Wednesday, December 19, 2012

USA: Time to Designate the Biaystoker Home a New York City Landmark

New York, NY. The Bialystoker Home, main entrance. Photo: Samuel Gruber (2005)

USA: Time to Designate the Biaystoker Home a New York City Landmark 
 by Samuel D. Gruber

One of the most distinctive buildings on the Lower East Side - Jewish or otherwise - is the Bialystoker Home at 228 East Broadway, known officially in its last years as the Bialystoker Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation, located nor far from another distinctive landmark and secular tower - the former Forward Building at Straus Square, now re-purposed as condominium apartments. 

Opened on June 21, 1931, the Bialystoker carries the residual optimism found in so much of New York's architecture of the late 1920s, planned before the November 1929 stock market crash and the subsequent Great Depression.  At the same time, the very purpose of the home was to provide care for elderly, mostly immigrant Jews, who could not manage to care of themselves.  This growing population was already recognized as needy and under-serviced during the period of post-World War I prosperity. 

New York, NY. The Bialystoker Home. Harry Hurwit, arch., 1930-31.  Photo: Samuel Gruber (2005)  

The 10-story Bialystoker tower stands out architecturally as an exemplar of the embrace of the modern and Art Deco styles by New York's Jews (think of the office skyscrapers of Ely Jacques Kahn and Irwin Chanin) but also as an important and successful social experiment.  The Bialystoker is the physical manifestation of the shift in the charitable impulses of the late 19th-century landsmanshaft groups to more modern community-wide social services.  For the first time, place-based immigrant groups (led by the many Bialystoker organizations) pooled their resources to provide a necessary charitable service available to all needy Jews.  This style of care, already known in uptown Jewish hospitals such as Sinai and Montefiore, was new on the Lower East Side.  And while those earlier institutions had been founded by New York's German-speaking Jewish population, the success of the Bialystoker Home was due entirely to "Polish" Jews.

When the Bialystoker Home opened The New York Times reported that “Twenty-five years to the day after many of their number had fled from a pogrom in Bialystok, Poland, more than 5,000 Jews crowded East Broadway between Clinton and Montgomery Streets…and witnessed the opening and dedication of the $500,000 Bialystoker Home for the Aged.”   President Franklin Roosevelt and other  officials sent congratulatory telegrams.  Representative Samuel Dickstein  saw in the home evidence that the Jews had always “taken care of their own people, without calling upon the government to find a place for the orphans and the aged.”

The home provided for 250 residents and included an auditorium, dormitories, two synagogues, sun parlors and hospital wards. It later added assisted living options for elderly so that they could continue to socialize as part of the neighborhood’s fabric.

Read more about the history of the Bialystoker home here.

The building was designed by Harry Hurwit (1888-1963), a Jewish architect who was also a local boy; he grew up on the Lower East Side.  According to the Friends of the Bialystoker Home, Hurwit was veteran of several battles of World War I and was able to attend Cooper Union after the war.  After graduation, he established his own firm where designed he residential, institutional and commercial buildings. Hurwit is best known for the Bialystoker Home, one of his last fully realized buildings.  After the onset of the Great Depression, he made a living with small jobs and building alterations.  Harry Hurwit remained involved with the Lower East Side community throughout his life.  He was a member of the Educational Alliance, the Grand Street Boys Association and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.  Several of his descendants have joined the campaign to save the Bialystoker Center and Home.

Hurwit managed to create a very multi-functional building that is also one of the more striking Art Deco buildings in the city, seemingly both intimate and tall at the same time.  This is due in part to the building's narrow facade, and also to the fact that it's ten stories - while puny compared to Wall Street or midtown towers - was quite high on the Lower East Side in 1931.  Perhaps a timeless quality is intended by the inclusion of roundels in which symbols in relief of the Twelve Tribes of Israel surround the main entrance portal, or the message may be more explicitly Zionist.  And perhaps just as the charitable program of the Home competed with uptown precursors, the builders of the Home were also inspired by the inclusion of sign of the Twelve Tribes  on the great bronze doors of Uptown's newest marvel - the grand Temple Emanuel on Fifth Avenue, completed in January 1930.  There, we find the symbols of the tribes - with very similar depictions - suggesting a common source for both representations. 

 New York, NY. The Bialystoker Home. Harry Hurwit, arch., 1930-31.  Photo: Samuel Gruber (2005) 

The Symbols of the Twelve Tribes are described in detail in an article by Richard McBee “The Twelve Tribes At The Bialystoker Home” The Jewish Press (3/15/2012), who was asssisted by the research of Elissa Sampson.  McBee writes:

The images are ensconced in roundels that approximate a Hebraic formulation (right to left) of Jacob’s “blessings” found at the end of Genesis. They start on the right with the first born, Reuben, travel up, cross the transept and down the left side to the final child, Benjamin

The exact order and most of the images actually follows the Midrash Rabbah on Numbers 2:2 that expands on the arrangement of the tribes around the Tent of Meeting in the wilderness; “The Children of Israel shall encamp, each man by his banner according to the insignias of their fathers’ household.” This midrash codifies the information from Jacob’s blessings (Genesis 49) and Moses’ blessings (Deuteronomy 33) into a blueprint for the color and image for each tribe’s flag or symbol.

At the base of each side panel there are stylized representations of the Temple Menorah superimposed over a Star of David/pyramid design anchored by schematic sunrises. These images link this building on East Broadway with both the ancient Temple and the growing Zionist movement in Palestine. Reuben’s mandrakes, a gift of fertility for both his mother and Rachel, effectively sidesteps Jacob’s stinging castigation. Simon is represented by a massive city gate, alluding to the city of Shechem, while Levi gets off scot-free with a depiction of the High Priest’s breastplate, the Choshen HaMishpat that contained the Urim and Tumin. The right side panel is then completed with the Lion of Judah confirming Jacob’s blessing of kingship to his fourth born son.
  New York, NY. The Bialystoker Home. Harry Hurwit, arch., 1930-31.  Photo: Samuel Gruber (2005)

The Bialystoker Home is already listed on the the National Register of Historic Places, but the honorific offers no real protection to the structure, though the designation will allow a future developer the advantage of historic preservation tax credits for any project that maintains the character of the building.   Local residents - many of whom have labored for years to protect and preserve some of the historic character of the Lower East Side, have been especially concerned  since the closing of the Bialystoker Home in 2011 about its  possible sale to a tear-down developer who would replace it with a luxury condo.  The Friends of the Bialystoker Home was formed and has been active in promoting the preservation of this historic building, including lining up endorsement for Landmark designation. 

After a long wait, The Landmarks Preservation Commission last week calendared the Bialystoker Home and the New York Public Library, Seward Park Branch, the 1909 building that like the Bialystoker home has long been central to the identity of the neighborhood.  They are the last remaining historic buildings on the north side of East Broadway.  Public hearings on these two buildings have not yet been scheduled, but now is the time for those who wish to see these building preserved to weigh in.

Friends of the Bialystoker Home urges supporters of the building's landmark designation to write letter to:

Hon. Robert B. Tierney, Chair,
NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission.
1 Centre St. 9th floor
New York, N.Y. 10007  or
Please cc the organization at:

New York, NY. The Bialystoker Home. Harry Hurwit, arch., 1930-31.  Photo: Samuel Gruber (2005)

In related news, this month the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission approved plans for the restoration of the Jarmulowsky Bank, the third "Jewish tower" in the neighborhood.  The plans, which include rooftop modifications but are mostly aimed at returning the structure to its original 1912 glory.  The former Jarmulowsky Bank building will become a boutique hotel.   A successful effort to protect the building was undertaken in 2009.  

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