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Hidden in Plain Sight: A Painted Sign Uncovers History on 13th Street

Our blog series “Hidden in Plain Sight” highlights the many architectural curiosities and unique features found on buildings throughout our neighborhoods — details you might not notice on first pass, but if you’re paying attention, they tell easily overlooked and often forgotten stories.

At the corner of West 13th Street and 8th Avenue, on a wedge-shaped lot pushing up against a gas station and across the street from one of New York’s oldest little parks, stands a somewhat inconspicuous three-story building.

302 West 13th Street. Image courtesy Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Current unkempt appearance notwithstanding, No. 302 West 13th Street has an interesting and complex history. The building has undergone several major changes during its 130 years of existence, as has the surrounding streetscape. Despite being located within the Greenwich Village Historic District, which has granted the area a certain degree of protection and oversight for its historic buildings since designation in 1969, this particular block marks a visual and geographical transition between Greenwich Village and the Meatpacking District – from predominantly residential to industrial – and both historical and contemporary changes to some of the nearby buildings reflect it.

On December 12, 2023, the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) approved the conversion of 302 West 13th Street to a single-family home, and will relatedly permit several changes to the building’s appearance, including the reintroduction of the historic cornice design and original, taller windows. But the Commissioners also asked the applicants to consider retaining a special feature that recalls another layer of the building’s past…

Ghost Sign at 302 West 13th Street. Photograph by Dena Tasse-Winter, November 2023.

Take a closer look at the primary facade of 302 West 13th Street, and you might observe some discoloration of the bricks between the second and third floor windows. This is a “ghost sign”: the faded, hand-painted advertising signs found on historic buildings, usually painted on brick, that remain long after the relevant use of the building has changed. This particular sign was hidden for years behind the strips of corrugated metal siding that were installed sometime before the designation of the historic district in the late 1960s. As photographic data from Google Streetview shows us, the portion of metal siding that is currently absent from the second floor was removed between 2011-2013, revealing the painted brickwork.

These Google Streetview screenshots show the building with its metal cladding intact in 2011 (left), and with the ghost sign revealed by 2013 (right).

To determine when and why this sign may have been installed, we took a look back through this building’s various changes in use over time. Originally built in 1892, for its first six decades 302 West 13th Street housed businesses at the ground floor, with residential apartments above.

The 1940s tax photograph for the building shows that the painted sign was not yet present at the second floor, though a bracket sign reflects the building’s commercial use at the time.

As the LPC designation report for the Greenwich Village Historic District describes, in 1953 the red brick building was completely altered by architect Julian K. Jastrensky to accommodate the Shevchenko Scientific Society. It was likely around this time that the sign was painted, marking the building’s shift to a cultural use. As shared on their website, “the Shevchenko Scientific Society in the US (Наукове Товариство ім. Шевчeнка в Америці) is a Ukrainian-American scholarly institution incorporated in 1948 in the state of New York. It traces its intellectual and scholarly lineage to the Shevchenko Scientific Society established in 1873 in Lviv, Ukraine (then part of Austria-Hungary) which, until its dissolution by the Soviets in 1939, served as the preeminent Ukrainian scholarly society in Ukraine.”

The Society eventually moved to 63 4th Avenue in our proposed South of Union Square Historic District, a building that was previously the home of a prominent Book Row seller whose customers included Oklahoma’s first Senator Thomas Pryor Gore, Theodore Dreiser, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Carl Sandburg, and Ethel Barrymore. In addition to office and lecture halls, the Society’s current headquarters contain a specialized library, a depository of archives pertaining to Ukraine and the Ukrainian diaspora, and an art collection.

63 Fourth Avenue, currently the New York Headquarters of the Shevchenko Scientific Society.

It’s certainly fitting for the Society to have landed on a home near Astor Place and the East Village, as the area has a rich history of Ukrainian immigration and related cultural institutions and businesses. In fact, we have a whole tour via our East Village Building Blocks, where you can learn lots more about this vibrant facet of the neighborhood. Hopefully, the ghost sign will also remain at 302 West 13th Street, a visual cue to remind us of the interconnectedness of our neighborhoods and buildings’ pasts.

302 West 13th Street with the ghost sign. Image courtesy Landmarks Preservation Commission.

One response to “Hidden in Plain Sight: A Painted Sign Uncovers History on 13th Street

  1. Looking forward to seeing this one converted. The plans looked great and the width of this building is amazing. I have always admired this property and have been waiting for it to be properly restored.

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