The area of Greenwich Village and the East Village south of Union Square, for which Village Preservation has been advocating landmark protections, is the center of an amazing and dynamic collection of histories. Village Preservation’s South of Union Square Map+Tours is an online interactive tool that allows users to journey back in time to explore and engage with the rich history South of Union Square, including nearly forty themed tours that showcase the neighborhood’s dynamic and varied significance, in fields such as music, literature, social movements, and industry. Among the many virtual explorations is the German History Tour, which highlights sites that connect to the story of German heritage, immigrants, and architecture of sites south of Union Square.
The area south of Union Square served as a home to many prominent German and German-American businesses, artisans, and residents who shaped New York in the 19th and 20th centuries. Kleindeutschland, or “Little Germany,” spanned the East Village and the area south of Union Square. This neighborhood was at one point one of the largest German-speaking communities in the world. To this day, the buildings that are associated with this German community hold incredible stories of our city and the German lives lived and lost here. Below are some selections of our full German History tour of the area.
In 1892 a new building permit was filed for 24-26 East 13th Street by G. Gennert, a photographic materials company. Gennert Brothers Photo Supply was founded in 1856 by German immigrant Gottlieb Gennert and his brother; it was one of the first photo supply houses in America, and became famous for their daguerreotype mats, cases and other supplies. By 1869 Gottlieb broke out to start his own firm, G. Gennert, and soon his business was the third largest photo supply business in the country.
By 1892, Gennert had outgrown his business’ home at 54 East 10th Street (demolished), and two of his sons, Maurice and Gustav had taken over the daily operations of the business. They hired the architectural firm of DeLemos & Corden, who designed this striking 7-story store and loft Beaux-Arts Belle Époque structure, which ended up as a home to not just G Gennert, but other significant figures in the fields of photography and stained glass design, two industries embodying the intersection of commerce and art which was so characteristic of this area. This included the German firm Heinigke and Bowen, producers of architectural stained glass and mosaics around the neighborhood and city at large, with connections to Tiffany and La Farge; McKim, Mead & White; Cass Gilbert, and more, shaping the look and feel of the city from their base at 24-26 East 13th Street.
German immigrants Bernhard and Emma A. Mittelstaedt purchased No. 86 University Place in 1889 for both their family residence and to house their business, E. Mittelstaedt, Inc., which sold women’s hair products. Bernard immigrated to the United States in 1866, though Emma’s date of arrival in America is unclear. In the 1870s, the hair products wholesaler was registered on Canal Street. Then, in the 1880s the family had moved their home and business to 5 Wooster Street. But they kept growing, and this location provided a home and residence for the business and the family.
Long before the advent of synthetic wigs, elaborate coiffed wigs and hairpieces were very much in demand by Victorian women, and this proved a lucrative endeavor for the Mittelstaedts. Interestingly, it was Emma’s name on the New York City directories in relation to the business, whereas earlier it had been Bernard’s. Perhaps because of Emma’s discovery — Emma filed a patent for “an improved construction of hair-fronts for ladies’ use, whereby they can be finished in a neater and more durable manner, more easily secured to the hair, and worn with or without parting, as desired.”
In 1889 the Mittelstaedts purchased the property at 86 University Place. They must have installed the elaborate cornice and pediment that we still see today on the building which proudly boasts “E. Mittelstaedt, Established 1867.” The 1900 federal census shows that the Mittelstaedts rented part of No. 86 to tenants, a tradition that would continue through the 20th century by their heirs. In 1905, a 40-foot rear extension was added at the first floor, which at that time was being used as a store.
Emma died in 1908 and Bernard in 1917, but shortly before Bernard’s passing, New York City directories show the firm expanded its operation into the still-extant commercial loft building next door at No. 84 University Place. Patents and advertisements illustrate the company continuing to operate at No. 84 under the leadership of his children after Bernard’s death. Meanwhile, Bernard and Emma’s daughters, Emma and Harriet, continued to live at No. 86 while renting some floors to tenants. The last Mittelstaedt to occupy No. 86 was Harriet, who donated the family home to New York University in 1958 with the condition that she could live there for the rest of her life, which she did until her death in 1964, ending one German family’s long legacy of residency in this beautiful building.
On June 15, 1904, about a thousand residents of the East Village German-American enclave known as Kleindeutschland lost their lives in the General Slocum disaster. This is an example of how Kleindeutschland extended into the area south of Union Square: through the residences of the everyday people, who made the area their home. This tenement building was home to many, including Selma Uhlendorff.
Selma was among the 1,342 people, most of whom were women and children, who boarded the General Slocum Ferry for an annual excursion up the East River and through Long Island Sound to Eaton’s Neck on Long Island. The boat was chartered by the St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church at 323 East 6th Street. When a fire broke out onboard passengers discovered that there were no safety features functional. Over 1,000 people died by drowning. This was one of the worst naval disasters in American history, and until 9/11 the greatest peacetime loss of life in New York City history.
What we know about this one person who was lost is her name, only, but what we can guess about her is a lot — that she was a churchgoer, that she was a part of the Village’s German community, and that she made her home here, likely along with many others. Selma’s name appeared on the list of identified dead passengers listed in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which listed this building as her address.
Many residents of Kleindeutschland were intimately connected with someone onboard the ship that day, and the community was devastated by the event — ultimately many left the neighborhood in the aftermath of the ship’s sinking, which significantly changed the German community and the neighborhood. You can learn more about that from historian Edward T. O’Donnell, who gave a talk for Village Preservation on the subject in 2020.
Click here to explore the full German History tour in our South of Union Square Virtual Village map.