Peeling Back Two Hundred Years of History on Second Avenue

The Ukrainian National Home at 140-142 Second Avenue presently.

I recently wrote about the rich and interesting cultural history behind the Ukrainian National Home, located at 140-142 Second Avenue just south of 9th Street in the East Village, for the website 6sqft.  That incredibly diverse story extends from Peter Stuyvesant and his direct descendants to German teetotalers,  Jewish gangsters, Ukrainian Nationalists, Dixieland Jazz stars, and post-punk legends New Order, who played one of their first shows ever there on November 18, 1981, premiering an early version of their song “Temptation” — read the piece here.

As interesting as peeling back the building’s layers of cultural history was, so too was peeling back — literally and figuratively — the building’s architectural history and development.  And not surprisingly, the building’s cultural history provided some key clues to figuring out this unusual building’s physical history as well.

One would easily be forgiven for looking at the building today and assuming this metal-clad structure dated to sometime in the late 20th century.  And in fact, the facade does — 1984, to be exact. But even the decidedly modern facade provides some clues to a deeper story that stretches considerably further back.

140-142 Second Avenue, viewed from the north, showing the older brick wall behind the metal facade.

138 Second Avenue(m.) with 140-142 to the left.

First, if one stands directly north of the structure along Second Avenue, you can see that the metal facade is in fact just that — a facade, behind which an older, brick structure lies, indicating this facing was probably added to an existing structure. Another clue:  the building actually lines up on its facade with the much older building just to its south at 138 Second Avenue, with even the windows aligned. This tells you that in all likelihood, in spite of appearances to the contrary, these buildings were built at the same time, probably jointly.

A contemporary newspaper account of the fire.

Sure enough, a little digging found accounts of a tragic fire at the Ukrainian National Home in late 1984, after which the new facade was added.  As we dug back, we found accounts, and images, of the building’s prior incarnation, as the Stuyvesant Casino, a place known for attracting some of the biggest names in jazz in the 1940s and 50s, and some of the biggest names in organized crime, particularly from the Jewish mob, in the 1910s.  We even uncovered some images of the building, with roughly the same outline as it has today, but a much more elaborately detailed and ornamented facade.

Our guess is that facade dated to around 1909, when the Stuyvesant Casino opened on this spot.  So is the building a little over a hundred years old, built for the Stuyvesant Casino?

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Apparently not, and here again the clues are on the facade.  You can see even better in those Stuyvesant Casino pictures how well the building lines up with the building to the south, with most of the bulk set back about 25 feet from the street with a two-story pavilion reaching out all the way to the property line.  And the windows line up perfectly — all except the fourth floor, which is slightly off between the two structures.  Plus the Stuyvesant Casino is about twice as wide, so how much could they really have in common?

A lot it turns out.  Houses like 138 Second Avenue were really only built in this area until around the 1840s; after that time period, the neighborhood became so awash in immigrants that anyone who could build a house would not have done so here.  Homeowners may have held on in the area for a few more years, but new construction after that time period would have been almost exclusively commercial buildings or tenements; in fact, over time, virtually all of the houses in this area were eventually “tenementized,” or broken up into apartments, “commercialized,” i.e. had commercial space added to them, or both.  That’s what happened to 138 Second Avenue, which we know was built in 1832 as a single-family house, which like all such rowhouses built in New York at that time would have had a peaked roof with dormers (and would have likely looked a lot like 4 and 20 St. Marks Place, just around the corner). So the slight deviation between the fourth floors of 138 Second Avenue and 140-142 Second Avenue is because those full floors were added to the buildings later, in the case of No. 138, some time in the late 19th century.

All windows line up between 140-142 Second Avenue and 138 Second Avenue, except on the fourth floor, where they were added later.  The seam down the middle of 140-142 Second Avenue shows where the two original buildings were joined.

The other main difference in the facades of these two buildings which helps unlock the mystery of 140-142’s evolution is the fact that it is about twice as wide as No. 138.  And not only is it twice as wide, but you can see what is almost a seam, expressed architecturally, where the two halves of the building meet, and each set of three windows is separated slightly, and joined together at the roofline by the triangular pediment.

140-142 Second Avenue are indicated by the red arrow, and 138 Second Avenue is indicated by the orange one.

This provides a pretty strong indication that this was once two identical buildings, three bays (windows) wide, that were joined together under this new facade.  We dug a little deeper, and found out that before the Stuyvesant Casino was located at this address, a German YMCA was, beginning in 1881.  After searching for an image of the German Y, we stumbled across one which, lo and behold, showed it occupying a pair of what appear to be late federal-style houses, which would have been built around 1830.  And while the image shows 138 Second Avenue to the south already with its full fourth floor added, the twin houses of the German YMCA appear to have actually retained what would have been their original form, with sloped, peaked roofs, and twin dormers on top, indicating that when the Y took them over, they had managed to stay largely intact on the outside, whether or not they had remained single-family homes on the inside.  It’s interesting to see how different Second Avenue looked at this time, with each building with relatively deep front yards (now filled in the surviving buildings by those two-story commercial pavilions), and a decidedly more residential and less commercial look, though that was soon to change.

20 St. Marks Place (l.) and 4 St. Mark’s Place (r.); these are almost undoubtedly what the Ukrainian National Home at 140-142 Second Avenue originally looked like.

This picture of 140-142 Second Avenue is almost undoubtedly what 138 Second Avenue also looked like when it was built.  Unsurprisingly it looks an awful lot like 4 and 20 St. Marks Place, two designated New York City landmarks, which is probably not a coincidence.  140-142 Second were both built in 1831-32 by Thomas E. Davis, who also built 138 Second Avenue just around the corner at the same time.  Given the similarities between 138 and 140-142 Second Avenue in terms of positioning and layout, it’s very likely they were built together, which is made more probable when one sees how similar the 19th century image of 140-142 is to 4 and 20 St. Mark’s Place, which like 138 Second Avenue was built by Davis all at the same time.  So there’s a great likelihood that 140-142 dates to 1831-32 as well, and is another pair of surviving, albeit highly altered, rowhouses by Thomas E. Davis.

Davis was one of the most important builders of early New York, and the man responsible for two of New York’s oldest and most beloved landmarked houses. He was also seemingly reposible for one of the East Village’s most unusual looking, and most dramatically transformed, buildings — a nearly two hundred year old pair of houses hiding in plain sight on Second Avenue under a metal mask.

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Andrew Berman

Andrew Berman has been the Executive Director of GVSHP since 2002.