Jailbreaking 22 Eldridge Street


1860 Illustration of the Eldridge Street Jail (22 Eldridge Street) from the NYPL archive

1860 Illustration of the Eldridge Street Jail from the NYPL archive

Although I’m quite familiar with the history of the Eldridge Street Synagogue, I’ve always been curious about another address just up the block–22 Eldridge.

To satisfy my curiosity,  I researched the lot. I learned that in the mid-19th century it once held a county jail! The Eldridge Street jail was housed in a three-story structure made of brick. The building featured three front windows 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.

1857 Insurance Map of Eldridge Street, William Perris 1857-62 Volume1 Plate 13. Maps of the city of New York Third Edition. Courtesy of the New York Public Library, Map Division Digital Collection.

1857 Insurance Map of Eldridge Street

The jail lot also housed an additional rear building, just one-story tall. In this 1857 insurance map of the jail’s lot (right), we can see the rear structure at 22 Eldridge. This type of extra out-building was very popular on the Lower East Side. It provided 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  – 12, 14 and 16 Eldridge – were still separate lots with individual buildings.

A Neighborhood Nuisance

Originally built as a private home, the building later served as a city watch-house. In 1836, just a few years later, 22 Eldridge was converted to a jail. Not surprisingly, the jail was an unpleasant and undesirable tenant on the block and in the neighborhood. Concerned citizens and city reformers tried to introduce changes.  In 1854, a reformer began a campaign to install a free library in the jail. The library was finished within a year with the help of donations made by several generous New Yorkers.

Even still, many citizens were incensed by the jail’s heinous conditions. Letters to the New York Times detail the dirty, crowded conditions that the prisoners endured. In 1859, a city jury declared the jail a city nuisance. This was due in part to the low fence in the jail’s backyard which allowed for regular escapes from the grounds.

New Ownership Brings New Life

Through these resources it’s clear that the neighborhood was growing weary of the jail’s blight on the block. In 1867, the building was leased to a private citizen named John Connolly. Judging by several different sources, it appears that the jail structure was demolished by this time. A new four-story brick structure stood in its place. At the very back of the property, there also stood a three-story structure with a small yard in between.

At the municipal archives, I pulled 22 Eldridge’s block and lot folder. Inside, I found many building permits and alteration requests. A permit from 1872 depicts the rear building as a space for various haylofts and iron storage. I also discovered that the front building housed a blacksmith shop in the basement, offices and showrooms on the 1st floor, and a “furnishing shop” on the 2nd. The remaining floors were lofts. Another insurance map from 1899 labels the building as “Iron Works.”

1916 Insurance Map of Eldridge Street, 1916. Plate 12. 15-21 Eldridge Street. W.H. Bromley & Co. Atlas of the city of New York.

1916 Insurance Map of Eldridge Street

On our tours at the synagogue, we constantly talk about the noisy, bustling streets of the Lower East Side. I imagine that the iron work which was done next door to the synagogue contributed quite a bit to the neighborhood’s symphony of industrial sounds.

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. This alteration is described on the 1901 document as an addition to create dwellings for two families. The 1916 map shown here is my favorite because you can clearly see  the Eldridge Street Synagogue’s ark protruding from the back of the synagogue!

Entrepreneurial Opportunities

The block and lot folder is full of building requests, proposals and permits. It seems as though 22 Eldridge was under constant construction – either adding new stories, demolishing rear buildings, or adding new windows and display areas. By 1925, the building was owned and occupied by one business – Aisenstein, Woronock & Sons. At first, the company rented the building at 22 Eldridge. Later on, their name appeared on the owner’s side of several official documents. They also owned and occupied 20 Eldridge, which they used for the same purpose. At some point, they even constructed a second-story door that ran between the two buildings.

Although nothing too sensational has occurred at 22 Eldridge Street, the lot symbolizes 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!

Today, the lot continues to keep the spirit of immigrant entrepreneurship alive in a new era. It now houses a Chinese 99 cent store just a stones throw from our museum.

Categories: History

Comments are closed.