This post was written by Museum at Eldridge Street intern Max Widmann.
On the corner of Canal and Orchard Streets is a 12-story, neo-Renaissance building that dwarfs the typical Lower East Side tenement buildings and shops. Although it hasn’t operated as a bank in 104 years, the façade still reads S. JARMULOWSKY’S BANK EST. 1873, reflecting the name of the bank’s proprietor, Sender Jarmulowsky, who was also a founding member of the Eldridge Street Synagogue. The building has a fairly standard tripartite construction, with a three-story base of rusticated limestone, a six-story shaft of beige brick, and an architectural terracotta capital. Other important design elements include a Corinthian cornice, balustraded parapet, and several large urns on the rooftop, all of which add a touch of elegance to the skyline. But why was such a grand building constructed in the relatively modest Lower East Side, and what can we learn from it? The Jarmulowsky Bank Building’s story is one of immigrant aspirations, business competition, and an ever-changing neighborhood, but most importantly surviving generations worth of physical deterioration to be an important marker of Jewish history. And its upcoming renewal as a grand hotel marks a new 21st-century chapter for this enduring neighborhood symbol.
The Jarmulowsky Bank building, built in 1912 by the architects Rouse & Goldstone, was the final home of Jarmulowsky’s Bank, one of the leading immigrant banks in the Lower East Side. Such “banks” were not regulated by the state—deposits were really only backed by the banker’s word—but they provided invaluable services to the Eastern European Jewish community. Immigrants could make deposits, secure small loans, and purchase tickets on an overseas ship. In 1909, 3,000 of these banks handled the nearly $100 million that immigrants annually transferred to family members who remained in Europe. Jarmulowsky and other immigrant bankers offered Sunday hours, a rare accommodation for Jewish clients in a city that largely shut down on the Christian day of rest. For at least several decades, Jarmulowsky remained a successful business owner: according to the New York Times, his bank had survived four runs since 1873. But by 1914, the outbreak of the first world war resulted in a large number of clients withdrawing money to send to family members in the old country, and the bank failed only two years after the majestic building was completed. The bank was closed by state authorities in 1917, with famed judge Learned Hand handling the bankruptcy. (You can learn more about Sender and some of his bank’s artifacts in our previous blog posts.) Following the bank’s downturn, Sender’s descendants were largely disgraced, with his son Meyer advocating racist redlining practices in real estate. According to historian Rebecca Kobrin, “Unable to escape the wrath of impoverished depositors, Meyer Jarmulowsky changed his name to Jarmuth, acquired a degree in architecture from Columbia University, and moved to Vineland, N.J. By 1961, almost all of the remaining descendants of Sender Jarmulowsky had changed their names, perhaps to escape the stain of their family’s failure.”
While Jarmulowsky’s descendants were fleeing New York City’s banking industry, the Lower East Side was undergoing a widespread demographic shift. Starting in the 1920s, as primarily Jewish immigrants established themselves and their businesses, they moved uptown and to the outer boroughs with the help of public transportation. Immigration quotas on Eastern Europeans lasted until 1924, further contributing to a decline in Jewish population on the Lower East Side. In the following decades, the Asian population continued to grow, with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 abolishing the quota system that greatly restricted migration from Asian countries. Chinatown rapidly expanded, annexing areas of the Lower East Side. From 1917 until 2011, when the Jarmulowsky Bank Building was sold to DLJ Real Estate Capital Partners, the building was home to a similarly diverse combination of industries and people. The building was used for textile manufacturing and piano making, and in the 1980s, there were said to be squatters living in its lofts. By the 21st century, many Chinese businesses were renting manufacturing space and storefronts. Unfortunately, years of industrial use led to many original architectural details being removed or damaged. Recognizing the building’s history and grandeur, its former owner Baruch Singer worked with architect Ron Castellano in 2009 to secure protection under the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Museum at Eldridge Street interns had the pleasure of visiting the Jarmulowsky Bank building on a recent Friday. Under the ownership of DLJ Real Estate Capital Partners, the building is nearing the end of a $190 million complete renovation that will restore the building to its architectural apogee. There are 116 upscale guest rooms, as well as restaurants, bars, and event spaces spread across 60,000 square feet. Apparent throughout the building is the developers’ attention to the principles of historic restoration. A century’s worth of deferred maintenance and theft left the building without many of its original architectural elements, posing a challenge to architectural historian Kerri Culhane. Incredibly, the owners were able to restore nearly everything to 1912 perfection, with architects, designers, and historians contacting past contractors and city authorities to recover removed objects. The restoration team even increased the contrast on old photographs to precisely recreate architectural detail.
The entire renovation is subject to approval by the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), with architects and designers in frequent contact with SHPO representatives. Every modification to the design has to be cleared with the requisite city and state authorities. There’s no faking it in historic restoration: if something isn’t going to be restored to its exact original, it must be from a visibly different style. For example, contemporary light fixtures will hang in the original banking hall, while SHPO deemed the developers’ initial plan for a new restaurant too antiquated. There also must be clear delineation between what is historically landmarked and what is not; there are completely different windows and styles in the non-landmarked addition to the building, while the baseboards in the guest rooms change ever so slightly to reflect original and modern walls.
The original banking lobby is one of the building’s most stunning spaces. Shown in the accompanying photographs, the lobby utilizes the Caen stone plaster technique, which was popular between 1910 and 1913. Both the Jarmulowsky Bank and Grand Central Terminal used this rare technique, creating a very similar look! Many of the ceiling’s details have been spared because a false ceiling was installed at some point in the last century. While the original banking desk is gone, a new check-in counter will mirror the original fixture’s elegant round corners. (If you want to learn more about the ceiling, this video shows the delicate and labor-intensive paint restoration process.)
Perhaps the most pronounced element of the Jarmulowsky Bank building is the roof’s domed tempietto. At an architectural moment when taller was often viewed as better, the tempietto added several floors’ worth of height to the building’s facade. New York buildings like the original Madison Square Garden and the Manhattan Municipal Building had used domed spires before, but this was its first appearance on the relatively modest Lower East Side. The tempietto allowed the building to compete in height with East Broadway’s Forward Building, which housed a Jewish socialist newspaper and could be seen from the bank building’s windows. The New York Times notes that many believe the Forward was built as a reaction to the capitalist orientation of Jarmulowsky’s Bank, but the Forward had actually been built a year earlier. The tempietto began deteriorating after the bank’s closure in 1917, with various pieces falling off or being stolen, and the owners completely removed it in 1990. At the time, the New York Times wrote that “the building was instantly reduced from the exceptional to the ordinary — and the area’s skyline lost one of its signature elements.” Luckily for the skyline, the project’s architectural historian has carefully recreated the tempietto, and for the first time ever it will be accessible to hotel guests through a staircase. The roof will serve as a private event space with expansive views of Manhattan.
At the same time, the Jarmulowsky Bank restoration is representative of shifts in the neighborhood’s culture. The Lower East Side/Chinatown neighborhood (Manhattan’s Community District 3) is one of the most rapidly gentrifying areas in New York City. According to The Lo-Down and NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, rents in CD3 increased by 50.3% between 1990 and 2014, compared to a city-wide average of 22.1%. In addition, 23.8% of CD3’s residents were severely rent-burdened in 2019 (this is defined as rent obligations totaling more than 50% of one’s income). These changes are also visible on the street level, as a new generation of upscale galleries, restaurants, and hotels populate storefronts once frequented by Jewish and then Chinese immigrants. Hopefully, the Jarmulowsky Bank Building’s restoration will not price out longtime Lower East residents, and it does seem as though the owners are aware of the optics of an upscale hotel going into a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. DLJ has been working closely with Community Board 3 to address residents’ concerns about possible noise pollution and other effects to the neighborhood. For instance, the building’s rooftop will not serve as a public bar, as originally planned, but instead as a private space for guests, with opportunities for communities groups to rent the space free of charge. For now, we are happy to have a building with such close ties to the Eldridge Street Synagogue restored to all its beauty and historic charm.
Max is a 2021 summer intern and rising sophomore at Princeton University. He lives in New York, NY and is planning to concentrate in History with a certificate in Urban Studies.