Dear Chairwoman Meenakshi Srinivasan,
We offer congratulations and wish you great success in your tenure as Landmarks Preservation Commissioner under Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Although several other Manhattan neighborhoods have received new or expanded historic districts in recent years, the “Lower West Side” or “Little Syria” area of Downtown Manhattan remains under substantial threat with no district protection. Compounding past large-scale eminent domain actions and demolitions, this area – between West Street and Broadway, north of Battery Park and south of the World Trade Center site – has lost several structures in the last decade, with massive additional construction continuing to occur. Acknowledging that the development impulses in this historically significant part of the city are extremely strong, preservationists have largely focused on a modest request to designate three contiguous structures on lower Washington Street. Community Board 1, Council Member Margaret Chin, and a strong coalition of preservation groups and ethnic organizations have requested a hearing, and we earnestly urge you to explore this matter.
The neighborhood of the Lower West Side along Washington Street in Lower Manhattan, also known as “Bowling Green Village,” “Little Syria,” the “Syrian Quarter,” or the “Mother Colony,” is crucial to the heritage of a vast array of American ethnic groups, and in 1925 Governor Al Smith laid the cornerstone of a handsome Colonial Revival-style community house at 105-107 Washington Street that would serve its collection of many nationalities, including Lebanese, Syrians, Greeks, Armenians, Slovaks, Poles, Hungarians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Czechs, and Irish. Today, including the previously designated St. George’s Melkite Church, the complex of three buildings at 103-109 Washington Street – church, community house, and tenement – is the last trace of the large and vibrant multi-ethnic community that was dramatically changed by the construction of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. As American ethnic groups rediscover their heritage in this area, preservation of the last signs of community life in the Lower West Side becomes an important consideration for posterity.
Because of this perceived historical value, on June 9, 2011, the Landmarks Committee of Community Board 1 voted unanimously to request that the Commission designate the Downtown Community House. The structure, with its considerable architectural merit and importance in ethnic memory, indeed deserves landmark designation. Its architect, John F. Jackson, was a noted designer of more than seventy YMCA buildings in the United States and Canada. 105-107 Washington Street, with its characteristic red brick façade, limestone base and trim, inset plaques with swag ornament, window lintels with projecting keystones, and mansard roof with dormers over a modillioned cornice, embodies the Colonial Revival style that intentionally linked these immigrants to the nation's earliest foundations.
At the ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone, New York Governor Al Smith stated “there are few people in the City of New York today that realize really the number of people who live in this section of the city. The west side to most people appears principally as a place of business… and to say that there are so many tenement dwellings in the very shade and the very shadow of the great tall buildings that make New York’s famous skyline is only to those familiar with it very apparent.” The history of Little Syria is still largely unknown, and as the downtown area has transformed so completely unlike any other part of the city, it is critical for the memory of America’s diverse ethnic heritage to preserve the building which best symbolized the community and friendship between nationalities, particularly the Arab immigrant groups whose American story in connection with this area especially deserves to be told. With the wide-scale attention, in the United States and in the Middle East and Europe that this preservation need is receiving, many young Americans are highly motivated to communicate the story of “Little Syria” and to preserve its last traces of ethnic heritage.
It is a miracle that this trinity of buildings remains. This legacy of perhaps the most culturally diverse location in the entire nation – the first stop as an immigrant would leave the Hudson docks in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty – offers the most important and compelling preservation case in Downtown Manhattan. In addition to exploring a hearing on the designation of the community house at 105-107 Washington Street, we request that the Commission explore the creation of some kind of small historical district, or another creative solution, to ensure that the last remaining tenement on lower Washington Street is preserved.