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BY TERESE LOEB KREUZER | The nine-story building that once housed the Bialystoker Center and Home for the Aged at 228 East Broadway will survive. On May 21, after around 15 minutes of discussion, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission voted to approve it for designation as a New York City landmark.
The Art Deco building was erected during the Depression by immigrant Jews from Bialystok, Poland, who scraped together $40,000 (equivalent to around $600,000 today) to create a place where the elderly and ill could receive the care they needed. It opened with great fanfare on June 11, 1931. It closed on Nov. 1, 2011, beset with debts.
“It’s a special building and it has special character and more than meets our criteria and it tells so many stories,” said the commission’s chairperson, Robert Tierney, after hearing from the other commissioners, who also lauded the building.
“The form of the building is so sculptural,” said Margery Perlmutter, a commission member. “It’s quite extraordinary in its architecture.”
“I’m always astounded that this building could be constructed on the Lower East Side in 1929,” commissioner Michael Goldblum commented. “It’s just fantastic.”
The motion to designate the Bialystoker Home as an official New York City landmark passed unanimously.
As Tierney announced the vote, two members of the audience, Joyce Mendelsohn and Mitchell Grubler, applauded and grinned. Along with Linda Jones, they had founded the Friends of the Bialystoker Home to save the building. They had won.
Praise and the quick, decisive vote to landmark the Art Deco building came at the end of a year and a half of struggle, during much of which, it seemed that the Bialystoker Home might be sold by its board of directors to a developer who would raze the building in order to build luxury apartments.
At the time it closed, the Bialystoker Home was roughly $14 million in debt for wages and pensions owed to its healthcare workers and for taxes. The board of directors claimed that a sale to the highest bidder would be the only way to repay that debt — and also said that landmarking would preclude such a sale.
Grubler, Mendelsohn and Jones, all of whom have ties to the Lower East Side, were just acquaintances when they heard in August 2011 that the Bialystoker Home was about to close. Quickly, they became determined confederates.
“We had our first official meeting [to try to save this building] at the end of September 2011,” Mendelsohn recalled.
Shortly thereafter, they went to a strategy session with Simeon Bankoff, the executive director of the Historic Districts Council.
“We really felt that this was a very long shot,” Mendelsohn said. “But we felt that we had to stand up for this cause, so we just kept going.”
She and Grubler said they never felt discouraged, even though, according to Mendelsohn, “the whole campaign was a roller-coaster, so our adrenaline was always at a high level.”
“There were plenty of adversities,” Grubler said.
At a meeting of Community Board 3’s Preservation Subcommittee in December 2011, some people argued against landmarking. A representative of Local 1199, SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, spoke about the union’s concerns that its members get the wages and contributions to medical and pension funds that were due to them. Nevertheless, the subcommittee voted to support a resolution in favor of landmark designation.
In April 2012, the Friends of the Bialystoker Home met with union representatives and “aired our case,” in Grubler’s words. The union said it would remain neutral and not oppose landmarking.
At a subsequent full C.B. 3 meeting that month, the community board passed a landmarking resolution with a vote of 20 in favor, 12 opposed and four abstentions.
Three days later, Grubler and Mendelsohn met with City Councilmember Margaret Chin, who represents the Lower East Side. She said that she would support landmarking.
“Margaret has said that the union [Local 1199] not being in opposition was the deciding factor in her coming out in favor of it,” Mendelsohn said.
Now that the Landmarks Preservation Commission has approved landmarking for the Bialystoker Home, the City Planning Commission must weigh in, and then the designation goes to City Council.
Mendelsohn said that City Planning invariably approves the L.P.C. decision and that, after that, “City Council usually votes according to the wishes of the councilmember of that district. Margaret has been a strong supporter.”
City Planning has 60 days to consider the matter and the City Council has 120 days. However, according to Lisi de Bourbon, spokesperson for Landmarks, “Legally the building has been designated, so any work done to the building would require a permit.”
Grubler, Mendelsohn and Jones will no longer have to stand vigil over the vacant building, as they did during the months of uncertainty, to make sure that it wasn’t damaged while it was in limbo.
They have not yet been permitted to go inside, but are concerned about what they will find when they do. They know that there are historic plaques and that there may be important records in the basement.
“The Bialystoker Landsmanshaften [mutual aid society] is very important to immigrant history, American history, New York City history,” Grubler said, “and any records of this organization deserve to be preserved in a publically accessible archive.”
As for the building’s future, Grubler said, “In an ideal world, it would continue to serve the demographic that it has always served — people in need, seniors. Whether that is economically feasible, I cannot say.”
Mendelsohn thought it might be suitable for affordable housing.
“My grandparents moved to the Lower East Side when they came to the United States,” she said, summing up her feelings about the landmarking vote. “My parents were born there.”
When the vote occurred, she said, “I was thinking about my grandparents, and I was thrilled that we were able to save another building that reflects the Jewish heritage of the Lower East Side, since the neighborhood is changing so rapidly. That’s so important that here we have a visible link.”