Today we take a look at one of the many wonderful individual landmarks in our neighborhood, the Germania Fire Insurance Company Bowery Building at 357 Bowery. Designed by prominent German-American architect Carl Pfeiffer and built in 1870, the Germania Fire Insurance Company Bowery Building recalls the time when the Bowery was a major thoroughfare of America’s leading German-American neighborhood known as Kleindeutschland (or Little Germany). The Germania Fire Insurance Company was founded in 1859, counting many prominent German-born New Yorkers among its executives and directors. The firm was prospering when it constructed the building to house its Kleindeutschland office, although it moved this office farther up the Bowery about ten years later.
Just over a century before the Germania Fire Insurance Company constructed its Bowery branch, the site was part of an extensive estate known as the Minthorn Farm. In 1756, following the death of its owner, Philip Minthorn, his heirs cut the farm into 27 pieces, including nine irregularly shaped finger-like parcels fronting the east side of the Bowery between East 1st and East 5th Streets.
The property on Bowery stayed in the family for a number of years and was then sold to another prominent family, the Stilwels, who eventually leased the property at 357 Bowery to the Germania Fire Insurance Company. On June 27, 1870, architect Carl Pfeiffer filed a new building application for the Germania Building, which was to be four stories high with a 16-foot -deep shed-roofed rear extension, and about eight inches wider at its rear than its front to accommodate the irregular dimensions of its lot. Marc Eidlitz, a successful Austrian builder who had “strong ties to the German immigrant community,” completed the building in just three months.
Though Pfeiffer’s application stated that the building was to be an office structure, the company likely intended it to be a tenement that contained Germania’s office (misrepresenting the building’s function to enable the company to skirt the city’s tenement laws). The 1870 U.S. Census found nine tenants living at 357 Bowery and ten years later, the structure housed seven families. The Stilwell heirs continued to lease the property after Germania’s Kleindeutschland branch moved to 367 Bowery.
The building housed tenants from the time of its opening, and by 1880, its residents included Irish, German, and Chinese immigrants. Between 1900 and 1920, industrial tenants displaced its residents. The 1905 New York State Census found only Gustav and Catherine Barth and their servant there, noting that the “rest of building occupied by factories.” In 1929, members of two families, the Laraias and Pellettieris – who manufactured barber shop and beauty parlor equipment – purchased the building. They demolished the building’s original rear extension; replaced it with a new, full-height extension to the rear lot line; and installed an Otis freight elevator. The families’ Laraia & Company occupied the building with several other tenants for several decades.
Residents started returning by the mid-1970s, sharing space with commercial tenants, and today, the building is entirely residential. Over its 140-year history, the building at 357 Bowery has changed its function from residential to industrial and back, but it remains largely intact.
On March 23, 2010, the LPC designated the Germania Fire Insurance Company Bowery Building at 357 Bowery a landmark. We are grateful for this building’s designation and all of the sites that the Landmarks Law of New York City has allowed us to preserve.