Walking East 7th Street: George Pelham & Joseph Buttenwieser
Walking East 7th Street is a collaboration between GVSHP and the students in NYU’s Fall 2011 Intro to Public History course. Each pair of students was tasked with researching the cultural history of one particular block of East 7th Street and sharing with us something fascinating they discovered along the way. All posts in the series are written by students.
The second of five posts in the series, by Eric Montgomery and Heather Wilson, focuses on East 7th Street between 1st & 2nd Avenues.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the block on East 7th St between 1st and 2nd avenues was heavily influenced by two major figures: architect, George Pelham, and developer and philanthropist Joseph Buttenwieser. These two men helped shape the visual appeal and cultural makeup of the block.
George Pelham was a major architect in the late 19th and early 20th centuries whose influence can be seen on E 7th St and around NYC. Through our research, we discovered that Pelham built six of the tenement buildings on this block. The buildings housed between 22 and 24 families and had a commercial space on the ground level. They were influenced by new trends that occurred in architecture around the turn of the century, including a shift from high to low stoop entryways. Pelham also liked renaissance and neo-classical designs. Ornamental flowerbeds and red limestone facades are visible on his buildings. All six Pelham buildings are still standing, and easily identifiable when you walk down the block!
Joseph L. Buttenwieser owned five of the six Pelham buildings on the block. By 1912, he was a successful real estate developer. In a 1912 address he gave to real estate students at the YMCA, he focused on reasons why tenement buildings make better investments than buildings for wealthier residents.
Buttenwieser was also a philanthropist. From 1898-1899, he was one of the directors of the Hebrew Technical Institute for boys, and also donated to the Hebrew Technical School for girls. Both were located on the Lower East Side and trained students for the workforce. At one of the school’s graduations, Buttenwieser expressed his educational philosophy when he said: “This institute affords an education of the heart, head, and hand, and instills into the youthful mind a proper conception of the dignity of labor, and tends to suppress socialism and anarchy.”
In order to help new Jewish immigrants, Buttenwieser reached out to more established Jewish residents in New York. For example, in 1924, he raised $1.25 million as president of the Federation for the Support of Jewish Philanthropic Societies. This organization began in 1917 and supported 80% of all Jewish charities in NYC, including the Hebrew Orphan Asylum.
Ultimately, these two men heavily influenced the cultural makeup of East 7th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues. Most of the residents on this block were first or second generation Jewish immigrants from Russia, Austria, Germany, and Italy. The block thus supported some of the estimated two million Jews that immigrated to the US between 1880 through 1924. There were a few other nationalities represented on the block as well, including two men born in China, who owned and operated a Chinese Laundry in one of Buttenwieser’s commercial spaces. Ultimately, those who lived in the Pelham/Buttenwieser buildings were immigrants or first generation Americans, working or going to school, and beginning to make their way in their new homes.