A colorful mural across a tenement wall honors the immigrants who built Yorkville

Save for a few restaurants in the upper East 80s and some cultural and historic organizations, the German presence in Yorkville—Manhattan’s last “Kleindeutschland“—has almost entirely vanished.

German bakeries and bars no longer line the streets, German language newspapers aren’t readily available at newsstands, and the smell of beer wafting from local breweries vanished after the last brewer closed its doors in 1965, according to an AMNY article from 2018.

But one tenement on York Avenue continues to pay homage to the German immigrants and their descendants who made East 86th Street a hub of culture and energy through much of the late 19th and 20th centuries.

The five-story tenement, on the corner of York and 83rd Street, appears similar to the hundreds of other low-rise walkups lining the streets from Third Avenue to the East River north of 79th Street.

But look closely: one side is painted with a series of whimsical images of a clock, NYPD officers, gargoyles, a sewing machine, cartoonish faces, and gothic arched entrances.

Called Glockenspiel, the building-wide mural is the work of artist Richard Haas. Its origins date back to 2005, when a towering new luxury condo building across 83rd Street called the Cielo opened its doors. Apparently, new residents of the 28-story Cielo weren’t too happy about the shabby tenement view from the lobby.

“The refined atmosphere of the building was marred by its neighbor: a graffiti-covered tenement,” wrote Glenn Palmer-Smith in his book, Murals of New York City. To class up the corner, the developers of the Cielo asked the owner of the tenement if they could have a mural painted on the facade “to give the illusion that the neighborhood was upscale enough to justify the price of the apartments.”

The owner agreed, and Haas painted the mural “as a tribute to the Germanic history of the Yorkville neighborhood,” wrote Palmer-Smith. “He painted a side of the building rich in architectural detail, such as a three-story bay window and a clock with painted ‘moveable’ mechanical figures which, reflecting the city theme, are two New York City mounted policemen.”

Some of the images are a bit of a mystery. The sewing machine and dress form could represent industry, or perhaps the sense of home and family found in Yorkville. The gargoyles are similar to some of the gargoyles found on tenements like this one.

One of the painted images has the exaggerated face of a man grinding a mortar and pestle, suggesting a local druggist or medicine. Two hooded figures blowing horns might be referencing the rich tradition of German music halls and singing societies. The painted windows with a closetful of suits and a stairway are harder to decipher.

The tribute as a whole seems to tell the story of the neighborhood as it was a century or so ago: rich with the touchstones of an immigrant culture that has departed from the protective and insular world Yorkville once provided.

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15 Responses to “A colorful mural across a tenement wall honors the immigrants who built Yorkville”

  1. Carol Ann Siciliano Says:

    What a great find and a very well-told and illustrated story. Thank you!

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      You’re welcome! I’ve walked by it many times puzzled, but finally found a few sources that explained its origins.

  2. Nicki Weiss Says:

    The clothes rack, dress form and sewing machine may indicate that the people who lived here did sewing “piece work” at home for clothing factories in the garment district that then assembled the pieces to become articles of clothing. This kind of work was also common in home apartments on the Lower East Side.

  3. Mykola Mick Dementiuk Says:

    Wouldn’t it be nice if more neighborhoods had wall markings showing their historical evolution through the years such as Little Italy, Chinatown, Hell’s Kitchen, etc. Well, it might become kitschy or too corny I suppose…

  4. Greg Says:

    Huh, to me that was already a beautiful building, with its cornice and brickwork. Not sure it needs the fake bay window and all those gimmicks.

    • Greg Says:

      I just noticed the avenue facade is brownstone while the side is (original) brickwork. That in itself is unusual and interesting enough.

      • ephemeralnewyork Says:

        It is, and I agree, the building already qualified as beautiful. But the mural offers something visual and different, and the backstory is interesting.

  5. velovixen Says:

    At first glance, I thought I was looking at a mural of the Astrological Clock in Prague–which would have made sense, as Yorkville was, in addition a German enclave, possibly the only Czech community (along with Astoria) in NYC.

  6. velovixen Says:

    I hope nobody takes my previous comment as a “dis.” I like the mural and it’s a fitting homage. But from a few feet away, the shapes reminded me of the Astrological Clock.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Not a dis at all but good insight. Yorkville was mostly German but had pockets of other European immigrant cultures, including a Czech neighborhood and Hungarian population. And within German Yorkville were areas from various parts of what was once the Prussian Empire or bordering the former Prussian Empire. I believe the Marx Brothers, who grew up on East 93rd Street, lived within an Alsatian enclave. (Father Sam Marx, aka Frenchie, came from Alsace.)

  7. littlerhody Says:

    Love your blog! Maybe you could ask the artist to clarify or clear up mysteries?

  8. Joan Says:

    Yorkville was HQ of Nazi Support in US during ww2. All NYC knew this enclave as such.

  9. chas1133 Says:

    I agree with Greg regarding the architectural beauty as a stand alone not needing anything more, but let’s not forget our eyes have changed over decades and most designs which I find amazing seemed to overlooked once the original owner moved on…I always enjoy the details of neighborhoods provided here, thank you and please keep up the great insights!

  10. Andrew Says:

    The mural is beautiful and the Cielo is not the ugliest modern building, still, I would much prefer to look at that tenement without its mural than at that bland glass box.

  11. Craig Says:

    The painting of the man with the mortar and pestle looks very similar to a gargoyle on the The Britannia at 527 West 110th Street. It is one of a set of four. You can see all of them here https://www.scoutingny.com/the-hungry-gargoyles-of-110th-street/

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