Mars Bar — Before & After

A few days ago, the venerable Mars bar on the corner of 2nd Avenue and 1st Street painted “Thanks for the memories, miss you all” over its entrance, in expectation of the much-anticipated demise of the beloved business and the building which housed it.

The Mars Bar, with its farewell message, earlier this week

While the actual end date, as well as future plans for the site, remain unclear, the occasion warrants contemplation of the history of the current building, as well as what could replace it.

Click on this photo to see more historic permits for the Mars Bars building

According to research performed by GVSHP as part of its survey of the entire East Village, 11-17 Second Avenue/25 East 1st Street was erected in 1913, and originally housed “moving pictures, stores, and loft.”  The theater on the site was known, at least in its early days, as the Woolworth (whether there was some actual connection to the Woolworth chain, or the name was simply inspired by the erection in Lower Manhattan in 1913 of the Woolworth Building, the tallest building in the world from 1913 to 1929, is not clear to us).  The building’s architect was Louis Sheinart, a prolific architect on the Lower East Side who also constructed the nickelodeon/movie theater which became the Variety Photoplays Theater at 110 Third Avenue (demolished in 2005 over the objections of GVSHP, and replaced with one of the East Village’s more overwhelming new glass high-rises).  The site is of course just one short block off of the Bowery, which was then a working-class entertainment mecca, filled with similar low-budget movie houses, while Second Avenue to the north had come to be known as the ‘Yiddish Rialto.’

Lower Second Avenue, early 20th century; the Woolworth Theater (now the Mars Bar) is visible on the lower left (image courtesy NYPL)

By 1916-1917 the upstairs loft was “removed and a gallery and mezzanine floor…erected” for what appears to have been a pool hall, and a restaurant took hold on the ground floor.  By 1928 the restaurant included a “cabaret,” but by 1930 the theater and pool hall were gone, the occupants of the building described dryly in the Certificate of Occupancy, as “storage, stores, offices, offices” (after the Depression hit in 1929, of course, many long-standing businesses were shuttered).  By 1952 the entertainment bug appears to have returned, as the owners applied for and received a permit for a dance hall holding 200 people.

Sheinart's Variety Theater, just prior to its demolition in 2005

Variety Theater's less charming replacement

Determining what may appear at 11-17 Second Avenue in the future is more an art than a science, but there are a few helpful clues.  Until a few years ago, all of Second Avenue from Houston to East 7th Street had an anomalous zoning designation of C6-1, which allowed pretty high density commercial (such as hotel) or community facility (such as dorm) development with no absolute height limits and no limits on air rights transfers.  Many of the sore-thumb hotel and dorm developments you see on the Bowery, around Third and Fourth Avenues below 14th Street, and south of Houston Street on the Lower East Side were constructed using this type of zoning.

The Cooper Square Hotel on the Bowery; what might have been allowable under the old zoning on the Mars bar site

However, in 2008, a coalition of community groups including GVSHP, Community Board #3, and some local elected officials led by Rosie Mendez were able to get the city to rezone almost the entire East Village.  Most of the neighborhood had very strict height limits put in place, including Second Avenue north of 3rd Street.  However, we were unable to convince the City to put as strict of limits in place south of 3rd Street on Second Avenue (why any part of Second Avenue is treated differently than the rest of the East Village is still impossible to understand), but even in these final three blocks the City did change the zoning to put in place a maximum height limit of 85 feet along the street wall with 120 feet as the limit for a setback portion of the structure above – still much larger than we would have liked, but better than what the prior zoning allowed.  Plus, the City changed the zoning to make residential development more desirable as compared to hotel or dorm development, adding further incentives for including affordable housing.

What all this means is that a new development on this site will likely be residential (whereas previously it would much more likely have been a dorm or hotel), no more than 8 to 12 stories (whereas before it could have gone to 20 stories or more), and while predominately market-rate, is at least likely to set aside 20% of its units for affordable housing.

We’ll be watching carefully to see what develops here.


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avatar Andrew Berman has been the Executive Director of GVSHP since 2002.