No, we’re not referencing the catchy pop song of a similar title (although it’s now stuck in our heads!). We’re talking about the Umbrella House, 21-23 Avenue C, between East 2nd and 3rd Streets- the building with the lively umbrellas suspended from its facade. Built in 1899 as an Old Law Tenement by prominent East Village architect Michael Bernstein, this building has a history as colorful as its umbrellas!
The eastern portion of the East Village is often referred to as Loisaida, a Latino name for the Lower East Side. This term was coined in the 70’s by noted Puerto Rican poet and community activist Bittman “Bimbo” Rivas, from his poem titled “Loisaida.” In fact, in 1982 after his passing, Avenue C was officially given the honorary secondary street name of “Loisaida Avenue” in remembrance of Bimbo’s love and dedication to the neighborhood and its culture.
The 70’s was a defining decade for Loisaida. German photographer Marlis Momber, who documented the area during that time, compared the neighborhood in a 2008 Times article to a “war zone,” or to Berlin after WWII. However, she noted, “there was also vitality and community on those blocks.” She felt that residents found “inspiration amid the emptiness.” Many of these residents were squatters, mostly artists, who had been living in and maintaining certain buildings for over a decade.
The Umbrella House was one such derelict building. Squatters moved in in 1980 and found a very leaky roof. They therefore needed umbrellas inside, giving birth to the building’s title. Before long, though, they had renovated the entire 1899 Old Law Tenement.
During July 4th weekend of 1995, a city-ordered siege occurred during which police in riot gear came into Loisaida and evicted and arrested squatters. The Umbrella House was among the buildings raided. Those evicted countered in court claiming that they were lawfully living in these abandoned buildings under adverse possession, a law that says if someone has been living openly in a building for more than ten years he or she owns it. The judge agreed and the squatters were allowed to remain.
In the fall of 2002, 11 squatter buildings, including 21-23 Avenue C, were sold to their 236 occupants for $1 each under the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board. In April 2010, the Umbrella House’s rehabilitation was complete and UHAB turned the 18-unit building over to a Housing Development Fund Corporation, making it a low-income cooperative officially called “Umbrella House HDFC.” In honor of its indoor-umbrella days, the building now has a facade display of $3 black umbrellas painted in various colors and designs. Little is known about who painted the umbrellas, but they are most certainly part of what makes Loisaida, as Bimbo wrote, a “fair lady.”
If you’d like to learn more about our extensive research of every building in the neighborhood, check out our extensive East Village Preservation page!