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Yorkville Looks to Landmark a Piece of its German Immigrant History

By Amy Zimmer | March 28, 2012 10:06am
The building at 1511 Third Ave., now housing a Gap, was once the banking center for Yorkville.
The building at 1511 Third Ave., now housing a Gap, was once the banking center for Yorkville.
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Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts

YORKVILLE — Before the stately Italian Renaissance Revival building at the corner of Third Avenue and East 85th Street housed a Gap and an Equinox gym, it served for more than 85 years as Yorkville's banking center.

Now this structure at 1511 Third Ave. — currently under renovation by its owner, the Related Companies — is a candidate for possible historic status granted by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, not only for its architectural integrity but also for its connection to the area's once-thriving German immigrant community.

It was built in 1905 for the Yorkville Bank, whose shareholders were largely German or of German descent and designed by Robert Maynicke, a German-born architect who trained at Cooper Union. The four-story granite, limestone, brick and terracotta building has been left largely preserved over the years, along with its massive sculpted bronze entrance doors.

The Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts called the building a "powerful symbol of the German-American community that once densely populated the Yorkville neighborhood and has now lost prominence," in testimony submitted to the LPC at a hearing Tuesday.

There are few New York City landmarks that reflect this immigrant history of the Upper East Side, according to the Friends group, which is undertaking a large-scale survey of important remnants from that ethnic community — which largely disbanded in the second half of the 20th century — from Lexington Avenue to the East River from East 59th to 96th streets.  

The group also has a program teaching kids in first through fifth grades about the area's immigrant past, taking them on walking tours to notable sites such as the 75-year-old German butcher Schaller & Weber.

"The Yorkville Bank Building is a prime example of the graceful architecture that was designed, constructed, owned and frequented by German-Americans,” according to the Friends group. “[It] is one of the rare, fully-intact survivors in a neighborhood marked by unsympathetic alterations and characterless new construction."

Lo van der Valk, president of Carnegie Hill Neighbors, said he would always walk by the building and wonder why it wasn’t already landmarked.

“Those doors are incredible,” he said. “They are an asset to the Upper East Side.”  

Upper East Side resident Ronda Wist, a former executive director of the LPC, nominated the building for historic status, Landmarks officials said.

A spokeswoman for Related said the developer supported landmarking the building.

A man, who was working on the structure's renovation and declined to give his name, said the building was getting new windows, a ramp to make its East 85th Street entrance handicap accessible and new doors — but only on the interior. The exterior bronze doors would remain, he said, noting their beauty.

“You can’t salvage everything in New York,” he said, “but you can salvage something like this.”