One of my favorite things about historic architecture research is uncovering the fascinating histories of lesser-known buildings (and then sharing those facts with anyone who will listen!). When I worked at the Landmarks Preservation Commission, I researched and wrote the designation report for the East Eleventh Street Baths at 538 East 11th Street. It’s hard to believe that this beautiful little building will be celebrating its 4-year anniversary of becoming an official city landmark in two weeks. So, on that note, let’s take a look at what makes this East Village spot one of my favorites.
Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Eddie Adams bought the building in 1995 and used it as his photography studio until his death in 2004; his wife Alyssa now owns the building. There are a couple of clues on this building that allude to its original use — can you spot them? One very obvious clue is the incised letters that read, “Free Public Baths of the City of New York” at the building’s frieze. Looking closer you can also see two nautical-themed cartouches that flank the frieze and are ornamented with fish holding tridents with their tails. These features recall the building’s use as a public bath for the neighborhood’s poor immigrants at the beginning of the 20th century. Designed by Arnold W. Brunner in the neo-Renaissance style, construction lasted from 1904 to 1905. A historic photo I came across in my research revealed that there were separate men’s and women’s entrances (once marked on the outer arches of the building) so that, once inside, each gender did not even see the other in a common lobby space.
For me, it’s a fascinating building for several reasons. One is the concept that poor people in those days did not necessarily have access to indoor bathing facilities in their apartments, something unheard of today. More affluent members of society who were concerned with various aspects of immigrant life at the turn of the 20th century began what became known as the social reform movement; one of the results of that movement in New York City was the construction of 13 public baths. The Eleventh Street bath was one of the first to be constructed and one of the last to close, in 1958.
Another remarkable thing is the quality of the detailing and materials in this building. Considering its purpose and who it was intended for, the City spared no expense in hiring Brunner, a prominent architect who worked in numerous cities, and bringing in Indiana limestone for the main facade material and trim. The light-colored stone, with its intricate carving and classical elements, stands in stark contrast to the dark-colored tenements surrounding it. There is also a feeling of “cleanliness” associated with the color of the material that was appropriate for the building’s use as a bath house.
Interestingly, though the intention was to provide immigrants with bathing facilities, it was soon observed that the poor used them more as a means to keep cool during the hot summer months. A great find in the New York Times from 1906 notes this phenomenon:
An unusual feature in the heat wave yesterday was the crowd which rushed upon the public baths. Down in Allen Street and at the Eleventh Street baths peopled stood in lines four deep. By and by the crush became so great that, despite the eighty-seven sprays and numerous tubs in each of these places, the police reserves had to be called to preserve order. The lines broke, and as each batch came out of the baths two or three hundred rushed to get in. Order was finally evolved by the police, and it was not necessary to make any arrests.”
Over time, as improvements to tenement buildings occurred or immigrants moved to other neighborhoods, these baths were less frequented and eventually closed. The Eleventh Street baths found new life as a parking garage for the adjacent apartment building and ramps installed at that time are still there today. Another public bath, located at 83 Carmine Street and now known as the Tony Dapolito Recreation Center, was recently designated as part of the Greenwich Village Historic District Extension II. This is phase 1 of 3 total phases that GVSHP has advocated for in the South Village. Click HERE for our report on the South Village and HERE for more of our efforts in this historic Italian immigrant neighborhood.
The Eleventh Street Baths building served various uses throughout the years, including a backdrop in the film Ragtime (1981) in what would be actor James Cagney’s final role. The film crew recreated an immigrant streetscape from the early 20th century using the well-preserved tenements on this block. Those tenements are still very much intact today and are part of a larger East Village survey that GVSHP has completed. To see our advocacy work in this area that includes the push for a larger historic district, please see our East Village page.