Friday, July 22, 2011

Meet the Neighbors: Worship and Washing Up at 133 Allen Street

With the temperature approaching 100 degrees again today, Orchard Street is sweaty--and slightly smelly. At the Museum, the "Eau de Summer" helps us describe what life was like for immigrants living in tenements with no air conditioning or plumbing and overcrowded rooms and streets. It paints a vivid sensory picture.
In the era before air conditioning, deodorant and Febreeze, the scent of the city (and its residents) was even more intense when temperatures rose. Through charity organizations and subsequent government intervention, urban reformers promoted the construction of public bathhouses in the City’s tenement neighborhoods, as both a public health measure and an attempt to assimilate immigrant populations to middle-class American norms.

So we'd like to introduce you to one of our lesser-known neighbors, the [former] Municipal Bath House at 133 Allen Street. Opened on November 23, 1905, it was just one of fifteen similar establishements in New York City offering free bathing facilities to those who did not have access to such amenities—mostly immigrants.

Image Property of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Before public bathhouses, baths were hard to come by. Children could be bathed in sinks, but adults had to either pay a fee to use private, Russian, or Turkish baths, or make use of the Jewish mikvehs (bathing facilities for use in purification rituals) that dotted the Lower East Side. Between 1870 and 1888, the City erected 20 free floating baths over the Hudson and East rivers, but the water was heavily polluted and not suitable for bathing.

Patrons wait in line at the Milbank Memorial Baths, New York City, 1904

Reformers believed that the bath could help immigrants assimilate to “American” ways and free them of their uncivilized foreign habits. The Sun advertized the bath’s ability to “transform . . . some of these grimy Anarchists, and some of these Poles, Russians, and Italians into good Americans,” and asked, “how can we expect to make patriotic citizens out of individuals to whom so much of their native land still clings, unless methods are provided for ridding them of these foreign reminiscences?” (March 31, 1891).

York & Sawyer, the architects of the Municipal Bath House on Allen Street, as well as other public bathhouses, took this philosophy seriously. With large arched windows in the waiting room and glass skylights punctuating the roof, York & Sawyer bathhouses were designed to maximize sunlight—a rare building strategy in the slums—to help uplift the bather morally and hygienically.

With the advent of the New Tenement Laws, private bathrooms were included in tenement buildings. By the 1920s, the City’s bathhouses were sites of social recreation—described as “almost as much of a summer resort as Coney Island” (Bertram Reinitz, March 21, 1926).

The Municipal Bath House on Allen Street closed in 1975 due to the City’s financial crisis, but 133 Allen continues to serve immigrant communities. Today it is home to the Church of Grace to Fujianese, which is mostly attended by immigrants from the Fujian Province on the southeast coast of China.

The Church of Grace to Fujianese. Photograph by Robert K. Chin

Established in 1988, the Church of Grace to Fujianese moved to 133 Allen in 1992. As new waves of Fujianese have arrived, the Church has grown exponentially, opening a second location on 6th Avenue in New York, as well as one in Philadelphia. In an effort to reach an even broader constituency, the Church holds services via conference call for Chinese immigrants throughout the U.S. The program was the subject of a 2006 story in the New York Times.

Though its purpose has changed dramatically, the elaborate facade of 133 Allen Street remains intact, including water-themed ornamentation left over from its former life. The layers of history and evolving uses of this building make it a great example of why the Lower East Side is an amazing place to visit--there are surprising stories on every block!

--Posted by Kathryn Barnard


  1. "the City erected 20 free floating baths over the Hudson and East rivers"

    I am confused by this, were they tubs that were floating in the river, or platforms floating in the river that you could bath in the river from? Or were they boats that had bathhouses on them?


  2. The bath house closed in 1988, didn't it? (That's what you say on your tours....)

  3. Stephanie, according to Andrea Renner, author of “A Nation That Bathes Together, New York City’s Progressive Era Public Baths,” New York City erected “floating baths over the Hudson and East rivers that provided the poor with a place to swim during the hot summer months. Yet, filled with polluted river water, these baths were recreational rather than hygienic facilities. It was a common joke that river swimming required breaststroke to ‘push the garbage away.’” We found a helpful image online: and

  4. The Municipal Bath House on Allen Street closed to the public in 1975 and was boarded up by the City in 1988.


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