This week and next, we present a series of longer pieces unraveling the histories of storied buildings.
New York City reporters already knew all about Emma Goldman when she spoke to a group of unemployed Jews at Golden Rule Hall on August 17, 1893, one of the many venues on the Lower East Side that was home to dancing, music and radical politics. “If you are hungry and need bread, go and get it!” she intoned. “The shops are plentiful and the doors are open.”
After all the politicking was done, thousands of unemployed New Yorkers marched to the nearby Walhalla Hall at 48-52 Orchard Street, smashed chandeliers and mirrors and clashed with the police. Two days later, the New York Times blamed Goldman for the riot. “The real instigators of the trouble were the Anarchists,” the paper wrote. “Yesterday they held several meetings, at one of which Emma Goldman, wife of Bergman, the Anarchist who shot Chairman Frick of the Carnegie Steel Company, made a violent speech.”
On August 21, Goldman was arrested–and eventually convicted–for inciting people to riot during another demonstration, that one in Union Square. The city locked up the rabble-rousing anarchist from Russia for a year. But in less than a decade Goldman–and labor agitation–would return to Walhalla Hall.
Walhalla Hall’s Orchard Street location was between Grand and Hester streets, a site that now houses the Italian art gallery Rosai Ugolini Modern and an expensive condo building with 26 units that sell for millions of dollars. In Goldman’s day, it was a large, gray building with a bar that covered three city lots and had an upper and lower part. The hall served as a famous meeting place for labor unions, politicians and leftist radicals whose vision of a class-free world appealed to the Eastern European immigrants squeezed into tenements on the Lower East Side. In fact, revolutionary fervor, war and ethnic strife are integrally tied to the history of Walhalla Hall–and of the land that it occupied. The history of 48-52 Orchard Street is also part of the history of the American Revolution, the movement for workers’ rights and the anti-Semitic pogroms of Eastern Europe.
Like most of 18th century New York, before the site became a meeting hall, it was part of a farm. The largest estates belonged to the richest men in town: Peter Stuyvesant, Henry Rutgers and James DeLancey, the Brit whose farm covered much of the Lower East Side. Today’s Orchard Street was DeLancey’s orchard, part of the 300 acres of farmland he owned.
DeLancey, as part of the British colonial elite, wore many hats: British lieutenant governor of New York, acting governor, and judge. Famously, he presided over John Peter Zenger’s 1735 trial for libel after the journalist repeatedly criticized the colonial governor of New York. Zenger was acquitted by a jury, to the chagrin of loyalists like DeLancey.
The jury’s hostility to the British authorities was a harbinger of the revolution to come. And in the aftermath of the American Revolution, DeLancey lost again. New York State–along with the other 12 states–passed laws confiscating the holdings of loyalists to the crown. DeLancey’s farm was sold and parceled off, lot by lot.
The earliest land conveyance record for 48-52 Orchard Street dates to 1802. For $250, a man named John Anderson sold the plot to William Cornelius Van Cott, who was from Ulster County, New York. Between 1802 and 1868–the year WalhallaHall opened–ownership of the land passed between six hands. By 1857, an insurance map created by G.W. Bromley listed the land as containing a “brick or stone dwelling,” though no more information is shown.
In 1868, Adam and Conrad Geib rented the building from the owner, a mason named George Herdtfelder who bought the land in the late 1860s for $20,000, to create Walhalla Hall, the biggest building on the block. Conrad and Adam Geib were German immigrant brothers who came to New York in the mid-19th century alongside thousands of other Germans, which earned the area the nickname Kleindeutschland–
As some Germans, particularly the wealthy ones, moved out of the Lower East Side and migrated uptown, the character of Walhalla Hall changed, much to the disappointment of those who frequented it in the 1870s. William Smith Pelletreau gave voice to these sentiments in his 1900 book, Early New York Houses: with historical & genealogical notes. The hall used to be “inhabited by a respectable class of citizens,” he wrote. By the 1890s, “it became cosmopolitan and its walls rang with the shouts of all nations…[its battles] fought with noisy tongues…”
By the end of the 19th century, those “noisy tongues”–Yiddish, Russian and other Eastern European languages–were frequently heard on the Lower East Side. Fleeing destitution, military service and anti-Semitic pogroms, these Jewish immigrants came to the Lower East in droves, Orchard Street included. Working conditions were harsh for them, particularly in the aftermath of the Panic of 1893. The crisis, sparked by an array of factors like speculation on the building of railroads and the flood of silver into the economy, caused bank runs, the failure of railroad companies and a spike in unemployment. It led to economic misery nationwide, hitting the poorest especially hard.
With the economy in shambles, the immigrants on the Lower East Side worked long hours for low pay–and those were the lucky ones with jobs. They lived in tenements, crowded with many families, sharing beds in rotating shifts, all amenable to the spread of disease. The lot at 48-52 Orchard Street was on the same block as many tenements, and in 1896 the street had a population of 1,459 people. An 1899 map of tenements shows that 54 Orchard Street had at least one case of diptheria. Other tenements in the area reported cases of cholera, or tuberculosis. It was in this cauldron of misery that radical leftist ideals of socialism and anarchism found eager ears.
Walhalla Hall was one site where radicals congregated. In 1897, a group of socialist writers gathered there to found The Forward, a newspaper that would serve the left-leaning Yiddish-language community living in the area. And there were a number of strikes in that decade, and more opportunity for the media to tie Goldman to labor trouble.
In 1894, striking cloakmakers angry over apartment eviction notices rioted at Walhalla Hall, with women calling to lynch a fellow striker who urged them to return to work.
In July 1895, the United Brotherhood of Tailors went on strike to abolish the “foul sweatshops in which a dozen or twenty people work in a single room in a tenement-house,” the New York Tribune reported. The workers demanded that only union members be employed, and that “operators” receive $15 a week. On July 29, 1895, The New York World reported that Goldman had been kicked out of a strike meeting at the hall because she was an anarchist–the other union members did not want the anarchists involved. The paper specifically named Lottie Persky, a union delegate, as the person who threw Goldman out. But Goldman thought the World had unfairly portrayed her involvement in the strike.
“I have neither attended any of their meetings nor did I have the least intention of participating in the strike,” she wrote in a letter to the editor. She explained that while she did go to see how the strikers were doing, she had been invited by Persky but had left because of someone else’s hostility. The man who objected to Goldman’s presence, she wrote, was “afraid of the presence of a woman who is an Anarchist.”
Labor union meetings would continue to be held at the hall until 1898, when the building was sold. Its reputation had declined because “rougher elements”–as the Times put it–began to frequent it, and those who leased it could not keep up with its costs, in part because the labor union members who occupied it during strikes did not pay rent.
Jacob Levy, the new owner, turned it into a four-floor, multi-purpose space. The basement was for storage, the first floor for businesses like Gershowitz and Abrahams hosiery store. On the second, third and fourth floors were synagogues, and there was space for one family to live on the fourth floor, according to Department of Building records from 1916.
Land conveyance records show that Levy leased it to a congregation called Beth Hamedreth Tesfarten, which had 85 paying members, according to the American Jewish Committee archives from 1900-1901. The same archives list four other congregations that worshipped in the building. One of the better known congregations that held services there was the Bialystocker Synagogue. The congregants came from Bialystock, Poland. Many of them fled to New York in 1906 after Russian Czarist forces ransacked the town, shooting Jews, killing at least 82 people in one of the more infamous pogroms. The immigrants from Bialystock boosted the Polish Jewish congregation at the site, and it eventually moved to a building of its own on what was then Willett Street. The street name eventually changed to Bialystocker Place, in honor of the synagogue. Yet another congregation–this one a Syrian Jewish group–first worshipped at Orchard Street in 1911 or 1912, according to the author, Joseph A.D. Sutton.
Stores and synagogues would continue to populate the building into the mid-20th century. By the 1960s, the synagogues had vacated–building records list their spaces as empty–and ownership changed hands again. Commercial establishments continued to locate at the address. The synagogues’ exit reflected the changing composition of Orchard Street. Once a hub for Jewish immigrants and merchants who sold wares in pushcarts, the neighborhood became populated by Puerto Ricans and Chinese immigrants, though a handful of Jewish-owned businesses have hung on to this day.
Since the mid-20th century, 48-52 Orchard Street itself largely disappeared from news coverage. It was no longer a hub for immigrant Jews or labor activists. The address re-emerged in the media in 2006, when 48 Orchard would host the clothing store Valley, an indication of a vastly changed Lower East Side, as tenements and synagogues were replaced by luxury housing, art spaces and hip bistros.
The boutique clothing store was gone by 2011, and the Bosi art gallery took over before giving way to the Italian art gallery that now occupies the building. In 2003, the upper floors of 48-52 Orchard Street became a condominium, and in 2009, another art gallery–the Scaramouche–took space on the first floor of 52 Orchard.
But now as in the 19th century, economic crisis will have its way with real estate. The cheapest condos at 48-52 Orchard were the first to go. But “when the recession [in 2008] hit,” the New York Times reported in 2011, “the $5 million triplex on the top floor found no buyer.”