In a recent post, we discussed the many resources that we used to research the over 2,200 properties that are featured in our online tool, East Village Building Blocks. In that post, we looked at how we figured out the history of two buildings which are easily discernible as 19th-century structures. Today we thought we would look at a couple of buildings which are not what they seem, so you can see that figuring out the history of structures in the East Village is not always so easy.
Nos. 33 & 35 First Avenue appear to the casual passerby as non-descript 20th-century buildings. But that is only half right. Today they are definitely non-descript, but they were in fact built in the 19th century. Here’s how we figured this out.
For every building in the East Village, we requested the block and lot folder from the NYC Municipal Archives. These folders contain hard copies of all permits that DOB has on file for the buildings. In the case of Nos. 33 and 35 First Avenue, there were no new building permits (many of the permits have gone missing over the years), though there was a copy of a page from a ledger of alteration permits filed on April 2, 1937. As shown below, it describes two five-story tenements at the site and the permit calls for the removal of the upper stories, leaving two one-story structures. (This was commonly done to older structures, especially tenements, during the Depression and especially in neighborhoods like the East Village/Lower East Side which were experiencing depopulation at that time. The older housing was becoming increasingly less desirable to live in and sometimes required costly updates to conform with new housing, health, and safety regulations. So landlords found it cheaper to remove the upper floors of buildings and just leave one or two-story commercial structures, commonly referred to as “taxpayers,” since they were no-frills structures the main purpose of which was the pay the taxes the property owner was responsible for on the land.)
The 1940 tax photos show that the permit was executed:
So the next question to pursue was when were these buildings originally built. You will remember that the 1937 alteration permit described the buildings as tenements and according to the 1903 Sanborn map, they were pre-law tenements (also known as pre-Old Law tenements) and therefore most likely built before 1879. We know this because they lack the dumbbell shape that is typical in Old Law tenements due to light and air requirements of the 1879 law (click HERE for more information on the tenement laws).
Tax records for the properties show five-story tenements at these properties by 1871 owned by Allan Hay, as well at 37 First Avenue and 84 East 2nd Street. As a side note, the Allan Hay & Co. Soap and Candle Factory was just north of these properties, but it was destroyed by a fire in 1863.
We looked through the Real Estate Record and Builders Guide to try and find reference to the original building permit. This weekly publication began in 1868 and listed all conveyances, liens, mortgages, and permits in New York City and its environs. Issues between 1868 and 1923 are available online via Columbia Unversity’s Digital Collection. We struck gold in the May 28, 1870 issue where we found out that four tenements were projected at the northwest corner of East 2nd Street and First Avenue.
In looking at the stylistic similarities of 84 East 2nd Street, directly west of the two buildings, and 37 First Avenue, directly north of the two buildings, the case is even stronger that the above listing includes these buildings.
Safe to say that Nos. 33 and 35 First Avenue used to look like the No. 37 First Avenue. You may have noticed that the owner on the permit is different from that which is listed in tax assessment record and I’m afraid we don’t know the reason for that. Some mysteries, perhaps, will remain.