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

Sunday, April 1, 2018

The Lower East Side and Bialystoker Landsmanschaftn



Willet Street at Delancey Street, 1901. Photo by Ewing Galloway. (Photo credit: Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, The New York Public Library. (1901). Manhattan: Willett Street - Delancey Street Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47dd-6222-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99)

From the mid-19th century until about 1924, when the Federal immigration "quota law" was enacted, wave after wave of immigrants arrived in the United States, escaping from oppression, looking for a better life. 

"Street scene, Lower East Side, New York", c. 1909-10. The Yiddish banner reads "Picnic. Ladies' shirtwaist dressmakers' union. Saturday, June 23 [illegible]". (Credit: Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. (1910-09). Street scene, Lower East Side, New York Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-ccfc-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99)

Many of the immigrants who arrived on the East coast were from Eastern European and Mediterranean countries, and many of these were Jews who squeezed into Manhattan's Lower East Side--one of the densest of the populated areas in the United States. Jews who came from the same stetls, towns and cities would band together to form landsmanschaftn(1)--synagogue congregations, cultural and self-help institutions. One such landsmanshaft was the Bialystoker Synagogue founded by immigrants from Bialystok, Poland,(2) another was the Bialystok Center and Home for the Aged.


An 1857 map showing the Methodist Episcopal Church (now the Bialystoker Synagogue) on Willet Street between Grand and Broome Streets. 
(Published by William Perris, Civil Engineer. Collection of the New York Public Library)

In 2016 I toured the Bialystoker Synagogue and the surrounding area of the Lower East Side of Manhattan to see some of the remaining landsmanschaftn

The orthodox Bialystoker congregation was originally organized in 1865. "[The congregation...]  met first on Hester Street, then Orchard, before merging with a second congregation and moving to Willett Street (now Bialystoker Place) in 1905. But the building they moved into was even older. They purchased and converted...the old Willett Street Methodist Episcopal Church, which had itself been built in 1826, when the Lower East Side was becoming a wealthy residential district."(3) 


Bialystoker Synagogue, Front Facade. (Color photos courtesy of Michael Padwee unless otherwise noted.


The Methodist Episcopal Church was built from fieldstone (Manhattan's bedrock schist) "...quarried from Mount Pitt, a hill that once stood at the present corner of Pitt and Grand Streets. 


"Manhattan schist" fieldstone.

"[...The] Bialystoker Synagogue...has a richly hued interior with statuary and paintings. A concealed corridor discovered during renovations in the 1990’s led to speculation that the building was a safe house on the Underground Railroad."(4)


The Sanctuary as seen from the balcony.

The synagogue was designated an individual City landmark on April 16, 1966. The Landmarks Designation Report states that 
"[this] severely plain building of the late Federal period is one of the few of its type remaining in New York City. The simple exterior, built of cut stone, is pleasing with its great strength and dignity. The three windows above three doors are framed with round arches. A low-pitched pedimented roof enframing a handsome lunette window has a very plain wooden cornice which also adds to the simple severity of the building. The front of the building has a brownstone base course which consists of a low flight of steps giving the Synagogue a solid appearance and setting it off most effectively from the street."(5)

When the congregation moved into the building, they kept the original church configuration with the pulpit/bimah in the front of the sanctuary, facing the congregation, instead of having the bimah in a raised, central position, surrounded by the congregation. The basement chapel, however, has the raised bimah more centrally situated in the room.


 
The basement chapel where the raised bimah is in a more central position in the room.


The painted ceiling of the main sanctuary was a WPA project. Local Jewish artists were hired to paint the sky and the twelve border paintings.


Three interior views of the painted sanctuary ceiling.

According to Rabbinical thought, Jews should pray and marry under an open sky. Since they couldn't pray under the real sky in this synagogue, the Bialystokers painted a sky along with astrological and other signs on the synagogue's ceiling.


The padlocked door in the women's gallery that leads to a hidden room.

"If you [walk] to the corner of the women’s gallery of the synagogue today, there is a camouflaged door. Behind it is a narrow opening with a wooden ladder that heads up to an attic space. There is no written record of the Willet Street Episcopal Church as an Underground Railroad site, but that was likely a deliberate choice given the activity."(6) 


Part of Shteeble Row on East Broadway between Clinton and Montgomery Streets. The door on the far right leads to a first floor synagogue, Congregation Beth Hachasidim Depolen, which is still fully functioning.

Nearby, on East Broadway, is a row of tenement buildings called "Shteeble Row". Some of these buildings contain one- or two-room, landsmanschaft synagogues. Around the turn of the twentieth-century about 500 synagogues existed in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Many of these were located in tenement apartments or in storefronts, thus the general name "shteeble," a Yiddish term for small room.(7)  


Interior details of the sanctuary of Congregation Beth Hachasidim Depolen on Shteeble Row.

One of the social institutions organized by an umbrella Bialystoker landsmanschaft, the Bialystoker Center, was the Bialystoker Home for the Aged that was housed in a building built at 228 East Broadway, a few blocks from the Bialystoker Synagogue. "The Bialystoker building (228 East Broadway), which opened in 1931, is a relic in comparison to its immediate neighbors, a parking garage (which notably collapsed in 1999) and a banal 1960s medical building known for a chipping mural on its side... . Its two-toned tannish, art deco facade by architect [Harry] Hurwit(8) makes an unusual silhouette for the neighborhood... . ...This and many other structures around here trace to a specific immigrant lineage — the Polish Jews of Bialystok, near the border of Belarus. It’s remarkable to think of thousands of Bialystok immigrants — nearly the entire Jewish population of the city — crossing the ocean, entering Ellis Island, and settling  here,...in this area of the Lower East Side."


The Bialystok Home for the Aged. (Ed Litvak, "Former Bialystoker Nursing Home Building Flipped For $47.5 Million (Updated)," The Lo-Down, November 7, 2016; http://www.thelodownny.com/leslog/tag/bialystoker-nursing-home)

"...The elderly home was funded by a Bialystoker aid society in the 1920s as an alternative to standard city institutions. The cornerstone was laid in September 1929, accompanied by a massive parade, 25,000 people carrying 'flags and banners with Jewish inscriptions and marched through Canal, Grand and other streets.'

"The new arrivals to the neighborhood benefited from the charity of wealthier Jewish immigrants who had arrived earlier and funded projects to ease overcrowding and providing health and education services catering to specific religious customs. The Bialystoker building is perhaps the most striking example of this beneficence. Its design is Moorish Art Deco... ."(9)

The Landmarks Preservation Commission described the architecture of the building: "Architect Harry Hurwit’s design is distinguished by its complex massing that included a number of visually exciting setbacks and dramatic chamfered corners. While probably not required under the zoning code for a relatively short structure, these architectural flourishes lent the Bialystoker Center a sense of modernity and connected the building with the large Art Deco skyscrapers that were coming to dominate the Manhattan skyline in the late 1920s. The ornamental program also reflects the influence of the Art Deco style, which had come into fashion in the United States following the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925. Art Deco was characterized by 'hard-edged strong geometric patterns…augmented by strong, bold color.' The typically Art Deco elements of the Bialystoker Center include the patterned yellow brickwork and the highly stylized, geometric cast-stone ornament—particularly the abstracted leaf motif found on the spandrels below the fourth-story windows, the chevroned spandrels above the upper story windows, and the bas-relief carving on the coping at the chamfered setbacks. The building’s primary decorative element consists of the elaborate cast-stone main entrance enframement. The spandrel immediately above the entrance is prominently inscribed with the English word 'Bialystoker' rendered in letters resembling Hebrew characters. Within the angled door surround itself a series of roundels depict the symbols of the twelve tribes of Israel, which are read right to left according to the conventions of the Hebrew alphabet."(10)


(Photo credit: Friends of the Lower East Side.)

"Originally, the Bialystoker building featured dormitories for 250 residents, hospital wards, an auditorium, two synagogues and sun parlors. But the Center was more than a nursing home. In the 1930s it served as a social, cultural and business networking hub for the area's 40,000 Jewish Bialystokers. As the neighborhood's demographics changed, so did Center's resident populations. Over the course of its 80 years, the Bialystoker Home cared for New Yorkers of all backgrounds and all faiths."(11)  

In 2011 the Bialystoker Home was shuttered, and in 2013 it was granted individual landmark status by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. This status protected the building's exterior from being altered by developers who bought it in 2016 to be developed for residential condos. One of the developers' schemes for the Bialystoker Home would have it sandwiched between two new residential towers if they could obtain the air rights from the Seward Park Cooperative Apartment complex.

If the developers can buy the air rights of the Seward Park Co-operatives, they could surround the Bialystoker Home with residential towers. (Ed Litvak, "Former Bialystoker Nursing Home Building Flipped For $47.5 Million (Updated)," The Lo-Down, November 7, 2016; http://www.thelodownny.com/leslog/tag/bialystoker-nursing-home).
  
Local news media reported that the developers, the Ascend Group, "...planned two new towers that would flank the landmark[ed] building... . The roughly 155K square-feet of unused development rights from the housing complex would go toward erecting a 19-story tower on the west side of 232 East Broadway and and a 31-story tower on the east side, according to a referendum the co-op board sent to shareholders".(12)

One side effect of this new development will be the destruction of the four-story office building attached to the Bialystoker Home, and the "Jewish Heritage" mural which was painted on that building's side in c.1973 under the auspices of the CITYarts, Inc. program.(13)




The CityArts Workshop/Educational Alliance "Jewish Heritage" mural (c. 1971) in May 2016. By December it was painted over.

 "The mural [...c]alled 'Our Strength Is Our Heritage, Our Heritage Is Our Life,' ... depicted central events from Jewish and Lower East Side history": (14)   


Heritage Walk on the Lower East Side, Stop 66. (http://elirab.me/heritage-walk-on-the-lower-east-side-continued/)


The developers "erased" the Jewish Heritage mural for "safety reasons." (Ed Litvak, "Jewish Heritage Mural Painted Over as Former Bialystoker Building is Primed For Redevelopment," The Lo-Down, December 16, 2016; http://www.thelodownny.com/leslog/tag/bialystoker-nursing-home)

Recently, some of the Educational Alliance students who helped paint the mural in 1973 have been trying to locate a flat wall space in the area where an updated "Heritage" mural can be repainted by and for the community.


NOTES:
1. "The term landsmanshaft, at its most basic, simply means an organization of immigrants who come from the same hometown. The word derives from the Yiddish landsman (plural landslayt)—denoting a person from the same city, region, or even country—and can be applied to a wide range of organizations, from religious congregations to radical political groups. Perhaps the most famous were the mutual aid societies that provided assistance to new immigrants in an era before government welfare programs. The aid provided by these groups often included financial assistance—particularly death benefits (chevra kadisha, or burial and cemetery services, shiva assistance, and life insurance programs), health benefits (contract doctors, disability insurance, bikur cholim or visits to the sick), and general benefits such as low- or no-cost loans and help finding employment and housing. The landsmanshaftn also provided a needed source of social involvement; during the winter many societies organized lavish balls, while picnics were a popular summer activity. Theater benefits helped raise funds and supported the burgeoning 'Yiddish Rialto.' It is estimated that over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries thousands of such groups were established in New York, enrolling perhaps as many as a million people. For many Jewish immigrants living on the Lower East Side, landsmanshaftn were as integral to their life in New York as the synagogues, the Yiddish press, or any other institution." (Christopher D. Brazee, "BIALYSTOKER CENTER AND HOME FOR THE AGED, 228 East Broadway (aka 228-230 East Broadway), Manhattan. Built 1929-31; Architect Harry Hurwit. Landmarks Preservation Commission May 21, 2013, Designation List 464 LP-2529, p. 3.)

2. "For much of its history, Bialystok had remained a small, relatively isolated hamlet within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It had an established Jewish community as early as the mid 16th century, which later thrived under the tolerant rule of Jan Klemens Branicki during the early 18th century. In 1795 the town was annexed by Prussia during the third partition of Poland and in 1807 it came under the authority of the Russian Empire and was incorporated into the Pale of Settlement—the restricted area of the Empire in which Jewish residents were permitted to live and work under strict regulations. While under Russian control, Bialystok became an important industrial town and regional center of trade. It was particularly known for its manufactured textiles, which had been introduced in the early 1800s by the occupying Prussians but by mid century was dominated by the city’s Jewish community. ...The relative affluence of Bialystok’s Jewish community led to the founding of numerous charitable organizations in the city, including the Bikur Cholim (1826); the Gemilut Hasadim, or philanthropic fund (c.1828); the Hekdesh, or Home for the Chronically Ill (1830); the Komitet (1869); and a Jewish old-aged home (1881). Perhaps the most significant was the Lines Hatsedek (Hospice for the Poor), which was formed in 1885 and provided a model for many of the Bialystoker landsmanshaftn in New York." (Ibid., p. 4)

3. Chris Walters, "Bialystoker Place & Grand Street," Corner by Corner blog. June 25, 2016; https://cornerbycorner.wordpress.com/tag/willett-street-methodist-episcopal-church/.

4. "BIALYSTOKER SYNAGOGUE AND ST.
AUGUSTINE’S EPISCOPAL CHURCH";  http://6tocelebrate.org/site/bialystoker-synagogue-and-st-augustines-episcopal-church/ .

5. "Bialystoker Synagogue," Landmarks Preservation Commission, April 19, 1966, Number 13, LP-0181; http://www.neighborhoodpreservationcenter.org/db/bb_files/BIALYSTOKER.pdf.

6. "The Top 10 Secrets of the Bialystoker Synagogue in NYC";  https://untappedcities.com/2016/05/12/the-top-10-secrets-of-the-bialystoker-synagogue-in-nyc/4/

7. Heritage Walk on the Lower East Side, Stop 65, Shteeble Row. (http://elirab.me/heritage-walk-on-the-lower-east-side-continued/)


8. Christopher D. Brazee, "BIALYSTOKER CENTER AND HOME FOR THE AGED, 228 East Broadway (aka 228-230 East Broadway), Manhattan. Built 1929-31; Architect Harry Hurwit. Landmarks Preservation Commission May 21, 2013, Designation List 464 LP-2529, p. 7.

9. "Bialystoker Home, a remarkable Lower East Side treasure and home for assisted living–now in need of some assistance," Podcast, February 15, 2012;  http://www.boweryboyshistory.com/2012/02/bialystoker-home-remarkable-lower-east.html.

10. "Like his clients on the Bialystoker Center project, Harry Hurwit was a Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrant from the Russian-occupied Pale of Settlement. He was born in the city of Kovno, in what is now Lithuania, and in 1891—while he was still a young child—his family came to New York where they lived on the Lower East Side. ...According to family histories, Hurwit began his professional career working in the family insurance business. As early as 1915, however, his name began appearing in city directories as a practicing architect. ...In this early period Hurwit was linked to the architectural firm Hurwitz, Landsman & Bartos. By the early 1920s it appears that he had established his own office, although he maintained a short-lived partnership under the name Whinston & Hurwitz in 1924. During his career Hurwit designed a range of buildings, including apartment houses, commercial stores and warehouses, and institutional structures. The Bialystoker Center and Home for the Aged was Hurwit’s most prominent commission and demonstrated his eagerness to adopt a modern design aesthetic by employing the Art Deco style. It also showed his skill with polychromatic and textured brickwork, often laid in intricate patterns. The Art Deco style intricately patterned brickwork, also characterizes several of Hurwit’s other extant buildings, such as the commercial structure at 457 West 46th Street (1928) and a warehouse at 112 West 31st Street (1937)."   ("BIALYSTOKER CENTER AND HOME FOR THE AGED, 228 East Broadway (aka 228-230 East Broadway), Manhattan." Landmarks Preservation Commission, May 21, 2013, Designation List 464
LP-2529, p. 6.)

11. Joyce Mendelsohn, "Bialystoker Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing (aka Bialystoker Home for the Aged)," Place Matters; (https://www.placematters.net/node/1774).

12. Elie, "Seward Park Co-op Pushes $46.5M Air Rights Sale for Two Large Condo Towers on East Broadway," Bowery Boogie, March 29, 2017;  https://www.boweryboogie.com/2017/03/seward-park-co-op-pushes-46-5m-air-rights-sale-two-large-condo-towers-east-broadway/

13. "Cityarts Workshop, which became the most distinguished and proficient mural program in the city, spawned from the Alfred E. Smith Recreation Center in 1968, three blocks south of East Broadway. During the early ‘70s, Caruso-Green and Sue Kiok, Cityarts’ founder, encouraged teens to participate in street art projects, particularly ‘protest’ murals, which were meant to incite change. For example, the 1972 “Arise from Oppression” was painted on the Henry Street Settlement Playhouse in the Lower East Side. Sixty teens drew a burning cross to symbolize dishonorable landlords who torched buildings. At the sight of the cross, the Jewish community went berserk and the symbol was turned into an ankh. In response, Caruso-Green suggested a Jewish mural, which pioneered a series of ‘heritage’ murals around the city that honored the histories of communities like Italians, Puerto Ricans, and Asian Americans." (Britta Lokting, "How to Paint a Changing Neighborhood," CityLab, June 29, 2017; https://www.citylab.com/life/2017/06/the-life-and-death-of-a-lower-east-side-mural/532107/) also see http://www.thelodownny.com/leslog/2016/03/lower-east-side-throwback-making-the-heritage-mural-at-232-east-broadway.html for photos of the making of the mural.

14. Marjorie Ingall, "A BELOVED JEWISH MURAL IS WHITEWASHED, AND THE LOWER EAST SIDE MOURNS," Tablet, November 11, 2016;   http://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/217675/a-beloved-jewish-mural-is-whitewashed-and-the-lower-east-side-mourns.


*****


Chocolateria Cafe Art Show


From now until the end of May I'm participating in an art exhibit that pairs adult art with children's art. The exhibit is sponsored by the Good Neighbors of Park Slope (Brooklyn) at the Chocolateria Cafe, 228 7th Avenue. GNPS is an umbrella organization for people in our neighborhood who are 55+. There are a number of cultural, social and self-help groups organized by GNPS including our photography club, and there are many retired and working artists who belong to GNPS. Anyone in the GNPS artists' groups can submit their work for exhibition. Two of my photos were chosen:

"Zip It Up!" (Wall mural at 35th Street and 7th Avenue, Manhattan.)

and,

"España Cañí" (Part of my "Tiled Facades of Madrid" series.) 

*****



LINKS TO MY PAST BLOG ARTICLES


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*****


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