An Unexpected Change

The photo above, from Berenice Abbott’s “Changing New York” project, is labelled “Broome Street #512-514.” It was taken in 1935 and those two small houses – 512 on the right and 514 on the left – were probably then more than 100 years old. I’m basing that guess on the Federal style and location. They look older: those houses have not been well maintained, and 512 obviously was either not underpinned when the big loft building to its right was built, or it was underpinned poorly. That’s quite the tilt it developed.

The building on the right, 508 Broome Street, and the building behind the houses, 52 Thompson Street, were both constructed around 1900, probably in the last years of the 1890s. (There are a few details about them that make construction under the 1901 Building Code unlikely.) They were both industrial buildings when constructed and in 1935. The sign painted on 52 Thomson, “Grocers Warehouse Corporation” is not for show, it’s a description. The grid of cast-iron stars on its south wall, facing us, are also not for show: they are anchors to hold the brick wall tight to the wood floor joists inside.

Abbott’s purpose, in my opinion, was to play off the old and irregular forms of the houses with the relatively new and aggressively straight lines of the two big buildings. I don’t know when the houses were altered or replaced, but it was not recent. 514 is now a two-story commercial building, and 512 has an olde-style but modern facade:

It’s possible that both of these are still the old houses, now close to beginning their third century, heavily altered. I’d have to really poke around on their insides to be sure.

The title of this post does not refer to the two houses. Comparing the Google Street View image with Abbott’s photo shows a much bigger change and one that would have seemed far less likely in 1935: this area is no longer industrial, and the upper floors of the big warehouse and loft buildings are now very desirable apartments. The blank south wall of 52 Thompson now has a lot of windows, changing the interior spaces into something livable.

In any case, as with all of Abbott’s work, I want to emphasize how good her photos are.

Scroll to Top