East Village Building Blocks

Glossary of terms


In 2005, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) began a cultural resource survey for the East Village, the area bounded by 14th Street to the north, Houston Street to the south, Avenue D to the east and Fourth Avenue/the Bowery to the west. This type of survey allows GVSHP to evaluate the architecture of the neighborhood, determining when the blocks and buildings within the area were developed and by whom, how the buildings have changed over time, and how the architecture informs the neighborhood’s social history.

For this survey, which includes 8,000 buildings, GVSHP wanted to make available not just a distilled report, but also the scores and scores of data we uncovered about each of the buildings in this district. East Village Building Blocks presents this information to you in the block and building pages of the site, while offering a directed experience of the site in the guided tours section.

While you use this site, you might see some terms unique to the historic preservation field that you are unfamiliar with. You might also encounter common terms whose meaning might be a bit different for historic preservationists. This glossary presents these terms to help guide you through this site.

Apartment Building (Post 1920s): An apartment building, such as the one located at 205 East 10th Street, is a multiple-unit residence that can be similar in scale to a tenement building. Larger apartment buildings in the East Village tend to be located on corner lots, such as the twelve-story corner building at 139-147 East 3rd Street (at Avenue A). As opposed to their earlier tenement counterparts, these buildings were constructed after the large wave of Eastern European immigration at the turn of the 20th century. Apartment buildings featured indoor plumbing and other improved living conditions.

Block: Generally speaking, when someone walks down a block, they think of that block as comprising the north and south sides of the street or avenue. But for official purposes, such as the New York City’s Department of Buildings or here at Building Blocks, a block is the north and south side of two streets, plus the adjacent avenues. For instance, 232 East 11th Street, GVSHP’s address, is located within block 466, which is bounded by the south side of 11th Street, the north side of 10th Street, the east side of Third Avenue, and the west side of Second Avenue.

Department of Buildings Permits: Before a new building can be constructed or an existing building can be altered, a property owner must obtain a permit from the Department of Buildings (DOB). The DOB has kept permit records since its inception in April 1866. These permits include important historical information such as date of construction or alteration, original owner, original use (ex. tenement or store), architect, materials used and/or description of alteration.

Dormitory: A residence hall that typically houses large numbers of university students.

House: A free-standing dwelling that houses a family.

Landmarks Preservation Commission Designation Report: The Landmarks Preservation Commission is the City agency responsible for the identification and protection of historic buildings in New York City that have achieved architectural, historical and/or cultural significance and are more than 30 years old. Worthy buildings can be considered for either individual landmark or historic district status. As part of the legal process to designate buildings as landmarks, the Commission produces designation reports that document the historical merit and architectural description of each proposed landmark.

Library: A public or private institution that holds a collection of books and other media. Libraries can specialize in a certain topic, such as the arts, or cover a wide range of topics.

Lot: In New York City, a lot is the parcel of land which can be developed for commercial or residential purposes.

National/State Register Reports: A report written for the purposes of listing an individual building or group of buildings on the National or State Register of Historic Places.

New Law Tenement: New law tenements were built after April 1901 when the New York State Tenement House Act was passed. These buildings are noticeable on the street oftentimes simply by their width; reformers realized that to accommodate a high number of families, larger apartments, and wider light wells, tenement buildings would need wider lots. New law tenements, due to their size, are often found on the corners of blocks and are at least six stories in height. Mandates included the provision for a window in each room that faced the outside of the building, indoor toilets, and fire escapes. As opposed to the narrow light wells of Old Law tenements, open courtyards in New Law tenements allowed for the removal of garbage and better lighting conditions.

Old Law Tenement: Old law tenements were built between 1879 and April 1901, and represent the first movement to reform the terrible living conditions of the city’s poor immigrants with the passing of the Tenement House Act of 1879. As with pre-law tenements, these buildings were built on 25-foot wide lots. Often referred to as “dumbbell tenements” for the shape of their building plans, these old law tenements were designed with the intent of providing natural light and air to each apartment through light wells between each building. Windows were required in all rooms. Despite these improvements, the plan was unsuccessful. The light wells were so narrow that they only provided adequate light to the top floors; they also became problematic when tenants threw their garbage out their windows (with no access for clean-up) or even dangerous when they served as pathways for fires to spread.

Party Wall: A structural wall that is shared between adjacent buildings, usually in row house or tenement construction. Party walls are typical in the dense blocks of the East Village where there are few free-standing structures.

Pre-Law Tenement: Pre-law tenements started to appear frequently in the 1860s in lower Manhattan, including the present-day East Village, and were built until 1879 when new laws were enacted. Though the Tenement House Law of 1867 defined a tenement as any building housing more than three families, the term eventually became synonymous with housing for the city’s poor immigrants. In response to the large influx of poor immigrants, pre-law tenements were constructed specifically to house about 22 families in a single building constructed on a narrow 25-foot wide lot (a width originally allotted for single-family dwellings). These overcrowded tenements offered very limited amenities–if backyard outhouses were available they were flushed once a day, if that, by the owner’s representative–and were designed with virtually no concern for natural light and ventilation. Though laws required that building owners provide fire escapes and fireproof party walls, there was little that could be done to ensure that these were enforced.

Religious Institution: A house of worship, such as a church, synagogue or mosque. These structures are often part of a complex that includes buildings to house staff, such as a rectory, or to educate its congregants, such as a library or school.

Residential/Commercial: A building that typically has a store/commercial use on the ground floor and residential units above. A separate entrance leads to the upper floors.

Row House: An attached house that shares a common wall (see party wall) with its immediate neighbors and is typically no more than three stories in height. Originally built to house one middle or upper class family, row houses were typically later converted to apartments. The row house building type is often referred to as a “brownstone,” though these buildings are also clad in brick and other stones. For more information on the history of the row house, see Bricks and Brownstone by Charles Lockwood and The Row House Reborn by Andrew Dolkart.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map: You will see images of Sanborn maps depicted throughout the Building Blocks site. The Sanborn Map Company began producing fire insurance maps in 1867 as a tool for insurance companies looking to assess fire insurance liabilities. These were colorful maps that noted the building material of each structure and other information. Our site features modern black and white Sanborn maps that include outlines of each building and outbuilding, the location of elevators and light wells, the number of floors, building use, house and block number, fire walls, property boundaries, and natural features. Preservationists will often use historic maps, such as Sanborn maps, to determine more information about the lots, buildings, and changes to buildings over time.

Settlement House: In the East Village/Lower East Side, settlement houses were formed in the late 19th century to house and educate the poor, most of which were immigrants. English language classes, among others, were provided. These spaces were founded and run by wealthy, civic-minded citizens who felt it was their duty to help the poor improve their quality of life. Until the mid-20th century, staff lived with residents; today, staff live in the same neighborhoods where settlement houses are located.  The Christodora House, located at 143 Avenue B and facing Tompkins Square Park, was constructed as a settlement house in 1928, though it has since been converted into a condominium.

Tax Assessment Records: For the borough of Manhattan, tax assessment records were maintained by the City of New York from 1789 to 1979 in order to document the collection of property taxes. For structures that pre-date the establishment of the Department of Buildings in April 1866, tax records are a valuable tool in determining its construction date and owner and/or occupant information.

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