On October 6, 1683, thirteen families arrived in Philadelphia and founded the first German settlement in North America. Since then, generations of Germans have immigrated to the United States, with the greatest influx arriving in the mid-19th century following the revolutions of 1848. Manhattan became a main destination for these immigrants, especially the East Village, a neighborhood that grew into a center of German life known as Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany. For a time, it was the largest German-speaking community beyond Berlin and Vienna, and provided for residents numerous houses of worship, labor and other local organizations, charitable institutions, and social halls.
That growth started to wane by the turn of the next century. A variety of factors, notably a terrible tragedy on the East River in 1904 that affected nearly every German family in East Village, and other neighborhoods opening to new and recent immigrants, hastened a decline in the number of German residents living in the immediate community and an end to a vibrant Kleindeutschland here. However, there are still remnants of Little Germany all throughout the neighborhood, which we explore in our Kleindeutschland Guided Tour on our East Village Building Blocks website. Here are some key sites to be found on this tour.
323-327 East 6th Street
In 1847, the German St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church built a one-story Greek Revival–style church on East 6th Street between First and Second Avenues. Ten years later, it became St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. The church thrived through the late 19th century, when its congregation started to decline as German immigrants began to move from the neighborhood.
On June 15, 1904, the church held its annual picnic for congregants, chartering the General Slocum for a ride to Long Island’s North Shore for some 1,300 people. The boat left from its pier on East 3rd Street, heading up the East River. As the vessel passed 90th Street, a fire started in the lamp room below the main deck, setting the boat ablaze. Due to inadequate safety equipment and poor leadership, some 1,000 people perished in the tragedy, dealing a major blow to almost everyone in Little Germany.
The site, listed on the State and National Register of Historic Places, was purchased by the Community Synagogue Center in 1940. Today the building continues to serve the community as the Community Synagogue Max D. Raskin Center.
334 East 14th Street
The Romanesque Revival building on East 14th Street between First and Second Avenues was built in 1869–70 as the First German Baptist Church. Designed by Julius Boekell, a prolific designer who worked almost exclusively for German clients within the German enclaves of New York, the fanciful church served the community for some five decades, well after many congregants moved beyond the neighborhood. In 1926 it became the home of a Ukrainian Autocephalic Orthodox Church, which is when the onion domes still present today were added to the exterior. The building became home to Congregation Tifereth Israel, also knows as the Town and Village Synagogue (in reference to nearby Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, where many of the congregants lived) in 1962, and the Conservative congregation still maintains the site as its house of worship.
In 2014, after a campaign led by Village Preservation and others, Congregation Tifereth Israel was designated a New York City landmark.
69 St. Mark’s Place
Social halls were an important part of life within the cramped streets of Little Germany, offering showy structures that gave residents wonderful room for weddings, dances, political meetings, and other key life moments as well as a neighborhood gathering space for food, drink, and more. One such social hall was the clubhouse for the German Odd Fellows Association, designed by Willam C. Frohne and built in 1889, at 69 St. Mark’s Place. The organization was a German version of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, which had left the neighborhood in 1848 for newer space uptown.
The five-story structure was organized as a clubhouse complete with a bowling alley, meeting rooms, and ballroom as well as private space for a single family on the third and fourth floors. The ground-floor addition to the building that projects out to meet the sidewalk was added sometime around 1950.
66-68 East 4th Street
Nos. 66-68 East 4th Street were built in 1832 as two separate Federal-era row houses, part of a fashionable stretch known as Albian Place. In 1871, the buildings were combined into one; with great fanfare celebrated by a vast audience including the Mayor, the site became home to the New York Turn Verein, a gymnastics society that also played a key role promoting and furthering German culture. Turn Halle, as the structure came to be known, offered more meeting spaces for the community as well as a theater for both German and later Yiddish productions.
Turn Verein stayed in the location until 1898, when it moved uptown to Yorkville. Since then, the site has gone through a wide range of uses that have served a changing community. In 1899, for example, it became the Manhattan Lyceum Hall, an anarchist meeting hall that gave speakers like Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman an opportunity to address the public. More recently, La MaMa experimental theater opened an annex at the location, which was purchased by the nonprofit Fourth Arts Block in 2005
106 East 14th Street
The overwhelming modern dormitory building at 106 East 14th Street built by NYU in 1998 may have little to do with local German history, but a previous structure here was an important part of Kleindeutschland. Lüchow’s was established in 1882, when German immigrant August Lüchow purchased the cafe where he worked as a bartender and waiter. The restaurant would expand over the years in size and prominence, eventually occupying a space eight times as large as the original venue, and growing into both a neighborhood staple and perhaps the most well-known German restaurant in the nation. It became an essential gathering spot for the music, theater, or literary crowd, thanks to its proximity to venues including the Academy of Music and Steinway Hall.
Even with the dissolution of Little Germany by the early 20th century, Lüchow’s remained a mainstay for decades. By 1982, however, the decline of the Union Square area and financial factors spelled the end for the restaurant in its original location; Lüchow’s moved to the theater district but was only able to hang on for two more years.
Explore all the sites on the Kleindeutschland tour on our East Village Building Blocks site here.