The Educational Building, 70 Fifth Avenue – 70 Fifth Avenue (AKA 2-6 West 13th Street)
ITEM PROPOSED FOR PUBLIC HEARING
The proposed designation of a 12-story Beaux-Arts-style loft building built c. 1914 that contained the national office of the NAACP from 1914 to 1923 as well as many other progressive organizations.
HDC has long been interested in the preservation of significant buildings and streetscapes in the area around and below Union Square. Historically part of the Ladies’ Mile neighborhood, this district contains an extraordinary inventory of buildings with architectural, cultural, and historic significance. In 2018, the Landmarks Preservation Commission took the first steps in protecting some of the historic buildings in the area as individual landmarks. HDC supported the Commission’s actions at the time based on not only the buildings’ handsome commercial character but the fascinating common themes of labor and social history which the Commission’s research had uncovered, connecting these buildings to the greater story of New York.
Since then, additional research done by our colleagues at Village Preservation has revealed a remarkable tapestry of significance to a variety of cultural histories including, but not limited to, the African American and LGBTQ civil rights movements, women’s suffrage and women’s rights, the labor movement, the New York School of artists, and our city’s profoundly important literary communities. This just skims the surface of the historic, cultural, and social significance of the area and these extant but threatened buildings.
70 Fifth Avenue is an example of this area’s characteristic intersection of architectural excellence and cultural significance. Built in 1914 and designed by architect Charles Lamb in what the LPC’s materials rightly call an “understated and refined example of the Beaux Arts style”, this commercial building housed a remarkable roster of tenants involved with the furtherance of civic and human rights. No less a historic figure than W.E.B. Du Bois worked here, decades before he lived in the landmarked Dunbar Apartments, 409 Edgecombe Avenue, or in the Addisleigh Park Historic District at 173-19 113rd Avenue, all of which claim historic significance due in part to his association with them.
In fact, this might be the earliest Du Bois-associated site to be designated in New York City, and among the most-significant in that it represents his influential leadership of ‘The Crisis’, a magazine published by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Both the magazine and the organization were housed in this building. Interestingly, by the time 70 Fifth Avenue opened, Du Bois had been at the helm of ‘The Crisis’ for at least 4 years, monumentally expanding its circulation (reportedly from an initial 1,000 subscribers in 1908 to over 100,00 by 1918) and greatly expanded its content.
There could have been no confusion from the building’s owners about the type of organizations some of their new tenants were. The common conception of Greenwich Village in the beginning of the 20th century does not include a place for Black activism, but it was there. As we strive towards a more inclusive world and expansive view of history as it really happened, designations like this help tell the full story of our city’s history.
HDC is grateful for the Landmarks Commission’s actions to preserve this building, but we feel that New York City’s history would be better served by a broader designation which could better document and protect the multi-layered heritage of this distinctive area. This individual designation sparks the imagination by presenting the opportunity to encounter an actual site of social justice history. However, 70 Fifth Avenue was not built in an open field. The people who worked there, the social activists, educators and reformers who created the significance this designation honors, did not commute to an office in a vacuum. They were present in this neighborhood. Walter F. White, W.E.B. Du Bois and others whom we are celebrating may have spent time in Union Square Park. They may have shopped in local stores and eaten in local restaurants. They doubtlessly interacted with the workers in the nearby daylight factories and their union representatives who were headquartered nearby. While this is an important and very meritorious site, this designation feels like protecting a special tree while the rest of the forest is cleared. There is an exciting history of social and civic movements waiting to be uncovered in this area and the actual sites where it happened still exist. Please protect them before they are erased and the invisible history they embody is rendered immaterial as well.