Wednesday, July 8, 2009

How to Research a Building Part 1

Blog writer Liana Grey charts her experience researching the history of lower Manhattan's everyday buildings.

Today, it's a seven-story apartment complex with a Subway, dry cleaners, and billiards hall on the ground floor - so nondescript you wouldn't give it a second glance. But from what I've pieced together from 19th century city directories and newspaper
articles, 46 Houston Street, on the billboard-cluttered border between Little Italy and the East Village, once housed a famous inventor's lab, an auditorium, a rowdy lodging house, and apartments possibly crowded with Jewish immigrants.

46 Houston's conversion into a luxury building (the rent for one bedrooms is about $4,500 a month) obscured its eclectic and at times seedy history.

The building took a while to locate. I had to circle the block a couple times and conduct a property search on the Department of Buildings website before I realized that 46 East Houston is now known as 298 Mulberry Street - and that a series of renovations and a 1962 demolition had all but buried its fascinating past.

Not exactly what I had in mind when I set out several weeks ago to research centuries-old buildings in the Lower East Side. After strolling through the neighborhood and picking buildings at random – the eye-catching orange-and-white-striped synagogue on Rivington Street, the ornate brown brick tenement on Orchard Street just north of Delancey – I headed over to the National Archives office on Varick Street, picturing myself sorting through files and poring over microfilm slides.

Once there, a staff member directed me to a computer, and I quickly learned that most genealogical records have been scanned into online databases and that few, if any, instantly reveal the history of single street addresses.

So I decided to scrap my list of buildings (at least for the moment) and work backwards, scouring historical data for mention of tenements, shops, or other physical structures. And, curious to see how far internet research could take me, I figured I'd stick primarily to online sources.

Left: the synagogue at 58 Rivington Street, now an apartment complex for artists, turns out to have a well-known and interesting history, and may be the topic of a future post. Right: the ornate tenement at 121 Orchard Street.

An online copy of an 1896 city directory - a sort of precursor to the phone book listing nearly 400,000 ordinary New Yorkers' occupations and home addresses - seemed like a good place to start. I browsed the book's 463 pages, crammed with ads for banks, umbrella companies, and storage facilities, for residences on the Lower East Side, and settled on 79 East Broadway, home of Joseph Mooney, a fireman.

A page from Trow's 1896 New York City Directory, courtesy of, a subscription-only database that can be accessed for free at the National Archives regional office.

When a Google search of the address failed to turn up much background on the building's occupants (A 55 year old resident was mentioned in a New York Times obituary in 1899, and another made it onto a list of Tammany Hall's Republican Party members, but that's about it) and a trip to the site, in a section of Chinatown once home to working class Jewish immigrants, revealed nothing historical - only a two-story shopping center under the Manhattan Bridge overpass that was probably built within the last few decades - I scratched 79 East Broadway off my list and headed back to the Archives.

I gave the city directory a rest and tried my luck with the 1910 4th Ward census, which covers parts of the Lower East Side - but no matter how many times I zoomed in on the digital copy of the document, I struggled to read the census taker's handwriting.

Finally, after about an hour browsing the web, I stumbled across the resource that would lead me to 46 Houston Street: a 1900 book of biographical data on New York's most prestigious bankers, merchants, lawyers, and scientists. By chance, I came across an entry on Serbia-born inventor Nikola Tesla, best known for his work with alternating current, radio, and wireless electricity:

In 1896, Tesla set up a laboratory on the top floor of 46 Houston Street following a fire that destroyed his workspace on West Broadway. His new lab nearly suffered the same misfortune four years later, according to a biography of the inventor, when part of the building caught ablaze: "The Jews on the lower floor [were] burned out...[and this] frightened me nearly to death," he wrote in a letter to friends. It seems, from this account, that at least part of the building was subdivided into apartments. Whether Jewish immigrants (or even first or second generation Americans) were the only tenants remains a mystery.

Fire wasn't the only disaster to strike Tesla and his neighbors. An 1888 earthquake that shook the area around 46 Houston Street, drawing police and ambulances, was supposedly caused by one of his experiments. (Tesla claims he invented a device that could cause tremors in the earth through the transmission of vibrations.)

An old photograph of Tesla's lab, retrieved from a Google image search

Curiously, the New York Times archive - which dates back to 1851 - doesn't mention Tesla's connection to the building. Its entries on 46 Houston Street include an 1888 report on a drunken brawl between a 60 year old man and a thug nicknamed "The Sparrow", which took place in a 10-cent lodging house known as "Scratch Hall," (its proprietor was arrested less than 10 years later for illegally disposing of alcohol), and an 1869 article on a political gathering held by former Union Army soldiers at Dramatic Hall, an auditorium located at the same address.

In a testament to some of the limits of online research, I've had difficulty digging up more information about Scratch Hall, the auditorium, and the building in general (when were the two halls established? What was on the top floor before Tesla converted it into a lab? How tall was the structure in the first place?) - and property records on the Department of Building's website don't mention when 46 Houston was first constructed. (I sifted through all the "actions," or records of alterations, on the building, and the earliest was a 1900 elevator report.)

A visit next week to the New York Public Library's local history collection will hopefully shed some more light on the building's past - including, perhaps, the appearance of its original facade.

To Be Continued.


  1. Liana,

    There is a great book put out by the Met called "Art and the Empire City: New York, 1825-1861" by Dell Upton. It has great old photos and renderings of New York City during that time. It may be helpful, if it doesn't have the exact information you are looking for, it does have some very interesting information and images. Well worth taking a look!

  2. I remember when the present building was under construction, and there was a hole in the ground. You could seem the remains of some unusual vaulting. I asked a few people about it and someone said Tesla's lab used to be there, but I never had confirmation. Thanks for posting this.

  3. Maybe they had a lot of stories regarding this building because its been a long time that this building was erected. So you can confirm it thruougn asking and surveys.


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