1835 brought with it the Great Fire of New York, which tore through southeastern Manhattan and racked up millions in damages. It was the first of a series of major urban fires across the country that called attention to the need for fire insurance among city dwellers.
In the midst of the nation’s emergent fire problem, the Germania Fire Insurance Company was born in 1859. Its offices were filled with prominent German-Americans. The name ‘Germania’ came from the German immigrants who flocked to American between 1848 and the outbreak of the Civil War looking for political freedom.
Designed by noted German-American architect Carl Pfeiffer, Germania’s Kleindeutschland branch opened in 1870 at 357 Bowery.
Germania’s building application represented 357 Bowery as an office structure, but it housed residential tenants from the time of opening. It has been suggested that the intent was for the building to serve primarily as a tenement. Misrepresenting the use of the structure would allow the company to avoid certain provisions for buildings with multiple dwellings - amongst them, fire escapes. All in all, this was a curious move for a fire insurance company whose main purpose was to protect its customers.
Facing the rising anti-German sentiments of World War I and saddled with a name suggesting German origin or affiliation, the Germania Fire Insurance Company did what any American company would do: they rebranded, becoming the National Liberty Insurance Company of America on March 1st, 1918. And, to leave no doubt that they were on the side of baseball and apple pie, the company actively recruited for the Navy and the Marines by distributing posters through its agencies.
In 1930 the Home Insurance Company of New York acquired control of National Liberty, and by the late 1940s, the National Liberty name was phased out altogether.
Although it has toggled between commercial, industrial, and residential uses over the years, today 357 Bowery is a purely residential structure.