Greek Revival Gone Wrong
On October 1, 2010, the New York State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) agreed to GVSHP’s request to find 326 and 328 East 4th Street eligible for listing on the State and National Registers of Historic Places. According to the significance statement issued by the NYSHPO, “the two adjacent three story, brick houses at 326 and 328 East 4th Street appear to meet Criterion C* as excellent examples of Greek Revival row houses of the late 1830’s and early 1840’s. They are also significant under Criterion A** as a microcosm of evolution of nearly two centuries of history of this part of the Lower East Side, better known as the East Village. They represent the history of the East Village – from its years as a working port, to its shift to a point of entry for waves of immigrants, to its role at the heart of the largest Jewish community in the world, to finally its transformation to an epicenter for an artistic community.”
Reading this statement, one would assume that the buildings also merited landmark designation by New York City. Unfortunately, the City did not landmark these structures, in spite of the requests from GVSHP and many other advocacy groups, not to mention the State’s findings. What ensued after is a classic example of why New York City landmarks designation is so important in order to protect our cultural and architectural resources.
Before we get to that story, here is some background on the buildings themselves. Nos. 326 and 328 East 4th were originally part of a row of houses constructed between the years 1837 and 1841 and designed in the Greek Revival style. When they received eligibility by the SHPO in 2010, both houses were remarkably intact. They retained their original heights, configurations, continuous dentiled cornice spanning both buildings, molded stone sills and lintels (at No. 328), and door enframement at No. 328 and brown stone entry surrounds at both structures with flat pilasters supporting entablatures above with dentil molding.
Tax records from 1839 reveal that the first owner of No. 326 was Fickett & Thomas, a large ship building company. The East River at this time was a significant part of New York’s thriving waterfront and the East Village housed many businesses and tradesmen associated with shipbuilding and trade. Francis Fickett was credited with the construction of the SS Savannah, the first steamship in the world to cross the Atlantic Ocean and was the original developer of several homes along this block. The original owner at No. 328 was lumberyard owner and carpenter, Cornelius Read. Both structures were used as single family homes at that time. That would change following the Civil War when the influx of immigrants came to the Lower East Side/East Village and row houses would be demolished to make way for tenements or they would be tenementized, housing multiple families.
Such was the case at these two row houses as seen in census records from the turn of the 20th century. At this time, this part of New York City became home to a tremendous Jewish community, and by 1928 No. 328 housed a synagogue that is believed to have served a Hungarian congregation (in fact GVSHP’s research showed that the synagogue and its congregation played a significant role in Jewish history, but the LPC was unmoved). The shul remained until 1974, when both buildings were bought by the Uranian Phalanstery, which described itself as “an anarchist utopian commune for practitioners of art and cosmology.” Following World War II, the East Village became home to countless avant-garde organizations and collectives, drawn to the area by its cultural vitality and low cost of living. The Uranian Phalanstry occupied the row houses until 2010 when they were faced with tax liens and sold the houses to developer Terrence Lowenberg. He applied for permits to add a two story addition to both structures.
GVSHP, along with other preservation groups, immediately urged the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) to designate both structures in order that they would have landmark protections. GVSHP made the case for their designation based on their significant history reflective of the evolution of the Lower East Side/East Village over 170 years as well as their intact Greek Revival facades and details, and on November 16, 2010, held a press conference in front of the houses with fellow preservation organizations, elected officials, and Jewish History groups to call for their preservation and landmark designation. In spite of widespread support from the community and elected officials, the LPC denied designation due to the buildings’ loss of architectural features and their “poor physical condition.” Adding insult to injury, the designation proposal did not go before the full commission and therefore never received a formal vote. As well, while the buildings were in bad condition they in fact did retain a significant majority of their original details which could have been restored. Further, “poor physical condition” is not an argument for lack of architectural or historic significance. Good thing we don’t apply that standard to ancient monuments.
The result? The buildings were altered to such an extent that they would no longer merit State and National eligibility for designation under Criterion C. Gone are nearly all of the original Greek Revival details and the two story addition at the top eradicates the original early 19th century scale that historically dominated this area during its initial development. And this is why NYC landmark designation is so important and why GVSHP continues to fight for those protections for our architectural and cultural resources which remain vulnerable. Click HERE to support expanded landmark protections in the East Village/Lower East Side.
*Criterion C: Embodies the distinctive characteristics of a type, period or method of construction; or represents the work of a master; or possess high artistic values; or represents a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction.
** Criterion A: Associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history.