Back in December I reported that a longtime funeral home on 2nd Avenue in the East Village had closed. I wrote, somewhat facetiously, “Maybe now it will become something really meaningful, like another Duane Reade.” Turns out, that prediction may be coming true. A Duane Reade has been proposed to go right next to the Chase branch that replaced the Second Avenue Deli.
Andy Schwartz, great-grandson of founder Sigmund, was kind enough to share vintage photos and give me a tour of the funeral home. We visited the Sanctuary, where Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were memorialized after their execution, and the viewing parlor where Lou Reed and other mourners bid farewell to poet Delmore Schwartz (no relation).
1936: 2nd ave. building replaced by schwartz
The funeral home opened in the 1920s on East Fifth Street. In 1938, the building in the photo above (which housed The Daily Worker) was demolished and Sigmund built a new building for his business. His son Harry carried it on until retiring in the late 1960s, when he sold it, and it was later resold to a large funeral corporation. It was this company that finally closed the location in 2007.
1940: schwartz building, click to see details
Since then, it has sat empty, though a few Schwartzes, Andy included, still live in the apartments upstairs. A funereal smell permeates the softly carpeted rooms, vaguely waxen and dustily floral. The floors creak when you walk on them. In the Sanctuary, under 30-foot arched ceilings, the acoustics amplify a whisper and not a sound can be heard from the traffic of Second Avenue. You might even say there’s a pall.
I asked Andy about Duane Reade, especially for a block already saturated with chains, in a neighborhood where many people have become resentful of chain occupation. Andy was diplomatic and clearly conflicted. The process has not been simple. The building is owned by the many Schwartz descendants, a large family of "shareholders," most of them elderly. They talked with many interested businesses, but the odd configuration of the space, along with other factors, including those financial, meant that the space could go to the fifth-largest retail chain in New York City.
Andy has been involved in the Lower East Side scene since the late 1970s when he became the publisher of the influential New York Rocker magazine, which helped make stars of Bowery luminaries like Patti Smith, Blondie, and The Ramones.
Standing on Second Avenue, Andy recalled, “When the box office opened at the Fillmore East, my grandmother would walk down and get us tickets.” He was there on its opening night in 1968 with Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company, and for many other shows.
I asked him how he felt about the changes in the neighborhood. He told me, “I can’t say I disagree with those who say the primacy of real estate values is leeching the character out of this neighborhood and much of New York City,” then he went on to point out places from the past: Starbucks used to be the famous Orchidia pizzeria, Max Brenner was a five-and-dime, Tasti-D-Lite was a comic book shop.
Now, someday soon, we may be saying, “That Duane Reade used to be a funeral parlor.”
If anyone would like to preserve a piece of this history, the original 1938 pews from the Sanctuary will be for sale. You can contact Andy directly at Gramercy7(at)yahoo(dot)com.