A Very Public Hearing: The Landmarks Preservation Commission Hears The Proposed East Village / Lower East Side Historic District
The hearing room was so packed an overflow crowd was relegated to an ante room. Around the room’s giant conference table, the Landmarks Preservation Commissioners sat attentive. For more than a year we had been waiting for this day – the Public Hearing for landmark designation of the Proposed East Village / Lower East Side Historic District, a district encompassing more than 300 historic buildings along Second Avenue south of St. Mark’s Place and the adjoining blocks.
LPC Research Department staff presented a well illustrated Powerpoint on the history and architecture of the district. Then, one by one, the public was called to testify, starting with representatives of the local elected officials – NYC Councilmember Rosie Mendez, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, NY State Senators Dan Squadron and Tom Duane, NY State Assemblymembers Deborah Glick and Brian Kavanagh, and Manhattan Community Board 3 represented by Carolyn Ratcliffe, all of whom enthusiastically supported the district. A wide gamut of community and historic preservation groups, including LESPI, also made impassioned pleas for landmark designation.
Testifying for LESPI, Richard Moses described the area’s “great local, city-wide and national importance for its central role in our culture's immigration, political, music, art and theater history” and “beautifully ornate 19th and early 20th century architecture.” He also noted that LESPI had gathered over 1,000 petition signatures for landmark designation, and called on LPC to expand the district to other intact areas of the historic Lower East Side, including around Tompkins Square Park, St. Mark’s Place and blocks to the north, the Bowery and Chinatown (for full testimony see www.LESPI-nyc.org and scroll to June 26, 2012). LESPI Board members Marie Beirne (photo, above), Philip Van Aver and Advisor Joyce Mendelsohn also provided compelling testimony in support.
Community residents young and old, recent arrivals and old-timers stood up to ask the Commission to protect their neighborhood’s historic streetscapes, which remain a primary attraction of this architecturally rich and fascinating neighborhood. There was also some impassioned opposition. Clerics and parishioners of two local churches testified against being included in the district – not against the district itself – as did a few local property owners who were concerned about LPC regulations’ potential effect on future building alterations. But most of the speakers spoke for landmarking the district.
LESPI Brunches at Veselka Bowery
Toasted pampushky, kielbasa, pierogis – these were some of the delicious Ukrainian foods LESPI members and friends enjoyed at our “On the Edge of the Proposed East Village / Lower East Side Historic District” benefit brunch July 29 at Veselka Bowery on East 1st Street. The East Village’s Ukrainiancommunity dates primarily from post-World War II and maintains a marked presence among the neighborhood’s institutions, businesses, and culture, and we were happy to be partaking in its traditions on that warm Sunday morning.
Conversations were lively and meandered topic to topic, but two pivotal preservation-related issues received a bit more of the spotlight:
We noted that the brunch’s title – “On the Edge of the Proposed EV / LES Historic District” - referred not only to Veselka Bowery’s location across the street from the proposed historic district, but referred to the point that we are potentially very, very close to having the district landmarked: so we talked about how best to push the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission to vote ASAP to landmark and ensure City Council support.
After the brunch ended, we exited Veselka Bowery into the bright sunshine, seemingly full, happy, and energized for the day and perhaps weeks ahead.
After LESPI, Bowery Alliance of Neighbors and other groups advocated for NYC landmark designation for these great buildings, they have now been designated Individual Landmarks by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission:
The Bowery Bank of New York Building: a great Beaux Arts style bank building, on Bowery and Grand Streets, designed by renowned architects York and Sawyer and constructed in 1901.
The Bowery Mission Building: built in 1876 in the neo-Grec style, the building received some very nice Tudor style alterations in 1909 when it was rehabilitated to house the Bowery Mission, which to this day continues to serve New York’s poorest residents.
This is great news! To read LESPI’s letters of support see HERE and scroll down.
Kleindeutschland and NYC’s Lower East Side – Now Online!
Wondering what or where is or was Kleindeutschland? Or what ever happened to this storied East Village / Lower East Side ethnic community? Did you know that, by 1855, New York City was the third largest “German” city in the world, after Berlin and Vienna, and by the 1870s roughly 30 % of New York’s population was made up of German immigrants and their American-born offspring? It’s true. And this population was all centered in the area of Manhattan’s Lower East Side now commonly called the East Village.
If you missed LESPI’s lecture, “Germany in America: Kleindeutschland and New York City’s Lower East Side” presented by Dr. Richard Haberstroh last February, take a look at Richard’s fascinating and well illustrated article now posted HERE and learn a lot about a subject that’s central to East Village / Lower East Side history.
Please donate to LESPI to help us in our work to preserve the historic East Village / Lower East Side! To donate, see HERE.
Or you can write a check to "FCNY/LESPI" and mail it to LESPI, c/o Neighborhood Preservation Center, 232 East 11th Street, New York, NY 10003. All donations are tax deductible as allowed by law.
We're looking for people to help with outreach, people with specialized skills and experience, monetary donations, and any other assistance that can help further our mission. We'd very much appreciate your help in our campaign to preserve the East Village / Lower East Side and hope to hear from you in the near future.
Stay in Touch!
Go to “Lower East Side Preservation Initiative”on Facebook and check out our site! If you click the “Like” button you’ll receive periodic preservation, history and architectural updates for the LES/EV. You’ll also be showing support for our cause!
LESPI is a grass roots, all-volunteer not-for-profit corporation in NY State formed in 2007 to urge the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate as historic districts intact portions of the East Village / Lower East Side. Our strategy includes documenting and mapping the historic streetscapes, starting with the East Village, and rallying community residents, city officials and the LPC to effect landmark designation. LESPI is a not-for-profit corporation in the State of New York. Our fiscal sponsor is Fund for the City of New York.
Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue: A Success Story in Landmarking
By Marcia Ikonomopoulos, Museum Director, Kehila Kedosha Janina
Fifteen years ago, in 1997, Kehila Kedosha Janina, a synagogue built by Jews from Greece in 1927 on the Lower East Side, was a dismal place to visit. The plaster was peeling off the walls, the tin ceiling tiles were showing 80 years of wear and tear, the skylight was covered in cardboard to hide the broken glass and the ceiling was continually leaking.
It was hard to get a minyan (quorum) for services and many thought that we should close our doors and go the way of so many other synagogues on the Lower East Side. We chose to stay open and small miracles began to happen. Thanks to the help of the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy and support from Community Board 3, we were proposed to New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission for Individual Landmarkstatus and approved in 2004. Once landmarked, we received a matching grant from the State of New York, enabling us to clean our façade and repair the roof and skylight. We were one of the recipients of the NY Landmarks Conservancy's Lucy B. Moses award for architectural preservation in 2004 and shortly afterwards began our interior restoration.
There is no doubt that we have been lucky, becoming the beneficiary of funds from a substantial estate that enabled us to restore our sanctuary and women’s section in the upper gallery, but it is very unlikely that this would have happened without landmark status. We will begin the final stage of our restoration (the downstairs communal room) this winter with funds received from another bequest.
Our success is not solely due to luck. Our commitment to stay open and preserve our unique synagogue (the only Romaniote synagogue in the Western Hemisphere) has moved many to help us. Our Museum created in the women’s gallery has drawn thousands annually to our synagogue. We no longer lament the lack of a minyan! Our community is alive and proud of what we have been able to accomplish.
Kehila Kedosha Janina is, also, proud to be a member of the Lower East Side Preservation Coalition and the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative. We firmly believe in the importance of preserving our past and in preserving the essence of neighborhoods that speak to that past. We succeeded and are more than willing to share our success story with others. We firmly believe that landmarking saved us. Without landmarking we might still be that dismal synagogue of 1997. Instead, we stand as a proud acclamation of what NYC Landmarking truly means.
Yiddish Theater District June 3 Walking Tour: Follow Up with Tour Leaders
In June LESPI sponsored a “Jewish Rialto” historic Yiddish Theater walking tour, led by Theater Historian Cezar Del Valle, along with former Yiddish Theater actor Herbert Latner and Preservation Architect Dan Allen of Cutsogeorge Tooman & Allen Architects. The tour started at the historic Sunshine Theater on East Houston Street and meandered up Second Avenue, past numerous still-extent and now vanished Yiddish Theaters, up to the Village East Cinema at East 11th Street, a very much intact Yiddish theater from the 1920s beautifully restored by Dan Allen’s firm.
We followed up with the tour leaders to get their further thoughts on the subject of the Yiddish Theater, which thrived in the Lower East Side between the 1880s and 1950s and once rivaled Broadway in popularity, and the need for historic preservation in the East Village / Lower East Side.
Cezar Del Valle – Tour Leader
LESPI: Initially what interested you in theater history, and more specifically the history of Yiddish theater in New York?
Del Valle: I would imagine my first interest in theatre dates from the 1950s and watching the various live dramatic programs with my mother. Also in many ways, early television was the last stand for vaudeville with the Jack Benny Show, Burns and Allen, and Milton Berle. My mother also exaggerated her (and her family’s) involvement with radio, burlesque and vaudeville in the 1920s. In the 1960s I became a professional artist who picked up extra money working in the theatre. Since 1996 I have conducted talks and walking tours of theatre history usually with an emphasis on popular entertainment from the 1890s through the 1950s. Not just Yiddish theatre. Dime museums, early movie shows, ethnic theatre, vaudeville, burlesque and off-off Broadway are part of the history of the Lower East Side.
LESPI: What can the history of Yiddish Theater tell us about our lives as New Yorkers and Americans?
Del Valle: The hopes, the challenges and aspirations of the Lower East Side are reflected on the stages of those theatres. The struggle to find a way in America, political and social turmoil -- all part of the Lower East Side stage. The types of plays often changing as the children of immigrants became more American.
LESPI: What is the most rewarding aspect of leading tours of the “Jewish Rialto?”
Del Valle: Meeting people who remember these theatres and are able to share those memories.
LESPI: Do you believe that teaching people about an area’s cultural history – in this case the Yiddish Theater District – makes them more appreciative of the physical evidence of that history?
Del Valle: Hard question to answer. I have found it difficult, at times, in convincing historical societies of the importance of the performing arts in the history of New York neighborhoods (outside of Times Square). Once at a dinner, I was introduced as an historian to a director of a museum (remaining nameless). She asked me my field of expertise. When I said theatre, she smiled and hurried off to find someone with something more serious to offer. This actually happened to me three times. Recently a few booklets have been published about the history of certain New York City neighborhoods without mentioning any form of local amusement. This gives the impression that people once worked hard, came home, sat down, ate dinner, relaxed, and reflected on how fortunate they were to be living in a future historical district.
Those who go on my walks and attend my talks are interested in the subject. They are curious about the city and its past. Hopefully they walk away at the end with a greater appreciation and understanding of the cultural history of a neighborhood. Actually I offer several different theatre walks of the Lower East Side but the Yiddish Rialto is the most popular and requested.
Herbert Latner – former Yiddish Theater child actor
LESPI: Please describe your earliest memories of your involvement in the Yiddish Theater? How did you feel at the time?
Latner: My earliest experiences in the Yiddish theater as a little boy were both fun and exciting. The fact that I had a nice voice and liked to sing plus my knowledge of Yiddish helped me get my first job--and I loved it. I must have done well during the next few years, since I continued getting other parts in different shows.
LESPI: How did your experiences as a child actor in Yiddish Theater influence your later life, particularly as a New Yorker and East Village / Lower East Side resident?
Latner: When I got too big for "little boy” parts, I kept working backstage as a "gopher" and also in the theater concession selling refreshments during intermission. As I grew older, I retained my love for theater and actors, by continuing to see as many shows as I could and kept abreast of what was going on. I was also a great lover of radio (and recordings), especially Yiddish radio which was very popular back then.
LESPI: When you walk around the East Village, do you still feel the presence of this history around you? In what way?
Latner: To this day, I am aware of the historic importance of our neighborhood, not only because of the creative background of the Yiddish theater, but also how it influenced Broadway and even Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley. For example, the Hebrew Actors Union was the first association (union) of actors in America and was a direct influence in the later formation of Actors Equity. In addition, some of the "uptown" or Broadway stars often came down to the 2nd Avenue theaters and to the Cafe Royal, which was the popular hangout of the stars of the time. Among the most famous was Paul Muni. As we stood together in our recent delightful tour outside the Cafe Royal location, it brought back some great memories, including the sidewalk of the stars, outside the former 2nd Avenue Deli.
LESPI: What are your thoughts on preserving the historic buildings and streetscapes of the East Village / Lower East Side? On preserving Second Avenue and the “Jewish Rialto” district?
Latner: Whatever can be done to preserve the great heritage of the Yiddish theater will be an important gift to history. One of the buildings still standing is the original Hebrew Actors Club at 31 East Seventh Street—which must be preserved - perhaps as a museum - before it is too late. To that end, unbelievably, there is still an organization, the Yiddish Actors and Friends Club (YAFAC), which still schedules periodic events (cabarets, meetings and dinners) in an attempt to perpetuate the "club." If you are interested to helping to preserve this last vestige of the culture, please contact me and I’ll fill you in.
Dan Allen – Preservation Architect
LESPI: Your firm, Cutsogeorge Tooman and Allen Architects, has been charged with the restoration of the Village East Cinema on Second Avenue and East 11th Street, which was originally opened as the Louis N. Jaffe Art Theater in 1926. How did you get involved in this project? Were there any surprises during the course of your work? Any particular challenges?
Allen: We were asked to bid on the work by the owners based, I believe, on a recommendation from the NY Landmarks Conservancy. [One] surprise was the structure of the building. Despite dating to the mid 1920's there are almost no vertical steel members, meaning the walls take the weight of the floors and roof. During our walking tour I talked about the building being a piece of theater in itself. All of the facade ornament was done in a cream colored cast stone. Despite this, the arches that run along Second Avenue are true full depth arches and had to be restored in place.
LESPI: The theater certainly looks beautiful now that the exterior has been restored - what have you found to be most rewarding about the project?
Allen: I think the most rewarding thing about completing this project is the restored appearance of the building. It really is a beloved building in the East Village and the reaction we got to the finished project from the community has been really gratifying. Also nice to see it still used as a theater albeit a cinema but still a showplace.
LESPI: In New York we enjoy a great variety of landmark historic districts. As a long-time New Yorker and preservationist, do you believe there is anything particularly special or significant about the architectural and cultural history of the East Village / Lower East Side? If so, what?
Allen: I spent part of my twenties at the Cooper Union where I studied art. The East Village means a great deal to me both as an alumnus and a New Yorker. I think both the architecture and the amazing cultural history of the East Village are absolutely significant and worthy of preservation. One of the things the tour brought home to me was that everything happened in the East Village and I mean everything from the Yiddish Theater to Visual Arts to the Beat Poets. It is a past too powerful to ignore.