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What’s Old Is New Again For a Special Building on East 12th Street

Our area boasts some of the most historic and attractive architecture in the city, if we do say so ourselves.  All too often, however, these buildings lose beautiful historic details, through lack of maintenance or intentional removal. The most common such alteration to the look of buildings is probably the removal of cornices, the protruding crown at the top of the facade of a building which creates a terminus at the roofline. Oftentimes these acts of architectural vandalism are permanent, and the original details (which not only give the building a rich and engaging look, but protect it from the elements and erosion), once gone, are gone forever.

126 East 12th Street, today

One example is 126 East 12th Street, a turn-of-the-last-century tenement between 3rd and 4th Avenues which decades ago lost not one but two cornices, and had most of its beautiful tan spotted-brick facade covered in a yellow artificial facing.  This was especially disheartening given that this was not your average tenement, but one where the design of which was unusual for its day in the generous amenities it offered to its working-class residents and the rich details its offered to passersby on the street.  But those once-lost details on the facade have just returned as the result of recent renovation, bringing this unusual structure back to its former glory.

126 East 12th Street, 2011

Permits to build 126 East 12th Street were filed in March of 1900, one of hundreds if not thousands of tenements constructed in the months before the passage of the “New Law” requiring more light and air in new tenements in New York, in order to avoid these more generous requirements — though this one does not appear to have been trying to avoid that requirement.  This “Old Law” tenement was designed for twenty-four families, four on each of its six floors. Each floor also had four water closets (toilets, no sinks) which was unusually generous, since typical tenements would have provided only one water closets for every two families. Also unusual was the width of the building at 45 feet. Typical old law tenements were built on 25 foot wide lots, with either two small apartments in the front and two in the rear, or two long, narrow “railroad” apartments that went from the front to the back of the building on either side. The difference in space per family and ample water closets at No. 126 when compared to what was typical can most likely be explained by the person who built and owned it — John P. Schuchman.

No. 126 East 12th Street on the 1903 Sanborn map. Then it was 126-128 East 12th Street. NYPL

Schuchman was born in Germany in 1851 and immigrated to the United States in 1868. He became a lawyer and later a judge who lived in a house (still extant) just around the corner from here at 186 Second Avenue (just south of 12th Street). A pillar in the German-American community which came to dominate the East Village in the late 19th century, he also served on the Tenement House Committee in the 1890s, the purpose of which was to make recommendations to imnprove conditions in housing for poor and working-class New Yorkers. Ultimately that would lead to the Tenement House Act of 1901, which resulted in new and higher standards for New York City housing.

1940s tax photo of 126 East 12th Street. Photo via Municipal Archives

But for 126 East 12th Street, Schuman appears to have raised those standards, at least in part, on his own, before the law even required it.  That was also a consequence of, and reflected in, his choice of architect for the modest building, John G. Prague. A well-known and a prolific architect, the majority of Prague’s work can be found on the Upper West Side, where he was commissioned to design high-end private homes and apartment buildings. A New York Times article from 1894 credits him with the beautification of the neighborhood. By 1890, due to the work of Mr. Prague, 86th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues was referred to as the “queen of all West Side Streets.” The Sunset Apartments on the northeast corner of 85th Street and Amsterdam Avenue and the Brockholst at 85th Street and Columbus Avenue are just a couple of his noteworthy works. Prague built a total of two hundred fourteen buildings between 1869 until 1894. Prague’s great success as an architect afforded him plenty of time to enjoy life as a yacht designer and a skilled yachtsman.

126 East 12th Street, 1972. Photo via NYPL

The photo above from 1972 (No. 126 is to the left of St. Ann’s Church) appears to show the cornices of 126 East 12th Street still intact, or at least partly so. However, by the time of the 1980s tax photo, those details had been stripped from the upper floors, and the facade covered in a yellow facing.

By 1980, not only were both cornices removed, but the facade had been resurfaced in a yellow artificial facing, hiding the original spotted bricks underneath.

In 2017, permits were filed for restoration work at the front facade. The window lintels and brickwork were restored much to their 1940s appearance. Also restored were the piers between the windows at the top floor. Finally, the very handsome cornices between the fifth and sixth floor and at the parapet now grace this building again.

The vividly detailed ground floor of 126 East 12th Street, before restoration. Fortunately this architectural detail had been spared in prior renovations, but now its been cleaned up and gleams again.

All of these changes have been reflected and updated in the entry for this building on our East Village Building Blocks website, where we have information on every one of the approximately 3,000 buildings in the East Village.  Know a building in the East Village that needs updating on our East Village Building Blocks website, or about which you have additional information?  Just contact us at info@gvshp.org.

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