The East 10th Street Historic District — officially designated on this day in 2012 — covers the northern side of the street between Avenues A and B, 26 buildings in all standing directly across from Tompkins Square Park. And while it may be one of the city’s smallest such districts, it’s certainly not lacking in architectural charms and history that played a big role across the rest of the city.
The area in and around 10th Street started to see some development in the 1820s and 1830s, as blocks north of Houston Street between the Bowery and Broadway became fashionable residential areas. Speculation in the neighborhood continued to grow as the Stuyvesant family began to sell off much of the large tracts of land it held east of the Bowery to respected developers such as Thomas E. Davis, who constructed two terraces of fine Federal-style houses on East 8th Street between Second and Third Avenues. Davis and Arthur Bronson, another wealthy real estate owner, purchased all the lots on East 10th Street between A and B in 1831; a year later, the City officially opened Tompkins Square Park, giving more impetus to development on the street. Unfortunately, the Panic of 1837 and the economic depression that followed impeded any progress here for several years, through to the early 1840s.
In 1844, Joseph Trench, the architect who would then shape a large part of the historic district, got his start here with a substantial Italianate brick building at 301 East 10th Street. Trench — who also designed 296–299, 305, and 307 — is often credited with helping to introduce the elegant Italianate style to the United States, mixing it with the still popular Greek Revival to provide a sense of refinement to the neighborhood. Trench went on to develop the Italianate style further in other, more ornate residential structures such as the Colonel Herman Thorne mansion at 22 West 16th Street and the James P. Fenniman house at 14th Street and Union Square (both non-extant) as well as larger buildings like the A.T. Stewart Department Store (today’s Sun Building) and the Odd Fellows Hall, both in Lower Manhattan and both landmarked. The style eventually became an essential form of residential design in brownstones across the city.
Over the next few decades, more row houses were built that filled in the block, such as those at Nos. 335-345 constructed in 1860 by William Wright that furthered the Italianate style. As more immigrants moved into the neighborhood, notably Irish and German, the need that grew for housing led to the development of tenement buildings, including two in the Romanesque Revival style built in 1890 and designed by Benjamin E. Lowe.
The final new building to be erected within the boundaries of the current historic district might be the one that had the greatest impact on the city as a whole: the Tompkins Square Branch of the New York Public Library at No. 331. The Classical Revival building, completed in 1904, was designed by the legendary firm of McKim Mead & White. It was one of the first Carnegie libraries to be built in New York City, and helped establish a model followed by many of the other structures that were part of Andrew Carnegie’s $5.2 million program for a citywide branch library system.
The library, which actually required the demolition of two 1860s-era William Wright buildings, was the last major change on the block. Bookended in time by two noteworthy design firms, East 10th Street provides an interesting glimpse into the architectural history of the entire neighborhood, As the Landmarks Preservation Commission noted in its designation report in 2012, “In many respects the entire history of the East Village is reflected in the buildings that comprise the historic district, from the neighborhoods early development as a fashionable residential community of architect-designed dwellings, to its subsequent transformation into an immigrant district filled with purpose-built tenements and converted row houses. … the buildings within the East 10th Street Historic District have maintained a cohesive architectural character [in] an important park setting in the historically and culturally rich East Village neighborhood.”