Sullivan-Thompson, a District of Immigrants

The recently landmarked Sullivan-Thompson Historic District is one of the first historic districts in New York City so designated almost exclusively based upon its immigrant history and working-class architecture. As stated by the LPC research staff in their presentation before the Commissioners’ vote, “The architecture in the proposed district reflects the waves of immigration that transformed this neighborhood and much of New York City beginning in the mid-19th century in the early 20th century.  Through designating this district, we seek to recognize that important cultural history and how those waves of immigration shaped New York City’s identity.”

Tenements along Sullivan Street at Prince Street, 1928. Courtesy of NYPL

Probably the first of New York city’s now one hundred forty designated historic districts to focus largely on the immigrant experience and architecture was the Greenwich Village Historic District Extension II designated in 2010, proposed by GVSHP as Phase I of our original proposed South Village Historic District.  This was followed by the East Village/Lower East Side Historic District designation in 2012 (strongly supported by GVSHP), and then the South Village Historic District (Phase II of our proposed South Village Historic District) which was landmarked by the City in 2013.  In fact, we are proud to say that virtually every immigrant history-related historic district in NYC is one GVSHP either proposed, or played a big hand in getting designated.

The Sullivan-Thompson Historic District experienced two main waves of development.  The first took place in the early 19th century, and primarily saw the construction of modest, 2 1/2 story row houses.  The second took place primarily after the Civil War and lasted until 1916.  This wave saw the construction of pre-law, old law and new law tenements which make up over 50% of the building stock in the district, as well as the ‘tenementizing’ (turning into multi-family housing, often with the addition of more floors, back buildings, and fire escapes, and the removal of stoops and other features) of early row houses.

By the 1890’s the immigrant residents of the Sullivan Thompson historic district were overwhelmingly Italian, though there remained a large African-American population into the early 20th century, making the area one of the most densely populated Italian communities in New York’s history.  The Italian immigrants forged a vibrant community anchored by the Church of St. Anthony of Padua and a number of Italian-owned businesses.  Within the district, over 30 tenements were built following the passage of the Tenement House Act of 1901, which mandated light and air requirements for multiple family dwellings.  The last tenement built in the district was constructed in 1914, followed by a cluster of reform housing/model tenements built by and for Italian immigrants and some more modest apartment buildings.

A 1920 map of Manhattan shows the major hub of the Italian neighborhood of the
South Village and Little Italy. (Ohman Map Co. Map of the Borough of Manhattan and Part of the
Bronx Showing Location and Extent of Racial Colonies, 1920). Courtesy of NYPL

The commissioners were unanimous in their vote in favor of the designation of the Sullivan Thompson Historic District, and comments by the commissioners prior to the vote celebrated the designation of the district for its cultural and historical significance.

As stated by Commissioner Michael Goldblum, “Tenements are a very lovely, interesting part of the streetscape, but they have a very complicated history as housing, at the least.  But I think that what we are doing here is that we are saying that this is significant because of the immigrant history and the place that this body of housing and building stock played in that.”  Commissioner Adi Shamir-Baron reiterated Commissioner’s Goldblum’s point about the district’s cultural significance and said that she has never been as aware of the meaning of ‘sense of place’ as she was in regards to this district.  Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan stated, “…we protect historic sections of the city not only for their architectural distinction but also representing the social and cultural patterns that provide insight into New York’s development history.  And while these may not be the most pristine buildings, it is the overlay of the social and cultural history that creates this neighborhood which reflects the past…as many of you have said today, it really deserves protections in the future.”

Over the last decade, GVSHP has been committed to having historic preservation focus more on immigrant and working class history, honoring and celebrating it. This is a goal in which we have made incredible progress, as evidenced by this designation, as well as the ones previously described.  Recognizing the importance of this history is more important now than ever, and will continue to be a major focus of GVSHP’s in 2017 and beyond.

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Sarah Bean Apmann