This church was once the 1905 Allen Street baths

The Church of Grace to Fujianese, at 133 Allen Street, looks like lots of other storefront churches in New York City.

The congregation is housed in a slightly grimy re-purposed building. Window guards line the ground floor, a cross is affixed above the entrance, and signs are emblazoned with the church name in two languages.

But there’s something else on the facade—they look like scallop shells.

These sea images are a reminder that from 1905 to 1975, this was the Municipal Bath House at Allen Street, blocked off by the elevated train in its first decades.

The bathhouse opened amid a wave of public baths building in the city’s slums, giving tenement dwellers a place to wash up in an era when having a bathroom in your apartment was hardly a given.

Their was another purpose for these public bathhouses: to offer moral uplift.

With this in mind, the designers of the Allen Street baths built facilities that provided access to light and air.

“With large arched windows in the waiting room and glass skylights punctuating the roof, York & Sawyer bathhouses were designed to maximize sunlight—a rare building strategy in the slums—to help uplift the bather morally and hygienically,” states the Tenement Museum website.

The baths were immensely popular in the early 20th century, as The Sun noted on a July day in 1908.

“Over in front of the Allen Street bath, which was about the busiest of all the city baths, you could see more small boys with their damp hair sticking up in breeze blown wisps than ever came out of all the ol’ swimmin’ holes in the entire state of Indiana.”

Of all the public baths, Allen Street stayed open the longest—then fell victim to the city fiscal crisis in the 1970s, according to the Tenement Museum.

[Last photo: MCNY; x2010.11.2]

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23 Responses to “This church was once the 1905 Allen Street baths”

  1. pontifikator Says:

    Oh, for the days when “public” was not a dirty word and public buildings were built to inspire. There aren’t even public telephones now because everyone is expected to own their own. Hoping for a public revival.

  2. Jay Henry Says:

    Those are scallop shells, not clam shells.

  3. Zoé Says:

    So great. There are still the baths on E.10th ☕️☕️💂🏻‍♀️💂🏻🌊🌲🌞

  4. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    The Russian Baths are on my to-do list…I trust they’ll be around for another 100 years!

    • Zoé Says:

      Let’s hope! The owners have changed. Lol… They would have to I suppose to avoid resembling the Oscar Wilde novel.

  5. Tom B Says:

    These bath houses were a great idea when started. It was like a resort for poor people.
    Are these bath houses the same ones that gay men frequented in the seventies and eighties? Wasn’t a bath house the origin of the spread of Aids? Just trying to complete the bath house story.

    • Zoé Says:

      Research Saint Marks Baths Tom (St.Marks between 2nd Ave & Astor Place). I can’t remember the history. Ephemeral may have a post on it. (I would do it for you – but as I type this I am painting my nails w/ only half of them done!).

      The Russian baths on E.10th were full of Orthodox people (probably both Christian & Jewish) so the answer there would be ‘No’. But it’s a reasonable assumption that some municipal men’s public baths later became Gay baths.

      It’s an interesting question. Perhaps Bette Midler reads Ephemeral & will write in under an alias screen name; since she performed at them in SF!

      • Zoé Says:

        *AIDS began many years before initially thought Tom.

        Researchers believe it began in Africa when people slaughtered monkeys for food; cutting their hands in the process & thus getting the virus from primates.

        Sexually transmitted AIDS in the US is now believed to have started much earlier than 1980/81; when it began to be documented. And people got together outside of men’s bath houses.

        I have only read about the above btw; I have no other expertise in this. Aside from having lost two of my close male friends to AIDS. Neither of whom went to bath houses btw. 📿🌞❤️

  6. David H Lippman Says:

    Public baths were very badly needed in New York because the “old-law tenements” often lacked plumbing. That made epidemics and diseases major issues. The solution was to get rid of the “old-law tenements” and even the “model tenements” that replaced them, with apartment buildings and town houses that had real plumbing.

    • Zoé Says:

      David ~ The c. 1920 tenement building (studio apts only like a rooming house) I lived in that originally only had a ‘water closet’ (toilet) in the hallway – had full baths installed in the 40s or early 50s. (My guess from the fixtures; as there was a modern tub vs. claw foot tub – but w/ an older pedestal sink). The bricked up & painted over door was still visible in the hallway. I suspect this also explains all the bathtubs in kitchens. I hope somebody is photographing these – now that every LES & Hells Kitchen etc. tenement walk up building is being renovated beyond recognition.

      • David H Lippman Says:

        Then you know what I’m talking about…my grandparents remember the single toilet in the hall, which the whole hall used. You could smell it all the time.

      • Zoé Says:

        Lol! They may not all be a thing of the past David. The last time I saw one was 1992. At a party my brother took me to on the LES. I left the City after that. (Lol – but not *because* of that).

        The ones I had to use whenever I visited people were always cleaner than a lot of private bathrooms I visited in people’s apts. Which makes sense… Other people’s dirt is scarier to people than their own…

      • Zoé Says:

        PS David: If we’re going to rudely hijack this thread to discuss toilets any further – perhaps we should add a trigger warning.

      • David H Lippman Says:

        My only further comments on toilets is my father’s favorite line on the subject: “His face was flushed but his big ears saved him.”

  7. A 'crisis point' for the NYCHA; stand-out dishes at Mama Fina on Avenue A • Gotham | Trend Says:

    […] History of the Allen Street baths (Ephemeral New York) […]

  8. A Beekman bath house for the “great unwashed” | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Street bathhouse, one of 13 public baths the city opened after a state law passed in 1895 mandating free public bathhouses in large cities, according to a 2011 Landmarks Preservation Committee (LPC) […]

  9. A Beekman bath house for the “great unwashed” ⋆ New York city blog Says:

    […] Street bathhouse, one of 13 public baths the city opened after a state law passed in 1895 mandating free public bathhouses in large cities, according to a 2011 Landmarks Preservation Committee (LPC) […]

  10. Elegy for a Lower East Side public bath house | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] use today—as a recreation center on 54th Street, a photo studio on East 11th Street, and even a church not far away on Allen […]

  11. Bobby G Says:

    The Allen Street Bath House was operating longer than 1975 because I went there to take a shower in 1980 or ’81. It was a large hall with individual heavy marble stalls. Quite beautiful actually. While I was showering a prostitute came in and shouted, “Who wants a blow job?” Then I heard in the distance someone shout, “Over here!”

    The keystone over the doorway on the outside, where there is a stylized cross now, has a carved seahorse. I never went back, though because I got athlete’s foot.

  12. A 1904 municipal bath hiding on 38th Street | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] building that today houses the Permanent Mission of Indonesia was once a public bath, known as the Milbank Memorial Bath—or the People’s […]

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    […] building that today houses the Permanent Mission of Indonesia was once a public bath, known as the Milbank Memorial Bath—or the People’s […]

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