Monday, September 19, 2011

The 1896 Grace Chapel (Church of the Immaculate Conception) -- West 14th Street

photo by Alice Lum
On Sunday March 12, 1893 the Rev. Dr. W. R. Huntington, rector of Grace Church, petitioned his wealthy parishioners to contribute to a new Grace Chapel.  In his sermon titled “Advance” he proposed replacing the existing chapel with a new $200,000 complex.

Since 1846, the year the magnificent Grace Church was consecrated, there had been a Grace Chapel in the 14th Street neighborhood.  The present chapel was the third of these.  It was built in 1876 across from Tammany Hall.  While Grace Church tended to the social elite, Grace Chapel tended to the spiritual and physical needs of the poor, immigrant community.

“The present Grace Chapel is too near the mother church,” explained Huntington.  “It ought to be in the very thick of the population to whose needs it undertakes to minister…Again, as to surroundings, the present vicinage of Grace Chapel is full of influences in the highest degree harmful to the characters of the young people who go in and out at our doors.”

The parish spent $160,000 for a plot of land on 14th Street, near 1st Avenue, running through the block to 13th Street.   Plans were laid for a complex of buildings to administer to the needs of the poor in the neighborhood:  a church, a parish house, a clergy house, and a “hospital.”

The New York Times was quick to explain that “This last is not a hospital in the usual sense in which the word is used in America."  The hospital would be a combined home for the aged, the infirm, and “a general asylum of refuge for children who may come upon the care of the parish, waifs and strays who find their home with us.”

The hospital was to be separated into three parts – the House of Simeon, the House of the Holy Child, and the House of Anna.  “Very likely there will be some sick persons there from time to time, but it is not to be a hospital in the ordinary sense of the word,” said The Times.

The parish contracted architects Stewart Barney and Henry Otis Chapman to design the complex.  They created a charming enclave of French Gothic buildings ringing a central courtyard filled with trees, grass and flowers.   Working in brown Roman brick and stone ornamented with terra cotta, they faced the chapel and hospital towards 14th Street with the remaining buildings on 13th Street, including the large parish house that contained the boys’ club, libraries, classrooms, gymnasium, reading room, Sunday School hall and a “swimming tank.”

In 1896 the American Architect & Building News presented the new building -- (copyright expired)
The cornerstone was laid with great ceremony on June 18, 1894.  A copper box was deposited within the massive brownstone cube, containing an incredible number of religious publications as well as United States coins.

The charming complex was completed in January 1896; its focal point being the striking central bell tower.  A series of arched entranceways undulated across the sidewalk level.  As the Chapel neared completion the wealthy banker George Coppell donated what would become known as the Coppell Windows – a complex grouping of stained glass panels 30 feet tall and 15 feet wide – in memory of his wife Helen Hoffman Coppell.   The five main panels of the window featured life-sized, full-figure depictions of saints.

photo Library of Congress
In March 1899 Roger Smith entered the vestibule of the Chapel and stole an oil painting from the wall.  Unfortunately for Smith, the policeman he passed at the corner of 14th Street and 1st Avenue, Officer Healey, regularly attended services at the Chapel and recognized the painting.  The art thief made it only half a block before being arrested.

The same year a sickly baby boy was found on the steps of the Chapel with a note pinned on his clothing:  “Be so kind and take care of my little boy, for I have no home and I am so sick in the hospital.  I will try to see you when I leave the hospital.  It might be two of four weeks before I can get my child, but please do me one favor and christen the boy.  Harry John is his name.  He is one year old.   G.R.”

Someone else had scrawled on the note “The mother is poor and can’t take care of it.”

The boy was sent to Bellevue Hospital while the rector, Rev. G. H. Bottome, worked on provisions for him.

By 1943 the aged complex was no longer functioning efficiently and on April 2 Grace Church announced that the chapel would be merged with the Church and the buildings closed.  At the same time the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company was laying plans for the gargantuan residential project, Stuyvesant Town, that would result in the demolition of several blocks of buildings.  Included in the area was the Immaculate Conception Church.

By August the church had purchased the Grace Chapel complex.  Renovations were made, including an architecturally harmonious new school on 13th Street designed by Eggers & Higgins.  But on the whole, the assemblage of buildings remained essentially intact .  On May 2, 1948 a new cornerstone was laid by Auxiliary Bishop Stephen J. Donahue.

A complex ceiling adorns the sanctuary -- photo by Church of the Immaculate Conception
As the 20th century drew to a close, the buildings showed the ravages of time and weather.  In July 1998 the parish initiated a $600,000 restoration project.  The slate roofs were replaced, masonry was repointed and stained glass windows were repaired.

In designating the complex a landmark in 1966, the Landmarks Preservation Commission remarked on its “rare charm and architectural beauty.”

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