Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The 1912 Forward Building -- From Karl Marx to Tatum Oneal

photo by Alice Lum

Towards the end of the 19th Century socialism and anarchism spread throughout Europe and America.  Many of the impoverished immigrants in New York City, straining to exist in cramped tenements by working menial jobs with little pay, were attracted to the promises of shared wealth and a better life.

Among the socialist newspapers that sprung up during this time was the Jewish Daily Forward.  Written in Yiddish, the common language of the Russian and German born Jews of the Lower East Side, its first issue was printed on April 27, 1897.  While most of the small political newspapers lasted only a short time, the Forward survived, with no small credit going to its editor Abraham Cahan.

Cahan, a member of the Socialist Labor Party, arrived in New York at 21 in 1882.  The journalist wrote on a freelance basis for the New York Sun, the New York World and the Socialist Labor Party newspaper, The Workman’s Advocate, as well as other publications.

With the establishment of the Forward, Cahan at first contributed articles and then became its editor.  However when editorial and political differences grew too intense, he resigned his position.  For a number of years he supported himself by returning to freelance writing – including interviews with President William McKinley and Buffalo Bill.

Abraham Cahan returned briefly to his position in 1902, left, then returned permanently a year later.  The Jewish Daily Forward was struggling despite the steady stream of European Jewish immigrants arriving in New York harbor every day .   Cahan took control of the situation.

Stressing that the articles be something to which the readers of the newspaper could relate, he insisted on common, straightforward language.  “You’ve got to write of things in everyday life,” he said.  Rather than to simply parrot political propaganda, the Forward included news and human interest stories, including articles about the neighborhood and its residents.

Years later, during the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration’s “New York City Guide” would say “Unionism, anarchism, capitalism, socialism and communism have been thoroughly discussed in the streets and parks of the East Side…Anarchist and Socialist papers and periodicals, some short-lived, others continuing to appear for many years, have been issued in many languages…Under the editorship of Abraham Cahan, the Jewish Daily Forward, a labor paper in Jewish, has been most influential.”

The circulation rose from around 60,000 in 1906 to over 250,000 in the 1920s.  By 1912 it had become evident that the newspaper needed a new, modern building in which to house itself; .  The architect George A. Boehm received the commission to build the new headquarters on the site of the tenement building from which the newspaper was operating at 175 East Broadway and the one next door at 173.
The Jewish Daily Forward building rose high above its neighbors -- photo by Alice Lum
Taking inspiration from the Evening Post Building at 20 Vesey Street completed six years earlier, Boehm created a ten-story, Beaux Arts structure that juts upward.  Terra cotta, marbled stone and stained glass ornament the tan brick fa├žade.  Flaming torches, symbols of the passing of learning, are found in the stained glass panels flanking the entrance way, in the cartouche above it and incised into the terra cotta below the great clock in the parapet high above.

An arm holds a flaming torch high -- the symbol of learning -- photo by Alice Lum
Two reclining terra cotta figures, one male and one female, fill the area beneath the broken pediment directly above the cartouche at the third floor.  But most importantly in reflecting the editorial position of the paper, four bas reliefs decorated the frieze below the second floor cornice represented Karl Marx, Ferdinance Lassalle, Friedrich Engels and a fourth person whose identity has been lost; suggested to be either Wilhelm Liebknecht, August Bebel or perhaps Karl Liebknecht.

Terra cotta representations of socialist leaders graced the frieze over the entrance -- photo Alice Lum
The building, as the “New York City Guide” pointed out in 1939, stood “head and shoulders above its neighbors.”   Printing presses were below ground, the business offices were housed on the main levels and the highest floors were set apart for the composing rooms.  The remainder of the offices were leased out to liberal organizations including the United Hebrew trades and the Workmen’s Circle.
photo by Alice Lum
Five years after the building was completed, on January 6, 1917, The Editor & Publisher wrote of the Forward’s unusual organization.  “It is owned cooperatively by its readers and published by the Forward Association.  Not a single dollar has ever been made by the Association from the newspaper.  After printing expenses and salaries are deducted, 20 per cent of the profits are donated to charity and the remainder is turned back to the general fund for the purpose of enlarging the scope of the enterprise.”

A year later Elizabeth Gurley Flynn chaired the founding conference of the Workers Liberty Defense Union here – defending members of the Socialist Party, the Industrial Workers of the World, union members arrested for demonstrating against the United States entry into World War I.

Here too the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee met in 1920 to plan defense strategies for the anarchists.

In 1939 the newspaper was the largest Yiddish daily newspaper in the world. Yet by 1962 daily circulation was down to 56,126.  In 1972 The Forward gave up its impressive building on East Broadway and a Chinese church moved in to the lower floors, leaving the rest of the building vacant.

Then in 1998 the Lau family, owners of the structure, initiated a conversion to residential lofts.  Alfred Wen was brought in to design an overhaul  intended to result in 29 condominiums.  At the same time, a facade restoration was implemented and the four sculptures of the socialist leaders were removed.

But the renovation ground to a halt.  In 2004 the building was purchased by Ronald Castellano and Christopher Hayes who completed the renovation – and returned the sculptured to the frieze.
The apartments are decidedly different from the socialist offices that once occupied these spaces -- photo streeteasy.com

It was here that actress Tatum O’Neal was living in 2008 when she was arrested for attempting to buy crack in a nearby park.  The socialist founders of the Jewish Daily Forward would no doubt not be pleased with the end use of its building --with some apartments costing $5 million, a 24-hour doorman and high end amenities.

1 comment:

  1. The fourth Socialist leader on the facade is August Bebel, who was the leader of the German Social Democratic Party at the time the Forward building was erected.

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