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Russ & Daughters: An Extraordinarily Ordinary Place

179 Houston Street, as seen in a city created tax photo, taken between the years 1939-1941
179 Houston Street, as seen in a city tax photo, taken sometime between 1939 and 1941.

As GVSHP gears up for our benefit evening Much Ado About Noshing this evening with Village writer Calvin Trillin and two generations of the Russ & Daughters family, we decided to revisit our roots and explore the history of 179 East Houston Street, the building owned by the beloved appetizing store. Russ & Daughters has been located in the storefront of the six story, Neo-Grec building since 1920. Built in 1897 by Julius Boekell, the Old Law tenement was included as a contributing building in the Lower East Side National Register District, created in 2001.

Joel Russ in the shop. Courtesy of Russ & Daughters.
Joel Russ in the shop. Courtesy of Russ & Daughters.

Joel Russ, a Jewish immigrant from what is today southern Poland, was the original Russ of Russ & Daughters. Like many merchants, Russ got his start peddling on the street (he carried mushrooms on his shoulders), later upgrading to a pushcart, and selling herring. Increasing success allowed him to open a physical storefront  in 1914 and expand his merchandise. The first location was on Orchard Street. In 1920, he moved to the store’s current home. Be sure to explore the wonderful history of Russ & Daughters, featured on their website.

Today, we think of Russ & Daughters as a very special store, one of the last appetizing stores in the country, and the last of its kind in the neighborhood. But in fact, Russ & Daughters was one of many storefronts that served a large Jewish community on the Lower East Side at the turn of the twentieth century — the largest Jewish community in the world at the time, in fact.  Joel Russ was one of hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Jewish immigrants that crowded into the neighborhood from the last decades of the nineteenth century through the early decades of the twentieth.

"Daughter" Anne works the scale. Photo courtesy of Russ & Daughters.
"Daughter" Anne works the scale. Photo courtesy of Russ & Daughters.

179 East Houston Street, like most tenement buildings on the Lower East Side, contained a storefront.  Like so many buildings in the area, number 179 was erected between the Second Tenement House Act of 1879 (familiarly referred to as the Old Tenement Law, or ‘Old Law’) and the New York State Tenement House Act of 1901 (usually called the  New Tenement Law, or ‘New Law’). The Old Law required that windows face a source of fresh air and light such as an air shaft and gave many tenements a familiar dumbbell shape.The architect of number 179 was not a particularly prolific one, or known for adding rich ornamentation or creating civic buildings in the neighborhood, as some others were. Neither does the Neo-Grec style of the building, a common building type for tenements at the end of the nineteenth century, stand out. For a wonderful description of how how the tenement laws influenced tenement building design, check out this post on 226 East 13th Street.

A strict new immigration law in 1924 cut the number of new Jewish immigrants to the neighborhood and established residents moved uptown or to the suburbs. However Russ & Daughters, like the bargain fabric stores, clothing stores, and theaters that filled the neighborhood, thrived. The Lower East Side became a shopping destination, even as apartments above fell into disrepair. However, the neighborhood began to decline, and by the 1970s, fewer and fewer vestiges of the shopping district existed, as the city’s financial crisis led to a sharp drop in property values and owners walked away from their buildings. It wasn’t until the turn of the twentieth century that gentrification crept in and began to change the built fabric of the neighborhood.

Russ & Daughters under renovation. Photo courtesy of Russ & Daughters.
Russ & Daughters under renovation. Photo courtesy of Russ & Daughters.

So despite its seemingly ordinary history, why has Russ & Daughters thrived, while other vestiges of a once vibrant Jewish community disappeared? I like to think it has to do with a little twist in the store’s history, something a little more extraordinary than is evident at first glance. In 1933, Joel Russ had to make a hard decision. Because of the Depression, he could not afford to own both his family home in Brooklyn and the building at 179 E. Houston. He sold their Brooklyn home and moved his wife and three daughters into a rented apartment in the neighborhood, thus making the prescient decision to own the building in which his business was located. (Many not-so-foresighted merchants found remaining on the Lower East Side untenable, as building owners first neglected their buildings and then leveled them for development, or raised rents to previously-unheard of levels.)

I also like to think the shop’s success is due to another, even more savvy decision. In 1933, Joel Russ became one of the first business owners  ever use the phrase “and Daughters” in a store’s name, which says a lot about the importance of the next generation to the Russ family. So, even as the neighborhood fell into decline, the Russ family continued to advance the business.

Russ & Daughters is now owned and run by the fourth (that’s right, fourth!) generation, cousins Joshua Russ Tupper and Niki Russ Federman, who have said the store means as much to them as their own family history. And the name speaks to the importance of the store to the many generations of families that continue to shop there.

Now that is an extraordinary place.

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