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Tracking Tenement Gems

Tracking Tenement Gems

The stone faces that look at us from New York City buildings are called grotesques. On the Lower East Side, they form another layer in the city’s immigrant history.

Last Sunday, veteran tour guide Barry Feldman shared his affection for these urban ornamental curiosities in an architectural walking tour, “Tenement Chic,” sponsored by the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy and beginning at its Visitor Center on Grand Street.

What do those faces mean, staring over windows and doorways? Why did nineteenth-century architects go so crazy with terra-cotta flora and fauna, with the mammoth pressed-tin cornices that look down on us from roofs? Feldman, a former school district administrator with the Board of Education and Fellow at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, was affable and well-informed.

During the period covered in the tour, the mid-1800s to 1910 or so, decoration of anything was popular. Think of ornate Victorian parlors, every surface covered with pictures or draped with fabric; contemporary apartment buildings show a similar impulse to patchke.* So the answer begins with the human urge to decorate. It continues with money: landlords were able to charge higher rents for buildings that looked better. The late nineteenth century wave of (largely) Ashkenazi Jewish immigration to the Lower East Side put real estate at a premium. Although tenement regulation improved conditions somewhat, buildings meant for a few families were subdivided into many apartments, and any spare space on a lot might be used to build a second tenement in the back. The resulting crowding and squalor are familiar from Jacob Riis’s photographs, and Feldman evoked them vividly.

In this environment, the pleasure given by grotesques, animals, floral patterns, and abstract designs in brick, stone and terra cotta, seen on one’s own building might well, as Feldman explained, have convinced an immigrant to pay a little more rent. The development of dyes and molds for mechanized reproduction meant that such ornaments were available and affordable for builders.

Two highlights were the caryatids – columns in human form – at 123 Henry Street, and the elaborate cornice on “Henrietta,” a tenement at 211 Madison Street. For many walkers, though, the niftiest building was a tenement by Peter and Francis William Herter, decorated with rows of Stars of David between two of the upper floors. After the success of the Eldridge Street Synagogue, the Herter brothers were given commissions from Jewish groups elsewhere on the Lower East Side – hence, at 16 Orchard Street, a charming piece of Jewish history in terra cotta set in brick.

* Patchke: to fuss obsessively; often used to describe excessive decoration.

Elizabeth Denlinger curates a collection of rare books and manuscripts at the New York Public Library and is at work on a novel about a boarding school in 1955.

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