USA: Urgent Effort to Designate Lower East Side Good Samaritan/Eastern District Dispensary a NYC Landmark
by Samuel D. Gruber
In New York City, Lower East Side historians, neighborhood activists and preservationists are pushing the urgent landmark designation of the former Good Samaritan/Eastern District Dispensary on Essex Street. The elegant Italianate structure is a work of architectural note, but also an important landmark of social and cultural history - and especially early 20th century efforts to bring adequate health care to the urban immigrant and often indigent populations. The landmark effort follows recent successful drives to designate and protect the Bialystoker Home and the Seward Park Branch of the New York Public library, both buildings with architectural and historical significance to the neighborhood and city. The rapidly changing demographics and skyrocketing real estate prices in the Lower East Side leae many old buildings such as this one unprotected from serious exterior alteration, or outright demolition.
The Eastern District Dispensary was first established on Grand Street in 1832, during a major cholera epidemic, and functioned for about 120 years in various downtown locations, providing free or low-cost care to those particularly vulnerable to life threatening contagious diseases. According to the Friends of the Lower East Side:
When Eastern District and Good Samaritan Dispensaries consolidated and erected the building at 75 Essex Street in 1890, there were close to a dozen of these publicly financed neighborhood dispensaries operating in Manhattan. Funding for the land and building – a total of $112,000 – was raised through contributions; annual operating expenses were funded by the city. The ground level and first floor held physicians’ offices, quarantine rooms and an apothecary dispensing medicine for a cost of ten cents. Upper floors were used for waiting areas and examination rooms. After a law was passed in 1899 that only the indigent could be treated at city-operated dispensaries, visits became a source of shame and the number of patients declined. Dispensaries gradually phased out as hospitals opened outpatient clinics.
In the same manner of libraries, bathhouses and educational buildings - also often designed with impressive (and thought to be culturally uplifting) Renaissance details - the new dispensary stood as an example of municipal responsibility and philanthropic involvement in a neighborhood composed mostly of crowded tenements. Since closing in the 1950s, the building has been used for commercial, office and storage space. It is now owned and occupied by Eisner Brothers, a sportswear retailer, but they have put the building up for sale.
The still remarkably intact four-story building was designed in the style of a freestanding Italianate palazzo in 1890 by architects Rose & Stone. The orange and tan brick and brownstone trim structure has five round-arched openings in the first story of the eastern façade along Essex Street, that provide the building - and the street - with an elegant rhythm. It bears some general resemblance to the near-contemporary Educational Alliance Building designed by Arnold W. Brunner and Thomas Tryon nearby at 197 East Broadway (corner of Jefferson Street), and erected in 1891.
According to the Friends of the Lower East Side, the former dispensary
"is already listed as eligible in the Lower East Side Historic District placed on the National Register in 2001. In addition, it is noted in the Environmental Impact Statement for the development of the Essex Crossing/Seward Park Mixed-Use Development. Adjacent to the planned new construction, this unique Lower East Side building is threatened by damage from work conducted around it and, since it is currently advertised for sale, is vulnerable to demolition or inappropriate alterations by new owners."To Contact the New York Landmarks Preservation Board in support of the designation of the former dispensary, click here.
You can read some more history of the building from a 2010 blog by Allison Siegel from the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.