East Village Building Blocks

437 East 12th Street; 437-439 East 12th Street | Block : 440 | Lot #40

  • Building Date : 1904
  • Original Use : Residential/Commercial
  • Original Owner : Henry Lippmann
  • Original Architect : Sass & Smallheiser

Description & Building Alterations

This six-story brick and terra cotta new law tenement was constructed in 1904 for stores and 39 families. It was designed by Sass & Smallheiser for owner Henry Lippmann. The building features splayed lintels with large keystones and outsize brackets, brick quoins, a bracketed cornice with a decorated frieze, attached pilasters at the sixth story, ornamented beltcourses, and two symmetrical basket-style fire escapes on the facade. This is a dumbbell tenement with unusually large airshafts.

From 1964 until 1968, Ernestine Eckstein (1941-1992) lived in this building. A prominent activist and lesbian of color, Eckstein had worked with the NAACP in her native Indiana and later the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) in New York City before becoming the vice president of the New York Chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), the first lesbian-rights organization in America, during the time she lived here. She took part in two of the earliest pickets for gay rights in the country, both in 1965: a July 4th picket of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and an October 23rd picket in front of the White House, both designed to call attention to the discrimination faced by lesbian and gay people. Eckstein was the first lesbian of color to appear on the cover of the DOB magazine The Ladder, of which she became the editor in 1963. Under Eckstein’s leadership, the magazine began to for the first time feature pictures of actual self-identified lesbians on the cover, rather than line drawings that had previously been used to preserve anonymity. Eckstein tried to push the DOB, a relatively conservative “homophile” organization, in a more progressive direction, but felt stymied; she stepped down as Vice President in 1966 and left for the Bay Area, where she continued her work with black feminist and lesbian issues.

For more than 40 years, from 1952 until his death in 1997, Allen Ginsberg lived and worked in the East Village. For the majority of that time, from 1977 until 1996, he lived at 437 East 12th Street. As one of the most prolific writers of the Beat Generation, he was a staunch advocate of free speech and an early proponent of sexual freedom and gay rights. In 1954, he went to San Francisco, where he met and fell in love with Peter Orlovsky, who would become his lifelong partner. It was also in San Francisco that he first presented “Howl”, his best-known work, to the public. As part of a collection of poetry titled “Howl and Other Poems”, it contained many references to illicit drugs and sexual practices, both heterosexual and homosexual. An obscenity trial in 1957 was widely publicized. Literary experts testified on the poem’s behalf and Judge Clayton Horn ruled that the poem was of “redeeming social importance.”

Block : 440 / Lot : 040 / Building Date : 1904 / Original Owner : Henry Lippmann / Original Use : Residential/Commercial / Original Architect : Sass & Smallheiser

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