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Building Committee, 1920-1921

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The HIAS Building Committee minutes from 1920 to 1921 are among the earliest committee materials in the HIAS archives at the American Jewish Historical Society. The committee was in existence during the purchase and dedication of the building they bought in 1920-1921, 425 Lafayette Street, described in the minutes as the “old library” building – in fact, built in 1854 as the Astor Library, by the Astor family. The building was purchased in 1965 by the Public Theater which continues to occupy it. (More on the Astor Library building in a future post.)

HIAS Building Committee minute book, 1920-1921

One of our earlier posts includes a photograph of the plaque on the building today that acknowledges the work of HIAS during the 40  years they occupied the building.

The building became available after the Astor Library merged with the Lenox Library and the Tilden Trust in 1895 to form the New York Public Library. According to Wikipedia, the New York Public Library vacated the building in 1911, and it appears to have been underutilized until HIAS bought it in 1920.

According to the minutes of the Building Committee on May 4th 1920, “The Chairman stated that the Government which is occupying the New Building of the Society as a Retail Food Store will vacate on May 16th.” No other information about the building’s use between 1911 and 1920 appears to be in these minutes.

The Building Committee minutes initially show that the Board focused on the costs of purchasing and renovating the building. Title would be transferred to HIAS on payment in March 1920 of $100,000. Loans were arranged, and a campaign plan put together to pay off those loans.

In the 1920 Annual Report, Treasurer Harry Fischel made a plea for funds to finance the new building (“the National Home for Jewish immigrant aid work in America”): “the Society is practically leading a hand to mouth existence. It has no funds to draw upon. For the Building Fund, generous as the contributions have been, another $150,000 will have to be required.”

HIAS 12th Annual Report, 1920. At this time, HIAS considered their 1909 merger to be the beginning of the modern HIAS.

The chairman of the Building Committee was Harry Fischel; members include Morris Asofsky (brother of long time HIAS General Manager/ Executive Director Isaac Asofsky, 1924-1952), and early HIAS presidents Max Meyerson (1902-1909), Judge Leon Sanders (1909-1916), John L. Bernstein (1917-1925) and Abraham Herman (1926-1947). Harry Fischel was the Treasurer of HIAS (then the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society) from 1890 to at least 1921. He was a “real estate dealer“, philanthropic in many Jewish causes, and died in Jerusalem in 1948.

The minutes contain detailed descriptions of the interior renovation of the building, including voting on placements of water fountains and the colors of the floors, and the committee’s problems after hiring the wrong supervisor for the project.

The dedication was set for June 5, 1921, plans were finalized for suitable donor plaques, and President Harding agreed to speak by telephone to the assembled audience. Unfortunately, because “it would be impossible to make arrangements for the amplifiers … his speech [was] read to the audience.”

By 1965 HIAS had moved to more modern headquarters at 200 Park Avenue. Another blog post will follow in a few weeks with more detail on the Astor Library building.

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