The brick townhouse at 65 Pitt was built in the 1850s, well before the classic Lower East Side tenements on either side, and was home to an Austrian rabbi. More famously it was the first home of Streit’s Matzo. In the 1950s , neglected, it was lovingly renovated by two young schoolteacher artist families, the Lawrences and the Lees. A daughter, Linda King, still lives there and has agreed with co-residents Jill Repplinger, Mary Berning and six cats to host an Essential Prayers concert in their home.
If you want to come, you should REPLY— R S V P—IMMEDIATELY, because space is very limited and we don’t want to trample the lives of our gracious hosts. CONTACT email@example.com
Food and cider will be served on the 3rd floor. Concert will be on the 2nd.
While you’re deciding, here are some amazing pictures of the facade and the lower floors and arched stone bakery from Michael Levine’s 2013 documentary on Streit’s Matzos LES history.
This is our second house concert. As before, we are looking change the balance between audience members and performers. We want to play for listeners whose faces we can see. The concert will be small so that we can make the music together. The 8 prayers we offer can be heard on our page: kitbraz.info/essential-prayers.
All the prayer settings were composed by Kitty Brazelton, but at the concert, between blocks of prayers, we will feature a few songs composed by songwriter members of the group: Michael Chinworth (tenor, music director), Alice Tolan-Mee (soprano), Jude Shimer (soprano, tenor), Christina Campanella (alto) and John Rose (bass). Kitty Brazelton joins as alto.
The history of Streit’s is inseparable from the history of the Lower East Side, the neighborhood where my own family settled (on Rivington Street, in fact) from Russia over 100 years ago…The problem was, the current generation of Streits knew only that that their great-grandfather, founder Aron Streit, had likely operated a basement bakery somewhere on Pitt Street in the early 1900s, where he produced matzo by hand…
Three weeks ago, in conversation with Anthony Zapata, a longtime Streit’s worker who grew up in the neighborhood, he casually dropped a bombshell: he claimed to know the address of the old Pitt Street bakery!
…I decided to do a little additional research before making a call and discovered some more of the building’s early history. It had been built in 1850 – some 50 years earlier than the buildings surrounding it, and by the turn of the 20th century seemed to be home to a number of Austrian Jewish immigrants (the Streits themselves emigrated from Austria around this time), housing at once an Austrian Jewish burial society, the headquarters of an Austrian Jewish orphanage, and the residence of a prominent Austrian Rabbi, who ran a Yeshiva in the neighborhood…
After Streit’s…moved down the block, and the family to Brooklyn, it seems that Aron Streit’s business partner, Rabbi M. Weinberger, continued producing matzo in the building, an operation that remained until the late 1940s.
A search of the New York Times archives produced an article from 1965, about a woman named Isabella Lee, of Michigan, who, with her husband, and her friends, the Lawrence family, purchased the then-abandoned bakery in 1953 for $9,000, and made renovations to the building including disposing of most of the baking equipment. Photos from the article show a comfortable home with no signs of the Streit’s former business.
But in an provocative end to the article, it seems that the three-story oven in the building’s backyard survived the renovations, and a rear building, which had been a part of the Streit’s bakery, had been left untouched…
I glanced back at the name and number I had written down of the owner of the building: Isabella Lee, age 91.
Within hours, we were on the phone with Isabella Lee (Dr. Isabella Lee as we came to discover), and her caretaker, Linda, the daughter of the Lawrences who had passed away years before. Linda had lived in the building as the only other resident since 1990. The time had come to ask the question: what of this three story matzo oven we had read about? We would find the answer soon enough.
Two days later, I found myself again at the entrance of 65 Pitt Street…Stepping inside, I was not greeted by anything resembling a matzo factory, but rather the well loved and lived-in home of a family of artists, whose paintings covered the walls of the ground floor. Both the Lees and Lawrences were prolific artists and craftsmen. Dr. Lee taught industrial arts at New York University for decades. Jim Lee, Dr. Lee’s husband, was also a cookbook author, and copies of this best known work, Jim Lee’s Chinese Cookbook, illustrated by Isabella, abound throughout the home. The book jacket ends with the sentence, “Mr. Lee lives with his wife, Isabella, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in a house he converted from a matzo factory"...
The basement of the front building at 65 Pitt Street now serves as a workshop, as it has since the early 1950s, when the Lees and Lawrences began to renovate the factory from the ground up. 90 years ago, this was the retail operation of the Weinberger-Streit Matzoh Bakery. At the back of the room, a door, fitted with a complicated custom locking system, leads to an underground chamber in what was originally the courtyard between the front and rear buildings…
But there was no mistaking the oven. The chamber is approximately 20 by 20 feet, with a high arched ceiling. Remnants of gears and motors poke out of the brickwork. Doors, some now sealed, indicate where the hand flattened dough would have been inserted for baking. While a concrete floor now divides the upper and lower chambers, it is not difficult to get a sense of the magnitude of this oven, and heat it must have generated to fill such a large space…I filmed some preliminary video…and moved on, past the 100 year old Streit’s cash register on a desk, through alleyways and horsepaths, up and down half-flights of stairs, and emerged above ground in the Lawrences former apartment.
The apartment had been painstakingly renovated by the Lees and Lawrences with every form of salvaged material available: floorboards from houses demolished to make way for the Long Island Expressway, a ceiling built from the wall tiles of the New York Public Library, a counter salvaged from a bar on First Avenue. Today, we might call this authentrification. In 1953, when $9000 bought you two buildings and a matzo oven on the Lower East Side, and left you without a dime to spare, this was called resourcefulness.
From the rear of the apartment, you could see the roof of the oven in the courtyard – or rather you could see that the courtyard was the roof of the oven, one story above ground. Long cleared of debris, to anyone who doesn’t know what lies beneath, it appears simply a one story dwelling in the middle of the block. Inside the Lawrences apartment, Linda eagerly led me to the families’ photo archives, which numbers thousands of still photographs (all developed in their home darkroom, of course). Merely scratching the surface reveals a classic bohemian story, of two families of artistically and historically inclined, industrious young people, determined to make a home for themselves no matter how long, no matter much labor, it took.
It became increasingly clear that the story of the building was really two stories: that of the Streit family, immigrants who had found their beginning here, grew their business, and have gone on to thrive in the neighborhood for nearly a century – and that of the Lees and Lawrences, who too were newcomers to the city, and against all odds and by their own hands, built their home and lives in an abandoned matzo factory. Two families, living out their own versions of the American Dream, who decided that despite the odds, despite the changes around them, this was their home. And they have both made it so…
—Michael Levine, for the Bowery Boogie, January 9, 2015.