The following article by Joyce Mendelsohn of the Friends of the Lower East Side first appeared in the February 2014 edition of The Lo-Down’s print magazine.
As rapid development continues to alter the character of the Lower East Side, collective memory loss is taking over and making many people uneasy about living and working in a place that seems to be fading away. In efforts to strengthen a fragile relationship between continuity and change, concerned individuals and grass-roots community groups have advocated for landmark designation of outstanding buildings and historic districts.
On Jan. 14, 2013, Friends of the Lower East Side submitted a Request for Evaluation to the Landmarks Preservation Commission as a first step toward landmark designation for 75 Essex Street, the former Good Samaritan/Eastern District Dispensary, constructed in 1890.
The free-standing, four-story, brick building was designed in the Italianate style by eminent architects Rose & Stone and survives remarkably intact, featuring ground-floor rusticated masonry and a series of rounded arches. The dispensary, constructed with private donations and operated for 6 0 years with city funding, was a walk-in community medical facility offering free or low-cost health care and prescription medicines.
When erected on the corner of Essex and Broome, in a neighborhood composed mainly of run-down tenements, it stood as a model of humanitarian aid and municipal responsibility. Today it stands as an architectural treasure and a link to the role of government in providing access to affordable health care.
After the dispensary closed in the 1950s, the building switched to commercial use and is currently owned by a sportswear retailer offering it for sale, “…..in a PRIME Lower East Side neighborhood TEEMING WITH NEW DEVELOPMENT.” Adjacent to Essex Crossing — the mixed-use project for the former Seward Park urban renewal site — the unprotected building is threatened by damage from construction work nearby and is vulnerable to inappropriate alterations or demolition by new owners.
The former dispensary needs to be preserved not just for its architectural excellence or to solidify a connection between past and present. Saving it also will have a positive impact on the environment. It has been said that “the greenest building is the one already built.” The Lower East Side boasts several examples of economically viable, adaptive reuse of high-quality historic structures like the Forward Building, a socialist Yiddish newspaper site transformed into upscale condos; Jarmulowsky Bank, a Beaux-Arts beauty with renovations in progress for a luxury hotel; and Ansche Chesed, an abandoned synagogue, converted into the Angel Orensanz Foundation, a magnificent space for photo ops, weddings and cultural events.
Preservation is a tough battle, facing hostility from misguided property owners, deep-pocket developers and the Real Estate Board of New York. Delete their pricey PR message that preservation is an enemy of urban revitalization. In fact, preservation promotes economic development. For the less than 4 percent of New York City buildings protected by landmark designation, preservation raises property values, boosts tourism and is a magnet for TV and movie shoots.
I urge you to go to: friendsofthelowereastside.org for more information and to send a message to the Landmarks Commission in support of designation for 75 Essex St.
Joyce Mendelsohn is the author of “The Lower East Side Remembered and Revisited” and, with Linda C. Jones and Mitchell Grubler, is a founder of Friends of the Lower East Side. The organization will go before Community Board 3’s landmarks subcommittee this evening to ask for its support. That meeting takes place at the JASA/Green building, 200 East 5th St., at 6:30 p.m.