The Busts of Little Germany
On Friday, July 17, 2015, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation lead tours around the East Village looking at buildings that made up the German immigrant community in the late 19th and early 20th century. Kleine Deutschland, or “Little Germany” at one point boasted one of the largest German-speaking communities in the world and many manifestations of that era remain in the neighborhood. To this day, some of the buildings that are most associated with this German community still bear decorative elements that attest to their use. This is most clearly seen in decorative busts that adorn two specific buildings: the Ottendorfer Library-German Dispensary and Aschenbrodel Hall.
Ottendorfer Library-German Dispensary
The Ottendorfer Library-German Dispensary on 135 and 137 2nd Avenue was built in 1883-4 and funded by library namesake Oswald Ottendorfer, a media mogul at the time. Ottendorfer believed in the importance of nourishing both the body and the mind, which is why the library was built in conjunction with the dispensary. The library would become incorporated into the New York Public Library in 1901 and continues to be in use, while the dispensary continued its operations until 1905 when it moved up to the Upper East Side (77th and Park, today Lenox Hill Hospital). Today the dispensary building is used as private, commercial space.
The decorative busts on the exterior of the dispensary building, five in the top register and four surrounding the doorway, each represent famous and mythological figures from the history of medicine and the sciences. Facing the building, in the top register on the left the first figure,” Harvey,” represents William Harvey (1578-1657), an English physician. Harvey was the first known to describe completely and in detail the systemic circulation and properties of blood being pumped to the brain and body by the heart.
Moving right, the next figure is titled “Linne” and refers to Swedish botanist, physician, and zoologist Carl Linneus (1707-1778). Linneus is known as the “Father of Modern Taxonomy” and laid the foundations for the modern biological naming scheme of binomial nomenclature.
The central figure is titled “Humbodlt” and refers to Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), a Prussian geographer, naturalist, and explorer whose work on botanical geography laid the foundation for the field of biogeography. His advocacy of long-term systematic geophysical measurement also laid the foundation for modern geomagnetic and meteorological monitoring.
To the right of Humboldt, the figure, titled “Lavoisier” is Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794), a French nobleman and chemist and the “Father of Modern Chemisty.” Lavoisier’s work had a large influence on both the history of chemistry and the history of biology.
“Hufelandt,” the last figure on the register, is Christoph Wilhelm Friedrich Hufeland (1762-1836), a German physician and the most eminent practical physician of his time in Germany.
Moving down, four more busts surround the door to the dispensary, two flanking the front of the door and two on the sides of the entrance way. Facing the front, the figures are titled “Hippocrates” and “Aesculap.” The former is Hippocrates (460 – c. 370 BC), a Greek physician who is considered one of the most outstanding figures in the history of medicine and referred to as the “Father of Western Medicine.”
Aesculap on the other hand is not an actual historical figure but refers to Aesculapius, the ancient Greek god of healing. His rod, a snake-entwined staff, remains a symbol of medicine today.
The two busts on the side of the doorframe are “Celcius” on the north facing side and “Galenus” on the south. The former, “Celcius,” is Anders Celsius (27 November 1701 – 25 April 1744) was a Swedish astronomer, physicist and mathematician; the Celsius temperature scale, which he had proposed in 1743, bears his name.
The latter, “Galenus,” is better known as Galen of Pergamon (AD 129 – c. 200/c. 216) a prominent Greek physician, surgeon and philosopher in the Roman Empire and arguably the most accomplished of all medical researchers of antiquity. Galen influenced the development of various scientific disciplines, including anatomy, physiology, pathology, pharmacology, and neurology, as well as philosophy and logic.
Built in 1873 and located on 74 East 4th Street, Aschenbroedel Hall was a professional orchestral musicians’ social and benevolent organization and became one of the leading German organizations in Little Germany. The name is both a play on the German Cinderella, Aschenputtel, and the Hall’s first president, August Asche. Members of the hall had to meet two requirements: they had to be musicians and to speak German since all meeting were conducted in German. In 1904 the hall was sold and renamed McKinley Hall and became a popular venue for political and labor meetings. It continued to change hands over the years until it was acquired in 1967 by Ellen Stuart as the theater headquarters for La MaMa, where it remains a world renowned cultural institution to this day.
The three busts on the exterior of the building each represent a famous Germanic composer and remain a testament to the musical history of the structure. The figures, in order from left to right facing the building, are of Felix Mendelssohn, (1809 –1847), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 –1791), and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827). The first, Mendelssohn, was a German composer, pianist, organist and conductor of the early Romantic period.
Mozart was a prolific and influential composer of the Classical era.
Finally, Beethoven was a German composer and pianist and a crucial figure in the transition between the Classical and Romantic eras in Western art music. He remains one of the most famous and influential composers of all time.
Both the Ottendorfer Library-German Dispensary and Aschenbroedel Hall are landmarked and, as a result, these features are preserved. For more information on these two structures, as with all landmarked properties in our neighborhood, designation reports for them can be found on the GVSHP website’s resources page.
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