From Singing to Sofas: The History of the Burger-Klein Building

 

Its irrepressible mid-century modern façade of opaque black glass is punctuated by cheery yellow balconettes, a slender projecting wall  of red glazed brick, and cube-shaped letters spelling out B-U-R-G-E-R K-L-E-I-N.

Many in the East Village are familiar with the unique building at 28 Avenue A and have wondered who or what Burger Klein was and what is hidden behind the impenetrable black glass.

GVSHP has been conducting extensive research of the buildings in the East Village and we have learned some very interesting information about the history of the building at 28 Avenue A. To learn more about our research and other efforts in the East Village please click here.

28 Avenue A in 1933, Source New York Public Library

The history of the Burger Klein building at 28 Avenue A is as interesting as its appearance. The present building dates to 1871, though its façade, as you may have guessed, dates to much later.  The building’s original facade, though very different than what we see today, was nevertheless quite distinctive as well — a handsome five-story Second Empire0-style building with a central tower and cupola.

The building was connected to the area’s history as Kleindeutschland or Little Germany (see our previous post about the General Slocum tragedy that devastated the German community in the East Village). Concordia Hall, as 28 Avenue A was known, was a German club house and ballroom. Three German societies – the Melomanen (music lover) Society, the Theodor Koerner Lidertafel (a men’s vocal group) and the Marshner Maennerchor (men’s chorus) were headquartered in the building. In addition to the musical groups, other German societies met at Concordia Hall including the German-American Teachers Association, a benevolent association that was organized and founded at Concordia Hall in 1871.

The East Village has other buildings that functioned as German community meeting and clubhouses including the landmark German-American Shooting Society Clubhouse at 12 St. Mark’s Place and the Pyramid Club at 101 Avenue A, a site GVSHP successfully advocated to be included in the proposed East Village/Lower East Side Historic District.

In the 1880s Concordia Hall also became a meeting place for political and social groups in the community such as the 10th Assembly District Republican Association.  As evidence of its popularity as a community meeting place, New York Assemblyman William Waldorf Astor gave a speech there, in German and English (a fairly common practice in the neighborhood), in 1870 to win support for his run for the Senate. The Astor family owned a significant number of tenements in the area and William was one of the developers of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

Over the years its history became more colorful. In 1885 a riot broke out between anarchists and socialists over the legitimacy of the use of dynamite by Irish Nationalists in London. Police Capt. McCillagh tried to call for order, but was hit from behind with a chair. It was reported the police were attacked with guns, knives and clubs. Justus Schwab, a member of the International Working People’s Party, was placed on trial for inciting the riot.

Also in 1885  Concordia Hall doorman George Klauberdanz was tried and acquitted for shooting Alvin Jacobi, a patron who quarreled with Klauberdanz over a hat-check incident. Jacobi vandalized parts of the buildings and the doorman chased him outside. On 3rd Street between Avenues A and B Jacobi pulled a knife and lunged at Klauberdanz, who pulled a gun and fired on Jacobi in return.

In the early 1920s the building was converted into a store. The earliest evidence of furniture seller Burger-Klein occupying the building is from 1939.

In 1959, a four-alarm fire destroyed the roof and top floor of the building, resulting in a significant alteration of building’s façade, most likely the face of the building we see today. It is noteworthy that the owners chose to replace what had once been an architecturally significant  facade with a mid-century modern wrapping that in its own way and for its own time is as extraordinary as the 19th century face of the building.

The Burger-Klein building’s uniqueness in the streetscape is a big part of what inspires so much curiosity about it.

Patterson Silk Building

In the Village and East Village this type of expressive mid-century modern facade is rather rare.  Perhaps its nearest relatives (aesthetically) in the neighborhood might be the New School’s Joseph Urban-designed Johnson and Kaplan Building (1929-31) at 66 West 12th Street, with its strong horizontal facade, and the demolished  Morris Lapidus-designed Odd-Jobs/Patterson Silk Building (1949) at West 14th Street And University Place.

The special character of the  Burger-Klein building was called out in an Environmental Impact Study completed for the East Village Rezoning.  GVSHP has been actively involved in encouraging expansion of the rezoning to protect the character of the East Village.

 


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avatar Andito Lloyd is GVSHP's East Village & Special Projects Director