East 11th Street, a Slice of East Village History
As both we and the media have recently reported, two months ago GVSHP requested the landmark designation of a potential historic district on East 11th Street between Third and Fourth Avenues. GVSHP was aware that a developer was planning to move ahead with plans to demolish a significant stretch of this block, which we had long eyed as a potentially landmark-worthy ensemble, to make way for a Marriott Hotel. And we were not the only ones who thought these buildings merited preservation. This section of the East Village was already identified by the New York City Landmarks Commission as a potential historic district as part of an environmental review of the area conducted in 2008 for the East Village rezoning.
Our proposal to the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) included 112-120 East 11th Street, 113 East 11th Street (formerly St. Ann’s Parochial School), 125 East 11th Street (Webster Hall, a New York City Landmark), 122 East 11th Street/64 Third Avenue and 93 Fourth Avenue (Cooper Station Post Office, listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places). These buildings housed, educated, entertained and served the working class and immigrant residents of this area. Thus the proposed district perfectly captures and embodies the evolution and many facets of working class New York in the late 19th and early 20th century in the East Village.
Unfortunately, the LPC not only did not act on this proposal submitted, but refused to even respond to it, in spite of our making them aware of the urgency of the request. Then late last week, permits were filed with and approved by the Department of Buildings (DOB) for the demolition of the five buildings for the planned hotel at 112-120 East 11th Street, making the designation of these structures no longer feasible. The loss of these 19th century, old law tenements built largely in the Beaux Arts style robs the area of significant historic resources, and the East Village of part of its history.
In the early 19th century, this area of the East Village was dominated by row houses. One vestige from this time is still visible at 122 East 11th Street/64 Third Avenue. Originally built as two Greek Revival row houses in the late 1830’s, No. 64 Third Avenue ran the length of its lot along East 11th Street, and No. 122 East 11th Street abutted the rear of No. 64. An 1853 map labels No. 64 as a brick or stone first class dwelling with a store below, and No. 122 was identified as a brick or stone second class dwelling, also with a store below. Later in the 19th century, both buildings were “tenementized,” or altered to house multiple families as this area became home to the many immigrants and working class families. In 1958 Nos. 64 and 122 were combined and in 1997 a fourth floor was added to No. 122.
During the 19th century, New York City’s Catholic community was expanding rapidly, and by the the end of the Civil War, the parish of St. Ann’s had outgrown its church on East 8th Street and nearby school. An 1847 formerly Baptist Church on East 12th Street was purchased by St Ann’s in 1870. This site had land to the rear fronting East 11th Street, which would provide the space to construct a new Parochial school. It was designed by architect Napoleon Le Brun, who is well known for his 19th century New York City fire houses, including Fire Engine Co. 31, Fire Engine Co. 53 and Fire Engine Co. 54, all New York City Landmarks. When it opened in 1870, 560 students were in attendance. Although the school was converted into apartments in 1978, much of its original facade remains intact, including the small carved stone disc in the gable end which reads, “St. Ann’s Parochial School, 1870” as well as the outlines of the separate entrances, as was customary, for boys and girls at either end of the facade.
Webster Hall was constructed for Charles Goldstein in 1886-87, with an eastern annex in 1892, to the designs of architect Charles Rentz, Jr. The original structure was built in the Queen Anne style, and the annex in the Renaissance Revival style. Responding to the local need for a community center and gathering place, Webster Hall has operated throughout its history as one of Greenwich Village and the East Village’s leading public rental halls and social centers. It has been the venue for countless balls, dances, receptions, lectures, meetings, conventions, political and union rallies, military functions, concerts, performances, festivities, and sporting and fundraising events, particularly for the working-class and immigrant populations of the Lower East Side. It was designated a New York City Landmark (NYCL) in 2007 (click HERE for the designation report).
In the same year as the construction of Webster Hall, the first of five old law tenements was constructed at 112 East 11th Street. The oldest of the tenements on the block, No. 112 was designed by William Graul. Graul was an established architect in New York City by 1868, and he designed a wide variety of buildings in various styles that can be found within the Greenwich Village, Greenwich Village Extension II, Carnegie Hill, Tribeca North, Tribeca West and East Village/Lower East Side Historic Districts. No. 114 was constructed next in 1889 and was designed by Julius Kastner. Kastner established his practice in New York City in 1871 and during his career designed both residential and commercial buildings throughout New York City. Nos. 116, 118, and 120 were built between 1891 and 1892 and designed by Oswald Wirz. Also responsible for 56-58 Pine Street (a designated New York City landmark), Wirz emigrated from Switzerland in 1880 and designed both commercial and residential structures throughout the City.
All five buildings replaced early 19th century row houses along this stretch of East 11th Street. They are dumbell in plan, typical of old law tenements, and were largely designed in the Beaux Arts style. These buildings are mostly unchanged on their front elevations, with a significant amount of their classically inspired ornament and details intact. A review of census records from the early 20th century reveals a variety of first and second generation immigrant families as well as a number of individuals with American-born parents. Germany was the most common country of origin of residents (not surprising given its proximity to Kleine Deutschland), but those from Italy, Russia, Spain and Ireland could also be found within.
The Cooper Station Post Office was built 1936-37, as part of the public works program and as one of twelve post offices constructed around New York City during the 1930’s. Built to serve the East Village, the Cooper Station was designed by William Dewey Foster. Foster was responsible for structures in both New York City and Washington D.C., including ten post offices in New York City and its immediate suburbs. Cooper Station was designed in the Classical Revival style and its most dramatic feature is the curve of the facade at the irregular corner of the site, located at the intersection of Fourth Avenue and East 11th Street. Further highlighting the curve of this building is the two-story colonnade comprised of seven, reeded Doric columns which delineate the corner bays. The Cooper Station Post Office was listed on the New York State and National Registers of Historic Places in 1982 (click HERE for the designation report).
The East Village is still woefully under-landmarked, and the loss of Nos. 112-120 East 11th Street is illustrative of how vulnerable its historic resources are to insensitive alteration and demolition. To learn more about the East Village, including its resources and GVSHP’s advocacy efforts, click HERE.