Peter Gerard Stuyvesant and his wife Hellen Rutherford Stuyvesant were childless. As Stuyvesant aged, he worried that the distinguished family name would die out. His sister, Judith Stuyvesant Winthrop, had one male great-grandson. His name was Stuyvesant Rutherford.
In the boy, Stuyvesant – who was the great-great grandson of Petrus Stuyvesant, Director-General of the colony of New Netherland – recognized his last chance. When he died in 1847, he left one-third of his imposing estate to the then 4-year old boy; on the condition that his name be changed to Rutherford Stuyvesant.
And so it was.
The Stuyvesant land covered much of what is now known as the East Village. During the 19th century what had been rolling farmland was developed with row houses, commercial buildings and tenements. After the Civil War, German immigrants crowded in, creating a lively and colorful neighborhood.
In the meantime, Rutherford Stuyvesant married Mary Rutherford Pierrepont on October 13, 1863. She was the daughter of the prestigious and wealthy Henry Evelyn and Anna Jay Pierrepont of Brooklyn. Their lives together were happy and loving; but then on New Year’s Eve 1879, the expectant Mary went into labor. Neither Mary nor the infant survived.
In deep grief, Stuyvesant planned a monument to his wife. He arranged to build a memorial chapel connected with St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, the Episcopal church built by Peter Stuyvesant in 1795 on his farm land.
Stuyvesant chose a large plot of land at the corner of East 10th Street and Avenue A where a small St. Mark’s mission structure already stood. He hired the eminent architect James Renwick, Jr. who was already responsible for the magnificent Grace Episcopal Church and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Renwick worked with W. H. Russell in creating an edifice far removed from those lacy Gothic churches.
Begun in 1882, it was constructed of red-orange brick and abundant terra cotta trim of a nearly-matching hue. The building drew on several of the prevailing styles of the day: Romanesque, Gothic Revival, Renaissance Revival, Queen Anne and Eastlake.
The great mass facing Avenue A was broken by stepped dormers, a multi-level roofline and terra cotta courses separating the floors. A dramatic Gothic entrance separated the chapel from the school and administrative sections. A tall, impressive bell tower rose above the roof to a pyramidal cap.
The building was finished in 1884 at a cost of $200,000. Three hundred and fifty worshipers could be seated on the main floor with another 100 in the gallery. The Avenue A side housed the library and reading room, a day school, kindergarten and day nursery and a Sunday school room that spanned the entire length of the building at the ground floor. The New York Times remarked that “it is a very cheerful and attractive place of worship.”
|The Avenue A side housed the classrooms and library.|
In 1897 the forward-thinking Rev. Dr. J. H. Rylance was rector at St. Mark’s Memorial Chapel. He closed the parochial school which took up two full floors because it “was found to be competing with the public schools.” He initiated the eyebrow-raising “pleasant Sunday hour;” a meeting in the library every Sunday afternoon with literary and musical entertainment.
According to The Times, “The position of the Rev. Dr. Ryland on the Sunday question is well known. He is strongly in favor of making Sunday a day, as he expresses it, of ‘religion, rest, and recreation.’ The pleasant Sunday hour is therefore a practical experiment of the rector’s ideas.”
Ryland went on to introduce mothers’ meetings, boys’ and girls’ clubs, day nursery and a saving fund. The same year he had the chapel frescoed and painted and installed a modern heating system.
|A grotesque face peers from amidst intricate terra cotta foliage below a plaque of a lion, the symbol of St. Mark.|
The St. Mark’s Memorial Chapel would not enjoy the new paint job and heating system for long. By 1909 it had been taken over by the Holy Trinity Slovak Lutheran Church.
On a cold January 4th, 1921 200 unemployed men marched north from the Bowery at the Manhattan Bridge. They formed two groups of 100 men each and marched in military formation, tattered and unwashed, towards East 10th Street. When they were stopped by a police officer, they explained there were merely “going to church” and he allowed them proceed.
Upon arriving at the church, they found the chapel door open. The men marched into the main building and took up quarters in the gymnasium, reception hall and music room. With no jobs and no homes, they had no place to go.
The Rev. Dr. Guthrie of St. Mark’s-in-the-Bowery was quick to give his opinion of the “problem.” While he admitted that the “use of a church for any except strictly religious uses is worse than a crime—it is a blunder, a violation of psychology,” he quickly added “could any Christian minister in his senses demand that they go forth into the night because the church is consecrated and unable to yield them emergency shelter? I hardly think so.”
And then he pointed the finger at city government. “Can a great, generous community like ours afford to have inadequate means for sheltering with self-respect the helpless and homeless? Should it merely regret the hard time and let the unemployed starve? Perish with cold? Build jails and asylums for the criminal and insane, hospitals for the sick, and have no provision for the non-criminal, sane, and well who cannot find work?”
In 1925 the newly-formed congregation of St. Nicholas of Myra Church rented the building. Part of the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese, it made Rutherford Stuyvesant’s chapel its home, finally purchasing the building in 1937. Large copper Orthodox crosses were erected on three of the gable peaks.
The handsome church continues to be used by the Russian Orthodox congregation today. Immaculately maintained, it is a wonderful example of late Victorian religious architecture, deemed by the Landmarks Preservation Commission as “lively and picturesque.”
photographs taken by the author