83 Mott Street, 1949–50

This site is included in LMCC’s Creative Insider’s Guide to Lower Manhattan, sponsored by Launch LM.

For many people, Mott Street is the traditional heart of Manhattan’s Chinatown. Lined with trinket shops and restaurants, this colorful thoroughfare extends from Chatham Square through Little Italy to Bleecker Street. Established by the middle of the 18th century and earlier known as Winne Street, it is believed to have been named for Joseph Mott, a Colonial-era butcher and tavern owner with connections to George Washington. Chinese immigrants first began to settle in Lower Manhattan in the 1850s but it wasn’t until the early 20th century that a sizable community of mostly men began to form on or near Mott Street, establishing businesses that served neighborhood residents, as well as curious New Yorkers and tourists.

The organization that built the Chinese Merchants Association was On Leong Tong, one of the oldest fraternal societies in Chinatown. Founded by Tom Lee in the 1880s as an outgrowth of a Chinese Freemasons group, the name translates as: prosperity peaceful conduct. Previously located at 41 Mott Street, the association began to develop plans for a new headquarters or trade center in the late 1940s.

With few, if any, licensed Chinese or Chinese-American architects in New York City during this period, the group hired Andrew J. Thomas, who mostly specialized in low-income housing. His best-known project was the Dunbar apartments, financed by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the first large housing cooperative for African Americans.

The Chinese Merchants Association was one of the first structures in Chinatown to be built in the Chinese style. Rather than convert an existing building and use bold Chinese lettering, Thomas boasted to The New York Times that he “spent months in research” at the New York Public Library and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Features borrowed from traditional Chinese architecture include rows of projecting balconies inspired by the Imperial Palace in Beijing and a tiered pagoda-like tower with glazed yellow roof tiles.

Though no mention of China’s recent Communist Revolution appeared in newspaper articles that discussed the building, certainly the opening in November 1950 had a somewhat nationalistic, pro-American air. Not only did photographs depict the merchants’ headquarters draped with multiple American flags but On Leong Tong members from an estimated 25 American cities attended the ceremonies, which included fireworks, dragon dancing, and “several hours of commendatory speeches” in the third-floor assembly room.

Matthew A. Postal