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The Tenement Houses of Second Avenue

The East Village is home to many impressive tenement buildings. Originally built to house the city’s poor and working class citizens, their facades are often ornate and eye-catching. It serves as a reminder that their original occupants, most of whom were immigrants, sought better opportunities, even as their living and working conditions were incredibly difficult and sometimes even unsafe, and that their architects . Many of the architects of these tenements were immigrants themselves, or hailed from immigrant families. Let us take a brief look at the history of tenements, and a few examples of former tenement houses on Second Avenue in the East Village.

The History of Tenement Housing

Beginning in the early 19th century, the type of housing that New Yorkers lived in began to change dramatically. In the first two centuries of its life, the city of New York was primarily made up of single-family homes. Many of the occupants were merchants doing business at the seaport or farmers working the land, which was far more plentiful during that era. When the city’s population began to increase, structured urban planning became necessary. This resulted in the 1811 Commissioners’ Plan, which provided the city with its first grid plan and designated 25-by-100-foot plots for single family homes. When the Industrial Revolution began, the city transformed into a land with more factories than farms, and the population increased dramatically in both size and density. The single-family plots of the 1811 Plan were already obsolete. These industrial workers needed somewhere to live, and the solution was tenement housing—a contraction of “tenant house,” meaning a place where tenants lived rather than the owners of the building.

Many of the tenements that still stand on Second Avenue are from the New Law era (1901 and later). The 1901 Tenement House Act followed previous legislation in the late 19th century intended to improve difficult living conditions inside tenement housing, from lack of ventilation to lack of plumbing. One of the most significant changes in the 1901 act was that all rooms had to have windows—perhaps one of the reasons that New Law tenements are more common in the present day.

Tenements of Second Avenue

All of these buildings are mentioned in Village Preservation’s 2018 report A History of the East Village and its Architecture by Francis Morrone, which can be found here.

145 Second Avenue 

Designed by architect Charles B. Meyer, this 1899 tenement features Neo-Renaissance style terra cotta brickwork with a bright contrast of light stone and curling, symmetrical window ornamentation. Though it is technically an Old Law tenement, 145 Second Avenue closely resembles the tenements that would be built only three years later under New Law specifications. Meyers would go on to design buildings throughout the city over the course of his career, and 145 Second Avenue was one of his first.

Detail of 145 Second Avenue.

139 and 141 Second Avenue

These adjoining tenements from 1900 and 1904 were designed by different architects, and each demonstrate different ways in which tenement architects borrowed from various European architectural revival traditions. No. 139 (left), designed by brothers Michael and Mitchell Bernstein, is a deep, narrow building, which features unusually bright terra cotta brickwork and striking white metal framing on the windows. Longtime neighborhood staple East Village Meat Market, founded by Julian Baczynski, occupies the first floor. No. 141 (right), designed by Alfred E. Badt, features monochromatic brick and stone work with miniature columns worked into each window frame.

Detail of 139 Second Avenue.
Detail of 141 Second Avenue.

190 Second Avenue

This tenement is especially eye-catching due to its chamfered corner, which proudly presents a column of corner windows. Like no. 145, no. 190 makes use of Neo-Renaissance ornamentation and contrasting brickwork, but is more playful in its design, with little dragons in the rounded window pediments on the 4th floor. The base of this building was once the home of the Cafe Royal, a gathering space for Jewish artists and writers who worked and performed on this stretch of Second Avenue, once known as the ‘Yiddish Rialto.’

Detail of 190 Second Avenue.

All of the aforementioned architects were Jewish immigrants themselves, much like many of the occupants of these buildings they designed (while mostly German immigrants in the late 19th century, by the early 20th century the Second Avenue corridor in the East Village had become the heart of a thriving Jewish neighborhood). Their work is part of a story not often told when it comes to New York tenements—one of aesthetic and architectural ambition. In his book The Decorated Tenement: How Immigrant Builders and Architects Transformed the Slum in the Gilded Age, Zachary Violette argues that some of the intense criticism of tenements from the era was not so much out of concern for the urban poor, but rather anti-Semitism and xenophobia. Each of these buildings continues to house New York City residents to this day, giving new life to their complicated and fascinating history.

To learn more about the history of the East Village, check out our East Village Building Blocks and A History of the East Village and Its Architecture.

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