A blog about architectural tiles, terra cotta and other ceramic surfaces, architectural glass and ornamentation in and around New York.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Mikvah Under 5 Allen Street and "Historic Hall" Apartments Revisited

The 5 Allen Street property in 2007. (http://maps.google.com)

In the late 19th/early 20th century many people on the Lower East Side (and poorer people in most places) did not have indoor plumbing. Women, mainly, carried water from the street to their tenement apartments where the water was heated as needed or used as is. Bathtubs were not as common as they are now, and public and private bathhouses for both sexes were used for bathing. One of these privately owned bathhouses was at 5 Allen Street in Manhattan.
5 Allen Street (second--shorter--building on the other side of the Elevated tracks), Identifier:  bpm_0637-a, Municipal Archives photo, 1924, (cropped). (http://nycma.lunaimaging.com/luna/servlet/view/search?fullTextSearch=fullTextSearch&q=Allen%20Street,%20Manhattan&os=100)
This bathhouse was first opened in 1887 and was around the corner from the Eldridge Street Synagogue, the first synagogue built by orthodox Eastern European Jews in the country. (The Eldridge Street Synagogue was built in 1886-87 as a house of worship for K'hal Adath Jeshurun, a congregation of immigrants from Russia, Roumania and Poland. The congregation, founded in the 1850's, was the first Eastern European Orthodox Jewish congregation in America, and its members had worshipped -- as had thousands of New York Jews -- in tenements, storefronts and former churches vacated by earlier settlers on the Lower East Side.) (http://www.nyc-architecture.com/LES/LES010.htm)
In 2001, during an urban archaeology project co-sponsored by the Synagogue and NYU, Dr. Celia Bergoffen, an urban archaeologist, discovered a tiled pool and smaller tiled mikvah, an Orthodox Jewish ritual bath, in the empty lot that had been 5 Allen Street and which was, in 2001, owned by the Synagogue and was being restored.
The excavated mikvah in 2001. Photo courtesy of Michael Padwee
The New York Times reported that “ Its discovery last month behind the landmark Eldridge Street Synagogue casts new light on the day-to-day existence of Eastern European Jews on the Lower East Side at the turn of the last century. It suggests that the practice of ritual immersion may have been more widespread than previously believed. If an otherwise common four-story tenement could have a mikvah in its basement, how many more might there be underfoot?” (David W. Dunlap, “Manhattan Journal; Tale of Past Jewish Life, Told in Tile”, The New York Times, November 4, 2001, http://www.nytimes.com/2001/11/04/ nyregion/manhattan-journal-tale-of-past-jewish-life-told-in-tile.html“Bergoffen said it was not unusual for bathhouses, central to Lower East Side life before apartment bathrooms were common, also to have a mikveh. She said the 10th Street baths[, for instance,] served as a Russian bathhouse beginning in the 1890s. Moreover, she added, it contained a pool that was once a kosher mikveh designed for more than one person at a time.” (Norman Eisenberg, “Mikveh Unearthed in New York”, The Jewish Federations of North America, undated, http://www.jewishfederations.org/page.aspx?id=26969)

[The mikvah and tiled pool were unearthed]...with a Caterpillar 320 hydraulic excavator...operated by Peter Mikes.  On Oct. 16, Mr. Mikes opened a trench. About three feet down, a line of white tile appeared, 20 feet long. This turned out to be a six-foot-deep swimming pool, lined with multicolored tiles in eye-popping hexagons. Two days later, Mr. Mikes opened another trench to reveal a line of round-edged tile. '’It was a small, mikvah-sized pool,' Dr. Bergoffen said, so small it could not be excavated with...the Cat 320. She and a graduate student, Dubravko Lazo, had to finish the work with shovels. The small pool turned out to be five feet deep, ideal for immersion, as required by Jewish law. Nearby was a smaller concrete pool, connected by a short length of pipe, which would have served as the cistern for the rainwater.” (Dunlap article)  “Bergoffen said the style of the tiles suggested that the pool had been built between 1900 and 1920.” (Eisenberg article)

“...Dr. Bergoffen learned that the first proprietor of the Allen Russian Baths [at 5 Allen Street], which opened the same year as the synagogue, was Isaac Natelson, a member of the Eldridge Street congregation.” (Dunlap article) Amy Stein-Milford, a member of the Eldridge Street Synagogue congregation used genealogical research methods to learn about Isaac Natelson and his wife, Gittel (Americanized to “Julia”). “ I learned that Gittel was a Jewish immigrant living on the Lower East Side in the 1880’s. She owned a mikveh (Jewish ritual bath) close to the synagogue. I also did a quick search online… . By doing this, I was able to learn about Gittel buying property at 5 Allen Street, just around the corner from the Eldridge Street Synagogue. This site included the mikvah as well as facilities for ordinary bathing. ...I also learned that Gittel’s husband Isaac was involved in the bathing house business, and owned other rental properties in the neighborhood.” (Amy Stein-Milford, “Researching Mikvah Operator Gittel Natelson”, February 9, 2011, http://www.eldridgestreet.org/blog/2011/02/researching-gittel-natelson/)

I became briefly involved in this urban archaeology project when Susan Tunick, the president of Friends of Terra Cotta and a member of the Eldridge Street Project Board, and I volunteered to try to identify the companies that manufactured the tiles and glazed white bricks in the pool and mikvah. We visited the mikvah site in late November 2001--the pool had been re-covered with three feet of earth as protection against the weather--and we collected and photographed tiles and bricks.
Some of the tiles and tile fragments in the Synagogue office
When we were at the archaeological site “...we noted a course of 6” square blue tiles under the 3” x 6” white wall tiles just above the level of the Mikvah.  These tiles could not be examined, however, as there were no loose examples.  The mikvah, itself, was lined with ceramicized bricks that were heavily glazed in white, one of which we found partially buried a few feet away.  The 20’ pool had been temporarily reburied under about 3’ of earth. According to some photos we saw of the pool, it was lined with colored hexagonal tiles that were different from the colored floor tile fragments we had seen in the Synagogue [see photo above].  These would be inaccessible until the pool…[was] uncovered… [in 2002]. 

"The mikvah and the cistern next to it, which was originally filled with rainwater collected on the roof of the bathhouse and delivered to the cistern via pipes, seemed to have been located in the basement of the bathhouse.  The ceramicized bricks that lined the Mikvah were marked in two lines, 'Sayre & Fisher Co/Sayreville, NJ'. 

"The Sayre & Fisher Brick Company was founded in 1850 in Woods Landing, NJ by James Sayre of Newark, NJ and Peter Fisher of New York City.  (The town name was later changed to Sayreville). Sayre & Fisher expanded until it became one of the largest NJ brickmakers.  The plant closed in the 1960s.
Drawing of the American Encaustic Tile Company reverse
"At the time we were examining the mikvah, the Sayreville, NJ Historical Society Museum was holding an exhibit of the Sayre & Fisher Brick Company.  A letter and calls to the museum, however, went unanswered. [At that time I was hoping to date the construction of the mikvah by using any surviving Sayre & Fisher records in the possession of the Sayreville Historical Society. Another request to the Historical Society in 2012 also went unansered.]

"While digging at the site, we found a small fragment of a 3” x 6” white wall tile that was marked “AETCO” in raised letters. [The image above illustrates]...the full back of a white wall tile.  The raised markings (AETCO, 1/24 and 69) and ink stamped marks are on a partially raised bar between two bars that were raised higher than the central bar.  All three bars inclined down to the back of the tile, and the outer edges of the upper and lower bars also inclined down to the back of the tile.  It was thought that these wall tiles possibly date from a post-1900 remodeling of the baths.  It might help to date the mikvah if we could obtain a blue wall tile. 

"[The drawing above illustrates]...the back of the 3" x 6" white wall tile with the swag decoration.  This tile back had four slightly recessed partial bars and a slightly recessed central square.  The numeral markings are ink-stamped.  Images of the back and front of this tile were emailed to English tile historian Hans von Lemmen, who thought the tile might be of German origin.  Hans searched through his files of tile backs and decorative elements on tiles, but no close match was found.  The identification of this tile still remains a mystery.

"Susan [Tunick] also took some examples of the colored tiles [collected previously by Celia Bergoffen], which were in situ.  Susan was going to try to release the tiles from their matrix and clean them by “firing” them--a process which will clean tiles, but also changes them physically.  Once the tiles are released and cleaned, any markings or key patterns can be seen.  (Susan warns, however, that this process should only be used on tiles that can be spared.  The tiles that were fired by Susan did not show any makers’ marks).” ( Michael Padwee, “Tile Back Views” column in Flash Point, Newsletter of the Tile Heritage Foundation, Jan. 2002-June 2003, Vol. 15, Nos. 1 and 2, p. 10.)

I had not thought about the mikvah and pool for a number of years until I decided to write about them for this blog. I tried to find out what had happened to the mikvah after the Eldridge Street Synagogue had been restored. A search of the internet for “5 Allen Street” brought up a number of blog posts that showed a thirteen story hotel being built on the former bathhouse lot.
A hotel being built at 5 Allen Street, August 2012. (Photo courtesy of Michael Padwee)
I asked at the hotel if any pools or baths had been found or preserved in the basement. The answer was “no”. I then went around the block to the Museum at Eldridge Street in the Eldridge Street Synagogue and asked the docents and the people in the museum office if they knew of, or had records of, the mikvah and pool. No one knew what had happened to the mikvah, but the mikvah and the baths at 5 Allen Street were mentioned on the museum’s interactive Lower East Side map.
The backyard of the hotel at 5 Allen Street taken from the fire escape of the Eldridge Street Synagogue. (Photo courtesy of Michael Padwee)
I then emailed Amy Stein-Milford, the author of the article about Gittel/Julia Natelson and the Deputy Director of the Museum at Eldridge Street, asking if she had any information about the fate of the mikvah. Ms. Stein-Milford said the 5 Allen Street property had been sold four or five years ago.
Eldridge Street Synagogue

While I was at the Eldridge Street Synagogue, I took the tour of the recently restored building. Much of the interior was the original ornamentation, or was painstakingly restored. The main entry hall tilework was the original tilework from 1887.
(Photos courtesy of Michael Padwee)

View from the balcony. Kiki Smith's stained glass window (the only new object in the restoration). At near left is a section of purposely-left-unrestored wall.


In my post of July 18, 2012, “Trent in New York--Part III, Historic Hall Apartment House”, I stated that I thought 940 St. Nicholas Avenue was the “Historic Hall” apartment house where there had been, at one time, a number of murals installed by the Trent Tile Company of Trenton, NJ, as well as a “rug” tile floor. I recently learned that this address was incorrect. The true address of the “Historic Hall” apartment house was 928-930 St. Nicholas Avenue, between West 155 and 156th Streets. This building is now an apartment co-op.
928-930 St. Nicholas Avenue
According to the Real Estate Record and Builders' Guide, Vol. 92, No. 2374, September 13, 1913, p. 496, 928-930 St. Nicholas Avenue is a “6-sty elevator apartment house, [the] “Historic Hall,” on [an irregular] plot 124.9 x 126 [feet]... .”
The entry hall/foyer of 928-930 St. Nicholas Avenue
When I entered this building there was a foyer which could have held three tile murals and a fireplace as described in the September 7, 1909 Trenton Evening Times. The first tile mural “...produce[d] a picture of New York City...as it appeared in 1407, true to nature and within a space of five feet six inches by four feet six inches... ." The second tile mural "...reproduce[d] an old print showing Harlem, from Morrisania, in 1647, in a panel of three feet six inches by two feet six inches... ." The third tile panel "...present[ed] an accurate likeness of the trees planted in New York by Alexander Hamilton in 1802, inside [a border] of two feet six inches by nine feet... ." Although there were no tile murals on the first floor of the building, there were mosaic floor tiles in the shape of tile rugs. The newspaper article states that "The floor of Historic Hall, in the main corridor, is to be covered with tile, in the design of a damask rug, in 24 colors, embracing a space of ten feet...six inches by eleven feet. The fine, old-fashioned fireplace, too, is to be of tile, and the words Historic Hall in superior ceramic mosaics are to be placed beneath the...mantel." Although there is no mantel, nor “Historic Hall” in mosaic tiles on the floor, the floor tiles are rug-shaped with patterns consisting of many colors. Could this have been the original tiled floor?

In 1906 the Trent Tile Company had a four page ad published in Sweet's Indexed Catalogue of Building Construction, a to-the-trade publication, which pictured types of ceramic mosaic floors that Trent could design.
("Trent Tile Company", Sweet's Indexed Catalogue of Building Construction for the Year 1906, The Architectural Record Co., New York City, 1906, p. 374)
 (The Tile Heritage Foundation has again mentioned my historic tile installations website and this blog in their E-Newsletter, which has articles about The Spanish Pottery of Los Angeles, a California Clay Products 1931 tile installation in San Diego, and a Rookwood tile discovery in Cleveland, among others. The THF has been a strong supporter of my efforts over the years and is an excellent resource for information about tiles and tile history.)

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