At the final day of Landmark’s Sunshine Cinema on the Lower East Side, crowds of moviegoers were lined up for one last show. The air was thick with the smell of popcorn; the mood heavy with reflection. The hot dogs had sold out, the bottled water was gone, and just a few boxes of Twizzlers remained. “So this is the last day?” asked one patron. “I have so many memories of this place!”
Walking out into the bleak midwinter, it felt like no neighborhood institution in New York was safe from the wrecking ball. The beloved theater’s building has stood on East Houston Street for 173 years, serving as a church, a boxing club, a Yiddish theater, and a doorknob warehouse, but it will soon be knocked down and replaced by a glass office tower.
Just a few blocks away, demolition crews were busy bulldozing part of the 78-year-old Essex Street Market; down the street, the final pieces of the 168-year-old Beth Hamedrash Hagodol Synagogue—recently ravaged by fire, an apparent arson—were almost gone.
As another year begins, the destruction of the city’s many historic places continues unabated.
A stroll through the city, beginning at the Sunshine Cinema, reveals that many of these razings are already underway, or will soon begin, with some of New York’s most architecturally diverse thoroughfares—the Bowery, Houston Street, Canal Street, Atlantic Avenue, Kent Avenue—head toward complete homogenization.
The old city is being swept aside by imposing walls of glass, stamping out the varied urban landscape that makes New York unique.
It is almost impossible to keep track of the long list of planned tear-downs in the city, but the 10 historic buildings included here, which are all threatened with demolition, represent a cross-section of neighborhood institutions that may soon disappear, as we continue to erase the New York’s colorful past. How many other structures will vanish this year?
The building that holds Sunshine Cinema dates back to 1844, when it was a Dutch Reformed Church, according to the New York Times. It was denied landmark status in 2016, and will be replaced by a nine-story-high office tower.
At the Essex Street Market, the remaining food vendors are scheduled to be relocated this fall before the building is demolished. Built by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in 1940, the market complex is being replaced by Essex Crossing, a redevelopment project (formerly known as the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area) that’s now under construction.
Several sections of the Essex Street Market complex have already been demolished, and a 25-story glass tower, designed by Handel Architects, is rising on the southern footprint of the old market. When complete, Essex Crossing will include 1.9 million square feet of new space.
Demolition is now almost complete on part of the northern section of the Essex Street Market, above Rivington Street, where an eight-story senior residential complex will be built.
Nearby, the demolition of the Beth Hamedrash Hagodol Synagogue is also nearing completion. Severely damaged by arson in May 2017, this 168-year-old building will be replaced by a 10-story senior residential building.
The building, seen here in 2013, was declared a New York City Landmark in 1967. It was originally constructed in 1850 as the Norfolk Street Baptist Church before becoming a synagogue in 1885.
Earlier in January, The Real Deal reported that the New Market Building at the South Street Seaport was also being prepared for demolition. Constructed in 1939, this building was part of the historic Fulton Fish Market complex, which was chronicled by author Joseph Mitchell.
The New Market Building was denied Landmark status in 2013, and has been threatened by the wrecking ball ever since. A construction barrier is now up at the building, which is predicted to be demolished by fall, as part of the Economic Development Corporation’s plans to redevelop the area with the Howard Hughes Corporation. Plans for a 42-story tower were withdrawn in 2015, and it is not clear what will be built on the site now.
Along the Bowery, an endless wave of demolition continues. Many historic buildings have already been lost, but the battle continues at 206 Bowery, where one of Manhattan’s last intact Federal style houses has stood since about 1825.
In December, Bowery Boogie reported that the Landmarks Preservation Commission might drop the building from consideration, because it had been on their calendar for too long. The local community board has now voted in favor of landmarking, but the fate of the building remains in the hands of the LPC.
In November, the entire corner of St. Marks Place and Third Avenue was announced for demolition. This complex of buildings, including the Continental bar, was sold for $150 million and will be replaced by a seven-story office tower. The last day for the Continental, which holds a special place in punk rock history, will be June 30th.
The Papaya King on St. Marks Place has already closed ahead of demolition. When completed, this will be the first major new tower to insert itself into the historic low-rise landscape along St. Marks Place, although the nearby area around Astor Place and Cooper Square has sprouted glass towers and chain stores.
December brought news of the imminent death of another classic dive bar, Hank’s Saloon, on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. The bar will be closing at the end of 2018 to make way for development, after many decades of serving the community.
Although Hank’s Saloon is now known as a rock & roll venue, in its earlier years—back before World War II—it was the Doray Tavern, a hangout for the Native American ironworkers who once lived in the neighborhood. The tavern’s stubborn longevity led to it becoming known as “Boerum Hill’s last Mohawk hangout.”
December also brought news that the Landmarks Preservation Commission had denied two requests from the community to consider landmarking the Gowanus Station building on Butler Street, despite a letter of support from the New York State Historic Preservation Office. Only a handful of significant historic buildings remain standing along the Gowanus Canal.
This Beaux-Arts building dates back to 1913, and was built as part of the pumping tunnel at the head of the canal. It has been included as part of a proposal to demolish several buildings in the neighborhood, to make way for an enormous sewage overflow tank, as part of the canal’s cleanup.
Further south on the Gowanus Canal, demolition is now underway at the four-block-long property that houses the S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse. The structure, which dates back to 1886, is not yet scheduled for demolition, but almost all of the other warehouses in this complex are now gone.
Demolition permits for three blocks of warehouses were issued in September, and over the past few weeks, they have been reduced to a field of rubble.
The interiors of the warehouses, seen here in February 2017, were some of the last wild post-industrial spaces along the waterfront of the Gowanus Canal. The neighborhood is expected to be rezoned soon, which will no doubt trigger another wave of demolitions.
Further north on the Brooklyn waterfront, another remnant of Brooklyn’s industrial past may also soon be destroyed. The Bayside Fuel Oil Depot Corporation, purchased by the city for $53 million in 2016, will be part of a long-awaited park on Bushwick Inlet. The history of this site goes back to the Astral Oil Works, which was founded in the 1800s by Charles Pratt.
The future of the eight-acre Bayside Oil complex has not yet been decided, but in 2017, the city acquired the last piece of land it needed to complete Bushwick Inlet Park. For now, the oil terminal is slowly becoming an overgrown playground for graffiti artists.
Though perhaps not as architecturally significant as the many refineries and powerhouses that have been recently demolished along Brooklyn’s waterfront, the Bayside Oil tanks are one of the last major industrial structures remaining along this section of the East River, where the working waterfront has been replaced by luxury residential towers.
Nathan Kensinger is a photographer, filmmaker, and curator who has been documenting New York City’s abandoned edges, endangered neighborhoods, and post-industrial waterfront for more than a decade. His Camera Obscura photo essays have appeared on Curbed since 2012. His photographs have been exhibited by the Museum of the City of New York, the Queens Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the NYC Parks Department, and inside the Atlantic Ave-Barclays Center subway station.