Page 1

Seeing East 4th Street: Vernacular Architecture in New York City

East 4th Street, between Second Avenue and the Bowery, 2012 Courtesy of Bing Maps

Table of Contents An Invitation………………………………………………………………………………………. 3 Part I. The Grid………………………………………............................................................... 8 Part II. Row House………………………………………………………………………........... 15 Part III. Transformation…………………………………………………………………….... 24 Part IV. Purpose-built Tenements………………………………………………………... 29 Part V. Old Law Tenements………………………………………………………………….. 37 Part VI. New Law Tenements………………………………………………………………. 46 Part VII. Meeting Halls………………………………………………………………………… 51 Part VIII. Breaking the Grid…………………………………………………………………. 55 NYC Architectural History Detective How-To………………………………………... 69

“A building can help us see human behavior, see the mundane aspects of ordinary lives, and glimpse the craft and sense of beauty aimed at by ordinary people.� - Thomas Carter and Elizabeth Collins Cromley, Invitation to Vernacular Architecture: A Guide to the Study of Ordinary Buildings and Landscapes, 2005.

Vernacular architecture refers to everyday buildings constructed by or for ordinary people. Looking closely at vernacular architecture helps us understand more about the places where we live, and the people who have lived there.

East 4th Street, between Second Avenue and the Bowery, 2011 Photograph by Molly Garfinkel

Patterns are the consistently repeated forms, styles, and practices that reveal prevailing, accepted ideas and values about buildings. Patterns in the built environment help us interpret the stories that buildings have to tell. Buildings represent ideas and values, some restricted to a local elite, others widely held, pervasive, and indicative of mainstream society. Consistently repeated forms, styles, and practices in building show up as the patterns of behavior that typified life in a place at a given time.

Bird’s-eye view of New York, looking south from Union Square. This image looks toward the first area of Manhattan to be developed according to a predetermined grid plan. This exhibit uses East 4th Street, which is included in this view, to explore how the grid plan affected the lives of everyday citizens. New York, drawn from nature and on stone by C. Bachmann; lith. of Sarony & Major, N.Y. John Bachmann, c. 1849 Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

These tools can help us analyze patterns in vernacular architecture: Morphology:

Physical organization of the city


Dates of land development, and building construction or alteration


Geographic location in the city


Building dimensions, shapes and layouts


Classification of the building’s type based on shared characteristics (row house, purpose-built tenement, public hall)


Building design and decorative features


Building uses and re-uses


Construction materials and techniques

The analytical tools of vernacular architecture will help us unlock the secrets of East 4th Street between Second Avenue and the Bowery. This block was almost destroyed, but local residents, activists and planners fought to keep the historic residential and public buildings intact. Thanks to their efforts, the block’s legacy of hosting both families and businesses also continues.

East 4th Street between Second Avenue and the Bowery, 2012 GoogleMaps.

Part I. The Grid

The history of East 4th Street is the story of New York City’s development in miniature. This story is political, cultural and social, as well as architectural. It started with the city’s 1811 grid plan, and almost ended with 20th-century urban renewal plans to break the grid by tearing the block apart.

City of New-York northward to Fiftieth Street, detail Matthew Dripps, 1852 David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

New York City’s development began at the southern tip of Manhattan, where the island’s deep harbor fostered trade expansion. By the early 19th century, the area around the harbor was densely developed with mixed-use buildings that integrated commercial and domestic activities. Land within walking distance of the downtown business district soon became scare and expensive. It was also the hardest hit during outbreaks of diseases.

View of “South Street from Maiden Lane,” drawn and engraved by William J. Bennett, c.1828 Edward W. C. Arnold Collection, Museum of the City of New York; reprinted in John A. Kouwenhoven, The Columbia Historical Portrait of New York: An Essay in Graphic History (New York: Icon Editions, Harper & Row, Publishers, 1972)

At the turn of the 19th century, New York was already the largest city in North America. Predicting that the population would quadruple by mid-century, city leaders realized that they would need a master plan for organizing property development in the rapidly urbanizing settlement.

View of the corner of Wall and Water Streets, c. 1797 The Tontine Coffee House, Wall & Water Streets, about 1797/ W.M. Aikman, sculpt.; Francis Guy, pinxt. Library of Congress

The 1811 Commissioners’ Plan provided a map for New York City’s future growth. The Commissioners chose to lay perpendicular avenues and streets that formed a grid running north from Houston Street to 155th Street. City leaders suggested that the straight-sided, right-angled grid morphology would be a “convenient” tool for subdividing land and facilitating property development. Ultimately, the 25-foot by 100-foot lots established by the plan encouraged the speculation that fostered row house and then tenement construction.

A Map of the city of New York by the commissioners appointed by an act of the legislature passed April 3rd 1807. John Randel, Jr. 1811 Reprinted in I.N. Phelps Stokes, The Iconography of Manhattan Island 14981909, (New York, 1915-1928)

The Erie Canal opened in 1825, leading to a building boom. Developers bought land at the city’s periphery on the speculation that they could quickly rent or sell buildings to the most reliable and profitable market. At the time, they targeted the middle and upper classes.

A Map of the farm of Philip Minthorne decd. William C. Wetmore, 18--? Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society Maps Collection

In the 1820s, New York City hardly existed near the area that would later become the East Village. At the time, our block of East 4th Street was still undeveloped property belonging to the Philip Minthorne Farm. However, it was already bounded on the west by the Bowery – one of the city’s two major thoroughfares. Far from the crowded, unhealthy environs of the harbor, and very close to the southern end of the grid, it was an ideal context for building a middle-class residential neighborhood. Decades later it would be part of an infamous working class enclave. Map of the area later bounded by 8th Street, Avenue B, Houston Street, and Third Avenue, Manhattan, New York, N.Y. John Randel, Jr. c. 1820 Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society Maps Collection

Part II. Row House

Row houses were Manhattan’s earliest form of speculative residential development. They were often erected in groups, or even entire blocks. In 1831, Robert Hunter owned most of the still-vacant lots on the south side of East 4th Street, which was then called Albion Place. By 1832, lots began to appear with the names of different owners, and by 1833, Albion Place contained houses numbered 1 through 12. Some were purchased in pairs, and many of the owners also possessed the rear properties fronting on East Third Street, which may have contained stables.

City of New-York northward to Fiftieth Street, detail Matthew Dripps, 1852 David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

66-68 East Fourth Street was initially 6 and 7 Albion Place -- two separate Greek Revival row houses, each threeand-a-half stories above a raised basement. The houses were originally owned by Anson G. Phelps (grandfather of housing reformer I.N. Phelps Stokes) and Elisha Peck, two Connecticut-born merchants whose company, Phelps & Peck, exported southern cotton to England and imported metals to New York. In 1834 the merchants lived on East 4th Street, but they also owned other properties on and around the block, which were likely purchased as investments.

66-68 East 4th Street, circa 1875, when a full fourth story had already been added to each Courtesy Lower East Side History Project

In the 1830s, Albion Place was decidedly genteel. There the expanding merchant class asserted their rank by dwelling in two to three-and-a-half story row houses with raised basements. These houses were designed for single families and their servants. They featured flat roofs, rectangular lintels and sills that were almost flush with the faรงade, and entrance columns in the Greek Revival style. Carving fluted stone entrance columns, as at 85 East 4th Street, was labor-intensive and expensive. This temple-like form suggested that the wealthy owner lived in a grand temple.

85 East 4th Street, 2011 Photograph by Thomas Petersen

The Greek Revival style dominated American architecture in first half of the 19th century. Featuring grand entrances and classically-inspired ornamental details, the Greek Revival mode was adopted during a period of intense American nationalism, and was adapted to different building types because it connoted the ancient Greek roots of democracy. The Greek Revival was used on civic, commercial and religious architecture. On residential buildings it conveyed elegance and privilege, leading many well-to-do New Yorkers to construct Greek Revival row houses. Among the earliest and finest in New York are a row of impressive Greek Revival houses, built between 1831 and 1833, which you can still see on Washington Square North between University Place and Fifth Avenue.

Nos. 7 – 10 Washington Square North, (built 1832-1833), in 2012 Photo by Elis Shin

Despite its refined uptown context, Albion Place was often full of trash and sewage. As was common in Greek Revival row house construction, Nos. 6 and 7 originally featured stoops to elevate owners and visitors off of the dirty street so that they could access the house through first floor entrances. Servants’ entrances were located at street level or under stoops and provided access to basement work and preparation areas. This sequence and hierarchy of spaces and entrances is a form characteristic to New York City. Elevation of 8 Washington Square North (1833). This row house features elements characteristic of early 19th century row houses, including a entrance columns, a stoop and a servants entrance beneath the stoop. Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs

Higher stoops signified prestige and enabled first floor front rooms, like parlors, drawing rooms, and dining rooms to function as unsoiled entertaining space. Row house owners and their guests used these spaces, while servants circulated through adjacent service areas like halls and pantries.

First floor plan of 8 Washington Square North (1833), one of New York City’s earliest Greek Revival row houses. Public spaces were typically found on the first floors of early 19th century row houses. Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs

This section shows the the progression of increasingly private and, in this case, ornate spaces across the first floor of No. 8 Washington Square North. The wall paneling is slightly less elaborate in the front first floor drawing room (left) than that of the more exclusive rear drawing room (center). The formal dining room at the back of the first floor (right) features columns with Corinthian capitals, and would have been seen by invited guests. Private spaces like bedrooms were located upstairs, and servants worked in basement kitchens (note the dumbwaiter beneath the entrance to the dining room).

Section of No. 8 Washington Square North (1833) Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs

New York’s social dimensions could be read both internally in houses, and also geographically across the city. Phelps and Peck lived on Albion Place, but they conducted daily business from the context of the downtown port district, which still served as the city’s commercial hub. Indeed, their six-story warehouse on the corner of Cliff and Fulton Streets collapsed in 1832, and the partnership dissolved three years later when Phelps and his son-in-law formed Phelps, Dodge and Co., also located on Cliff Street. This firm was immensely successful, and Phelps eventually became a mining magnate and famed philanthropist. By his death in 1853, Phelps had moved farther uptown and away from the commercial district, first to East 13th Street and then to his final home, the Coster Mansion, on 31st Street near First Avenue.

Phelps & Peck’s collapsed warehouse on Cliff Street Printed in George P. Little, The Fireman’s Own Book (New York, 1860)

Part III. Transformation

As Phelps moved further uptown, the size of his singlefamily residences incrementally increased. But the Panic of 1837 depressed the city’s economy and temporarily burst the building bubble. Speculators and developers secured demand for housing by restricting supply. Rather than constructing new housing for low-income wage earners, whom they considered an “unproductive” market, landlords continued to earn profits by converting existing single-family row houses into multi-family residences.

1902 Inspection Card depicting the floor plan of 57 East 3rd Street. “P” indicates the parlor, “BR” indicates a bedroom, “K” indicates the kitchen and “DR” indicates a dining room. 57 East 3rd was built in or before 1839. An 1899 building alteration application indicates that no. 57 was a 3-story and basement dwelling house measuring 20 feet wide by 42 feet deep. That year it was raised from 3 to 4 stories and was extended to 70 feet deep. The application notes that it was “to be occupied by one family each floor.” Here the floor has been subdivided into smaller rooms than were commonly found in a single-family house. New York City Department of Housing, Preservation and Development

Between 1840 and 1859, over four million predominantly Irish, German and English immigrants arrived in New York City. Many stayed on, more than doubling the city’s population and transforming important aspects of local life, including the built environment. Between the 1850s and 1880s, the gentry moved to new uptown housing and away from the East Village, due, in part, to the influx of working-class immigrants. Emigrant-landing in New York. 1858. W. Hennessy. From Harper's Weekly. (New York : Harper' s Weekly Co., 1857-1916) Courtesy Mid-Manhattan Library Picture Collection, New York Public Library

Beginning in the 1840s, this block of East 4th Street was located at the northern reaches of Kleinedeutschland, or “Little Germany,� one of the many immigrant enclaves to develop in mid-19th century New York. Working-class immigrants often invested in real estate in developing neighborhoods like this one.

Serenade and reception to Herr Wachtel, by German musical societies of New York, at the Belvedere House, Irving Place and Fifteenth Street. 1875. The Belvedere House was located several blocks north of East 4th Street. Courtesy Mid-Manhattan Library Picture Collection, New York Public Library.

In Kleinedeutschland, as elsewhere in the East Village, older architecture was repurposed to make room for the new social groups. Single-household buildings were changed to multifamily dwellings through alterations that could involve adding floors, removing stoops, erecting rear tenements and building extensions. However, buildings became stressed as a result of housing these larger numbers of tenants.

The 1870 Federal Census identifies that 85 East 4th Street was turned into a boardinghouse

Part IV. Purpose-built Tenements

Soon speculators developed an even more reliable strategy for maximizing rents. They began replacing converted row houses with a new building typology – the purpose-built tenement. Early purpose-built tenements occupied a single lot, usually 25 feet wide and 100 feet deep. These measurements conformed to the 25-foot by 100-foot lots established by the 1811 Commissioner’s Plan. While the lots were adequate for single-family row houses, the narrow dimensions forced speculators to build the multi-family tenements up instead of out. That attitude toward development soon became characteristic of New York City’s architecture, and thus part of its vernacular.

Diagrams of typical purpose-built tenements constructed before the housing legislation of 1879 Printed in Richard Plunz. A History of Housing in New York City. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990)

Tenements often fell into disrepair because owners calculated that making improvements would not substantially increase their profit margins. In 1857, a state-appointed commission reported that tenements were being built too high and with weak walls and foundations. They also found that apartments were too small to offer proper ventilation, and hallways were too narrow to offer escape during a fire. Exploitative real estate investors and landlords often rationalized their negligence by blaming the victims’ “immoral” living conditions.

Tenement-house fire in Second Avenue, NY. 1868. Theodore R. Davis. From Harper's Weekly. (New York : Harper’s Weekly Co., 1857-1916) Courtesy Mid-Manhattan Library/ Picture Collection, the New York Public Library

In 1862, the New York State Legislature established the Department of Buildings and set minimum technology and safety standards by requiring solid party walls of brick, stone or iron, minimum wall thickness, metal cornices and iron fire escapes. The 1862 law established regulations for distances between windows and between buildings. Since the city had no mechanism for enforcement, the law was not always effective. In 1867, New York officially defined tenements as residences housing more than three independent families, each cooking separately. However, in reality, huge demand from poor and workingclass New Yorkers meant that tenement residences would house many more than three families. By the late 19th century, purpose-built tenements were characteristically five stories or five stories with a raised basement (although some rose to seven stories), often housing twenty-two or more families on a lot where only one family had previously lived.

Back to back tenements, showing small space between buildings Printed in Robert W. De Forest. The Tenement House Problem. (New York, 1903.)

Pre-law tenement units typically featured three rooms per apartment, (two of which were windowless), and minimal space, light and air. Communal toilets were located in the backyard. So many of these tenements were erected in the 1860s and 1870s that they became New York City’s late 19th century vernacular working-class dwelling.

1913 Improvement Card depicting the floor plan of 54 East 4th Street. “LR” indicates the living room, “BR” indicates a bedroom New York City Department of Housing, Preservation and Development

In 1878, architect F. W. Klemt built the sixstory tenement at 54 East 4th Street for owner Herman Bruns. The five upper floors each contained four apartments, and the basement had two rear apartments as well as two street-facing storefronts, a typical tenement feature. Owning mixed-use tenements was profitable because demand for housing was high, and the commercial spaces likely fetched Mr. Bruns even higher rents than the residential units above. Mr. Bruns’ building at 54 was erected in 1878 when tenements were still subject to only the most minimal construction regulation. Buildings often covered over 90% of the 100-foot lot, and there was minimal space between buildings. Sometimes tenements were improved with airshafts, but they were usually tiny.

54 East 4th Street, 2011 Photograph by Thomas Petersen

After the 1870s, huge numbers of destitute Italians and Eastern European Jews arrived in the Lower East Side, in an area that began to be known as the East Village in the 1960s. The increasingly crowded conditions hastened the deterioration of the building stock and drew public attention to the lack of construction, health and safety standards.

Feather –Bed Day. 1883. W.A. Rogers. From Harper's Magazine Courtesy Mid-Manhattan Library/ Picture Collection, the New York Public Library

Soon speculators seeking profits weren’t the only influence on the city’s vernacular housing. Intervention from citizen reformers and government agencies led to the Tenement Housing Act of 1879, also known today as the “old law,” through which the New York State Legislature first regulated tenements’ physical form. The law mandated that all rooms in newly constructed tenements must have windows, either facing a street, a rear yard or an interior shaft.

Part V. Old Law Tenements

The “old law” prompted the construction of improved tenements, many of which were based on an 1878 competition design by James E. Ware. His design provided airshafts on both sides of the building that, when combined with shaft of neighboring buildings, were meant to increase air circulation in the buildings. The airshafts produced the characteristic “dumbbell” layout.

1884 “dumbbell” plan for the David Korn Tenements, 198 Henry Street John B. Snook Architectural Collection, Department of Prints, Photographs and Architectural Collection, New-York Historical Society

The top image shows East 4th Street’s north side in 1897, when only 77 and 63 were developed with “old law” tenements. “Old law” tenements were also known as “dumbbell” tenements, because their form resembled hand weights. The map below shows many more of these tenements in 1899.

North side of East 4th Street in 1897, with only two “dumbbell” tenements. Atlas of the City of New York, Manhattan Island. From actual surveys and official plans, George W. and Walter S. Bromley, 1897 Courtesy of the Lionel and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library.

North side of East 4th Street in 1899 with many additional “dumbbell” tenements. Atlas of the City of New York, Manhattan Island. From actual surveys and official plans, George W. and Walter S. Bromley, 1899 Courtesy of the Lionel and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library

Newly constructed “dumbbell” tenements were not to have the windowless interior rooms that characterized many “prelaw” buildings. But these airshafts were usually too small to offer residents much light or air, and they often acted as flues, sucking fires from floor to floor, and as garbage dumps. The 1879 act also stipulated that tenements could only take up 65% of the lot, but this requirement was largely ignore. Dumbbell tenements usually covered 80% of a lot.

Typical light shaft Printed in Robert W. De Forest. The Tenement House Problem. (New York, 1903.)

The run of six-story “old law” tenements from 65 to 77 East 4th Street were constructed between 1892 and 1901. They represent a decade of intense development, when speculators tried to capitalize on the influx of Italian and Eastern European immigrants to the area. Each tenement was designed to accommodate two ground floor storefronts and twenty-two families. Although overseen by different architects, the tenements’ forms are all based on the same basic “dumbbell” plan.

Tenements on the north side of East 4th Street, 2011 Photograph by Thomas Petersen

These tenements’ facades are richly textured with bricks of different colors and hues, and they feature elaborate decoration. Most of the ornaments were made of mass produced terra cotta, a clay material made in molds. The heavily projecting pressed-metal cornices, with details like scroll brackets or dentil molding, were also readily available from suppliers and building yards. They are intricate, but were inexpensive to produce, and were likely chosen for their affordability rather than as reflections of the builders’ stylistic preferences.

Ornamental details on 71 East 4th Street, 2011 Photograph by Thomas Petersen

In 1900, there were sixtyseven people listed as living in the “dumbbell� tenement at 69 East 4th Street. Thirty-four of these individuals were eighteen years old or younger. All of the families in this building rented their apartments. Most residents were Jews from Russia and Poland, or their Americanborn children.

1900 Federal Census Schedule listing residents at 69 East 4th Street

Tenement apartments often doubled as factories. Already crowded rooms functioned as sweatshops where whole families, and possibly outside employees, produced or finished goods like clothing, cigars, artificial flowers, and bedding. In 1892 the State Legislature passed a law prohibiting tenement-based manufacturing, except in houses where workers were all family members. The intention was to protect consumers from catching workers’ contagious diseases. However, the law was largely sidestepped, and hundreds of home factories persisted for many decades.

Making hair-goods in the kitchen-living-room of H. Mowshowitz’s, a contractor, 178 E. 2nd Street, NY. This apartment is located around the corner from our block of East 4th Street. Photograph by Lewis Hine, 1912 Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, Library of Congress

The “old law” did little to improve tenement life, so reform groups put intense pressure on the New York State Legislature to address still-dangerous and unsanitary tenement conditions. In 1900, Governor Theodore Roosevelt created the Tenement House Commission to hear testimony and to make tenement inspections. The Commission was composed of experts from multiple disciplines, and included social reformer I.N. Phelps Stokes, grandson of Albion Place resident Anson Green Phelps. In February 1901, they issued a condemnatory report. Based on their findings, the Tenement Housing Act of 1901, known as the “new law,” was passed on April 12, 1901.

An interior bedroom. Totally dark – Picture taken by flash-light Printed in Robert W. De Forest. The Tenement House Problem. (New York, 1903.)

Part VI. New Law Tenements

The “new law� affected the form of both old and new tenements. For new construction, it created a minimum size for rooms and ventilating recesses like air and light shafts. It also dictated that all rooms have windows, and that each apartment have its own toilet. The law officially banned windowless inner bedrooms in older buildings, and required that their landlords improve lighting and add one toilet for every two families. However, the ban on windowless inner bedrooms was later retracted.

Diagram showing the distinction between old law and new law tenements typologies Printed in Richard Plunz. A History of Housing in New York City. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990)

In attempt to avoid the new law’s provisions, builders rushed to file plans with the Department of Buildings in early April 1901. Michael Bernstein, who created the designs for 69 and 71 East 4th Street in 1899, was the most prolific tenement architect in New York City. He is notorious for submitting fifty-three false plans before the new law went into effect.

Michael Bernstein’s 1899 plans for 69 East 4th Street New York City Department of Buildings

The “new law” decreased the percentage of a lot that a building could occupy, more or less halting the practice of building tenements on 25- foot-wide lots. In 1926, the six-story tenement at 63-65 Second Avenue was built on multiple lots. Constructed of brick with steel beams, it featured a power elevator and large light courts, and it accommodated two storefronts and forty apartments. Because it was built across several lots and surrounds the earlier building at 84 East 4th Street, it also features frontage on two streets and an ample, but irregular footprint.

Plans for the “new law” tenement at 63-65 Second Avenue Courtesy New York City Department of Records, Municipal Archives

63-65 Second Avenue differs from East 4th Street’s “old law” tenements in form as well as style. Its design conveys changed attitudes toward working class housing, as well as changed taste. Architect Charles B. Meyers rejected the cluttered vegetal motifs, and curving scrolls and garlands of East 4th Street’s “dumbbell” tenements, and instead designed a simple façade enlivened by incised brick with sections laid in abstract geometric patterns like diamonds or pinwheels. The new aesthetic suggested that this building was modern and functional.

63-65 Second Avenue, East 4th Street façade, 2011 Photograph by Molly Garfinkel

Part VII. Meeting Halls

Large public halls are often mixed in among New York’s tenement rows. They are another late 19th century vernacular building typology. These halls-for-hire offered large lecture spaces and ballrooms that working- class groups rented for union meetings, political rallies, weddings and other social gatherings. Gathering space was in demand, and tenements were too small to host crowds. These halls helped to foster political, social and cultural life in the Lower East Side’s immigrant and working class communities. Some of the first halls were adapted from earlier structures, but as immigrants did better, they constructed their own purpose-built gathering spaces. Row of public halls-for-hire on the south side of East 4th Street, circa 1939 New York City Department of Taxes

The public halls are a reminder of immigrants’ contributions to New York City culture. Discrimination prevented many foreigners from joining or using other clubs, so ethnic meeting halls helped preserve immigrants’ traditions. In 1873, the Aschenbrodel Verein, a leading German orchestral benevolent society, constructed a fourstory, purpose-built headquarters at 74 East 4th Street. In 1892, the Gesangverein Schillerbund musical society bought the building, adding the busts that we see today. The La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club (ETC), a pioneering OffOff Broadway company, has occupied the building since 1969.

74 East 4th Street, 2011 Photograph by Thomas Petersen

In 1871, the New York Turnverein, a prominent German-American social organization, created its headquarters at 6668 East Fourth Street by combining the entrances of Phelps’ and Peck’s former row houses and “raising” the buildings from three-and-a-half to four stories. Evidence of the alteration is visible below the top windowsills, where the façade’s brickwork changes from “Flemish” to “Running” bond. Among other large spaces, their Turn Halle contained a grand theater. In 1882, Turn Halle hosted the United States’ first-ever Yiddish Theater performance. The Turnverein moved out of Turn Halle in 1898, and the building became the Manhattan Lyceum, a theater-for-hire that hosted working class groups, immigrants and political activists, including Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman. Featuring a spacious auditorium and the La Mama archives, this building has served as the La MaMa ETC Annex since 1974. Evidence of the Turnverein’s decision to add a story to their headquarters can be seen in the transition from “Flemish” bond on the lower part of the façade to “Running” bond” on the top story of the façade. Photograph by Thomas Petersen, 2011

Part VIII. Breaking the Grid

By the mid-20th century, urbanists thought that urban grids like New York’s 1811 Commissioner’s Plan created unhealthy living conditions. Across the United States, slum clearance programs before and after World War II resulted in the bulldozing of tenements and other historic architectural fabric in favor of modern buildings and infrastructure. The US Housing Act of 1937 contributed federal assistance to local public housing agencies to improve living conditions for low-income families. The US Housing Act of 1949 labeled tenement districts as “slums,” and provided federal funding to cities replacing such districts with new forms of development.

Posters promoting slum clearance sponsored by the New York City Housing Authority, 1936 Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, Library of Congress

Robert Moses served as Chairman of New York City’s Committee on Slum Clearance from 1949 to 1960. He led the nation’s largest such program, which almost destroyed East 4th Street’s buildings and communities as well as the street life that renders the East Village a habitable and desirable urban environment.

Robert Moses Print Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photograph, the New York Public Library

In 1959, New York City’s Slum Clearance Committee proposed an urban renewal plan for an area that included East 4th Street. The new Cooper Square Urban Renewal Area would extend from Delancey Street to East 9th Street, and Bowery to Second Avenue. The plan would have demolished the row houses, tenements and meeting halls on East 4th Street to make room for new housing. Although the new co-op development would have accommodated moderate-income New Yorkers such as garment union members, it would have displaced 2,400 lower-income tenants and over 500 businesses already in the area— most who neither wanted nor could afford to relocate.

The Slum Clearance Committee’s plan for Cooper Square, c. 1959

The analytical tools of vernacular architecture can also be applied to urban renewal developments like the one proposed for the Cooper Square Renewal Area. One such project that came to fruition was the Jacob Riis Houses, which opened in 1949. Built, owned, and managed by the New York City Housing Authority it extends across 17.67 acres from East 6th to East 13th Streets, between Avenue D and Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive. The Riis Houses represent a radically new morphology that emerged in response to 20th century concerns about the grid.

After World War II, the New York City Housing Authority cleared scores of city blocks for urban renewal projects like the Jacob Riis Houses. NYCHA hired James MacKenzie, Sidney Strauss, and Walker & Gillette to design this public housing project, which opened in 1949. Bing Maps, 2012

The Riis Houses’ 19 freestanding apartment towers, which rise between 6 and 14 stories, were erected on “superblocks” that were not constrained by the city’s traditional grid plan. One goal was to increase open space; and other was to deliver light and air to each room in each apartment. Urban renewal development came to be associated with the “tower-inthe-park” typology that we see at the Riis Houses.

Jacob Riis Houses, Building 13. Floor plan and site plan (far right) from a 1962 alteration application New York City Department of Buildings

The Riis Houses utilize different construction technology from that of earlier row houses and tenements. In row houses and tenements, brick or other masonry materials perform double duty as both structure and exterior cladding. The Riis Houses’ towers are supported by steel frames that are structurally separate from the brick that encloses the buildings. In terms of style, urban renewal development often lacks the decorative ornamentation that was characteristic of earlier building typologies. Federal funding also mandated that urban renewal developments like the Riis Houses could only have one function - housing.

Jacob Riis Houses, detail, 2012 Photograph by Elis Shin

Opposition to urban renewal was common in cities and towns across the nation. But in the East Village, where there has long been vibrant political life and public engagement, Moses met with extraordinary resistance. In March 1959, local activists and residents formed the Cooper Square Committee (CSC) to save residents of the renewal area, including those on East 4th Street, from displacement and higher rents.

Walter Thabit, early 1960’s

The CSC included professional urban planners like Walter Thabit, activists like Frances Goldin, settlement house director Thelma Burdick, and local business owners and residents from a range of ethnic and economic backgrounds.

Urbanist Charles Abrams (left) and Thelma Burdick, 1961

Frances Goldin, early 1960s All images courtesy of Frances Goldin

In February 1970, after a decades-long struggle, the CSC managed to get city government to approve an alternate development plan that the CSC had created for the Cooper Square urban renewal area. This “Alternate Plan� put forth a vision of development that would improve living conditions for the current residents. Although the city adopted a modified version, the plan still included provisions that minimized displacement, and gave site tenants first priority for newly developed housing. East 4th Street’s vernacular residential and public buildings were saved, and several thousand people, including families, elderly individuals, artists and business owners, were able to remain in the area.

An Alternate Plan for Cooper Square, 1961, page 43

The CSC’s impact was powerful at both the local and municipal levels. The rehabilitation of the tenements improved the neighborhood while keeping it racially integrated, and fostered partnerships between citizens and planners, thereby helping to lay the groundwork for community-based planning. But it took the CSC nearly 30 years to implement the Alternate Plan and to achieve many of its renewal goals.

Cooper Square Committee protest, circa 1975 Photograph by Alex Harsley

As of 2012, the CSC and its Mutual Housing Association have rehabilitated and continue to operate hundreds of low-and moderate- income apartments and commercial spaces in the Cooper Square Urban Renewal Area, including many of the tenement buildings along East 4th Street that have housed so many generations of New Yorkers. They also still teach area tenants how to protect their rights. Cooper Square Committee meeting, mid-1980s Photograph by Alex Harsley

In 2000, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s administration decided to sell the remaining city-owned buildings on East 4th Street. A consortium of 13 local non-profit cultural and community groups, including the CSC, banded together as The Fourth Arts Block (FAB) to create a plan for these last city-owned structures. In 2001 FAB succeeded in establishing the East Fourth Street Cultural District on the block, and in 2004 they negotiated the sale of eight East 4th Street properties, including two vacant buildings and an empty lot.

Fourth Arts Block ribbon cutting Courtesy of Fourth Arts Block (FAB)

FAB’s members purchased the eight properties from the City for $1 each. The City contributed $4.1 million towards renovations with the understanding that FAB members would pay for the remainder. In 2007 FAB and its members secured more than $16 million to renovate the buildings, which are protected for non-profit use in perpetuity. East Fourth Street Cultural District is the only cultural district in Manhattan, and one of two in New York City. In 2012, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission approved the East Village/Lower East Side Historic District, which includes almost all of the buildings on this block of East 4th Street.

New York City’s built environment is a three-dimensional timeline of aspiration, but the stories engrained in the fabric are not always immediately visible to the untrained eye. The tools of vernacular architecture can help reveal a great deal about our history, both the ordinary and extraordinary. Buildings have lives; they tell stories. We just have to listen‌

You can use the tools of vernacular architecture to be a history detective! We have used this block of East 4th Street as a lens to read how the built environment has changed over time. You can use the tools of vernacular architecture to explore other places, too. Here are some resources that you can use to research vernacular architecture in New York City. Many thanks to Columbia University Professor Andrew Dolkart for compiling the following indispensible information.

New York City Department of Buildings (DOB) – Manhattan office. 280 Broadway between Reade and Chambers Streets, Third Floor: All properties in New York City are organized by tax block and lot. The block and lot is the number under which most official records are filed. You can find the block and lot number for any address in New York City in the DOB’s Building Information System (BIS). For addresses in Manhattan, you can file a request with the DOB’s Manhattan Record Room to access records contained in block and lot folders. The DOB has kept records since April 1866, and the block and lot information will be available on microfiche. In the best scenarios, microfiche bundles can contain new building forms, which provide information like the names of the architect and developer, a building’s beginning date of construction and materials. Alteration forms can tell you about how a building has been changed over time. Block and lot folders might also contain forms that tell you about plumbing, elevators, electric lights and signs, and more! You can view the block/lot microfiches on the two machines at the DOB, or at Printfacility Inc., located four blocks south of the DOB on the third floor of 225 Broadway, where you can also pay to print from the microfiches.

New York City procession passing Stuart’s Marble Palace, 1851. From Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing-room Companion The New York City Department of Buildings is located in the Sun Building, originally the A.T. Stewart Store. Designed by Trench & Snook, and constructed in 1846, this was New York City’s first department store. The City of New York acquired the title to the building in 1970. Courtesy New York Public Library Mid-Manhattan Picture Collection.

New York City Department of Records – Municipal Archives, Surrogate’s Court/Hall of Records, 31 Chambers Street, Room 103: Building Department Records: All of the original Building Department forms for buildings on Manhattan blocks 1 through 96, the southern part of the island up to 39th Street, are available in hard copy at the Municipal Archives. If you would like to access one or more block and lot folders you must order them ahead of time, by phone or in person. You much place your request (you must provide the block and lot numbers) by Wednesday, and the folders will be available late Friday morning. The Municipal Archives are open from 9am to 4:30pm, Monday through Thursday, but they close at 1pm on Friday. Tax Records: Tax records are useful for dating buildings that predate the DOB. Beginning in the 1890s, tax records were arranged by block and lot. Before that they were arranged by street, within each ward. Within the streets they were arranged by ward lot number. To use the tax records, you will need to find the ward number (a ward was a political subdivision, akin to today’s community boards). There is a ward map at the desk and there is also a ward map in the Encyclopedia of New York City, edited by Kenneth T Jackson, which you can access at the New York Public Library. Be aware that ward numbers changed occasionally, especially as large wards were split– note the date of changes on the ward map. The tax records are on microfilm. Tax records for all boroughs are available here, but some will need to be ordered because they are stored off site.

Surrogate’s Court building at 31 Chambers Street (John R. Thomas , 1899 – 1907), in 2012 Photograph by Molly Garfinkel

Tax Photos: Between 1939 and 1941, the Department of Finance hired photographers to document every building in all five boroughs for property tax appraisal purposes. 1939-1941 tax photos are available on microfilm. To find a building’s photo, you will need the block and lot number. Go to the microfilm drawer next to the main desk and look at the index reel for the borough of the building that you are researching. Locate the block and lot. The index reel indicates that the tax photograph for your block and lot is located on a file that will look something like “D-944.” Go back the file cabinet and find the reel that contains the correct borough and file, in this case the reel would be labels “NYC/DORIS D-930-946.” You can read the microfilms on machines in the Municipal Archives. You can also print the images on regular printer paper from several of these machines. Higher quality prints can be ordered by completing a Tax Photo Order form. Municipal Archives Online Gallery: In early 2012, the Municipal Archives made over 870,000 archival images from their collection available online. This is collection includes tax photos from 1939-1941, as well as a second set of tax photos of all lots in all five boroughs, which were taken between 1983 and 1988. It also includes images from Borough Presidents’ Photograph Collections, which were taken between the 1920s and the 1950s, and which are organized by category, including aerial photographs, airplanes, buildings, buses, civilian defense, parades, parks/playgrounds, railroads, and more!

Municipal Archives Online Gallery

New York Public Library, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building -Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, Fifth Avenue at Forty-Second Street, Room 117 Old land atlases, published by Perris, Bromley, Robinson, Beers, Sanborn and others, are invaluable for tracing information on neighborhood development and on the history of a particular site. These atlases were published every few years and show what was standing at a particular time, materials used in construction, where old farm lines were, names of buildings, etc. Be sure to refer to the key in the front of each volume- this will help in understanding what all of the map symbols and colors mean. Hard copies of many land atlases are available in the New York Public Library’s Schwarzman Building Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division - a fantastically beautiful space for investigating places around New York City! You can also access many of the land atlases, maps and other images from the New York Public Library’s vast online digital image Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, New York Public Library, gallery, (Carrère and Hastings, 1911), in 2012 Photograph by Molly Garfinkel .

You will likely need to go to the library to search through census records for your building. The library has a subscription to, which is only available to researchers working on site at the library, and they also have census records available on microfilm. The U.S. Census is taken every ten years, but they are not made available to the public until 72 years after they were recorded. Thus, the census records are now available through 1940. Unfortunately, the entire 1890 census for New York City was lost in a fire. Federal census records are available on, but first you will need to find the enumeration district for the address you are researching. is a great resource for figuring out which enumeration district your address was in when the censuses were recorded, but like wards, enumeration districts changed frequently, as did street names. To locate the correct enumeration district, it is helpful to know the street name changes for your street, as well as both cross streets. For this reason, it is very helpful to review land atlases prior to conducting census research. Once you have determined your address’ enumeration district for specific dates, you can look for the census records for that district in This can be time consuming, particularly as enumerators’ penmanship varied. Because the census can be difficult to read, and because the information collected in each census year changed over time, it may be helpful to look up the categories for the years you are investigating ahead of time. However, once you find the address that you are seeking, a whole world will open before your eyes! It is worth the hunt!

Sources and Credits Read more about vernacular architecture studies: Carter, Thomas and Elizabeth Collins Cromley. Invitation to Vernacular Architecture: A Guide to the Study of Ordinary Buildings and Landscapes. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2005. Read more about New York City development history: Blackmar, Elizabeth. Manhattan For Rent 1795-1850. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989. De Forest, Robert W. and Lawrence Veiller. The Tenement House Problem. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1903. Dolkart, Andrew S. Biography of a Tenement House in New York City: An Architectural History of 97 Orchard Street. Santa Fe: The Center for American Places, 2006. Ford, James, et al. Slums and Housing. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1936. Plunz, Richard. A History of Housing in New York City. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990. Stokes, I.N. Phelps. The Iconography of Manhattan Island 1498-1909. New York: Robert H. Dodds, 1915-1928. Read more about Kleinedeutschland: Nadel, Stanley. Little Germany: Ethnicity, Religion, and Class in New York City, 1845-80. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990. Read more about the Cooper Square Committee: Reaven, Marci. “Citizen Participation in City Planning, New York City, 1945-1975.� Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 2009.

This exhibit was researched and written by Molly Garfinkel in consultation with Dr. Mary Beth Betts, Landmarks Preservation Commission; Professor Andrew Dolkart, Columbia University; Professor Marta Gutman, City College of New York; Dr. Marci Reaven, New-York Historical Society; Zach Rice, Li-Saltzman Architects. Many thanks to the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) for research and photographs; Chad Shores for contributing research; Thomas Petersen for photographs and video; Elis Shin for photographs, Francis Goldin for providing fantastic images of the Cooper Square Committee, and Fourth Arts Block (FAB) and the Lower East Side History Project for photographs. Sincerest thanks to Lucille Carrasquero, Cooper Square Committee; Tamara Greenfield, Executive Director of Fourth Arts Block; Alex Harsely, East Fourth Street Photo Gallery and Valerio Orselli, Executive Director of Cooper Square Committee’s Mutual Housing Association and Denis Woychuk, Kraine Gallery Bar, for allowing us to interview them and for contributing their time and insights on East 4th Street. Thank you also to Tom Carter for encouraging us to pursue this project. This virtual tour was made possible by the Vernacular Architecture Forum, with support from the EHA Foundation.

Seeing East 4th Street: Vernacular Architecture in New York City  

"Vernacular architecture" refers to everyday buildings constructed by or for ordinary people. Looking closely at vernacular architecture h...

Read more
Read more
Similar to
Popular now
Just for you