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135 East 2nd Street, Then & Now

Walking along East 2nd Street, between Avenue A and First Avenue, you might have noticed a historic building that, in terms of its age and style, seems out of context with its immediate neighbors. It now serves as a residence, but what was it originally and who used it? And what’s with the parking lot to its west? Let’s take a closer look at 135 East 2nd Street, then and now.

This five-story, Gothic Revival style building dates to 1903 and originally served as the rectory of St. Nicholas Church. (Though the date of construction is listed in numerous sources as 1867, that is actually the date of the schoolhouse, since demolished. The new building permit from our East Village survey research confirms that 135 East 2nd Street was built between 1903-1904 to the designs of F.W. Herter for the purposes of a parsonage.) The pointed arch door and window openings and their lintels are indicative of Gothic Revival architecture, a style that was very popular in church construction.

If you look at aerials of this street through the Historic Aerials website, you’ll notice that it’s changed dramatically; Old Law tenements, among others, were razed in the 1960s for parking lots, which illustrates the effects of urban renewal and rising car ownership in the post-World War II period. The former rectory, however, remains remarkably intact and stands as a lasting reminder of a very important church that once stood beside it.

(l) Source: New York City Chapter of the American Guild of Organists, date unknown; (r) The west elevation shows the "ghost" of the former St. Nicholas Church, GVSHP, 2012

St. Nicholas German Catholic Church, built in 1848 to serve the local German population, was demolished in 1960 for the existing parking lot. The above drawing shows what this church looked like, and even provides a glimpse into its undeveloped surroundings pre-1867. If you look closely at the rectory’s west elevation, you can see where the church once abutted the rectory (this is known as a “ghost”).

This brownstone section appears to be the only remaining part of St. Nicholas church

The grand Gothic Revival church was called Die Deutsche Romisch-Katholische St. Nicholas Kirche by its parishioners. It was actually the second church built here, replacing an 1833 structure that established this lot as the site of the first German Catholic Church in New York. The placement was appropriate given the neighborhood, which was known as Kleindeutschland or “Little Germany” until the early part of the 20th century for its largely German presence.

In fact, when the rectory was completed in 1904, the church donated $100 to a relief fund for the General Slocum disaster, the greatest loss of life in New York until the terrorist attacks of September 11th. The donation, one of the largest, indicates the effect the tragedy had on St. Nicholas parishioners, though the boat was carrying those from St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church located nearby. You can read more about the General Slocum in an Off the Grid post from last summer.

St. Nicholas Church Complex, then and now. (l) Source: The Catholic Church in the United States of America, Vol. III, 1914; (r) GVSHP, 2012

The disaster had a great effect on the German population in this area, and with the coming of World War I the demographics gradually changed. A New York Times article written in 1935 noted that only about 50 parishioners attended St. Nicholas due to a “scarcity of German Catholics in the neighborhood.” The continuing decline in the post-World War II era led to the closing and demolition of the church in 1960.

In the following decades, the rectory converted to its present use as apartments. Though it may be hard to tell its original purpose, it no doubt is an important symbol of the once thriving Kleindeutschland. (Read more about the East Village on our Preservation page.) A home in the building was featured on our 2002 benefit House Tour, when we highlighted historic homes in the East Village. Tickets for this year’s house tour, based in the West Village, are now on sale and can be purchased on our website.

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