Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Bowery Mission -- No. 227 Bowery

photo by Alice Lum
In 1865 the Bowery was rapidly changing from a once-fashionable residential street to a commercial neighborhood with German musical halls and beer gardens as well as banks and shops. Here Jones Stolts ran his undertaking business.

Three decades later, as the turn of the century approached, J. & J. W. Stolts at No. 227 Bowery was among the most respected undertaking establishments in the city. It was here that the autopsy of the murdered actress Laura Booth was conducted on March 29, 1898. By now the firm had branched out, manufacturing hearses, coffins and undertaking supplies from its three-story factory on East 104th Street.

In the meantime, the Bowery had continued to change. Gangs of youths roamed the streets at night and bawdy houses were crammed with “degraded women” and drunkards. In response, missions sprang up with the goal of saving these people from the evils around them.

One was the Bowery Mission.  Reverend Albert Gleason Ruliffson founded the Mission in 1879 in a rented room at No. 36 Bowery. After a while, Ruliffson moved the mission to No. 14 Bowery; but money was a constant problem and by 1895 the mission was dangerously close to shutting down.

Hearing of the mission’s plight, the owner of the Christian Herald, Dr. Louis Klopsch, purchased the institution that year to prevent its closing.  With the infusion of cash, things were going nicely for the mission, which moved again to the former Gombossy’s Music Hall at No. 55 Bowery in 1897.

Then plans were announced in 1904 for the erecting of the Manhattan Bridge. The proposed wide entrance would eliminate scores of buildings including No. 55 Bowery. The Bowery Mission needed to find a new home.

On the evening of March 22, 1905 the Stolts factory building uptown burned to the ground. The business was destroyed. Before long the Bowery Mission purchased the old J. & J. W. Stolts undertaking building at No. 227 Bowery and began renovations.

In January 1908, the year before the Mission moved into its new building, destitute men receive their bread and "bowl of coffee" -- photo Library of Congress
$20,000 later the attractive but utilitarian brick undertaker’s structure was transformed. Architects H. L. and M. G. Emery created a roomy chapel on the second floor inspired by medieval English architecture. Heavy wood trusses supported the ceiling and, outside, a neo-Tudor half-timbered window projected slightly from the façade. Here four large stained glass windows were installed. Reflecting the mission’s need to reach out to the unsaved souls outside the chapel, the stained glass inscriptions were designed to be read from the sidewalk rather than the inside, as would be expected in most churches.

The architects created a rather unexpected Tudor-inspired second story chapel on the Victorian building -- photo by Alice Lum
The new space was dedicated on November 7, 1909. The New York Times praised the renovations, saying “It is well ventilated on the suction-fan and purifying chamber system, and the latest improvements in sanitation have been installed throughout. The establishment contains a dining hall, kitchen, dormitories, and writing room.”

The Mission's 1909 fund raising ad included an etching of the new building -- NYPL Collection
The inspirational book “Wonders of Providence” remarked on the move. “After several changes and removal of the Mission to 55 Bowery, where is was located for a number of years, it has finally been established in a new and excellent location at 227 Bowery, near Rivington Street, where the magnificent new Mission Building, now occupied, is so constructed and equipped as to meet not only the needs of today, but to accommodate an even more extensive work for men in the future.”

In an attempt to reach out to those outside the Mission, the inscriptions on the stained glass were meant to be read from the sidewalk rather than from the chapel -- photo by Alice Lum
A month after opening, President William Howard Taft made a call at The Bowery Mission. Superintendant J. G. Hallimond told the assembled men, “It took a man with a great big athletic heart to make the long journey from the White House to the Bowery.”

As the President began speaking to the bedraggled group he announced “My friends, I am just as much surprised at being here as you are to see me here.” Speaking of the Mission he said “It is truly great work to help men over the hard places, to help them at a time when things seem desperate, to show men that there are people who feel with them in their misfortunes and anxious to assist them to get the opportunity which will enable you to achieve something for yourselves.”

A bread line snakes along the Bowery in 1910 -- photo Library of Congress
From here the Mission continued its work of distributing 2,000 breakfasts—a “large roll and a bowl of coffee"—every morning. A worship service was held once a day and five times on Sunday and, perhaps most important to the down-and-out Bowery residents, it conducted a “Free Labor Bureau” and Dr. Forbes of Columbia University provided one hour of free medical advice every day.

A 1910 ad in Christian Charities focused on the Free Labor Bureau.
When a blizzard hit the city that first winter, the Mission was able to convince the City to hire more than 150 out-of-luck workers to clear snow. It placed ads and sent letters nationwide to obtain jobs for unemployed men on farms, in factories or shops. In February 1911 Richmond, Virginia’s The Southern Planter said “there are now in the city more idle men than ever before, many able, honest men, qualified for any sort of farm work, laborers of every description, skilled workers, and others, all wanting work yet finding none to do.”

That year Henshaw Brothers Florists from Springfield, New Jersey wrote to the Mission praising “Thomas Campton has made good and lived up to your recommendation,” and John A. Roebling’s Sons of Trenton wrote “I have never had a dishonest man or boy from the Mission. The man sent last is exceptionally good. He can turn his hand to anything, is a willing worker, and is a pleasant person to have around.”

Despite its location on what was variously called “Skid Row” and the “Street of No Return,” The Bowery Mission did not escape the notice of even New York’s most privileged.

The wedding of Helen Miller Gould, the daughter of the fabulously wealthy Jay Gould, to Findley J. Shepard took place on January 22, 1913. As part of the celebration, she provided dinner for 1,000 hungry men at the Mission. Groups of 225 men at a time were fed roast beef, vegetables, pie, bread and coffee; a wedding reception they would long remember.

On Christmas Eve 1917, as the mansions of Fifth Avenue and the swank apartments of Park Avenue were bright with festivities, the men of the Bowery huddled in the cold. The New York Sun, however, reported that “Just as the derelicts of the Bowery began to assemble at the various ‘bread lines’ a little before midnight Christmas eve a big limousine car turned out of a fashionable thoroughfare and sped to the Bowery Mission at 227 Bowery. Inside were some 250 hungry, shabby men singing in quavering tones ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee.”

The article told how “three young women and two men, attired in evening clothes with diamonds flashing from the fingers and garments of the women” waited for the men to begin filing out. As they did, the well-dressed Good Samaritans distributed cash to the needy men and gave another $450 to Reverend Hallimond.

“In the party,” said The Sun, “were Mrs. E. W. Kingdon of the Plaza Hotel, Miss Bettina LaFell of the Plaza, George Graham Rice, the meteoric broker of Emma Leasing fame, and Mrs. Oscar Daube. The women wore jewels valued at many thousands of dollars, and yet during the entire night while hundreds of men of all kinds crowded around the car eagerly reaching out for the money, not once did anything occur to frighten the women or cause the men to look around for a bluecoat.”

Before Christmas Eve was over, the group had given away $3,800.

Mrs. Kingdom told a reporter “Yes, we did visit the Bowery last night, and we had a real Christmas. Those are the kind of people who really need help, and the pleasure it gave us and the gratitude they showed was worth ever so much more than the money we gave away.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt stopped by on July 15, 1920. In an effort to encourage the broken men, he assured “I think things are going up, not down. I don’t believe in talk of the good old times. These times were never as good as the present. And by the same token, these good times are not as good as those of tomorrow.”

The good times of tomorrow that Roosevelt predicted would be a while in coming, for before the decade was out The Great Depression would make the Bowery even more desolate. Bread lines stretched around the block and the Mission faced its greatest challenge yet as once gainfully-employed men found themselves penniless.

Men in fedoras and overcoats join the bread line in 1932 during the Great Depression -- NYPL Collection
A century later the neighborhood continues to change. While remnants of the old Skid Row exist, clubs and sushi restaurants gradually replace grittier businesses or vacant storefronts. Yet the Mission continues its work with the homeless.  The former Salvation Army building next door at 225 was annexed and in 2002 around $1 million was spent on updating and renovating the Mission building.

At the time, Executive Director Brian Johansson explained, “We wanted to make a statement that we’re here to stay. We’re an accent—not an eyesore.” As it did in 1909, the mission, operating on charitable contributions, provides meals, beds and rehabilitation programs for the homeless.

The Victorian brick and limestone Bowery Mission building with its surprising Tudor second floor elicits double-takes from unwary passersby. But its eccentric façade only hints at its interesting history.


  1. I don't know if you saw Lionel Rogosin's ON THE BOWERY docudrama when it was at Film Forum earlier this year -- has some interesting interior shots of what I presume to be the Bowery Mission. Movie is v interesting look at mid 20th century NYC skid row, regardless of architecture. Great post!

  2. I missed that film. I agree with you; that period of NY history is riveting, if depressing.