more: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/a-spectacle-of-horror-the-burning-of-the-general-slocum-104712974/#uoJoIqrYXSTO8KOK.99

    • Zoé Says:

      So sad alaspooryorick! Especially the mothers throwing their babies in life jackets into the water & watching them sink. The jackets were full of degraded cork like sawdust.

      Germans in Yorkville did not want to talk about it I think. We just talk about food when it comes to Yorkville. I never heard about it until I read about it via Wikipedia a few years ago.

      When I first moved to the LES in 1980 there were still some very elderly German haberdashers on 1rst Ave. (Aside from the obvious bakeries & kosher restaurants that remained). The proprietors may no longer have lived downtown though.

      A lot of Germans moved to Queens & parts of Brooklyn also.

    • Zoé Says:

      PS: There’s a memorial in Tompkins Square to the disaster. (Unless it’s been taken away like so much else!).

  5. Ricky Says:

    Is that the same Meat Market sign still there today that we see in the black and white photo from 1975?

    • Zoé Says:

      Great eye Ricky! I am trying to remember if that was (is still?) a little Italian grocery/deli that had imported Italian food. (I may be thinking of the one on First Ave nearer Venieros).

      • Michelle C. Says:

        It is still there, but it’s Ukrainian! http://www.eastvillagemeatmarket.com

      • Zoé Says:

        Thanks. It’s nice to see survivors in that neighbourhood. And a piece of the older Ukrainian community (which was still quite large when I moved to lower 2nd Ave in 1980). I was probably mixing it up w/ the Italian place on First Ave.

      • Zoé Says:

        I read their “story” (history) on their website. It’s so sweet! If they’ve been there since 1970 maybe they own the building & don’t have to worry about rising rents. (Let’s hope). They make their own sausage. It’s probably amazing!

    • Zoé Says:

      Now I’m hungry

  6. David H Lippman Says:

    That whole area was a German neighborhood until all the wives and kids went for a cruise and picnic one day on the “General Slocum.” When the fathers came home from their jobs to an empty community of silent apartments, they moved up to Yorkville to flee the silent streets and painful memories.

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