Grand Street History Uncovered in Wake of Fire

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

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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.

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[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:

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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:

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[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.

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[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.

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[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.

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[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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