Monday, April 20, 2015

The Lost Germania Bank Bldg - No 185 Bowery

By the 1970s the former Germania Bank Building (left) was sorely abused.  photo by Edmund Gillon from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
In 1869 the Lower East Side was rapidly changing as the formerly elegant residential neighborhood filled with German immigrants.  That year piano maker Otto Altenburgh, who lived at No. 43 Avenue A, ran his business at No. 185 Bowery.  But his piano making operation in this location was quickly coming to an end.

That same year the Germania Bank was organized.  Serving the district that became popularly nicknamed Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany, the bank would put its patrons at ease with German-speaking employees.  The old building where Otto Altenburg made pianos was razed and in its place rose a striking four-story bank building.  Clad in stone, it reflected the French Second Empire style that originated in Paris about a decade before and was now taking America by storm.

Banded piers embraced a slightly projecting bay at the second floor. A grand arched opening at the third floor was flanked by two oval windows in carved stone frames.  Balconies, handsome scrolled brackets and French detailing declared that the new bank was a substantial operation.

The bank leased space on the upper floors to other German-owned firms.  Holzhausen & Co. was here in 1876, run by brothers George W. and Heran Holzhansen.   By now the Germania Bank was experiencing unexpected success.  The building at No. 185 Bowery became inadequate and in 1878 the bank moved to a larger leased space at No. 215 Bowery.

The former bank space became home to the Karl Hutter’s salesroom.   Trained as a tinsmith he turned his attention early in his career to bottle stoppers when he took a risk and purchased a patent.  He now offered “Lighting Bottle Stoppers, Lightning Fruit-Jars and bottlers’ supplies” from No. 185 Bowery.

New York’s Great Industries in 1884 said “Mr. Hutton is emphatically one of our self-made men, and has within a comparatively few years developed a trade of the most extensive character in a line of the most useful specialties ever offered to the business public.”

Hutter ran an advertisement in Puck magazine in January 1883.  (copyright expired)

The article praised Hutton’s Lightning Bottle Stopper for its ingenuity and its ease of use. “It is a universal favorite with lager beer brewers and bottlers, fruit canners and preserve makers, milk bottlers, mineral water, soda water and ginger ale bottler—in fact for all purposes applied to stoppers of bottles and jars…In his fine establishment at No. 185 Bowery, can be seen a full assortment of stoppers and attachments, also siphons made of French glass, with pure metal heads, bottle-filling machines, lightning bottle-washers, bottle rinsing machines, siphon-filling machines, corking machines, patent boxes for convenient holding of lagers, weiss beers, sodas, siphons, Rhine wines, bottles, etc.”

But the Bowery was changing by now, and not for the better.  James D. McCabe in 1882 wrote “The Bowery is crowded day and night with a motley throng…Wretched transparencies mark the entrances to the low dives, in and out of which a steady throng pours.”  The upper floors of No. 185 were transformed into a “lodging house” catering to transients of doubtful reputation.

One resident who seems to have tried to improve his lot was John Keegan, a slate roofer.  But in January 1890 he did not come back to his room.  Three months later, on April 22, The New York Times reported that his body had been recovered in the East River.  Ironically, in his pocket was found a letter that revealed Keegan’s fortunes were about to change when he died.

“On the body was found a letter written to Keegan from a lawyer, who has charge of the collection of between $7,000 and $8,000 bequeathed to him by a brother who died two years ago.”   John Keegan’s windfall would amount to about $200,000 today.

The following year “a short man with a large nose,” as described by The New York Times, checked in.   Estimated to be about 28 years old, he shot himself in his room on the morning of September 10. The newspaper said he died within five minutes. 

Investigators had a difficult time identifying the man.  “He had no money, but in his possession were a woman’s gold watch made in Switzerland, two empty purses, and memoranda which indicated that he had solicited orders for notion houses.”

Frank Edwards ran the lodging house in 1894.  In October that year it had 90 beds and he had an average of 60 lodgers, 30 of which he described as permanent.  Police visited the place that month investigating voter fraud.

To be a “permanent resident” and therefore eligible to vote a person had to have lived at an address for 30 days.  Unscrupulous political groups paid down-and-out men to vote for their candidate, using transient hotels and lodging houses as their addresses.  Edwards assured officials “that every man who had registered from the house had been a resident there for thirty days prior to Oct. 1.”

Despite Edwards’ assertions, the lodging house continued to be popular for voting fraud for years.  Charles Keller was arrested in 1900 and 1901 for using the address as his residence for voting purposes; in 1908 a man was taken in; and the following year John Ruppel received a three-year sentence in the penitentiary for same crime.

The dire circumstances of the men who slept here was evidenced on June 26, 1901 when 65-year old Edward Carroll attempted to beg money in the theater district.  The New York Times described him as "very feeble and carries a cane.”  That night he approached 30-year old William Jackson at he corner of Broadway and 32nd Street and “asked for alms.”

Jackson refused and told the old man to go away.  When Carroll asked for help again, Jackson lost patience. “Jackson then says he struck the old man, knocking him down,” said the newspaper.

A crowd who witnessed the incident told the story to Police Officer Croker.  Both men were taken to the station house where Jackson told his story to the sergeant.   He filed a complaint against Carroll for vagrancy.  The old man was searched and “no money was found on his person.  He was locked up.”

Edward Carroll had survived longer than most on the Bowery.  The coroner routinely removed bodies from No. 185 Bowery and the deceased rarely made it past middle age.   On July 2, 1901 Jennie Lynch died here at the age of 50.  Four months later, on November 2, 35-year old Thomas Moran died.  August Emel was 58 years old when he died in his room on June 3, 1902; and Frank Greenwald was 45-years old when he passed away on August 15 that same year.

In 1916 the elevated train tracks were removed from the Bowery, allowing sunshine to hit the buildings and sidewalks for the first time in decades.   The New York Times described the difference the removal made to several structures.  Its description of No. 185 was odd at best.

“Down at 185 Bowery is a building with quaint curlicues of iron, over which are set queer dumpy lights of glass, old-looking and interesting, but until now not visible to the casual observer.”

In the meantime the ground floor shop changed hands several times.  In 1919 it was home to Cohen Bros. store fixtures and three years later to Joseph Benatsky, “leather goods.”

Thomas Calley, listed as a “workman,” lived here in 1927.  He had almost made it home on July 11 during a sweltering summer.  He was overcome with the heat and collapsed.  He was taken to Bellevue Hospital for recovery.

A few weeks earlier Frederick Martin had not been so lucky.  Prohibition resulted in numerous deaths on the Bowery because of “poison” bootleg alcohol.  Martin’s body was removed from No. 185 Bowery on June 20 and coroners suspected “drinking poison liquor.”  An autopsy showed the cause of death was “pneumonia, with acute complications, and alcoholism.”

Things did not improve on the Bowery during the ensuing decades.  By the 1970s No. 185 was known as the Savoy Hotel—ironically taking its name from the exclusive London hostelry.   The New York Times summed up the “flophouse” on March 30, 1976 as “a place where derelict men receive a night’s lodging in tiny, poorly ventilated and often filthy cubicles.”

Surprisingly, two years earlier Joe Overstreet and Corrine Jennings had taken over the 6,000 square foot former banking space for the newly-formed Kenkeleba House—what Black Enterprise magazine described as “an alternative arts and education organization.”

Kenkeleba House (it took its name from a Senegal plant known for its spiritual and nutritional value) offered “exhibition, rehearsal and studio space, as well as classrooms and workshops for literary and interdisciplinary events,” according to the magazine.

The ambitious plan of Overstreet and Jennngs in 1976 was to purchase city-owned building for conversion to artists’ living and work space upstairs.   The once elegant French-style structure was, by now, badly abused.

Ironically, it was the rediscovey and improvements along the Bowery that would spell the end of the old Germania Bank Building.  Between 2007 and 2009 No. 185, 187, 189 and 191 Bowery were gobbled up by Brack Capital.  In February 2010 the Germania Bank Building was demolished to make way for a “88,500 sq ft boutique hotel in Manhattan’s fastest developing neighborhood,” for CitizenM Hotel.
Rendering by Brack Capital
The chunky but handsome French Second Empire bank building had survived nearly 150 years as a reminder of a much different period of New York’s and the Bowery’s development. 

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