Thursday, January 20, 2011

No. 375 Broome Street -- A Tenement with Dignity

photo by Alice Lum
When Peter Herter came to New York from Germany in 1884 he was, according to The New York Times “the richest builder on the banks of the Rhine.” Herter and his brother Francis established an architectural firm, Herter Brothers (not to be confused with the interior decorating firm of the same name), and set about constructing dignified tenement buildings for immigrants in the Lower East Side.

The Herters approached tenement housing differently that most builders and architects of the time. Peter defended the oft-maligned structures saying “flats, apartments, everything of that kind…from the humblest to the grandest, are, legally speaking, tenement houses.” The more acceptable French flats and apartment buildings rented for $20 or more per month; tenements were less expensive, the humble homes of the working class.

Unlike most other tenement buildings, those designed by the Herters were embellished with ambitious ornamentation, their rooms were generally larger and they offered a bit more self-esteem to the lowly renters.

Such a building was 375 Broome Street, erected around 1890. Using red brick, limestone and terra cotta the brothers produced a visually entertaining façade. Four bays wide, each of the six floors is separated by a stone course and the windows treated differently on each story. Rich terra cotta shells within arches cap the third floor windows, pronounced triangular pediments sit above the two outside windows of the fourth floor while shells without the arches ornament those in the center, and most strikingly large Magen David –or stars of David – set in ornate plaques set off the fifth floor.

photo by Alice Lum
The center two bays are recessed slightly for visual appeal. Two slim free standing Corinthian columns stand on carved stone brackets in the shape of classical heads, supporting a robust, deep pressed metal cornice. Within the cornice a large bust of, presumably, Moses looks out onto the passersby.

The Herters designed two other remarkably similar tenement houses around the same time. Historian and author Oscar Israelowitz explains that the Jewish motifs reflected the purpose of housing Jewish immigrants. The AIA Guide to New York City is less sure, offering Jupiter, Michelangelo, Mazzini and Garibaldi as possible alternative identities of the bust and saying that the stars of David are “commonly found in turn-of-the-century architectural ornament with no Jewish connection.”
photo by Alice Lum

The Jewish connection can be argued when one considers that Peter and Francis designed the elaborate Eldridge Street Synagogue around the same time. However the names of the residents reflect a mixture of backgrounds.

In 1896, Elizabeth Orth was living here when, while talking with a neighbor Rocco Bruno, she was insulted by “a tramp” which resulted in a “rough-and-tumble fight on the sidewalk,” according to the press. By 1910 an Italian restaurant occupied the first floor, run by F. Pigniolo, and among the tenants were Mrs. Amelia Morrita with her son Giuseppe and daughter Antonina, and neighbor Angelina Fenadi.

On November 7 of that year Salvatore Ricco was painting the rear of the restaurant when a gas jet ignited his paintbrush, which he dropped into the paint pot causing a conflagration.  The flames swept up the air shaft to the roof and while a passerby ran to nearby Engine Company 55, a policeman worked to evacuate the residents.

The New York Times reported on the problem of getting Angelina Fenadi to safety. She “was so fat that when she tried to get through the fire escape opening on the fifth floor she stuck fast,” said the newspaper. “Policeman Donohue tried to shove her through but the harder he tried the tighter she stuck. He had to remove several of her garments before he could get her through. A fireman took her to the street on an extension ladder.”

The fire damaged the second and third floors, causing an estimated $10,000 worth of damage.

Throughout the 20th century 375 Broome Street carried on the tradition for which it was built – relatively inexpensive apartments for working class renters. Today the ground floor is home to Quan Sushi and Oro Bakery and Bar and while the multi-cultural neighborhood is much changed since the 1890s, the Herter Brothers richly-decorated tenement building remains nearly unaltered.

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