Why Isn’t This Landmarked?: the French Flats at 206-208 East 9th Street
Part of our blog series Why Isn’t This Landmarked?, where we look at buildings in our area we’re fighting to protect that are worthy of landmark designation, but somehow aren’t landmarked.
The East Village has many architectural gems. Today we look one truly outstanding building, the “French Flats” located 206-208 East Ninth Street, between Second Avenue and Stuyvesant Street. This five-story, forty-two foot-wide, eleven-family building was built in 1885-86 by James Thomson and designed by George Browne Post. Post was an immensely important architect whose surviving landmarked buildings include the Long Island (now Brooklyn) Historical Society (1878-81) in Brooklyn Heights and the Williamsburgh Savings Bank (1870-75) on Broadway and Driggs Avenue in 109 Williamsburg.
Yet to this day, neither this building nor most of their surroundings south of Union Square enjoy landmark protections, and thus could be demolished, altered, or otherwise compromised at any time.
The dark red brick of the building stands out even more these days in contrast to out-of-context office towers and the dorm nearby visible to the right in the photo above. As he did at the Long Island (Brooklyn) Historical Society, Post matched the color of his terra-cotta ornamentation and of his mortar to that of the brick. The façade is flowing with each floor having a row of six square-headed windows in arched frames, with delightful terra-cotta work adorning the spandrels.
From A History of the East Village and Its Architecture by Francis Morrone, available online here:
The building’s address in gold script over the front door is one of the loveliest details in the East Village. The building was part of a wave of French Flats built throughout the greater area of which this is the easternmost point. Architecturally, it belongs in the same discussion as such buildings as the Ava (1888) at 9 East Tenth Street (which falls within the Greenwich Village Historic District), and the Lancaster (1887) at 39-41 East Tenth Street (which lies right outside the District), though, surprisingly, it does not have landmark protection.
The term “French Flat” generally referred to multiple-family dwellings for the middle- and upper-middle class, and helped to distinguish such buildings from a tenement. Such a term was used to entice would-be residents who could afford living space nicer than a tenement but could no longer necessarily afford a single-family house in the parts of Manhattan they wanted to live in as these areas became increasingly densely built up and land prices increased. Initially, there was resistance by this segment of society to multi-family living. Some critics questioned the ability to maintain upstanding morals in such crowded and communal residential environments. However, as members of the wealthier class began to embrace high-end apartment living by moving into such buildings as the Stevens House (232 Fifth Avenue, 1870-72, Richard Morris Hunt), the Dakota (1 West 72nd Street, 1881, Henry J. Hardenbergh), and the Osborne (205 West 57th Street, 1883-85, James Ware), there was a gradual trickle-down of acceptance by the middle class as well. By 1880, the French Flat, catering to the middle class, was a fixture in New York City architecture and housing.
This is one of the few ‘French Flat’ apartments built in the East Village, since by the time French Flats were being built, most of the East Village was no longer the province of the middle or upper class, but of the working class and poor. It’s also one of the oldest extant French Flats in New York, and one of a shockingly small number of surviving buildings in New York by Post, who was once one of the city’s and the country’s most prominent and respected architects. This included the Equitable Life Building, the first office building designed to use elevators; the Western Union Telegraph Building, the first ten-story building; New York World Building, the tallest building in the world when constructed; the New York Cotton Exchange; the New York Produce Exchange; and Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Fifth Avenue Mansion.
Without New York City landmarks protections, there are no guarantees that 206-28 East 9th Street may not eventually join the long list of Post buildings which have been destroyed.
To support landmark designation of this area and protect its irreplaceable history and architecture, send a letter to city officials at www.gvshp.org/letter.
To learn more about the history of this unprotected area south of Union Square, go to www.gvshp.org/research.