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339 Lafayette Street: “The Peace Pentagon”

 

Video by Paper Tiger Television

339 Lafayette, a three-story corner commercial building with stores on the first floor and offices on the second and third floors was designed in 1922 by architect Louis A. Sheinart for Lafayette Realty Company, Inc., which had purchased the property from the estate of Clarence W. Seamans that same year. In the early years tenants included fur and garment firms, house and window cleaning contractors, electrical contractors, printers, an automobile ignition service company, and medical services. Several were long-term tenants such as Aetna House & Window Cleaning Company and Turner Window Cleaning Company (ca 1939-1955), Samuel Blumengarten, an electrical contractor (ca. 1929-1959), Arrow Ignition Service (ca. 1935-1955) and Dr. Nathan Tandet, (ca. 1929-1965). Activist organizations were tenants as early as 1929 when directories list the Palestine Homestead Corporation and Palestine Information Bureau in the building.

 

The Peace Pentagon in 1991Photo by Ed Hedemann

The Peace Pentagon as billboard against the 1991 Gulf War.

 

In 1969, the War Resisters League bought 339 Lafayette, a three-story loft building in downtown Manhattan. WRL needed to leave its offices in the City Hall area on Beekman Street, and 339 Lafayette was the cheapest building that could be found at around $80,000. In 1974, the A.J. Muste Memorial Institute was founded in part to buy the building and maintain it as a permanent center for social change organizing. In 1978, with a dream of establishing a permanent home in New York for the nonviolence movement, the Muste Institute purchased the building from the War Resisters League and began managing it as part of its program work.

 

The Peace Pentagon in 1970Photo © Grace Hedemann

The Peace Pentagon as it looked in 1970, the year after WRL bought the building. Right foreground: David Berkingoff, WRL Executive Committee member and conscientious objector jailed during the First World War, after leaving the building.

 

For the past nearly-forty years, the building has served as a home base for dozens of activist groups and progressive organizations working for peace. The financial support provided by renting out the commercial space on the building's ground floor as well as the Muste Institute's fundraising activities have allowed these groups to secure low-rent office space in a convenient location. The building is known locally and nation-wide as a center for peace activism, giving rise to the affectionate nickname “Peace Pentagon.”

 

The Peace Pentagon from top of World Trade Center 1999Photo by Ed Hedemann

From the top of the World Trade Center in 1999, the Peace Pentagon — the small building in the center of the photo — is shadowed by surrounding buildings (taken with a 1000mm lens).


A recent survey by an engineer revealed that the building requires major structural repairs. The building's condition is not immediately dangerous, but the Muste Institute has had to put up scaffolding across the facade which must remain in place until repairs begin. Initial estimates put the cost of basic repairs at $1 million just to stabilize the building's exterior. To fix the building's interior problems would require a much larger sum.

An Eye for an Eye banner
Banner on 339 Lafayette shortly after 9/11/01 attacks. Photo by Ed Hedemann.


The Muste Institute's Board of Directors is considering several options to respond to this problem. One option they are considering is borrowing or raising money to cover the cost of the necessary repairs, but another is selling all or part of the building. A group of concerned community members and peace activists began meeting when we heard that there was a possibility of the building being sold. Recognizing that owning the property in which organizing work is done makes a crucial difference to the outcomes of that work, we would like to see the building remain and grow as a center for peace activism. We are working with the Muste Institute to support their exploration of options that would allow 339 Lafayette to continue to be a sanctuary for the peace movement.

 

In May 2008, the building became protected as part of a Manhattan Historic District when the NoHo Historic District was extended to include the area within which it is located. See NoHo Historic District Extension.

 

On June 11, 2008, City Lore and the Municipal Art Society gave their Place Matters award to the “Peace Pentagon” along with 9 other places http://placematters.net/flash/programs.htm.

 

The Peace Pentagon from top of World Trade Center 1999Photo by Ed Hedemann

Night time photo from 1995 of protest signs in windows and banner on roof .