Archive for the ‘Lower East Side’ Category

This modest Forsyth Street walkup was once a synagogue

September 6, 2021

Forsyth Street between Grand and Hester Streets is a pretty typical Lower East Side block, with an uneven row of shabby but serviceable tenement walkups lining the east side of the street along Sara Roosevelt Park.

But one of those walkups, number 80, has some curious architectural touches. The third floor of the three-story building features Gothic arched and circular windows; you can almost imagine them filled with stained glass. And iron stars of David decorate each fire escape landing.

There’s good reason for these design flourishes. Though 80 Forsyth was built in 1874, according to 2013 post in The Lo-Down, what was once a house or tenement was converted into a synagogue in the late 19th century.

Turning a residential or commercial space into a synagogue may not have been unusual at the time. (Just as it’s not so unusual now, with storefront churches.) In the 1880s and 1890s, the Lower East Side was filling up with thousands of Jewish immigrants, who formed or joined congregations and needed places to worship.

Several congregations used the synagogue over the years. In the 1880s, a congregation identified by The New York Times as Kol Israel Anschi Poland occupied the space. The Times wrote that the congregation was fighting a tax bill from the city because the property was used for religious purposes, the congregation asserted.

But the city won the case, convincing the judge that since the ritual baths in the basement were open to “all Hebrews,” not just congregants, the building was liable to taxation.

I’m not sure when the last congregation abandoned the building. But this 1939-1941 tax photo of 80 Forsyth (above) appears to have a commercial tenant on the ground floor. (There’s the stained glass; if only the photo was in color!)

In the 1960s, the house turned synagogue took on an entirely new life: It became the studio of Abstract Expressionist painter Pat Passlof, per The Lo-Down.

Passlof bought the building in 1963 for $20,000 with her husband, painter Milton Resnick, and help from her parents, who pronounced it a “rat hole,” according to a 2011 New York Times piece.

“They called it a rat hole, but I couldn’t deny that,” Passlof said in the Times article. She was 83 and died later that year.

In 2014, the ex-synagogue went on the market for $6,250,000. Number 80 Forsyth has returned to its original purpose as a residence, it seems.

[Third image: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

A painter’s evocative look at an empty street beside the Manhattan Bridge

August 16, 2021

Anthony Springer was a lawyer-turned-artist who painted the energy and vitality of various downtown New York City neighborhoods until his death in 1995.

His work has been featured on this site before—rich, colorful images of quiet streets and empty stretches of Greenwich Village before the 1990s revitalization breathed new life into fading storefronts and forgotten corners…and in many cases changed the fabric of the neighborhood.

Here’s a Springer painting that offers a look at a slender street alongside the Manhattan Bridge. It calls up a time when you could find deserted streets like this downtown—populated by pigeons, a lone parked car (or stolen one ditched?), an industrial building not turned into lofts, a glorious bridge empty of the pedestrians and bikers seen today.

I’m not sure if we’re on the Manhattan or Brooklyn side, but it’s an evocative reminder of a different city.

[Invaluable]

The castles and villages of 1914 Lower Manhattan

August 9, 2021

For a painting with such a perfunctory name, “Municipal and Woolworth Buildings, Lower Manhattan,” by Lionel S. Reiss, gives us a stunning look at a two-tiered city.

In the distance is the New York of concrete canyons and tall buildings reaching toward the heavens, ethereal and dreamlike. In the foreground are the the tenements of the people, in hearty earth tones that reflect the life and activity happening inside them.

Born in 1894 in Jaroslaw Poland, Reiss grew up on the Lower East Side; he would have had a front-row seat to the changing landscape around City Hall and the Financial District in the early 1900s. After working as a commercial artist in the 1920s, he traveled through Europe and North Africa, returning to New York City before World War II.

“One of the central themes of Reiss’ art was that of every day street life, replete with its class distinctions and social strata,” stated one source, a Jewish research archive that includes his work. In this 1914 painting, Reiss seems to be depicting class distinction by painting two skyscrapers as Medieval castles and the tenements as the village surrounding them.

What a hot night looked like on an East Side tenement block in 1899

July 29, 2021

First of all, almost everyone is outside—on the street, the sidewalk, fire escapes. If you’ve ever lived in a tenement apartment without an air conditioner, you know how stifling those rooms can get, and they force you to seek relief outdoors.

The other thing is, people don’t look as miserable as you’d expect for a street scene in the summer heat. Kids are playing; groups of adults are talking. Lone men and women sit on the sidewalk or stoops and watch. Tempers don’t seem to be flaring; no one appears to be looking for a fight.

The moon is bright. What looks like an arc light in the background illuminates the street. People gather at tables by torchlight. As the caption says, it’s one of hundreds of similar scenes enacted at the same time all over the city.

[NYPL]

A tenement sign high up at the corner of First Street and First Avenue

July 19, 2021

The corner of First Street and First Avenue is roughly the borderline of the East Village. And what better than an old-school address sign like this one affixed to a handsome brick building to welcome you to the neighborhood as you leave the Lower East Side behind?

These early 20th century address markers can be found on many tenement corners throughout New York City. In some cases, they may have served to let elevated train riders know exactly where they were passing.

Or perhaps these signs—sometimes raised and embossed, other times carved into the building—simply let pedestrians know where they stood in an era when reliable street signs had not yet arrived to ever corner in poor neighborhoods.

This pricey co-op building was once a Lower East Side public library

July 18, 2021

New York developers have made apartment buildings out of former hospitals, police stations, schools, and churches. Now, a library branch has undergone the transformation to luxury housing.

What was once the Rivington Street branch of the New York Public Library has been rebranded as a Lower East Side boutique co-op called, of course, “The Library.”

Purchased by a developer in 2018 and renovated into 11 high-end units, The Library is already luring buyers, even though it doesn’t look like the co-op redo transformation is finished. But it’s not much of a surprise that many of the units have been snapped up, considering the recent reinvention of the Lower East Side as a posh area.

Imagine Rivington Street the way it was in the early 1900s as part of a very different Lower East Side.

Opened in 1906 on a crowded block between Eldridge and Allen Streets, the Rivington branch was designed by McKim, Mead, & White in the popular Beaux-Arts style. The architectural firm was responsible for great public buildings like Penn Station, but they also took on smaller projects, such as the Tompkins Square NYPL branch on East 10th Street.

The Beaux-Arts design lent a sense of elegance to a building largely patronized by poor immigrants living in the neighborhood’s surrounding shoddy tenements.

Engaged readers on the roof

The Rivington branch was one of the city’s new “Carnegie” libraries, funded by wealthy industrialist Andrew Carnegie (who lived in a spectacular Fifth Avenue mansion more than 100 blocks north). The main New York Public Library building was still under construction on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, set to open in 1911.

Like other neighborhood libraries, the Rivington Street branch quickly had a devoted following. Part of its popularity might be due to the open-air reading area on the roof, which proved to be a huge draw during the hot summer months, according to a 1910 New York Times article.

As the photo above shows, the roof really was for dedicated reading rather than sunbathing or goofing off. “Only children or adults actually engaged in reading are permitted to stay,” the Times wrote.

So how did the library branch end up as a co-op? I’m not sure when the branch was decommissioned as a library, but at that point a church took the building over. A developer bought it from the church in May 2018, renovating the former reading rooms and adding three stories.

The “adult desk” at the Rivington Street NYPL branch

What does it cost to live in a former library, where generations of New Yorkers read, dreamed, educated themselves, and stole some time away?

It’s not cheap. The five-room penthouse is in contract for more than $4 million, according to Streeteasy. At least the engraved plaque on the front that reads “New York Public Library” is still on the facade, a reminder of the building’s original purpose.

[Second photo: NYPL. Third photo: New-York Tribune, 1906. Fifth photo: NYPL]

A painter captures the last years of these East Village tenements

July 12, 2021

A New Yorker since his birth in 1928, Arthur Morris Cohen studied at Cooper Union from 1948 to 1950, according to askart.com. So he knew the neighborhood when he decided to paint what looks like the southeast or southwest tenement corner at Third Avenue and 9th Street in 1961.

Cohen’s version of the corner would be similar to what it probably actually looked like in the early 1960s. The East Village was not even the East Village yet; it would be a few years before the tenement neighborhood was rebranded from the Lower East Side, which was on the decline economically.

1941 tax photo of 111-113 East Ninth Street

None of these walkups exist today. In fact, all four corners at Third and Ninth are occupied by postwar buildings. On the southwest corner is a 1960s-era white brick apartment building called the St. Mark, which likely took the place of these low rises in 1965, when the building was completed. Or maybe the row stood where a huge NYU dorm has been since the 1980s, with Stuyvesant Place running alongside it.

This 1941 tax photo from the NYC Department of Records and Information Services at the southwest corner gives some idea of what Cohen painted.

The anti-slavery past of a Bowery house built in the 1790s

June 14, 2021

Numbers 134 and 136 Bowery, between Broome and Grand Streets, look like they were designed to be twins.

Both houses were constructed when the Bowery was a fashionable address north of the city center. Each reflects the Federal style that was in vogue at the turn of the 19th century—with dormer windows, steep roofs, and Flemish-bond brickwork.

But 134 Bowery (on the left) has the edge when it comes to New York history. This 3-story house dates back to the 1790s, making it one of the oldest houses still extant in Manhattan. Number 136 is old by Gotham standards, but it didn’t go up until 1828, according to the Bowery Alliance.

Sources vary on who built the houses, but one or both were constructed and occupied by Samuel Delaplaine and his family. Delaplaine, a Quaker, was an outspoken member of the city’s nascent abolitionist movement.

“…may servitude abolish’d be, As well as Negro-Slavery, To make one LAND of LIBERTY!” read a manifesto Delaplaine reportedly wrote in 1793, according to The Historical Markers Database. (Below, 134-136 Bowery two doors down from the bank building on the left in 1910.)

Delaplaine’s ancestors made their wealth as merchants. “The Delaplaines were descendants of a Huguenot refugee who landed in New Amsterdam after fleeing France,” states Alice Sparberg Alexiou in her book, Devil’s Mile: the Rich, Gritty History of the Bowery.

His Quaker faith may have spurred on his opposition to slavery, which was legal in New York City until 1799, when the first of a series of gradual emancipation laws were enacted. (New York state fully abolished slavery in 1827.)

In 1795, he donated the land for St. Philips Church, New York’s first black Episcopal church, notes Alexiou, which originally stood on Centre Street. He also donated plots he owned on Chrystie and Rivington Streets for a cemetery for black New Yorkers, who made up about 20 percent of the city’s population the time.

“Delaplaine was one of a group of ‘diverse, well-disposed individuals,’ as described by the Common Council, who were well-disposed to the ‘African society’ (‘free people of color’) for a Negroes’ cemetery,” Alexiou wrote.

Delaplaine’s descendants were also active in the abolitionist movement, which became stronger in antebellum New York. “Booksellers and circulating libraries published and distributed anti-slavery literature in these buildings, which also served as boarding houses and possible fugitive-slave safe houses in the 1830s to the 1860s,” states the Bowery Alliance.

After the Civil War, 134 Bowery became one of the first YMCAs located on the Bowery. “Partnering with the New York Mission Society, a reading room and the Carmel Chapel were opened, and food, lodgings, and baths were provided to ‘all persons, without respect to country, creed, color, sex, or age,” per the Alliance.

While both houses have long had commercial tenants on the ground floor, their link to abolition can hopefully save them from the wrecking ball.

“The historic houses at 134-136 Bowery are now documented to be significantly associated with the anti-slavery movement beginning at the end of the 18th century,” wrote Mitchell Grubler at Place Matters. “They meet the established qualifications to be deemed of most important historic value through documented connections.”

[Third image: Library of Congress]

The two most romantic street names in old Manhattan

May 17, 2021

New York has always been a city that encourages love and passion, with plenty of lush parks, quiet corners, and candlelit cafes lending privacy and romantic ambiance.

Couples living in 18th and early 19th century Manhattan didn’t have these places at their disposal when they wanted some alone time, of course. But they did have options—like the two now-defunct streets named “Love Lane.”

The first Love Lane began at the foot of the Bowery, called Bowry Lane on John Montresor’s 1775 map (above, and in full via this link). This map laid out the small city center at the tip of Manhattan and along the East River.

Love Lane off the Bowery (referenced in an 1818 New-York Evening Post ad, above) was a “road on the Rutgers Farm, running on or near the line of the present Henry Street,” states oldstreets.com, a site that explains the history of city street names.

Thomas Allibone Janvier’s In Old New York, published in 1893, mentions this “primitive” Love Lane, which he also places on the former Rutgers Estate near present-day Chatham Square. Valentine’s Manual of Old New York, from 1922, states that Love Lane was the original name for today’s East Broadway; it was a lane that led to the Rutgers Farm.

Exactly what colonial-era New Yorkers did on the Love Lane of the Rutgers Estate wasn’t specifically recorded by these authors. But we do have a better idea of what lovers (or would-be lovers) did on the city’s other Love Lane—which ran along West 21st Street in today’s Chelsea. Apparently, they went for long, secluded carriage drives.

“Before this area became incorporated into an expanding New York City, 21st Street was a rural lane known as the Abingdon Road, which connected Broadway with Fitzroy Road, as 8th Avenue was then called,” explains nysonglines.com.

“Abingdon was nicknamed Love Lane, because carriage rides out to the country (i.e. Midtown) were apparently the main form of dating, and coming back by Abingdon was taking the long way home.”

Different sources have Chelsea’s Love Lane taking various routes. But it seems to have begun at Broadway (then called Bloomingdale Road) and followed 21st Street west before intersecting with Fitz Roy Road, following today’s 22nd to 23rd Street, and running to Tenth Avenue beside the Hudson River.

“There is no record to show where the name came from,” wrote Charles Hemstreet in Nooks and Corners of Old New York. “The generally accepted idea is that being a quiet and little traveled spot, it was looked upon as a lane where happy couples might drive, far from the city, and amid green fields and stately trees confide the story of their loves.”

Valentine’s Manual agrees that this Love Lane followed Abington Road up the West Side to Fitz Roy and 21st Street, but has it turning east to Third Avenue and 23rd Street.

Chelsea’s Love Lane (above, in an 1807 map by William Bridges and Peter Maverick) was “swallowed up,” Hemstreet wrote in 1899, with the opening of West 21st Street in 1827.

Both of these Love Lanes have long disappeared from the urbanscape. But if you’re wishing you could live on a street with such a romantic name, head on over to Brooklyn.

Love Lane, a sweet one-block former mews in Brooklyn Heights, is quiet, tucked out of the way, and intimate. How this street got its name is something of a mystery, which the Brooklyn Daily Eagle explores in a 2019 article. It may have been a romantic path down to the East River; it could have something to do with the women’s college once located around the corner.

[Top image: Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps; second image: New-York Evening Post; third image: unknown; fourth image: New-York Evening Post; fifth Image: NYPL]

Look hard to see this vintage Hershey’s sign on the Bowery

April 25, 2021

You might need a pair of readers to really see the Hershey’s brand name in this weathered sign hanging from the facade of 354 Bowery, between East Third and Fourth Streets.

But there it is embossed on both sides, advertising Hershey’s Ice Cream—which despite the similar lettering apparently has nothing to do with Hershey’s Chocolate.

How long has the sign been there? No earlier than 1940, as it doesn’t appear in the tax photo from that year archived by the New York City Department of Records and Information Services. This stretch of the Bowery back then was all hardware stores, sign makers, and a low-rent hotel called the Gotham.

However old it is, this it’s a charming relic of a time when the Bowery made room for a deli or luncheonette with ice cream on the menu. It might qualify as a “privilege” sign—a store sign featuring a brand’s name and logo, and typically the name of the store. The store owners didn’t have to pay for the sign because it was free advertising for the brand.

To see a clearer image of the sign, visit the Facebook group Ghost Signs—this snap was taken by Tori Terazzi back in January.