Grand Street History Uncovered in Wake of Fire

Posted on: May 20th, 2010 at 6:33 am by

It’s been more than five weeks since a fire on Grand Street killed one tenant, left scores of families homeless, and gutted the century-old tenement buildings at 283, 287, and 289 Grand.  Many of us who work nearby have been watching the fire’s aftermath play out on a daily basis, constantly reminded of our neighbors’ loss, and watching as the fire department investigates, and as the city slowly tears down the tenements floor by floor.

As a preservation consultant and urban historian, I couldn’t help but notice the signs of an earlier version of the streetscape revealed by the effects of last month’s fire. Demolition of the most badly damaged buildings at 283-287 Grand is now complete, and the exposed walls of the flanking buildings have been painted over for the interim. But a close look at both of these blank brick walls reveals evidence of an earlier generation of buildings that once stood on the site.

[Photo Credit: Diane De Fazio]

Built in the early 1800s, these older buildings were two-and-half-stories tall, and the ghosts of their peaked rooflines, their floor framing, and even their former window openings can now be seen where they abutted the neighboring structures:

These buildings were constructed when this part of the Lower East Side was first urbanized in the 1830s and 1840s. Originally, they had commercial space on the ground floor and residential space above. A handful of similar buildings survive today, including three directly across the street from the fire site:

[Photo Credit: Chris Neville]

An 1857 fire insurance map at the New York Public Library shows the block when it was lined with such buildings: wood-framed on the south side of Grand, brick on the north. Three of them are shown as occupying the lots at 283-287 Grand.

[Photo Credit: New York Public Library]

Today, Grand Street east of Broadway is a thriving commercial thoroughfare, as it also was in the mid-19th century, when these blocks were the heart of one of the city’s early shopping districts. The area specialized in dry-goods, and was anchored by the flagship store of Lord & Taylor at the corner of Chrystie Street. A trolley line ran across town on Grand from river to river, linking ferry docks to Williamsburg on the east side and Jersey City on the west. Later, the new 2nd Avenue elevated train ran along Allen Street with a station at Grand as well.

The storefronts at 283-287 were a part of this bustling commercial landscape. By the 1880s they were all managed by dry-goods merchant J. Lichtenstein, who also operated out of 281 Grand next door. Until this row of low-rise wooden buildings was replaced by tenements in the 1890s, 281 Grand was the tallest building on the block, and its eastern wall was prime advertising space. Not only was the wall visible for sidewalk shoppers, it was also in plain view of trolley passengers on Grand Street and el passengers passing through the station at Allen.

[Photo Credit: Diane De Fazio]

Before it was painted over last week, the wall still bore faint markings from a long-ago ad campaign. Sharp-eyed viewers could just make out lettering, which read “…AIR.”  This ghost sign, painted on the brick wall of 281 Grand more than a century ago, was for a multi-tenant, indoor retail emporium called “The Fair,” which occupied the building in the mid-1890s.

[Photo Credit: Diane De Fazio]

(By this time, Lichtenstein has moved his main store to new premises on West 23rd Street, following the dry-goods district’s northward migration to the Ladies’ Mile area).

Written by Chris Neville, Tenement Museum

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  • Doug

    Wow! This is a cool discovery. Just found your site via a twitter post. I love it!

  • Anonymous

    This is great. Thank you.

  • Sarah

    This is so awesome!!

  • Mitch

    Fascinating post! Thanks.

  • Sally Young

    I found the same thing on Bond St. I’d been photographing “ghosts” before new buildings went up, but the one on the South-West side of Bond between Lafayette and Bowery was an in-tact “ghost” of a Gambrel Roof House which I photographed. It had been a parking garage, and after its demolition is when I saw the “ghost”. It is now a new Condo, but the photographs remain and tell the history of what once was there.
    Demolition is not all that comforting, even if it exposes old history. In the demolition of 29-33 Cooper Square, which I photographed daily, wooden walls were exposed and also old brickwork, fire places, etc.. These were all buildings definitely prior to 1830, and most likely much, much earlier. History becomes the photograph. We have much to learn about our neighborhood. Demolitions become urban archaeology with a price. Something went wrong with the Cooper Square demolition-it shouldn’t have happened. In the case of 283-289 Grand St., it is a tragic view of history, due to fire and due to the fact the demolished buildings were in themselves a hundred plus years. In reality, the fire happened and the buildings came down. Our history exposed is fascinating, and a way of seeing Grand Street, at one time a whole street perhaps of Federal Houses, with peak and gambrel roofs, probably Flemish Bond masonry(the existing houses on Grand street are like this). It was a much smaller, but very busy world then. Commerce was happening, these were lively streets. The exposure of the houses on Grand St. is a wonderful find, amid the ruins of lost homes and businesses. Hopefully our elected officials can find homes for those displaced by the fire, and lost businesses can thrive again. We have a reminder, that ever since this was Grand St., in our history, we have had homes, and those displaced should have homes as well.

    • Elliott Hurwitt

      Excellent comments from Sally Young. The Cooper Square demolitions was indeed a terrible tragedy for the Bowery/East Village neighborhoods, and should have been prevented. And this is happening often all over lower Manhattan, again and again, and the losses are coming thick and fast.

      Only a couple months ago, you could still see two beautiful pre-1850 brick buildings (in 2 separate styles) adjacent to each other on Henry Street just east of Catherine Street in Chinatown (#s 22 & 24 Henry). Now they’re gone, demolished in March, probably just in order to make a quick buck. This appears to have been done by the Chinese owner of the adjacent 20 Henry St., an ugly one-story string of storefronts. Whether this person is a New York resident or one of these foreign private equity companies that hover over lower Manhattan like buzzards, I really couldn’t say, but it’s a tragedy either way.

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  • Great piece of research, BB. I love this stuff…

    You may have seen this, but Zach van Schouwen did an animation showing the evolution of buildings along Eldridge Street:

  • Thanks for all your comments so far (and yes, Zach van Schouwen’s Eldridge Street animation is something every block deserves to have!)

    These chance sightings of fragments from an older city are captivating, and it is always great to be able to share them and share in their decipherment. Sadly, it often takes some kind of destruction or loss to reveal them and catch our attention. And whether they are caused by fires, planned demolitions, or illegal teardowns, these moments of discovery are also usually brief. There isn’t much time to document what’s been revealed, or to figure out the bigger picture that surrounds them. Blink, and they disappear again, maybe for good. (And on top of that, what we learn from them is often far outweighed by what we lose.)

    But whether we spot some telling physical clues or not, and whether we bother to try to piece them together, the stories that give those clues meaning are there all the same. In fact, those stories are everywhere, hidden in plain sight. They may be woven into the landscape itself, but they may also be buried in an archive somewhere, or locked in the memories of a neighbor you never thought to ask. The trick is in remembering to ask, remembering to look, and remembering to value what you see.

    Connecting the dots like this is a community enterprise.