On July 19, 1799, the Rosetta Stone was discovered during the Napoleonic Campaign in Egypt. This stele is inscribed in three languages — Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics, Demotic, and Ancient Greek — and became the key to finally translating and unlocking the secrets of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic script.
Like ancient Egypt, our neighborhoods have been a shifting crossroads of languages and cultures, some of which have all but disappeared. For example, in the East Village there are many buildings that retain German inscriptions hinting at the neighborhood’s past as Kleindeutschland, or “Little Germany.” On this noteworthy anniversary, we thought we’d survey and translate some of them.
Ottendorfer Library & Stuyvesant Polyclinic
The Ottendorfer Library is the oldest branch library in Manhattan and one of the earliest buildings in the city constructed specifically as a public library. As described in its landmark designation report,
“…Designed in 1883-1884 by the German-born architect William Schickel, it is a particularly interesting example of late Victorian architecture exhibiting elements of both the neo-Italian Renaissance and the Queen Anne styles. Built in conjunction with the German Dispensary, now the Stuyvesant Poly-clinic, next door, the library was the gift of Anna and Oswald Ottendorfer, German-American philanthropists who concerned themselves with the welfare of the German population centered on the Lower East Side in the mid to late 19th century. The juxtaposition of the library and the clinic building is by no means coincidental. Rather it reflects the 19th-century philosophy, particularly influential in Germany, of developing the individual both physically and mentally. Ottendorfer’s desire was to help to uplift both the body and the mind of his fellow Germans in the United States (“dem Korpen und dem Geisten zu helfen”).”
The inscription on the façade reads “Freie Bibliothek u. Lesehalle,” which translates to “Free Library & Reading-Room,” denoting its identity as a library building, which it still remains today and is one of the oldest branch libraries incorporated into the New York Public Library system.
The adjoining building, the Stuyvesant Polyclinic, was built at the same time as the library. Originally called the German Dispensary (‘dispensaries’ were the community health clinics of their time), it offered medical care to the poor at low or free rates. By 1905 the German Dispensary relocated to the Upper East Side and sold the building to another German-community-focused health service, the German Poliklinik. However, with anti-German sentiment running high during World War I, the Poliklinik changed its name to The Stuyvesant Polyclinic. Today the building is now rented by a private, commercial tenant and no longer serves as a health services center, but the inscription over the doorway, which reads “Deutsches Dispensary,” or German Dispensary, still remains.
German-American Shooting Society Clubhouse
Probably the finest example of a bilingual building with the sharpest break from its original function is the German-American Shooting Society Clubhouse on St. Marks between 2nd & 3rd Avenues. Built in 1888-1889, the Clubhouse belies the German rifle shooting societies and local militia groups in the East Village. As noted by the Landmarks Preservation Commission:
“While German-American militia companies first appeared in the 1830s, their rise in popularity in the late 1840s and early 1850s can be attributed to the immigrants’ support of the German revolutions of 1848, combined with strong concern about nativist violence in New York. In 1853, 28 percent of militia members in New York City were German-American. At the peak of the militia companies’ popularity in the late 1850s, “every conceivable group in Kleindeutschland appeared to have discovered the social possibilities of having its own Guard,” with most companies specializing in beer drinking and partying. Although many companies served with honors during the Civil War, the shooting clubs became less popular after this time, possibly due to the violence confronted in real battles.”
Designated a landmark in 2001, today the building is home to a yoga studio and a vegan restaurant. But two very important and revealing inscriptions remain. In the upper register is a huge and elaborate terra cotta relief sculpture of a target with crossed rifles and an eagle, capped with the German motto “Einigkeit Macht Stark,” or Unity Makes Strength. The lower register is inscribed with “Deutsche-Amerikanische Schϋtzen Gesellschaft,” or German-American Shooting Society.
While these buildings denote examples of inscribed buildings from Little Germany, they aren’t the only holdovers of architecture with carvings from past communities that existed in the Village. Please comment below with any other ones that may come to mind right here in our neighborhoods!