LESPI Newsletter Summer 2013

Summer 2013

Mary Help of Christians Demolished

EDITOR’S NOTE: Despite a strong and sustained effort from parishioners, preservationists, community activists and local residents, the beautiful Mary Help of Christians Church, rectory and school were demolished in August to make way for pricey residential development and big box retail. The church was built in 1917 for the East Village / Lower East Side’s Italian-American immigrant community, and over several generations faithfully served the neighborhood’s diverse Catholic population. No longer.

Demolition underway. Photo by Bobby Williams, EV GRIEVE

Although the last two years have seen great local preservation successes such as the landmark designation of the East Village / Lower East Side and East 10th Street Historic Districts, the former Van Tassell and Kearney Horse Auction Mart on E 13th Street, the Bialystoker Home on East Broadway, and the former Citizens Savings Bank on Canal Street, among others, there have also been some significant losses. Barbara Zay, a Preservation Associate at the Historic Districts Council, discusses how, after the Mary Help of Christians demolition, to move forward:

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In a neighborhood as culturally, architecturally and historically rich as the Lower East Side, it can be easy to take for granted the preservation of its built environment. Because if a building is old and beautiful, or if an important event took place there, or if it serves as an anchor for its community, someone somewhere must be doing something to safeguard it, right?

And with organizations like the Real Estate Board of New York spouting off numbers meant to convince New Yorkers that we’ve done enough to protect our architectural heritage, how is it possible that such illustrious Lower East Side buildings as 35 Cooper Square (a rare Federal building that was one of the Bowery’s oldest), 135 Bowery (another Federal gem that had even been given landmark status by the city), and most recently Mary Help of Christians (a grand façade and a hallowed ground), could each be lost to the wrecking ball? And how is it that such distinctive places as St. Mark’s Place and the tenement-lined streetscapes of Orchard Street have not yet been designated as historic districts?

Church facade, pre-demolition.

The answer to all of these questions is that historic preservation is, was, and will always be a community-driven endeavor that relies on active participation and vigilance from a broad range of local residents, business owners and advocates. Landmark or not, a significant site requires our eyes, ears and voices. The Historic Districts Council, New York’s citywide advocate for historic buildings, is proud to work with LESPI, one of its 2013 Six to Celebrate.

LESPI, in its role as watchdog, relies on everyone’s efforts, whether joining a rally, sending letters to politicians, testifying at the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, or just engaging in the conversation. All of these things make a big impact.

If there are lessons to be learned from the demolition of Mary Help of Christians, they are that we must continue to fight for our built heritage and that we can never become complacent. Our historic buildings provide physical links to the past, contribute to the urban experience, and enhance our quality of life. Their loss chips away at neighborhood character and our own sense of place. After all, it is the broad network of diverse neighborhoods that make New York City wonderful as a whole.

6 to Celebrate East Village Walking Tour

If you attended the Historic Districts Council’s 6 to Celebrate walking tour last June (the East Village / Lower East Side / LESPI is one of HDC’s 6 for 2013), you were in for a delicious surprise – preservationist Elizabeth Finkelstein led a wonderful “off the beaten path” exploration which highlighted the neighborhood’s lesser-known history, architecture and preservation

Elizabeth Finkelstein leading East Village tour in June.

challenges. The tour’s revelations included these tasty tidbits:

– The former Wheatsworth Bakery at 444 East 10th Street, an Art Deco / Viennese Secessionist style bakery factory built in 1927-28, was known for its Wheatsworth crackers as well as for inventing the Milk-Bone dog biscuit in 1908.

– 143-145 Avenue D originally served as the Dry Dock Banking House. At first glance a typical late 19th c. vernacular building, the facade still shows traces of its original 1827 construction.

– The recently landmarked Van Tassell and Kearney Horse Auction Mart at 126-28 East 13th Street, built in 1903-04, catered to New York’s elite families, including the Vanderbilts. During World War II the building served as an assembly-line training center for women, and later housed the studio of renowned modern artist Frank Stella.


Solving the Tenement Puzzle: Dispelling Myths and Misperceptions of an Architectural Vernacular

An illustrated lecture by Rob Hollander on NYC tenement architecture in the context of local political, economic and social history

September 25, 2013, 6:30PM at Neighborhood Preservation Center, 232 East 11th Street Suggested donation: $10

For more info or to reserve see HERE or email us at info@LESPI-nyc.orgThis e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Six to Celebrate Tour of Lower East Side

Tour the historic Lower East Side with Lower East Side History Project Executive Director and author Eric Ferrara
Sunday, October 6 at 11:00AM
See HERE for more info

Bright Lights, Big City: Neon Signage in the Lower East Side

Seemingly every color of the rainbow, every script, letterform (font), and line drawing has found its way into neon signage at some point over its 100 year history. The first inklings of interest in gas illuminated lighting extend back at least to the 17th century. By the end of the 19th century the technology had developed to where gas tube lighting was starting to be used as rudimentary lighting in architectural settings.

By the 1920s neon signage technology had matured and the new aesthetic was all the rage. Its popularity is evident in old photographs of New York – think Times Square – and in Hollywood films of the period – think Busby Berkeley.

However interest in neon signage as a sophisticated advertising medium began to fade as early as the late 1930s. Its seemingly ubiquitous use and flashy aesthetics led to popular distaste. Soon it became associated with “seedy” urban neighborhoods and business establishments. By the 1950s and 60s neon’s supremacy as outdoor advertising was supplanted by other forms of signage. Only recently has popular interest in this medium reawakened.

New York’s East Village / Lower East Side has had its share of great neon signage. Many signs still exist, such as: Veniero’s Pasticceria on East 11th Street, Gringer & Sons on 1st Avenue, Block Drugs on 2nd Avenue, and Russ and Daughters on Houston Street. Some have been lost: Ratner’s on Delancy Street, Jade Mountain / Chow Mein on 3rd Avenue, and Second Avenue Deli on 2nd Avenue come to mind.

In June, LESPI with the Historic Districts Council sponsored Bright Lights, Big City: A History of Neon Signage in NYC’s Lower East Side, featuring author and historian Tom Rinaldi. Tom’s fascinating and strikingly illustrated lecture covered neon’s history,

Tom Rinaldi lectures on LES neon signage

technology, and aesthetic impact on NYC’s Lower East Side, based on his recently published book New York Neon. Afterward, everyone nibbled on delicious Italian cookies courtesy of Veniero’s Pasticceria, sipped wine, and traded notes on favorite neon signage.

At the Edge: East Village Art in the 1980s

Keith Haring. Jean-Michel Basquiat. Jill Moser. Gran Fury. David Wojnarowicz. For a relatively brief time these artists and others like them, whose artistic styles, techniques and personalities could vary widely, somehow forged a strong and vibrant East Village aesthetic whose influence remains with us today.

In July LESPI with Smart Clothes Gallery sponsored At the Edge: East Village Art in the 1980s at the wonderful Smart Clothes space on Stanton Street. The highlight: Sur Rodney Sur’s beautifully illustrated lecture on East Village art, artists, and culture during this period. As a mainstay of the East Village art world, including as co-director of the highly influential Gracie Mansion gallery from 1983-88, Sur Rodney discussed the many artists and their works from an academic perspective as well as from his own rich professional and personal experience.

Sur Rodney Sur’s talk drew from his rich professional and personal experience.

At the Edge refers to the East Village’s location at the edge of Manhattan, physically and economically (at that time), as well as the sense that during the 80s this community stood at the precipices of both local gentrification and the devastation of AIDS. But this all too brief East Village artistic movement left its mark: perhaps because of the pioneering work of these innovative souls, artists can now express with less reticence the diversity of viewpoints, cultures, and orientations that make our city great.

After the lecture, before heading out into the exceptionally hot summer night, LESPI members,

LESPI’s Richard Moses, Smart Clothes Gallery’s Paul Bridgewater, and Sur Rodney Sur

friends, artists, and art lovers perused Smart Clothes Gallery’s exhibit Thrills and mingled over wine, cheese and art-infused conversation. A beautiful evening!

Photos by Bruce Monroe, Richard Moses and Bobby Williams


LESPI is a grass roots, all-volunteer not-for-profit corporation in NY State formed in 2007 to urge the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate as historic districts intact portions of the East Village / Lower East Side. Our strategy includes documenting and mapping the historic streetscapes, starting with the East Village and Lower East Side below Houston Street, and rallying community residents, city officials and the LPC to effect landmark designation. LESPI is a not-for-profit corporation in the State of New York. Our fiscal sponsor is Fund for the City of New York.

Contact us by email at info@lespi-nyc.orgThis e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , or use the form through our web site lespi-nyc.org, or by mail at LESPI, c/o Neighborhood Preservation Center, 232 East 11th Street, New York, NY 10003.

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Please donate to LESPI to help us in our work to preserve the historic East Village / Lower East Side! To donate, see HERE.

Or you can write a check to “FCNY/LESPI” and mail it to LESPI, c/o Neighborhood Preservation Center, 232 East 11th Street, New York, NY 10003. All donations are tax deductible as allowed by law.


We’re looking for people to help with outreach, people with specialized skills and experience, monetary donations, and any other assistance that can help further our mission. We’d very much appreciate your help in our campaign to preserve the East Village / Lower East Side and hope to hear from you in the near future. Contact us at info@lespi-nyc.orgThis e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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