May 25 2011
There’s been a lot of research done about the synagogue but I was curious about other buildings on the block. In this post, I “jailbreak” the history of address 22 Eldridge, just a few doors north of us.
This lot is especially interesting because it held a county jail in the mid-19th century. The Eldridge Street jail was a three-story structure made of brick. The building featured three windows across the front, but these were covered with “outside iron blinds set at an angle upward, so as to let in some light” (NY Times 1862). These gated windows are visible in the print of the jail above.
The jail lot also housed an additional rear building, just one-story tall, built against the back of the main building. In this 1857 insurance map of the jail’s lot and the surrounding buildings, we can see the rear structure at 22 Eldridge (the street number is listed to the right of the lot). This type of extra out-building was very popular on the Lower East Side. It added much-needed space in a crowded neighborhood. You can see many of these buildings depicted on this 1857 map. We can also see that the three lots that the synagogue now stands on are still separate lots with individual buildings.
Originally built as a private home, 22 Eldridge was converted to a jail in 1836 after serving as a city watch-house. This jail was an unpleasant and undesirable tenant on the block and in the neighborhood. For this reason, the jail attracted the attention of concerned citizens and city reformers. In 1854, a reformer began a campaign to get a free library installed in the jail. He was successful within one year, and a library was installed with the help of donations from generous New Yorkers. Even with the library, many citizens were incensed at the conditions within the jail. Letters to the New York Times at this time detail the dirty, crowded conditions that the county prisoners endured, likening the holding cells to the hold of a slave-ship. In 1859, a city jury actually declared the jail a city nuisance, due no doubt in part to the low fence in the jail’s backyard that allowed for regular escapes from the grounds.
Through these resources it’s clear that the neighborhood was growing weary of the jail’s blight on the block. By 1867, the building was leased to a private buyer named John Connolly. Through the stitching together of several difference sources, my best guess is that the jail structure is demolished at this time, and a brick four-story structure is built in its place. The lot is also equipped with an additional three-story building situated at the very back of the property, with a small yard in between. In this 1899 insurance map, the building is labeled “Iron Works.” At the municipal archives, I pulled 22 Eldridge’s block and lot folder. Inside, I found many building permits and alteration requests. On one from 1872, the rear building is labeled as haylofts and iron storage. The front building is described as having a blacksmith shop in the basement, offices and showrooms on the 1st story, and a “furnishing shop” on the 2nd floor. The remaining floors are simply labeled as lofts. On our tours at the synagogue, we constantly talk about the noisy, bustling neighborhood of the Lower East Side. The fact that an iron work was being done on the very same block as the synagogue is a perfect example of that!
Another building permit, this one from 1901, describes the construction of a building that runs from the rear of the main building directly to the rear lot line. This change is visible in the map below. The reason for this alteration is described on the 1901 document is stated as dwellings for two families. The map shown here, drawn in 1916, is my favorite, because we can clearly see our ark protruding from the back of the synagogue!
The block and lot folder is full of building requests, proposals and permits. The building at 22 Eldridge seems to have been under constant construction – either adding new stories, demolishing rear buildings, or adding new windows and display areas. By 1925, the building is owned and occupied by one incorporation – Aisenstein, Woronock & Sons. This organization was at first just a tenant in 22 Eldridge, before their name began to appear on the owner’s side of official documents. They also owned and occupied 20 Eldridge, using both buildings for the same purpose, and even constructed a second-story door that ran between the buildings.
Although nothing too sensational occurred at 22 Eldridge Street, the lot is a quintessential Lower East Side story. I love to think that Jewish tenants of 22 Eldridge were able to eventually buy the building and use it solely for their own purposes. It’s quite possible that these businessmen were congregants at our very synagogue, praying just a few doors down from the site of their own business ventures!