Block Party

BLOCK PARTY: 2nd Avenue between St. Mark’s Place and 9th Street

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Although the ground floor gelateria is as modern as it gets, architecture nerds will find the Flemish bond brickwork and Gibbs surround point to the building’s real origins (don’t worry, I had to look up what those terms meant, too.) Like the Keteltas Mansion, 138 2nd Avenue is another Thomas Davis creation, built in 1832-33. In 1850, Duncan Pearsall Campbell and his wife Maria moved here. Campbell led a busy life as partner in the illustrious Leroy, Bayard & Co. merchant house, trustee of the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and a director of several city charities.

Closer to the turn of the century, this was the home of Philip Wagner, local undertaker and sexton of the German Lutheran St. Mark’s Church. From his funeral parlor, Wagner witnessed one of the most horrible tragedies in New York City history. Remember the Germans who visited the Ottendorfer Library? For decades, they were the dominant immigrant group in the East Village, until tragedy struck on June 15th, 1904. St. Mark’s Lutheran Church booked a massive paddlewheeler called the General Slocum for a picnicking excursion for 1,358 congregants, mostly women and children.

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Halfway up the East River, a small grease fire in the ship’s hull turned the vessel into a giant floating conflagration.  “Children perished before the eyes of parents,” wrote Munsey’s Magazine. “Husbands witnessed the sudden destruction of their wives and families. Mothers, with babes at their breasts, were swept by the flames into the sea.” A witness told the Brooklyn Eagle he saw “a line of hawser running from the stern to the paddle box…fringed with women, boys and girls. They were hanging there like clothes on a Monday wash.”

New Yorkers rushed to the rescue – policemen, doctors at nearby Riverside Hospital, and captains of tugboats and skiffs in the vicinity saved scores of lives. The same could not be said of the Slocum’s crew, who shoved women and children out of the way as they dove into the water. One laborer attempted to put the fire out by smothering it…with a bag of charcoal. As for the life preservers, they were anything but. Investigators discovered the life preservers were filled with ground cork of the lowest quality. Meanwhile, the Nonpareil Cork Works had filled life vests with iron bars to obtain the legally-prescribed weight for their products. When wet, a Slocum life vest sunk like a millstone. Fire hoses were of similarly poor quality, made of frayed cloth rather than sturdy rubber. Not that it mattered – all but two fire hoses were found with burns on only one side of the hose, meaning they had never even been unspooled. The two that were used immediately burst when employed. The Times compared it to “drown[ing] out a blazing caldron of oil with a squirt gun.”

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All told, 1,021 people died in the General Slocum disaster, the largest single loss of life in New York City until 9/11. Philip Wagner was forced to turn families away at the door, his funeral parlor already stacked high with corpses. An honorary funeral procession from St. Mark’s used every single hearse in the city. For the survivors, the grief was too much. Entire families were eradicated, and white ribbons hung on doors for months. Many Germans moved north to Yorkville and established a new community on the Upper East Side. Immigrants from Russia, Hungary, Poland, and the Ukraine quickly filled the void, and Kleindeutschland was no more.

The Federal-style row house has received many additions over the years – the projecting bay storefront, the Italianate cornice, a fourth floor likely added a fourth story to accommodate spillover from the Association for Befriending Children and Young Girls – but it still retains much of its architectural, not to mention historic, value. In 1916, the League of Foreign-Born Citizens moved in thanks to a $1,500 gift from Mrs. Vincent Astor (“Good moral character is the only qualification necessary.”) It later became a millinery in the 1920s and the Manhattan Democratic Club of the Eighth Assembly District Clubhouse in the 1930s. Today, the land is owned by the Ukrainian National Home. Who are they, you ask? Read on…

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