Preservation Groups Ask Landmarks Commission to Declare Lower East Side Historic District

Orchard Street looking south from Hester Street.

Orchard Street looking south from Hester Street.
Orchard Street looking south from Hester Street.

Two neighborhood preservation groups this month asked the Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate a Lower East Side Historic District. The plan from Friends of the Lower East Side and the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative has been months in the making. It has the backing of 18 other organizations.

The request was formally made of the agency in a June 1 “statement of support” to Meenakshi Srinivasan, chair of the commission. It reads, in part:

Manhattan’s Lower East Side is recognized as America’s iconic immigrant neighborhood with unsurpassed architectural, historical and cultural significance to our city, state and nation. Its great variety of age-old tenements, institutional and commercial build-ings not only enrich the streets with architecture based on human scale and beautifully crafted ornament, but have given the community and its residents a cohesive and stable environment with a strongly identifiable sense of history and place. The only way to effectively preserve the historic streetscapes of this vital neighborhood is through New York City historic district designation. Therefore, we call upon the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission to landmark, without delay, the historically intact areas of the Lower East Side below Houston Street.

Preliminary proposed historic district map.
Preliminary proposed historic district map.

The groups are asking the Landmarks Preservation Commission to “first target” an area below Delancey Street between Forsyth and Essex streets. Supporters of the proposal include: the Historic Districts Council, the New York Landmarks Conservancy, University Settlement, Museum at Eldridge Street, Two Bridges Neighborhood Council and the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors.

The proposal details the neighborhood’s central role in American immigration over multiple generations as well as global culture and political thought, mentioning trailblazers such as George Gershwin, Louise Nevelson, Abraham Cahan, Eddie Cantor, Lillian D. Wald and Senator Jacob Javits. As for the architectural merit of the Lower East Side’s historic buildings, the groups write:

Its low-scale tenement buildings reveal the changing character of urban housing for lower income New Yorkers during the mid- nineteenth to early-twentieth centuries. Like no other neighborhood in the city, its intact streetscapes offer a brick-and-mortar lesson in both the historical plight of the immigrant poor and society’s response to those horrid conditions. The district still contains fine examples of pre-law, old-law, new-law and other innovative housing reforms. While the facades of even vernacular buildings showcase a wonderful array of crafted terra-cotta, stone, and cast-iron ornamentation, there are, in addition, many important examples of the work of such eminent architects as Ernest Flagg, Henry J. Hardenberg, C.B.J. Snyder, Napoleon Le Brun & Son, and Herter Brothers.

The Lower East Side is listed on the state and national registers of historic places, but these designations do not offer protection for endangered buildings. In 2008, the National Trust for Historic Preservation declared the LES one of the country’s “11 most endangered places.”  In 2006, the Tenement Museum launched a campaign for an historic district and received the endorsement of Community Board 3, but abruptly dropped the proposal in the face of opposition from local property owners. Notably, the Tenement Museum is not listed as a supporter of the new effort.  In 2012, the commission designated the East Village/Lower East Side Historic District in an area between East 2nd Street to East 7th Street.

The plea to the Landmarks Commission notes that several individual buildings have been designated in recent years. But the groups argue that “it is only in context with their neighboring tenement buildings that the district tells the full story of immigrant life on the LES.” They also state that an historic district will help preserve hundreds of units of affordable housing and save small businesses that “have long characterized the area.”

The organizations say “time is of the essence if we are to be able to preserve even the relatively small intact areas below Delancey Street.” They conclude, “We believe that the Lower East Side’s historic importance and need for landmark protection are unsurpassed.”

The groups have been collecting signatures of support to bolster their application. According to LES Preservation Initiative’s newsletter, they have about 500 signatures so far and are continuing to petition throughout the neighborhood.

In addition to the groups named above, the following organizations are supporting the campaign: Art Loisaida Foundation, Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center, Congregation Kehila Kedosha Janina, East Village Community Coalition, Friends of Terra Cotta, Gotham Center for New York City History, LES History Project, City Lore, Angel Orensanz Center, Seward Park Conservancy, Seward Park Preservation & History Club and the Victorian Society of New York.