Kevin “The Kite Man” was doing his thing in Union Square’s northern plaza on a windy Tuesday morning, with the recently landmarked former Tammany Hall in the background. Photo by Lincoln Anderson
BY ALBERT AMATEAU | New York City’s rich history as the center of populist politics and of the immigrant experience came into the spotlight this fall.
The former Tammany Hall building on Union Square East received the Landmark Preservation Commission’s unanimous designation on Oct. 29 as the city’s newest individual landmark.
And on Sept. 24, the City Council approved the commission’s earlier landmark designation of the Seward Park Library on East Broadway in the heart of the Lower East Side.
The two designations, which cited architectural distinction, as well as historical importance, were hailed by preservation advocates in the Union Square and Lower East Side neighborhoods.
The Tammany Hall building, at 100 E. 17th St. at the corner of Union Square East, was commissioned in 1929 by the Democratic Party at the height of its power and influence in the city and the state since the 1790s.
The three-and-a-half story headquarters of the Society of St. Tammany replaced a previous building, known as the Wigwam, at 141 E. 14th St., which had served as party headquarters since 1868, and included a music hall. (Tammany was named for a chieftain of the Lenape, Manhattan’s indigenous people.)
Designed by Thompson, Homes & Converse and Charles B. Mayers, the 1929 building was inspired by the old New York City Hall where George Washington took the oath of office as president of the United States. The bricks were modeled after the ones that Thomas Jefferson used for Monticello. A rusticated stone base, a pediment over the portico, two-story-tall pilasters and relief sculptures depicting a medallion of Chief Tammany and a polychrome Revolutionary War cap, are features of the building.
“The architecture is interesting, evocative and referential, but the history of Tammany makes the building stand out,” said Robert Tierney, chairperson of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. “Tammany means a lot of things to a lot of people but it’s certainly a touchstone of New York City, state and national politics.”
When Tammany commissioned the building, the party machine was ascendant. Al Smith was the state’s former governor and had been a presidential candidate, and James J. Walker was the mayor and darling of the city. But by the time the party sold the building to Local 91 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in 1943, Walker had resigned amid accusations of corruption, Smith was out of politics and the New Deal had eroded Tammany’s power.
The New York Film Academy and a theater are now among the building’s current tenants.
The Tammany Hall landmark designation was hailed by preservation advocates, particularly Jack Taylor, who is active in Union Square issues and is a founder of The Drive to Protect the Ladies Mile District, on Sixth Ave.
It infamously took 20 years and millions of extra dollars — embezzled by Tammany’s Boss Tweed — to complete the Tweed Courthouse, on Chambers St., named after the Tammany leader, in 1881. Yet, it took even longer for neighborhood preservationists and others to persuade L.P.C. to designate the political organization’s historic headquarters.
“It’s taken 29 years to get Tammany Hall landmarked,” Taylor said.
He noted that on June 25 of this year, in a key development, the building’s owner finally dropped her opposition to the designation. The advocacy of Councilmember Rosie Mendez was also significant, he added.
“The Union Square Community Coalition remains committed to further landmark designations in our neighborhoods,” Taylor said, “to protect our architectural, cultural, social and historic heritage, and the quality of life such structures represent.”
The Seward Park branch of the New York Public Library, at 192 East Broadway, one of 20 branch libraries in Manhattan and one of the 67 in the five boroughs funded by the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, opened its doors to a teeming neighborhood of immigrants on Nov. 11, 1909.
With holdings in Hebrew, Yiddish, German and Russian, as well as English, the library was a magnet for neighbors hungry for knowledge. And as the neighborhood demographics changed, with Latino and Asian residents replacing earlier immigrants, the library continues to serve the needs of its neighbors.
The library has traditionally run joint programs with the Educational Alliance, located across the street, and other neighborhood institutions, including the Henry Street Settlement.
The three-story brick building with limestone trim replaced a smaller Downtown branch of the Aguilar Library established in 1886.
Refurbished in 2004 to include a new entrance and computer upgrades, the Seward Park library was designed by Babb, Cook and Welsh, one of the few firms of the time chosen for the Carnegie branches. Built in the Italian Renaissance style, the building has a rusticated limestone base, arched window and door openings, molded window surrounds and rusticated quoins at the building’s corners.
A limestone frieze with “New York Public Library” inscribed below the cornice and at the roofline, and a limestone balustrade with a copper railing between the piers are also design features. The railing anchored a canvas awning for an open-air rooftop reading room. It was one of only five such rooftop reading areas included in library branches of the early 1900s, and it is the only one to survive on a building still in active use as a library.
At the Landmark Preservation Commission hearing earlier this year, Chairperson Tierney said the designation was “architecturally a slam dunk.” He added, “It’s quite moving that the library has played such a central role in the cultural life of the Lower East Side, constantly changing as new immigrant groups settled in the historic neighborhood.”
City Councilmember Margaret Chin hailed the full Council’s approval of the designation in September.
“This building is iconic, both architecturally and for the key role it played in New York City’s immigrant experience,” Chin said. “I am thrilled that its rich history in our community will be protected.”
When it was built, the library fronted on Jefferson St. across from Seward Park. Passersby could see into the large ground-floor windows of the main reading room. With the development of the Seward Park Co-op apartment complex and the expansion of the park, the library has been enclosed within the park fence.
Preservation advocates, including Friends of the Lower East Side and the Seward Park Preservation and History Club, thanked the commission for the designation, which is intended to preserve the institution for future generations.
The commission also designated three other Lower Manhattan landmarks last month.
The three-and-a-half story 1833 Federal-style building at 333 Grand St., between Ludlow and Orchard Sts., is the 18th Federal building that the commission has landmarked since 2002. The Grand St. building is one of a row of houses put up by John Jacob Astor on land he bought from a business associate, William Laight, in 1806.
“This understated row house, by far the most intact of the five that are there now, is a significant reminder of the period after the Revolutionary War when New York City was developing into a major port and financial center,” said Tierney.
Two five-story, cast-iron-fronted store and loft buildings at 39 and 41 Worth St., between West Broadway and Church Sts., in Tribeca were also designated. The building at 41 Worth St. was constructed in 1865 in the Italianate style for Philo Lao Mills, a dry goods merchant and founder of Mills & Gibb, which had branches throughout the U.S. and in Europe. The structure was converted in 1981 to a residential co-op.
The building at 39 Worth St. was erected in 1866 as an investment for James Smith, a manufacturer of fire engines. Tenants over the years included textile merchants, a rug importer and a restaurant. It, too, became a residential co-op in 1981.