Wednesday, July 29, 2009

How to Research a Building Part 2

Earlier this month, I set off to research the history of random buildings in lower Manhattan, and discovered that 46 East Houston Street, a luxury condo just north of Little Italy, once housed immigrant apartments, a rowdy hotel and theater (known respectively as Scratch Hall and Dramatic Hall), and inventor Nikola Tesla's lab. Two mysteries remained: what did the original building look like? And did the lab and two halls ever coexist?

I headed down to the Municipal Archives office on Chambers Street to search its collection of tax photos - snapshots taken during the Great Depression of every single New York City building - for an image of the structure's exterior.

46 Houston in the 1940s, courtesy of the Municipal Archives

The hardest part wasn't locating 46 Houston in a cabinet full of microfilm; the images are organized by numbers assigned to buildings for tax purposes. Rather, it was threading the film through a malfunctioning scanner and printing out a decent copy. (During one attempt to use the machine, the spool used to secure the film to the scanner broke off.)

Museum staff member Chris Neville pointed me to a resource he used back in his days as a historic preservation consultant: the New York Public Library's online collection of postcard-sized photos of streetscapes, which turned up a high-quality image of the original 46 Houston (also known as 300 Mulberry Street). I also found an 1868 illustration of the building, which apparently housed a police station at the time, infamous for handling criminals ranging from Boss Tweed to an Italian woman who murdered her lover.

A 1913 photograph and 1868 illustration, courtesy of the NY Public Library

A trip to the library's 5th Avenue branch helped me solve mystery number two. I typed Dramatic Hall into a database of 19th century newspapers, and the headline of a 1894 Daily Tribune article popped up: "Dramatic Hall Torn Down." On a microfilm scanner down the hall (luckily, nothing broke this time), I scrolled through the May 1st issue and found the article on the last page, in a section of paragraph-long news briefs about the openings and closings of various New York City businesses. I wasn't able to print a copy, so I retyped it here (look out for some rather amusing descriptions of the building, like "nightly abode of an army of tramps" and a "breeding ground for disease").
Workmen yesterday began to tear down the four story building on the north side of Houston Street midway between Mulberry and Mott Streets, which was a well-known place of amusement in war times when the next block in Houston Street was known as "murderer's row." The building was called "Dramatic Hall' for 20 years after the war, although it degenerated to a dance hall with a bar-room on the first floor, and regular theatrical performances disappeared from the place forever. Several years ago, it was turned into a cheap lodging house and became the nightly abode of an army of tramps, fairly earning the significant name of "Scratch Hall." It became such a breeding place for disease that the Health Board revoked its license. In late years it had been occupied as a furniture warehouse. A seven-story business structure is to be erected on the site of the old building.
Tesla moved his lab into the top floor new building in 1896 (it would be interesting to find out what businesses occupied the other floors) - and it wasn't until nearly a century later that it was replaced with a luxury building. I browsed an interactive map of Manhattan for more details on the current building's status. Constructed in 1986, it's 12 stories high, about 86,746 square feet, and owned by the development firm Columbia 298 Mulberry.

So what next? A friend requested that I look into her apartment building on Avenue B, an ornate red-brick tenement that looked identical back in the 1940's (it was built in 1900), save the laundromat now on the ground floor. What caught my eye in the Great Depression tax photo was the building next door: an elegant structure reminiscent of a synagogue. I couldn't recall seeing it last time I was in the neighborhood, so a friend and I took a stroll over to Alphabet City one afternoon to check it out. In the mystery building's place (or perhaps near it - there's an empty lot next to the tenement) sat a drab 6-story nursing home built in the 1980s.

60 Avenue B, today and in the 1940s, when it stood next to a stunning temple-like building, now an empty lot or perhaps replaced with the Cabrini Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation; it's hard to tell from the pictures.

Speaking of temples, my friend Madhavi told me, there's a Hindu one near 7th Street and Avenue B. She'd worshiped there a couple times, and was curious about its history. We headed up a couple blocks to 96 Avenue B, a rundown gray-brick building just steps from Tompkins Square Park.

A sari-clad woman with an Eastern European accent greeted us in the entryway of a two-room space cluttered with statues of deities, some strung with brightly colored garlands. In the back room, wood carving of religious scenes covered almost every inch of the walls. According to the temple's website, extensive renovations were conducted on the "simple East Village space" before it opened in 2003. ( It claims to be the first Hindu temple in New York City, but there are much older ones in Queens, like the 30-year-old Ganesha Temple in Flushing that recently underwent renovations.)

About a decade ago, 96 Avenue B housed a vintage clothing store, Metropolis, dubbed the city's "best and cheapest" by the New York Times. It was one of several outposts of hipster culture in the neighborhood, including a tattoo parlor and a leather goods shop.

For at least part of the 19th century, the building was a three story tenement with a "cloak and suit establishment" on the ground floor. The landlady, an elderly woman named Mrs. Louis Thielmann, was hosting her daughter and two young grandchildren in her top story apartment when a fire broke out, prompting a dramatic rescue by a fireman that happened to be across the street.

Once safely outside, according to an 1888 New York Times article describing the incident, both the landlady and her daughter bestowed kisses of gratitude on the fireman.

A two-story building at 96 Avenue B houses the
Radhe-Shyam Temple. During the Great Depression, it was a tenement house.

Coming up next: the history of a tenement on Second Avenue once home to a restaurant and a handful of interesting residents. And hopefully, some answers about the mystery building that once sat near my friend's apartment building on the corner of 5th Street and Avenue B.

-Liana Grey

1 comment:

  1. Wow, great post! This is really an excellent guide for information and resources to anyone who ever wanted to know NYC history and its little mysteries, Thank you!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.