Archive for the ‘East Village’ Category

The terra cotta beauty of the German Dispensary

February 26, 2018

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]

Mysterious “Mr. Zero” tends to the East Side poor

February 26, 2018

His real name was Urbain Ledoux. Born in Canada in 1874, he wanted to be a priest but pursued law instead, eventually taking a job as the United States consul in Prague.

By 1910, he quit diplomatic service and decided to help humanity in a different way: drawing attention to hunger and homelessness in cities.

Ledoux went to Boston first. An advocate of the Baha’i faith, he called himself “Mr. Zero” and set about securing beds for homeless men. He also built a shelter dubbed the “Poor Men’s Club.”

Unconventional and confrontational, he held “slave auctions” at Boston Common, where he auctioned off the services of jobless men to employers.

Ledoux earned a reputation as an agitator, and he wasn’t exactly welcomed by city officials when he made his way to Manhattan after World War I, where he took up the cause of poor veterans.

“Will the police interfere? I do not know,” Ledoux told the New-York Tribune in September 1921, after he’d announced that he was holding a similar “slave auction” on the steps of the New York Public Library.

“All of those who will be sold, with the exception of one woman, are ex-servicemen. They marched away to war amid the cheers of thousands and with banners and stands there on the Public Library steps paid for by the people’s money.”

Ledoux focused on down and out veterans, but he worked on behalf of all who needed help. His first New York breadline, the Stepping Stone, opened at 203 East Ninth Street in 1919 (above).

He then launched a soup kitchen called The Tub. Sources vary, but it was either at 12 St. Marks Place or in the basement of 33 St. Marks Place (above right and center). Ledoux himself lived on St. Marks as well.

“The Tub is one of the cleanest little restaurants in New York, where you can get meals for 5 cents—all you can eat,” he told the New York Times in 1925.

The Tub also served as an employment agency, and the place cooked up holiday turkey dinners for the poor that regularly made newspaper headlines.

Ledoux, who was widely assumed to be a rich philanthropist, was an unusual anti-poverty and peace activist.

On one hand, some of his actions—the slave auctions (left), for example, and rallying for tickets to President Harding’s inaugural ball so he could bring a contingent of poor people—were seen by some as publicity stunts.

But they were stunts that brought the spotlight on the thousands of people sleeping in parks and scrounging for food in the modern New York of the 1920s.

“It may be that Mr. Ledoux’s plans for dealing with unemployment are fantastic,” wrote the New Republic in 1921 in an interview with Ledoux“They call for the assumption of the burden by the public and the state. They make an immense draft, an overdraft, on the bank of human kindness.”

“‘Yes,’ says Mr. Ledoux, ‘but the nation is in danger, and society is poisoning itself with its waste of human life.'” He died in 1941, and much of his work has been forgotten.

[Photos 1 and 2: Wikipedia; photos 4 and 6: Getty Images; photo 5: Bain Collection/LOC]

The loveliness of New York’s skinny brownstones

January 15, 2018

A single-family brownstone has been a New Yorker’s dream home since these “brown stone front” row houses (often made of brick with brown sandstone covering the facade) began appearing on city blocks by the middle of the 19th century.

Because building lots during the brownstone era typically measured 25 by 100 feet, the average home came in at about 20 feet across, which allowed for a spacious parlor floor with two or three wide windows with decorative touches spanning each floor.

But thanks to profit-driven developers who decided to squeeze two brownstones into one lot, the cityscape of today contains a fair number of slender, narrow, skinny brownstones.

The top photo shows one in Gramercy with the same iron balconies and cornice as its wider counterparts. The second photo shows two compressed-looking brownstones on West 30th Street.

Above are two more twin narrow brownstones, looking like slender sisters, in the East 70s. They come off as dollhouse versions of the standard-size brownstone next door.

Here’s another mini-me brownstone on the same East 70s block, old New York’s answer to the tiny house craze of contemporary times.

This one above in the East Village isn’t a brownstone, and it looks like it was built in the 1920s or 1930s. You can imagine a builder acquiring this thin lot and then deciding to put up this narrow rowhouse.

This skinny brownstone on Tenth Street, a street with spacious rowhouses collectively known as English Terrace Row, only has room for one third-floor window.

While the house in the last photo probably doesn’t qualify as an actual brownstone—I’m guessing it’s an entryway and staircase for the building to the left on East 39th Street—you have to admire the builder’s ingenuity, adding a cornice and matching window to it to pass it off as a lilliputian house on its own.

[All Photos: Ephemeral New York]

Cabins and cottages on top of Manhattan roofs

December 11, 2017

Who says you can’t have your own secret little cabin perched high in the sky in the middle of Manhattan?

It looks like one tenement owner made a cabin-like home complete with a shingled roof on top of this otherwise ordinary tenement on East 57th Street at about First Avenue.

It’s nothing fancy, but there’s a little fence around the edge of the roof, creating something of a front yard six flights up in the air. And the door even has an awning.

The people who made the 57th Street cabin have nothing on the cottage dwellers who occupy this beachy home perched on the roof of Third Avenue and 13th Street. (See the for sale ad and interior photos from 2015 courtesy EV Grieve.)

And then there’s the lucky inhabitants on top of 719 Greenwich Street in the West Village, who opened their porch (look, a porch swing!) and gave the New York Times a peek into their hidden tenement-top cottage in 2006.

[Third photo: New York Times]

The owls that adorn New York school buildings

December 4, 2017

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a progressive-minded New York embarked on a great mission to construct school buildings.

Under the direction of the superintendent of school buildings C.B.J. Snyder, hundreds of schools went up in neighborhoods all across the newly consolidated city.

Snyder thought of schools as civic monuments, and he designed them so they maximized sunlight and ventilation and inspired kids to learn.

I don’t know if these were part of Snyder’s plans, but so many of the schools built around this time feature owls on the facade—classical symbols of knowledge and wisdom, like this owl outside an elementary school in the East Village, the former PS 61.

Owls can be found adorning all kinds of city buildings, not just schools. Some owls even reside in city parks.

A Revolutionary War hanging near the Bowery

November 20, 2017

The man sentenced to die in a field beside the Bowery was Thomas Hickey.

Hickey was an 18-year-old private, described as a “dark-complexioned” Irish deserter of the British army who then signed up to serve on the American side as the Revolutionary War was heating up.

In spring 1776 he was part of the personal “life guard” George Washington put together before the British were expected to occupy New York City.

The 50 or so men in the life guard protected Washington and his headquarters. Decked out in stylish coats (below left) and hats with a blue and white feather, they were “made up of the most physically fit and best performing soldiers,” states Henry M. Ward in George Washington’s Enforcers.

But in June, Washington got word that Hickey and another life guard member were part of a much wider treasonous plot.

Hickey “was implicated in a scheme to sabotage the Continental Army that was reportedly coordinated by royal governor William Tryon,” states Cruel & Unusual: The American Death Penalty and the Founders’ Eighth Amendment, by John D. Bessler.

After an investigation, 20 or so more men were accused of being in on the sabotage scheme—including the city’s Loyalist mayor, David Matthews. The scheme may have included a plan to kidnap or kill Washington.

Hickey wasn’t the only member of the life guard to be accused—but he was the one who was made an example of.

“At the subsequent court-martial proceeding, [other accused men] gave sworn testimony that Hickey had joined the conspiracy, accepted small sums of money from a gunsmith named Gilbert Forbes, and tried to recruit additional participants,” states a 2002 article on Hickey in the Irish Echo.

“Even if true, the testimony makes it clear that Hickey was probably on the lowest end of the conspiracy’s hierarchy and that many others were at least as susceptible to the charge of mutiny and sedition.”

In any event, a jury found Hickey guilty of mutiny, sedition, and “holding a treacherous correspondence with the enemy.” He was sentenced to die the next day.

“Handbills went up all around the city announcing June 28 as the date of Hickey’s execution,” states the Irish Echo. “On that day, Hickey was led to a field near the Bowery where a hastily constructed gallows stood.”

“At 11 a.m., before a cheering crowd of some 20,000, he was hanged.”

Sources place the site of the hanging at today’s Bowery and Bayard Street as well as Bowery and Grand, both well out of the city and in the Manhattan countryside, as the above illustrations show.

It was the first execution by the Continental Army; Washington signed the death warrant. He also insisted that every soldier not on duty attend the execution as a warning “to avoid those crimes and all other so disgraceful” to a soldier.

[Second image: Ratzen map, NYC 1767; Last image: Washington on his triumphant return to Manhattan in 1783, Evacuation Day]

Stand here and feel the ghosts of Bowery Village

October 9, 2017

Stand at Cooper Square looking toward St. Marks Place: this honky-tonk corner in today’s East Village was once the center of a 19th century outpost known as Bowery Village.

Far from the hustle and bustle of the city, Bowery Village sprang up around Petrus Stuyvesant’s estate. (Petrus Stuyvesant was a great-grandson of Peter, the director-general of New Amsterdam in the 17th century.)

It’s hard to imagine the concrete and brick East Village of today as a struggling farming community. The illustration above gives an idea, though it depicts Union Square, where the Bowery (now Fourth Avenue) and Broadway meet.

In the late 1790s, this area was part of a “rugged belt of land, with here and there a garden and a solitary house, to diversify the bareness of the stunted pasture lots with their dilapidated fences,” states an 1864 history of the Bowery Village Methodist Church. This church was a centerpiece of the community and was located at Seventh Street between Second and Third Avenues.

Early on, Bowery Village “consisted chiefly of a long unpaved street of struggling houses . . . dreaming little, as  yet, of the Russ pavement and car track,” the church historical document recalled.

After Stuyvesant laid a street grid—while keeping diagonal Stuyvesant Street, which lead from the Bowery to St. Mark’s Church (above right in the 1820s)—people moved in, driven from the city downtown by heat and disease.

“Throughout the 18th century it remained sparsely settled—a few houses plus blacksmith, wagon shop, general store, and tavern—partly from fear of highwaymen lurking in the Bayard Woods,” wrote Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace in Gotham.

Like other villages across Manhattan, Bowery Village functioned as something of a suburb. “Because Bowery Village lay just outside the city limits, farmers could sell there without paying a market tax,” wrote Burrows and Wallace.

“Wagon stands soon flourished along Sixth and Seventh Streets, along with a weigh scale for Westchester hay merchants. Comfortable residences went up along the upper Bowery, still a country road edged with blackberry bushes. . . . “

“Artisan house-and-shops arrived too; so did groggeries, a brothel, and a post office (in truth an oyster house where the postrider left mail for the village). From 1804 the community even had its own (short-lived) newspaper, the Bowery Republican.”

The enclave also had its own graveyard between First and Second Avenues and Eleventh Street, possibly this one, noted on later 19th century maps.

Not much remains of Bowery Village. The city quickly marched northward and subsumed it by the 1850s, as it did Greenwich Village to the west.

One remnant is St. Mark’s Church itself, still on Second Avenue and Tenth Street. Built on Stuyvesant family land, it was consecrated in 1799.

Another survivor is the Stuyvesant Fish House (above left), a wedding present for Stuyvesant’s daughter and her husband, Nicolas Fish (parents of Hamilton Fish, New York governor and senator), at 21 Stuyvesant Street.

This wide Federal-style house was built in 1804, predating Robert Fulton’s invention of the steamboat.

“Bowery Village’s cohesion appeared to be short-lived,” wrote Kenneth A. Scherzer in The Unbounded Community.

“With the development of the surrounding wards it rapidly broke down, and with the settlement of “newcomers” who replaced the established residents in the late 1830s, Bowery Village ceased to exist in both reality and in name.”

That’s the East Village to this day: a constant push-pull between old timers and newcomers. Find out more about both in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Top photo: Ephemeral New York; second image: NYPL; third image: NYPL; fourth image: Evening Post 1819; fifth image: Edward Lamson Henry; fifth and sixth images: Ephemeral New York]

Dandy Point: the 1820s city’s popular swim spot

June 26, 2017

How did New Yorkers of the early 19th century handle summer?

If they didn’t cool off at one of the city’s lovely pleasure gardens, they may have gone to Dandy Point—a popular East River recreation spot at today’s East 13th Street, depicted here by William Chappel.

A Harper’s New Monthly Magazine article from the 1882 looked back at Dandy Point, which was just north of several shipyards.

“Above of the northernmost yard the bank of the river sloped into a beautiful beach of clean fine sand, where at evening scores of men and women assembled to bathe in Arcadian simplicity,” stated Harper’s.

“Dandy Point, or ‘Pint,’ as they called it, was the name of this popular resort, and no summer night passed without witnessing the arrival of bathing parties of twenty of more persons of both sexes.”

“Down from the big wagons they jumped, the men going to one spot, the women going to another not far off; and when their clothes had been exchanged for older or less valuable ones, without the protection of bath-houses of any kind, down into the water they ran, disporting themselves as freely as dolphins.”

[Second image: East River at 53rd Street in the 1830s, to give an idea of what Dandy Point might have looked like; Wikipedia]

A faded memorial marks a horrific 1904 tragedy

June 5, 2017

The faded marble fountain dedicated to the 1,021 victims of the General Slocum disaster is not easy to find in Tompkins Square Park.

It’s beyond the brick comfort station that blocks off much of the park from the northernmost end, near the pool and across from the lovely brownstones on 10th Street.

This lonely statue marks the city’s second-biggest tragedy after 9/11 in terms of the number of people killed—and almost all of the dead came from the heavily German “Kleindeutschland” neighborhood of today’s East Village.

The disaster is remembered every June 15, the anniversary of the day St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on Sixth Street chartered the steamship General Slocum for a day excursion up the East River.

The ship, packed with women and children expecting to have a picnic, caught fire as it steamed past 97th Street at about 10 a.m.

As the boat  continued to burn while sailing up the river, passengers—weighed down by the heavy clothes of the era and unlikely to know how to swim—were forced to either stay on the ship and die by fire or jump into the river and risk drowning.

The huge death toll rocked the German neighborhood, and two years later, the fountain was dedicated—paid for by the Sympathy Society of German Ladies.

The inscription, “They were earth’s purest children young and fair” (from a Percy Bysshe Shelley poem) has cracks and chips in it, and a powerful sadness.

New York’s old public bath buildings still inspire

May 29, 2017

The public bath movement got its start in New York in 1849. A wealthy merchant established the “People’s Bathing and Washing Association” and funded a public bath and laundry on Mott Street for anyone who paid a small fee, states the Landmark Preservation Commission.

The Mott Street facility went out of business in a few years. Yet the idea of establishing public bathing facilities gathered steam.

A campaign in 1889 convinced New York to build a network of free or low-cost bath houses that would offer visitors a “rain bath”—or a shower, as we call it today.

Public baths with showers were long overdue. Only the rich had private indoor plumbing.

New York City’s thousands of tenement dwellers might have been lucky enough to rely on a spigot in the hall for water, but few had a place to bathe.

Meanwhile, the idea of bathing for hygiene and to stop the spread of disease was gaining traction.

A city committee in 1897 decided that “cleanliness of person is not only elevating in its effects upon the mind and morals, but also necessary to health and to the warding off of disease.”

So the city went on a bath-building frenzy. A public bath (with a five-cent fee) had already gone up on Centre Market Street in 1891.

In the next two decades, more would be built in the tenement districts: East 11th Street (second photo), Rivington Street, Allen Street, Clarkson Street, East 23rd Street (third photo), East 38th Street, West 54th Street (fourth photo) and West 60th Street (fifth photo) among them.

How popular were the baths? During the hot summer months, riots practically broke out, according to one account in the New York Times in 1906.

But the rest of the year, they weren’t well used. As bathrooms with showers became standard features in apartments, the public baths’ popularity took another dive.

By the late 1950s, only three still operated, according to the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Though all the baths have long been shuttered, what’s amazing is how many of them still exist—and how lovely they are, despite their varied architectural styles.

They were constructed during the “City Beautiful” movement, when public buildings were supposed to inspire. And the surviving bath houses, all long-ago converted for some other use, still do that, especially with touches like ornamental fish and tridents on the facade.

[First photo: MCNY x2010.11.11413; third photo: Wikipedia; fourth photo: New York Times; fifth photo: Michaelminn.net