By Benjamin Feldman
Walk the moonscape of far East 38th Street today: the sidewalks are empty, devoid of life, though the streets hum and clog with traffic at rush hours as the entrances and exits to the Queens Midtown Tunnel spill forth. Those who emerge from the taxis and limos are well-scrubbed, their private baths drawn and terry robes donned. Toilettes in the neighborhood were not always this way. Where once, sidewalk games filled the air and factory whistles shrilled their shifts, not a trace remains of life as it was, circa 1900. Close your eyes and imagine the Gashouse District. It’s open to question if improvements have come.
The express truck warehouse at the northwest corner of First Avenue was long ago converted to office uses, and at # 325 a mauve-brick building houses the Philippine mission to the United Nations, its several street-side entrances hinting of a former use.
Few remnants exist in these northerly reaches of what was known for over a century as the Gashouse District. Con Ed’s Waterside generating station, torn down for Sheldon Solow’s latest and greatest development, stood among coal-gas storage tanks across the Avenue that decorated much of the East Side in the 20s and 30s, between the East River and First Avenue.
Tenements covered many of the small lots in the East 30s from 1890 onwards. Their residents found employment just yards from their vestibules: the Hupfels brewery and the Hoffman Cigar factory were two of the largest non-energy enterprises near # 325. As late as 1899, many lots in the immediate vicinity either vacant or the site of ramshackle wooden structures devoted to low-skill industrial or agricultural uses. Abbatoirs and packing houses filled the streets just north of 42nd Street from the early 1850s until the United Nations was constructed in 1952. Take a sharp-pointed trowel and dig into the architraves over the identical doorways to # 325. Your efforts would yield a clue of the building’s former importance to its neighbors. These separate men’s and women’s entrances meant sanitary facilities, back in the day. Turn of the century photos from the Byron Studio tell the tale.
Although the city government began assuming responsibility for the construction of desperately needed public bathhouses in poor neighborhoods at the turn of the 20th century, private philanthropy did not abandon the public bath movement.
Water closets in hallways and simple taps in the kitchens were the most that could be expected in many late 19th century tenements in New York. Bathing was only possible by filling tin bathtubs from the kitchen tap, a cumbersome procedure in crowded and busy flats. A once a week full body was custom and practice, and many went without for longer periods of time.
Hollow-eyed faces and clothes hanging off gaunt frames cover the photo of the interior of the men’s waiting room at the Milbank Baths, also taken by the Byron Studio in 1904. At the right, men wait in line, bowlers askew and towels in hand, while to their left, younger men cover the benches waiting their turn. A NYPD cop in a “bobby” hat stands guard in the back of the room, his stern visage insuring order among the handle-bar mustachioed fellows in the hall, 30 years of age and under for the most part.
In June 1902, Elizabeth Milbank Anderson announced that she would donate a public bath, to be built on a 50 by 98-foot lot on East 38th Street (# 325) on behalf of the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor (the “AICP”). Anderson was heiress to one of the founders of the Borden Condensed Milk Company and was a leading New York philanthropist. During her lifetime she donated approximately $5 million to various institutions, with Barnard College as the chief beneficiary. The bathhouse which she donated, known as the Milbank Memorial Bath, opened in January 1904. A large and imposing facility, it cost $140,000 to build and could accommodate 3,000 bathers daily. The AICP also built The People’s Baths at 9 Centre Market Place, across the street from the new castle-like headquarters of the New York Police Department. In 1914, after a canvass of the neighborhood, the AICP established a wet-wash laundry at the Milbank bath.