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An East Village Story — From German Church, to Synagogue, to Landmark

On October 28, 2014, the structure at 334 E. 14th Street that architectural historian Francis Morrone calls “one of the most important buildings in the East Village” was designated a New York City landmark.

First German Baptist Church
Percy L. Sperr, “Manhattan 14th Street (East) – 1st Avenue,” 1936
Source: New York Public Library, Photographic Views of New York City

Designed in 1866 by Julius Boekell, creator of a wide variety of significant buildings around the city, it serves as both a Lower East Side time capsule and an enriching presence on a motley block of East 14th Street.

According to the landmark designation report, in the late 1840s and 1850s, most of the block between 13th and 14th Streets and First and Second Avenues was built up with houses. In 1865, New York City purchased the lot at 340 East 14th Street for Engine Company No. 5. In 1866, the First German Baptist Church purchased the lot extending from 334 to 338 East 14th Street. On July 3, 1866, the congregation sold the eastern portion of its new lot (338 East 14th Street) to William Diehl, a hat and cap manufacturer who resided in Bushwick and was a member of the First German Baptist Church’s building committee. With the proceeds of the sale in hand, the congregation had architect Julius Boekell file plans on July 9, 1866 for a new church building to be erected at 334-336 East 14th Street.

Detail from a birds’-eye view map showing the First German Baptist Church
Will L. Taylor, The City of New York, 1879, Source: Library of Congress, Geography and Maps Division

As Morrone tells us: “It’s a textbook on ethnic succession, originating as a German Baptist church in Kleindeutschland days. It then became, in 1926, a Ukrainian Autocephalic Orthodox church, at a time when Ukrainians had become a major group in the area. Finally, in 1962, a Conservative congregation that had previously worshipped in the old Labor Temple took it over. By then the cross that originally surmounted the apex of the central gable had been removed by the Ukrainians in favor of the squat plinth with onion dome. The Romanesque architecture, by Julius Boekell, is of that same jaunty variety as, and of a similar quality to, the designated landmark Flushing Town Hall in Queens. The gabling, corbeling, and arcading form the sorts of pleasing rhythms that bring a smile to the face of any harried passerby, in a neighborhood where too little else like that exists.”

First German Baptist Church Following 1939-40 alterations for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of St. Volodymyr
New York City Department of Taxes Photograph, c. 1940 Source: NYC Department of Records and Information Services, Municipal Archives

Recycled buildings between different faiths are a distinctive feature of this area, points out Laurie Tobias Cohen, executive director of the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy. The Lower East Side/East Village stands out as a neighborhood where communities of faith routinely exchanged buildings — the Willett Street Methodist Episcopal Church becoming the Bialystoker Synagogue in 1905, the First Roumanian American Congregation changing hands between the Christian and Jewish communities on two occasions. In 1940 the congregation of the Community Synagogue on E. 6th Street purchased the St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. It was this community that lost much of its congregation to the General Slocum Steam Ship Fire. Descendants of the survivors are in touch with the Jewish congregation in their original home til this day. Indications are that these kinds of transactions do not occur in other Western societies, and are a reflection of the American traditions of tolerance and pragmatism.

Congregation Teferith Israel – Town and Village Synagogue
Photo: John Barrington Bailey, c. 1965

The Tifereth Israel, or “Town & Village” congregation was founded in 1948 by residents of the recently built Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village from which it gets its name. The egalitarian congregation found its permanent home in its current building on 14th street in 1962.

Click here for a tour of East Village synagogues.

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