Of all the immigrant groups to pass through New York – Irish, Italians, Chinese, Eastern European Jews – we tend to forget one of the largest groups: the Germans. Though not well remembered today (two world wars will do that to a culture), over 200,000 German-Americans lived in New York in the mid-1800s. By 1880, German immigrants and their children numbered almost 400,000, more than a quarter of the city’s population, with most concentrated in the East Village. This Kleinedeutschland, or Little Germany, formed the largest German community outside of Berlin, founding their own libraries, banks, hospitals, beer halls, musical societies, fraternal organizations, and newspapers.
Between 1850 and 1852 alone, Germans established 28 newspapers. The largest of these was the Staats-Zeitung. First printed on a hand-cranked press in 1834, the Staats-Zeitung grew to be the largest foreign-language paper in New York, the third-largest newspaper of any language in New York, and the largest German language paper in the world. The rag owed much of its success to Anna Uhl Ottendorfer. She immigrated to the United States as Anna Uhl with her husband, Jacob, in 1844. Jacob was the one who originally bought the paper, but he co-managed it with his wife. When he died, Anna became sole owner and managing editor, adding new offices, reporters, and printing presses to supply growing demand. In the 1850s, Anna married Oswald Ottendorfer, who took over as editor and publisher, allowing Anna to fully devote her time as the business manager.
In addition to being a remarkable businesswoman, Anna Uhl Ottendorfer was a noted philanthropist. Her biggest contribution may have been the $50,000 for the pair of buildings at 135 and 137 2nd Avenue. Anna personally selected local architect William Schickel to build this handsome landmarked edifice in the neo-Italian Renaissance style. The AIA Guide to New York City calls it “simultaneously somber and exuberant in its rich moulded red-brick and terra cotta dress.” Schickel broke ground in 1883, but Anna Ottendorfer sadly died mere weeks before construction finished in 1884. Her funeral procession was the largest for a woman in American history at the time.
However, she left a powerful legacy in these two buildings. One was for the Deutsche Dispensary, founded in 1857 to provide medical care to the poor and indigent of the neighborhood.
It’s decorated with busts of medical figures from antiquity like Hippocrates and Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, as well as famous scientists of the day.
The Dispensary changed to Stuyvesant Polyclinic around WWI due to anti-German sentiment, and today it’s some kind of goofy think tank. The other building was the Freie Bibliothek und Lesehalle, New York’s first free lending library.
There were many libraries in New York (the New York Society Library started in 1754), but these were often private, for-profit, or non-lending. The Bibliothek contained 8,000 volumes in German and English, and patrons could borrow one book per visit free of charge, as long as they were over the age of 12. The Ottendorfer library was eventually absorbed into the the New York Public Library System, making it the oldest branch. It’s been exceptionally well-preserved, landmarked for both its exterior and its interior.
So where did all those Germans go? Patience, grasshopper, and you’ll soon find out.