Friday, February 15, 2013

The 1870 St. Ann's School -- No. 113 East 11th Street

photo by Alice Lum
Bishop Hughes formed the parish of St. Ann’s in 1852 to serve the fashionable Bond Street neighborhood.  Father John Murray Forbes acquired an old church building on East 8th Street that had been built by Episcopalians and then taken over by Presbyterians.  Bishop Hughes dedicated the building on June 1, 1852 and the parish prospered.

In 1863 the congregation was large enough to support a school and St. Ann’s Parochial School was opened nearby.  Here young Catholic children were educated by Sisters of Charity.

By the end of the Civil War, the neither the old church nor school building was sufficient.  In 1870 pastor Thomas Scott Preston, as Father Forbes had done before, purchased an existing church building. The 1847 structure at No. 120 East 12th Street was built as a church and had been recently used as a synagogue.  Directly behind, on East 11th Street, land was conveniently available for construction of a new school building. 

The school opened later that year.  Fr. Preson’s obituary in November 1891 would mention that “He was a firm supporter of the parochial-school system, believing that the education of the young should devolve upon the Church, and to exemplify his belief, he built a commodious school-house on Eleventh street.”

And commodious it was.  The non-nonsense brick edifice stretched from No. 113 to 117 and rose four stories over the basement.  The architect made creative use of brick, on the whole, to embellish the structure.  Limestone eyebrows over the arched windows and stone door framing were the exception.  A carved stone disc in the shallow gable announced the school’s name.

A pleasing row of brick corbels lined the gable and band courses of saw-tooth laid brick broke the heavy mass.   As with all Catholic schools, boys entered through one door; girls through another on the opposite end.

The improvement to the block led the Board of Alderman to approve three street lamps in front of the school that year.  The school opened with an attendance of 560 students.

Stairs originally rose to the boys' and girls' entrances -- photo NYPL Collection
Despite the modern design, the school was built with little thought to the threat of fire.   In March 1883 Elbridge T. Gerry, President of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, sent a letter to the Inspector of Buildings, William P. Esterbrook “calling his attention to the condition of a large number of school buildings in this City.”  Among them was St. Ann’s.

The Society found that all the outer doors were kept locked, there were no fire escapes and no fire drills were ever conducted.  It was a horrible disaster in the making.

The violations were corrected and things at St. Ann’s progressed quietly for another three years.  But in 1886 construction of Charles Goldstein’s Webster Hall next door at No. 121 was just being completed.  The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide described it as “a large ball and concert hall.”  Fr. Preston dug deeper and discovered that Goldstein had applied for a liquor license.

Preston lodged a complaint with the Excise Commissioners based on the location next to the school.  Goldstein countered through The New York Times saying that the “hall was intended for balls, receptions, Hebrew weddings, and sociables, and not a bar room.  The bar would not be opened until 8:30 or 9 o’clock in the evening, at the hour the school would be closed.”

Other newspapers were not so understanding of Goldstein’s position.  The New-York Tribune, on December 30 mentioned “The Excise Commissioners have reserved their decision, though they ought to have been prompt in denying the application.  Hesitation is not creditable in such a case.”

A day later The Sun chimed in.  “A place such as this dance hall draws to it and about it characters with whom children should not become familiar, and creates noise and confusion intolerable in the immediate vicinity of a school and church.  The proprietor of this establishment deserves no consideration at the hands of the Excise Commissioners, who have full authority, and are under positive obligation to refuse him a license.”

Whether Fr. Preston or the newspapers like it or not, Goldstein got his license and Webster Hall became one of New York’s most popular gathering spots.

photo by Alice Lum
Although St. Ann’s congregation continued to be among New York’s wealthiest into the 20th century, the school saw a decline.  In 1914 it had an attendance of 157 boys and 147 girls—a drop of nearly 50 percent. 

Yet the school endured, with no help from Webster Hall next door.  In 1902 the banquet hall caught fire, then again in 1911.  In 1930 the building was partly destroyed by another blaze and then, on February 22, 1938 the entire neighborhood was evacuated as yet another fire raged through the hall.   The conflagration, which The New York Times said “menaced St. Ann’s Parochial School,” nearly destroyed Webster Hall and resulted in two deaths.

The East Village neighborhood changed as the 20th century progressed and in 1978, five years before the church was re-established as St. Ann’s Armenian Rite Catholic Cathedral, the old school building was converted into apartments, four to a floor.  A later conversion was completed in 2010.

The boys’ and girls’ entrances were partially bricked over, transforming them to windows, and the street and basement levels were painted an industrial red.  Although the apartments are roomy—measuring around 12,000 square feet—it appears that any sympathetic treatment of the exterior design is purely accidental.

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