East Village/Lower East Side Historic District Approved, 330 Buildings Protected

Audio slideshow by Kandy Wong.
East Village_PROPOSED_CHANGE_20121009

The Landmarks Preservation Commission approved the creation of an East Village/Lower East Side Historic District today, bestowing landmark privileges on 330 buildings.

The district, surrounding Second Avenue from East Seventh Street to East Second Street, received enthusiastic support from six commissioners, with just one voting against it.

The decision is two years in the making, as the district was mapped after the commission conducted an extensive survey in 2010.

After a brief presentation recounting the neighborhood’s history – from the mansions and row houses of the 1830s to the advent of tenements, vaudeville theaters, and German immigrants – commissioner Elizabeth Ryan said, “It’s great to hear that most of the structures have changed little since the 1930s.”

Michael Devonshire, another commissioner who voted in favor of the district, said he was “scared to death” when he first walked through the Lower East Side in 1967, but that he now considered it New York’s “culturally richest district.”

Pablo E. Vengoechea, the commission’s vice chair, called the historic district “long overdue.”

photo-302Sanna Chu The hearing today.

Another commissioner, Roberta Washington, who lived in the neighborhood for several years when she first moved to New York, cited its present-day diversity and “the rich history that’s still possible to see.” She said strolling through the neighborhood constituted a “walk through time.”

But commissioner Margery Perlmutter, who at one time owned a building in the area and has lived in the vicinity, estimated that 200 of the 330 buildings that made up the proposed district were tenements, many of which had lost a tremendous amount of detail. She described the buildings as a “poor housing type” that “don’t individually rise to the level of a district.”

Today’s six-to-one vote bestows landmark privileges on all of the 330 buildings within the district, meaning their owners will have to seek approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission before making exterior changes, and the Department of Buildings will have to wait on the commission’s approval before permitting such alterations.

Though the changes go into effect today, the City Planning Commission now has 60 days to weigh in on the district, and the City Council has 120 days to rescind or make changes to it. Both hearings would involve more public input.

Some religious leaders had opposed the creation of the district. In recent days, The Local spoke to John Podsiadlo of the Church of the Nativity, at 44 Second Avenue, and Richard Wright of Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection, at 59 East Second Street. Watch the above video to learn more about their concerns.

Below is a brief history of the district, courtesy of the Landmarks Preservation Commission:

The district runs from East 2 to East 7 streets along and off Second Avenue, in an area that was once part of Peter Stuyvesant’s estate. Development started in the 1830s, with the construction of elegant Greek Revival row houses for the city’s elite, and took off in the mid-19 century as handsome tenements, houses of worship and other institutions were erected for German immigrants who flocked to the neighborhood and later inhabited by many other immigrant groups, including Eastern Europeans, and Latinos. The district assumed a new identity in the mid-20 century, drawing a vibrant mix of artists, musicians and community activists and has since been known as the East Village.

“Each wave of immigrants that settled in the district gave rise to the richly layered built environment that remains today,” said Commission Chairman Robert B. Tierney. “It’s an incredibly intact collection, developed over the course of nearly 200 years, of row houses, tenements, houses of worship, theaters that tell a complete story of one of New York City’s most renowned neighborhoods.”

Wealthy New Yorkers who had lived in Manhattan’s southern tip moved to the area in the 1830s and made it the city’s toniest residential district. With these new arrivals came numerous single-family mansions and row houses, such as those at 30 to 38 East 3 Street. Completed in 1836, the buildings retain their original Flemish bond brickwork and Greek Revival-style detailing.

One of the district’s most evocative blocks is East 4 Street between the Bowery and Second Avenue, which was designated by the City as the a cultural district because of the high concentration of theaters there. The south side includes Nos. 64 to 68 (at right), which comprised the centerpiece of a residential development known as Albion Place, a handsome terrace of 12 uniformly designed, 3 ½-story houses that were completed in 1833. Nos. 66 and 68 were combined and raised to four stories in 1871 as part of a conversion by the New York Turn Verein, a German gymnastics organization. In 1882, the Turn Verein hosted the first Yiddish-language theatrical production ever staged in the United States. It has been an annex of the La Mama Experimental Theatre Club since the 1970s.

Tenement construction and the conversion of single-family homes into multiple-family dwellings began in the 1850s as the wealthy left and large number of immigrants moved in, most of them German. These
buildings, known as “pre-law” tenements because they predated the Tenement House Act of 1879, were
designed in a simplified version of the Italianate style that had become the dominant mode of architecture in New York City. Examples can be found at 433 to 441 East 6 Street, a c. 1861 row of five uniform structures owned by the heirs of the John Jacob Astor fortune and at 310 to 338 East 6 Street (at left), a c. 1864 row of 15 tenements owned by the heirs of Stephen Whitney.

Other immigrant groups began to settle in the neighborhood in the 1890s, many of them Yiddish- speaking Jews from Eastern Europe, who transformed the area into a thriving entertainment district that was known as the Yiddish Rialto, and included the Public Theater and the Lowe’s Commodore movie palace at 66 and 105 Second Avenue, respectively. One of the most impressive reminders of this community is the Neo Classical style, c. 1910 Congregation Adas Yisroel Anshe Mezeritz synagogue at 415 East 6 Street (at right), designed by German architect Herman Horenburger.

Immigrants from Poland and Hungary also left conspicuous marks on the neighborhood with buildings like the limestone, c. 1901 Saint Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr Roman Catholic Church, at 107 East 7 Street by architect Arthur Arctander and the “naturestone” c. 1904, altered Gothic Revival style First Hungarian Reformed Church (now St. Mary’s American Orthodox Greek Catholic Church) at 121 East 7th Street by architect Frederick Ebeling.

Tenement construction continued in the last decades of the 19th century and into the beginning of the 20th century. The buildings were more flamboyant than their predecessors, as the Queen Anne, Romanesque Revival and Renaissance Revival styles came into fashion, and facades typically featured richly molded terra-cotta detailing, textured brickwork, densely layered beltcourses, projecting piers, and boldly massed cornices. Examples include the rows at 95 to 99 East 7th Street (at left) and 65 to 75 East 4th Street.

Intense construction ended in the early 1930s because of the Great Depression, and most of the structures haven’t changed since then. But the demographics of the neighborhood changed dramatically in the 1950s, when Latin American immigrants, mostly from Puerto Rico, and artists and bohemians priced out of Greenwich Village moved there.

The neighborhood survived plans for urban renewal the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the economic downturn of the 1970s, to become the center of the 1980s downtown art and music scene. The Fillmore East, run by the noted rock concert promoter Bill Graham, opened in the former Commodore Theatre at 105 Second Avenue (see photo at left) in 1968, and later became the Saint, a private dance club. The former Yiddish Public Theatre at 66 Second Avenue, served for a short time as CBGB’s Second Avenue Theater beginning in 1977, and hosted such bands and performers as the Talking Heads and Patti Smith. And a former meeting hall at 101 Avenue A has been the home of the Pyramid Club since 1979, providing a venue for drag performances, benefit concerts for AIDS victims and acts like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Nirvana.