Thursday, September 29, 2011

The 1907 Church of St. Thomas the Apostle - No. 260 West 118th Street


Photo Harlem Preservation Foundation
Harlem, just before the turn of the last century, was an up-and-coming neighborhood. Brownstone row houses, apartment buildings, and substantial middle-class homes lined the streets and avenues as developers drew residents northward.

Here, on March 17, 1889 St. Thomas the Apostle Roman Catholic Church was established by Archbishop Corrigan. The Archbishop appointed Rev. John J. U. Keogan to organize the new congregation.  The priest soon hired the 29-year old architect Thomas Henry Poole to design the parish’s first structure, a small one-story church erected that same year which was, apparently, never intended to be a permanent home.

In 1904 Father John J. Keogan was still pastor and he called upon Poole again to design a much larger, much more impressive church for the growing congregation. Land was purchased on 118th Street near 8th and St. Nicholas Avenues. What came together on Poole's drafting board was astonishing, unique, and magnificent.

photo nycago.com

Dedicated on May 26, 1907, the church was without parallel. Freely melding styles like English Perpendicular Gothic, Moorish and Venetian Gothic, the architect slathered the façade with ornamentation. A spiky screen ran along the upper face of the building like a tiara, stealing attention from the colossal Gothic stained glass windows. A projecting porch with paired columns and Venetian arches spanned the width of the structure. It would be called by the AIA Guide to New York City a century later “berserk eclecticism” which is “unnameable but wonderful.”

A lacy fan-vaulted spans the organ loft -- photo nycago.com
Inside Poole continued his exquisite decoration. Gothic fan-vaulted ceilings in the over-sized space (the sanctuary stretched about one-and-a-half times longer than most), intricately carved woodwork, and priceless stained glass windows by Mayer of Munich, dazzled the worshipers. The 1914 edition of “The Catholic Church in the United States of America” boasted that “The organ, attached to which are 39 chimes of bells is very fine. The altars, of pure white marble, are in keeping the lines of the church, and are very restful to the eye.”

The ornately carved High Altar -- photo nycago.co
The main section could accommodate 1000 congregants, with seating for another 900 in the balconies.

The magnificent structure was the scene of weddings and funerals, many of them socially noteworthy. Hundreds of mourners crowded into the church in 1908 for the funeral of Justice John Henry McCarthy.

In 1920 Maurice G. St. Germain was stationed in Havre, France, working for the Guaranty Trust Company, when he met Loretta Harvey of 281 West 118th Street who was touring Europe. Two years later as he crossed the ocean on the Cunard steamship Mauretania, he sent her a radiogram asking her to marry him. A week later, on August 16, 1922 they were married at St. Thomas the Apostle.

The extension of the subway lines into Harlem, among other factors, changed the face of Harlem and by mid-century the population of the neighborhood was a rich mixture of racial and ethnic backgrounds. Unfortunately, there was also poverty and crime in the changing district. On February 15, 1955 14-year old James Mason entered a recreation center at 115th Street and 5th Avenue with two friends. The boy was shot and killed.

In the wake of the heartbreaking event the Church of St. Thomas the Apostle paid for all burial expenses and Rev. John Stewart offered a requiem mass for the boy.

Harry Belafonte’s family were members here, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was baptized here and the first black Borough President of Manhattan, Hulan E. Jack was buried from St. Thomas.

But time and the Catholic Church have little regard for historic structures.  As the 20th Century wound to a close the congregation of St. Thomas the Apostle had dwindled to about 250 parishioners and the structure itself was in need of repair. In 2000 structural repairs were estimated at around $1 million, the pipe organ no longer functioned (another half million dollars in repairs), and the roof continually leaked.

In 2003, with no advance notice, the church was closed.  By now the Archdiocese estimated restoration at $5 million and announced plans to demolish the building to make way for a senior housing project. Despite numerous pleas, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission declined to designate the one-of-a-kind structure.

Former parishioners waged a lawsuit against the Archdiocese in 2004 as, in August, it began dismantling the intricate terra cotta spikes of the upper façade. The New York Landmarks Conservancy intervened and helped to temporarily suspend demolition.

The lawsuit was dismissed in 2005.  The son of the artist responsible for the stained glass windows wrote from Germany, pleading to keep the windows intact.  Instead, they were removed and shipped to the newly-constructed Church of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha in Lagrangeville, upstate New York.

The Church of St. Thomas the Apostle as it appeared in 2008 -- photo michaelminn.net
In the meantime, The Preservation League of New York State named St. Thomas one of the seven most important sites to preserve in 2005.  Yet despite the many advocates pleading for the salvation of the remarkable Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, it appears that only a miracle can save the architectural gem.

6 comments:

  1. Wow. This was a new one on me. I've never seen this building, and drank in the description and pix of this Seuss-ian marvel.

    Then to come to that sad ending...

    Still, well into the post old-Penn-Station era, we can be so myopic with our grandest structures. Quite a let-down.

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  2. This church is a real heart-breaker. Just when you think we've learned a lesson...

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  3. Here you see the Church in it's Grandeur. The last photos we have of the destruction of the interior are far beyond what the mind can imagine. The pews pushed aside and the Crown of the Altar hanging below the stained glass windows. The side altars torn out and stations of the cross ripped off the walls laying on the floor. The pictures were made in 2006. We have been told by those who watch the building that the large windows have been removed from the inside.
    This building could have had a life after being a Church but the Archdiocese would rather blanch it from this earth than see it remain as a monument to the emigrants that built it.

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    1. I know I'm late with my reaction to this blog, but Julienne, do you have any photos of your Mom and Dad at St. Thomas you can share?
      I was baptized and made most of my sacraments there, and I am a survivor of the strict, exceptional, and completely unbiased education I received there (my own opinion)
      from the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament at St. Thomas the Apostle Church School. I have such vivid memories of a tall brass pulpit (I thought it was gold!) and the white
      marble railing that adorned the alter where I knelt for Holy Communion.
      I remember your father rushing along St. Nicholas Ave. most mornings to church, I thought he was most holy, and I know more than ever, now, that he really was.
      Even more than the loss of our beautiful structure, is there a way we can piece together photos and memories in a book, or a blog, or some sort of historical
      archive, so we can preserve the memories of our past, that has passed, but is not yet forgotten? Love you -

      Deborah Champlain
      newigwam@earthlink.net

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  4. I was the very last baby baptized in this church in 1960... I longed to return here to serve my God and found it in such disrepair... Please restore my church... <3

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    1. Hi Donnatella,

      How do you know you know you were the last baby baptized there? Just wondering, as I'm not sure of where our records currently reside. I heard they are at St. Joseph of the Holy Family on 125th St. and Morningside Ave, but I am not sure. I graduated from St. Thomas the Apostle School in 1966 (I have a pic to post of the class of '66 in front of the church if anyone is interested), so I'm pretty sure baptisms were continuing there until to the mid 1970's at least.

      Perhaps St. Joseph of the Holy Family Church can help? The mass there at 10 am on Sunday's is a wonderful experience and the church is one of the oldest in the city. It is no where near the grandeur we cherished at St. Thomas, but the community is very vibrant and welcoming. I too deeply share our loss.

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