This week, we continue our series of deep dives into the histories of storied addresses.
Greek Orthodox worshippers gathered on Dec. 3 to hear Archbishop Demetrios of America speak for the Feast Day of Saint Barbara at the eponymous St. Barbara Greek Orthodox church. The church was named for a martyr whose faith was seen to be unparalleled. Saint Barbara is said to have been tortured through the night for her Christian beliefs, and to honor this the visitors and parishioners at Saint Barbara Greek Orthodox church chanted in unison until the candles lit by the idols at the doors of the sanctuary had all burnt out and the sun cast its first wan fingers of light against the window panes.
The Archbishop’s unusual visit created a rare spike in attendance; six local bishops came from the outer boroughs for the back-to-back liturgy services. It is one of the few remaining busy days for the church with the unassuming limestone facade and discreet black plaque in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge. The church does not often get visitors by chance. Its peculiar location at 27 Forsyth Street makes it easy to miss. All the signs on the neighboring shops are in Chinese.
Little surprise, then, that to step inside the church is to enter another world. The stained glass windows, installed some decades ago, are nearly invisible from the outside, but indoors throw multi-colored light onto the stretches of floor between the pews. The ceiling is high and ornate with gold-trimmed pillars extending on either side of the space. A set of three-tiered chandeliers hang in a neat row down the center of the sanctuary, guiding the eye up to the altar. Half a dozen larger-than-life-sized paintings of saints and martyrs seem to bear down in judgment from the front of the church, the highest of them all, Jesus Christ, staring out from his heavenly perch almost touching the ceiling on the far wall.
Upon closer inspection, despite the giant Jesus painted above the altar, the space is somewhat unusual for a Greek Orthodox church. Though less grand from the outside, its shape mirrors the historic Eldridge Street Synagogue one street over. St. Barbara has two levels with stairs on either side and a partition separates the upper section from the lower.
The structural anomalies of this Romanesque sanctuary hint at one conclusion: St. Barbara’s parish was not the first to build here.
The history of the building that houses this Greek Orthodox congregation is another page in the story of the Lower East Side as an ever-changing immigrant-rich cultural hub, a visible holdover of its many incarnations, from its days as “Little Germany” in the mid-19th century, as a Jewish ghetto beginning in the late 19th century, and as the lesser known safe haven of immigrants from Greece in the early 20th century.
What is today 27 Forsyth Street was once a small part of farmlands that belonged to James De Lancey in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. James De Lancey was the son of Lieutenant Governor James De Lancey. His family was well known to be loyal to the British crown; his uncle and brothers had fought in the British army. They were a vastly powerful, political, and wealthy family. Before the American Revolution, De Lancey had plans to build a square. But his land was resold under the “Act for the speedy sale of confiscated and forfeited estates” passed by the Legislature of New York on May 12, 1784. Isaac Stoutenburgh and Phillip Van Cortlandt, Commissioners of Forfeiture, sold it in lots for a total of over 234,000 dollars, a present day value of $63 million.
On October 6, 1785, Michael Varian, at age 47, a butcher like his father, Isaac, bought the lot at 27 Forsyth. City records do not indicate whether he lived or worked on the land, or if he leased it to others, but the Book of Varian, the genealogical journal of a family descendant, indicates that Michael Varian was a major landowner. (Varian’s grandnephew, Isaac Varian, was New York City’s 63rd mayor from 1839 to 1940.) Michael died in 1825 at 74 Forsyth street, not far from his properties.
For about 30 years after Varian’s death, 27 Forsyth Street (what was then 20-22 Forsyth) stayed in the Varian family. In 1857, it was sold to George Breit. Breit — misspelled Bride on his ship’s passenger list — arrived on the F J Wichlinghausen at the port of New York on January 5, 1854. Breit was a joiner, a type of wood artisan, from Prussia, which was part of Germany at the time.
Perhaps he was fleeing the political upheaval following the European Revolutions of 1848 or the fallout from the Three Years War (1848 – 1851) between Denmark and the German Confederation. Or maybe he’d been lured, like many before him, by the promise of economic opportunity in “The New World.” He worked as an undertaker in New York, and lived at Forsyth with his wife, Elizabeth.
Although there had been early German settlers in New York and Philadelphia, beginning in the 1840s, large waves of German emigrants, along with other Europeans, made their way to the United States. Evidence of German enclaves can be seen in the early census data of upstate New York and Manhattan. The German charitable society existed alongside the French, English, and early Hebrew societies.
It was in 1850 that US census-takers first asked about birthplace, and by then, 583,774 people reported that they had been born in Germany. They represented 2.5 percent of the overall reported population and a large number of them lived in and passed through New York. At the time, New York was the most populated state in the country, with about 3.1 million people. Other census data shows that New York City, with just over half a million residents, was by far the most densely populated city in the country.
The earliest statistical atlas, published in 1874, shows that by 1870, Germans had a significant presence in the United States, enough so that their numbers were measured in absolute terms and in proportion to the broader native and foreign-born population. By 1880, there were about 160,000 Germans in Manhattan alone. The maps show that Lower Manhattan had one of the largest German-born communities in the country, hence the moniker Kleindeutschland, or “Little Germany.”
Breit fit in well in Little Germany and lived at the Forsyth Street property for 31 years, before selling it to Mina Kroos in January 1888. Kroos flipped it within months, and sold it in March of the same year to two bachelors who appear to have lived quiet lives: Hyman Bimstein, who was in the clothing business, and Simon Friedman, a teacher. Their names suggest either Germanic or Polish Jewish origin. German Jews fit in fairly well to Kleindeutschland culture, being nearly indistinguishable from other Germans. But Bimstein and Friedman only stayed at Forsyth street for three years. They sold the property at about the time Eastern European Jews began to fill the tenement houses in the Lower East Side.
On April 30, 1881, the New York Times reported anti-Jewish riots in Europe as “a popular movement against the Jews has broken out at Argenau, West Prussia.” In Berlin “a mob led by a school-teacher wrecked the houses of some Jews and maltreated the inmates.” From St. Petersburg, the Times reported “serious disturbances” in Elizbethgrad, where a mob destroyed the synagogue.
This was the start of the brutal anti-Semitic pogroms in imperial Russia (which encompassed Russia and much of present-day Eastern Europe) that continued throughout the late 19th and early 20th century. They weren’t officially state-sanctioned, but the police often looked the other way when riots broke out.
Hundreds of Jews were murdered and many of the women were raped. Their houses and synagogues were destroyed. In a few cases, such as the pogroms in September 1903, the police and Russian military openly sided with the rioters by protecting them, and beating or arresting Jews who tried to fight back. While there were some orders from higher officials to protect the Jewish people, these were often not carried out to plan on the ground.
The Russian pogroms of the 1880s and early 1900s were a massive push factor for emigration to the United States. And what better place to settle than an area that had some Jewish population, and would provide opportunities to make money and support a family. At the turn of the century, New York was already the place to be.
The 1890 statistical atlas reported New York was the wealthiest of all the states, with a valuation nearly one-eighth that of the entire country. By then, Jews made up anywhere from 1 to 5 percent of religious groups in the state of New York. The majority of what the atlas calls Slavs, people born in Russia, Poland, Hungary, and Bohemia (present-day Czech Republic), were in New York. Although the work opportunities weren’t glamorous — most Slavs were tailors, others were miners, cigar makers, and tobacco workers — they made enough to earn a meager living.
Bimstein and Friedman ended up selling their property to Louis Goodman in September 1891, who, a short five months later, on Feb. 4, 1892, sold it to Congregation Kol Israel Anschi Poland. This was a group of Polish Orthodox Jews who’d been in New York for over a decade and had outgrown their previous space. They set about building a synagogue at 20-22 Forsyth Street for their ever-growing Lower East Side community.
Congregation Kol Israel took time to build their synagogue with care. The design was drawn up by Herter & Schneider, well known for building both tenement houses and other synagogues. The church was built with limestone, hard burnt brick, and sharp sand mortar. The Kol Israel requested plumbing work, invested in four lamps out front and a vault beneath the synagogue.
Kol Israel, being an Orthodox Jewish community, required men and women to sit separately. This accounts for the partition, or mechitza, between the upper and lower levels of the synagogue; women would sit above and the men below. Though unused now, the Kol Israel built an ark to house the Torah at the back end of the synagogue. The space they built for their cantor, a singer who leads the congregation in prayer, is still used by the Greek Orthodox today. They also installed a resplendent rose stained glass window at the front of the synagogue, which was later removed in 1997 by St. Barbara’s parishioners. In total it was estimated to have cost $100,000 to build.
The synagogue was dedicated on September 19, 1892 and its keys were handed over to the then president Annie Morris under the charge of Rabbi Jacob Joseph.
The Jewish presence in the Lower East Side was felt keenly by their non-Jewish neighbors who reported on the community like early anthropologists, peering at them through narrow lenses as strange, unfamiliar beings. The Jews were seen as changing an area of the city that was once picturesque and, in some ephemeral way, utterly American.
In 1896, a writer for the New York Journal noted, in an article headlined “New Colonies in Our Big Town,” how many “respectable old Germans” had “joined the great march uptown and left the field to the Russian and Polish Jews, who have their own peculiar places of entertainment and refreshment.”
Though not as persecuted as they had been in Europe, Jews were still looked down upon. In August of 1896, the Journal reported on the plight of the neighborhood’s Polish tailors. “An idle Polish Jew sits and broods and tears his beard because his little ones are hungry,” the article read. “He does not, like men of a less downtrodden nationality, go out and see what he can do to remedy matters.”
During Kol Israel’s time on Forsyth Street, it was both a sacred space to worship and a place for the community to gather. They hosted weddings, funerals, and later, a Hebrew school. Due to financial trouble, after 34 years of service, the synagogue was forced to foreclose in February 1926. Liberty Place Holding Corporation bought the deed at an auction for $46,000. It was thought, at the time, that the community might shore up their coffers and attempt to buy back the synagogue. But it ultimately sold to a Greek man named Dorotheos Bourazanis in that same year.
Economic instability brought Greeks to the United States to live, starting in the early 1900s. In the first few years, a few thousand migrants arrived, almost entirely men who left to find work and provide for the families they left behind until they’d made enough to return to Greece.
It was in the lead-up to the First Balkan War (1912 – 1913) that Greeks began to emigrate en masse. Some left the United States to fight in that war, but many abandoned post-war Greece and returned to New York. The US Census in 1910 counted the Greek foreign born population at around 101,000.
Throughout World War I and its devastation in Europe, many more Greeks would cross the ocean for a better life. In 1915, newspapers like the Chicago Herald and the New York Evening Telegram began to publish stories about Greek immigration. People also started talking about immigration as a political problem that would come with the end of the war. Anti-immigrant sentiment grew as a fear that immigrants were a burden on the society took hold.
In December 1915, Edward Goldbeck of the Chicago Tribune called immigrants “more or less economically dependent” and “politically more or less immature.”
Towards the end of the war, pieces about the “Americanization” of immigrants appeared alongside pleas and challenges to the US government to intervene and put an end to the oppression that Greeks were facing at the hand of the Ottoman Empire. Now that the United States had abandoned its stance of non-interference, and after Greece’s support of the Allied powers in the Great War, some thought it was America’s responsibility to fight on their behalf.
The Greco-Turkish war from 1919 to 1922 meant that Greeks kept migrating in a steady stream; the foreign-born population of Greeks in the United States rose to about 175,000 by 1920.
It’s not clear from the available records which Dorotheos Bourazanis bought the abandoned synagogue from where he had immigrated, but present-day parishioners of St. Barbara say the church was founded in 1926. It seems likely that Bourazanis was affiliated with the congregation. The membership struggled to come up with the money to buy the building outright. In fact, shortly after buying it in 1926, they too went into foreclosure in 1932.
Many went door to door to solicit funds from Lower East Side neighbors. It took another two years for Saint Barbara to buy the synagogue back from the Lawyers Trust Company, and open its doors as a functioning church. The deed was officially signed in 1934.
It was in the 1960s that Greeks began to migrate out of the Lower East Side. The borders of early Chinatown, a small Cantonese enclave and tourist area in the Lower East Side, had remained firmly fixed for nearly 80 years because of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. It was approximately eight blocks bounded by Canal Street on the north, Bowery on the east, Baxter Street on the west, and Worth Street on the south.
But in 1965, the passing of the Immigration and Nationality Act granted Chinese citizens and immigrants full rights to property ownership and business establishment. Chinatown began to expand again.
Much like the Jews before them, and the Germans before them, the last of the Greek community that had grown up in the Lower East side left as they saw the area begin to change. They built new churches, restaurants, and coffee shops in places like Astoria, Queens. They built vibrant communities in the outer boroughs and much of their history on the Lower East side was lost because, unlike with the Jews and the Germans, they left few architectural marks.
Now, 84 years after St. Barbara opened its doors, the neighborhood has changed dramatically. Where once there were Jewish tailor shops and Greek cafes there are bubble tea shops and nail salons. The church now sits next to GC Egg Rolls House and the Fuzhou Senior Entertainment Center. Once parishioners could walk a few blocks from their homes to the church steps but now they often commute from the outer boroughs.
There are a few youths scattered among the churchgoers now, but St. Barbara’s parish is small, and largely made up of elderly Greeks that have attended the church since their childhoods over 60 years ago. Some have their families bring them and some make their own way with city transportation, via Project CART.
This time of year, St. Barbara’s Feast day, is the only time that the church sees the Greek community come back to fill its pews. Third and fourth generation Greek Americans return to the church where their forebears once worshipped, taking time off of work to pop into the nonstop services and cross themselves in honor of the martyr.
Nonetheless, the church’s core congregation is steadfast. On a recent Sunday before the feast day they gathered at 10:30am for Divine Liturgy and invited everyone to stay for coffee hour afterwards. They serve it hot and fresh, and pair it with a fist sized brick of homemade baklava that flakes on the fork and swims in its syrup. The community visibly thrives, however reduced in size.
On Forsyth Street, St. Barbara is a last-standing artifact, a stalwart stone tower in the changing sea of the Lower East Side that serves as a testament to New York’s unique immigration history. It tells the stories of all of the people who came before it, and will, hopefully, continue to surprise anyone who happens to question why there’s a Greek Orthodox church (that was a Jewish Orthodox synagogue) in the middle of Chinatown.