Included within the boundaries of the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s proposed East Village/Lower East Side Historic District is the venerable limestone and terra cotta-clad Saul Birns Building, located on the west side of Second Avenue between 6th & 7th Streets. The building definitely stands out on Lower Second Avenue, which is lined primarily with converted early-to-mid-19th century rowhouses, late-19th tenements, and early-20th century theatres. How did it ever arrive here? And just who is Saul Birns anyway?
The Saul Birns building was constructed in 1928 for use as a bank, store & office building. Originally home to the Woolworth Store, it later housed the restaurant Ratners, which you can read about in a wonderful piece by Jeremiah Moss. But to fully understand what motivated Saul Birns to construct this building, it’s important to understand a little bit about the history of Lower Second Avenue.
Lower Second Avenue originally developed in the 1830s & 40s as a prime residential thoroughfare, attracting wealthy residents moving “uptown” from the area around City Hall (which was becoming increasingly commercialized). By the mid-19th century, Lower Second Avenue and the surroundings sidestreets contained some of the most desirable homes to be found in Manhattan. Most of these were rowhouses; a few were free-standing mansions. Many of these early rowhouses still exist, such as at 149 Second Avenue and at the landmarked Isaac Hopper House at 110 Second Avenue.
Beginning in the 1850s, the neighborhood began to change. Waves of immigration caused the population to increase and the original residents to relocate further uptown. By the 1880s, the Lower East Side (including the East Village) alone accounted for 1/4 of the population of the entire city. When the existing building stock along Second Avenue proved inadequate to handle the influx, many of the rowhouses were replaced with larger tenement buildings. Others were altered with the addition of new stories.
By the time the Saul Birns Building was constructed, the East Village was a thriving immigrant community and Lower Second Avenue had established itself as the center of Yiddish Theatre in New York. But at the same time, there was a push by the real estate industry to restore Second Avenue’s former residential elegance via the construction of new apartment buildings.
Here is where Saul Birns comes in.
Saul Birnsweig, who shortened his name for professional matters, appears to have been interested in both phonographs and real estate. According to the Annual Report of the Industrial Commission, in 1915 he owned the Saul Birns Company, the Atlantic Talking Machine Company, and the Metropolitan Phonograph Company (in this same year he was charged with mail fraud for ripping off foreign customers). By 1940, he was referred to in the New York Times as a “pioneer East Side builder and realty operator.”
Birns was at the forefront of the movement to redevelop Lower Second Avenue beginning in the 1920s. In addition to the Saul Birns Building, around the same time he also developed No. 63 Second Avenue (at 4th Street) and Nos. 162 & 170 Second Avenue, the two sixteen-story apartment buildings between 10th & 11th Streets across from St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery.
When asked about his motive behind these developments, Birns told this to the New York Times: “My main idea in building fine apartments here was to check the migration from this east side centre. I found that many of the old families actually preferred to live here, but to secure better homes had been forced uptown… we have the advantages of a wide thoroughfare, excellent transit facilities to all parts of the city, besides being close to Broadway and the Wanamaker shopping center. All these things plus good accommodations are holding the people and the new movement has only started.”
Well, the movement didn’t ever really take off, as Birns had hoped. Fortunately for the cause of preservation, not all buildings on Lower Second Avenue were replaced; today Birns’ art deco buildings are interspersed with remnants of the avenue’s earliest days. Interestingly, Saul Birns went on to purchase the German Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. Mark at 325 East 6th Street in 1940, and was responsible for its conversion to the East 6th Street Community Synagogue.
The funny thing is is that though Saul Birns was most well-known in the media as an apartment developer, the building that carries his name was not originally built as one. Nonetheless, if you love the Saul Birns Building and the East Village, join the fight to preserve our history by supporting the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s proposed Historic Districts in the neighborhood. For more information on our work in the East Village, including our survey of the history of every building in the neighborhood, visit our Preservation page.