Volume 19 Issue 50 | April 27 - May 3, 2007

Downtown Express photo by Esther Martin

A local tour guide is looking to get landmark status for the former St. George’s Chapel at 103 Washington St., foreground, and hopes that one day it, along with these two adjacent buildings, 105-107 and 109 Washington St., will be part of a Little Syria historic district in recognition of the Arab-American population that lived there in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Tour guide looks to save remnants of ‘Little Syria’

By Skye H. McFarlane

Wedged in between the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and the World Trade Center site, filled with a hodgepodge of rambling old buildings and high-rise parking garages, the area now known as “Greenwich St. south” can often feel like a lost neighborhood.

But when tour guide Joseph Svehlak glances at 103-109 Washington St., he sees a living architectural reminder of a once-vibrant immigrant community — a reminder he’d like to see preserved for future generations.

The Lower West Side, west of Broadway from the Battery up to Chambers St., has been known by many names over the years. During the Progressive Era it was “Bowling Green Village” and “Wall St.’s back yard.” Before the World Trade Center demolished its upper reaches in the late 1960s, it was the “Electronics District” or “Radio Row.”

Svehlak prefers “Little Syria.” In one of the city’s many ethnic ironies, the neighborhood that was devastated most recently by the destruction of the Twin Towers was the first predominantly Arab enclave in New York City. Starting in the 1870s, new arrivals from what was called Greater Syria began to fill the streets, converting the area’s once-fashionable row houses into multi-family tenements.

Ethnically Arab and mostly Maronite Catholics, these immigrants came not only from the modern-day country of Syria, but from Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Palestine and other parts of the region. They were joined by Slavs from Eastern Europe, Orthodox Greeks and Turks, as well as a smattering of Irish families left over from earlier waves of immigration.

As with most immigrant neighborhoods at the turn of the 20th century, Little Syria had problems with overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and poor health. However, the area’s proximity to the staggering wealth of Wall St. made it the target of many philanthropic efforts during the 1910s and 20s.

A 1917 article in the Guaranty News described the work of the Bowling Green Neighborhood Association to provide health care, nutrition, playgrounds and other amenities to the area, thanks to the support of deep-pocketed bankers.

“Today conditions are improving,” the article stated, “but there is still a long way to go and much to do before these immigrants…shall know what wholesome living and thinking can be, and what real opportunity means in this land of ‘the lady with gaslights in her hair,’ as they call the Statue of Liberty.”

By the late 1920s, the neighborhood seemed well on its way, with Arab intellectuals and poets living in amongst working class families. Fathers worked on the docks and mothers cleaned the skyscrapers of the Financial District. There were clean stoops, stickball games and neighborhood dances. Martin and Barbara Rizek, who grew up in the area, described this later heyday in their 2004 book, “The Financial District’s Lost Neighborhood 1900–1970.”

However, the construction of the Battery Tunnel and the W.T.C. flattened much of the area’s housing stock, dispersing residents to the outer boroughs. To Svehlak, the three Washington St. buildings represent a rare glimpse back at the old neighborhood.

Built in 1871, 109 Washington St. was a tenement house. It is still an apartment building today, with a Thai food restaurant on the ground floor. Next door is 105-107 Washington, a broad, Colonial-style building that was constructed in 1925 as the Downtown Community House.

Paid for by soap baron William Childs and run by the Bowling Green Neighborhood Association, the Community House was designed to help immigrants adjust to life in the U.S. It housed a library, a health clinic, a game room, a nursery and even a dressmaking school. The building most recently served as a Buddhist temple and it still boasts rainbow paint and golden Buddha medallions on its façade. Today it is vacant. A sign on the door says it is available to rent from D.H. Realty.

At 103 Washington St. sits the most striking of the three structures, an 1870s tenement-turned-storefront church with a white, neo-gothic terracotta façade. The fanciful exterior, including a relief of St. George slaying a dragon, was installed in 1929 by the St. George’s Syrian Catholic Church. In 1982, the church sold the place to the Moran family, which opened up a second Moran’s Ale House location there in 1986. Since then, Moran’s has become a famous Financial District watering hole.

“What’s amazing is that not only do you have these three buildings still surviving, but side, by side, by side you have three different aspects of life in the immigrant neighborhood — the tenement where they lived, the settlement house where they went for help and to learn to become Americans, and their house of worship,” Svehlak told Community Board 1’s Landmarks Committee on April 12. “We believe that as a trilogy these buildings are cultural landmarks.”

If he had his first choice, Svehlak would like to see all three buildings designated as either individual landmarks or as a mini “Little Syria” historic district. For practical purposes, however, he is pushing for the city Landmarks Preservation Commission to “calendar” (agree to consider) St. George’s Chapel.

The C.B. 1 committee cautioned Svehlak not to focus on the buildings’ cultural significance in his landmarking quest.

“We’ve all been through the process of trying to designate a cultural landmark and I’ve had my heart broken more than once,” said committee co-chairperson Bruce Ehrmann. “When cultural pleas are made to L.P.C., it tends to turn them off.”

For that reason, Ehrmann said, Svehlak should stick to the architectural merit of his Little Syria buildings. Though the committee deemed the tenement at 109 Washington a “non-starter” because of its altered façade and ordinary style, the committee was impressed by both the Chapel and the Community House for architectural reasons. On April 17, the full board voted to support designation hearings for both buildings.

In addition to the board’s resolution, Svehlak has secured letters of support from two architectural historians, Joyce Mendelsohn and Andrew Dolkhart, as well as the Friends of Terra Cotta society.

Since both 109 and 105-107 Washington are owned by development groups, Svehlak hopes that Landmarks will hear his case soon. “I just hope that we can get Landmarks to look at these buildings before some developer knocks them down,” Svehlak said.

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