Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The St. John Baptist House -- Nos. 231-233 East 17th Street

photo by Alice Lum
By 1875 the lower east side teemed with tenements crowded with impoverished immigrants, mostly German.  A quarter of a century earlier, in Clewer, England, the Sisterhood of Saint John Baptist had been formed to alleviate the suffering of the poor.  Now, in May 1876, a New York branch was established to further the work.

The sisterhood was part of the Protestant Episcopal Church and fell under the direct charge of the influential Bishop Henry C. Potter and the Reverend G. H. Houghton.  In 1877 Helen Folsom purchased two plots of land at Nos. 233 and 235 East 17th Street in the fashionable Stuyvesant Square neighborhood for the Sisterhood.

Helen came from the well-known Winthrop family of Massachusetts.  She purchased the land from Rutherford Stuyvesant, a family relative by marriage, and conveyed it to the Saint John the Baptist Foundation for $10.  Her magnanimous gesture was possibly prompted by a family interest—it is thought that Sister Helen Margaret was her niece.

Architect E. T. Littell set to work designing the “Mother House and Novitiate” that would house up to 40 sisters.   The building, most often referred to as the St. John Baptist House, was completed within the year.  Littell produced an asymmetrical Victorian Gothic pile in keeping with the religious organization it housed.  Between the pointed arches of paired Gothic windows within single brownstone arches were carved quatrefoils.  The offset doorway was approached by a steep, wide brownstone stoop and bandcourses of the same stone ran between each floor, doubling as sills.   Especially picturesque was the jerkin-headed gable that interrupted the steep slate-tiled roof.

The sisters quickly took up their vocations of tending to the poor and sick.   Headed by Sister Frances Constance, the Lady Superior, they visited and ministered to the residents of the tenements.  The New York Times noted “Their dress is very similar to that of Roman Catholic nuns, and when walking the streets they are easily mistaken for nuns.”

They established a “work-room for ecclesiastical embroidery” in the house, where women learned needlework and a means of income.  The Times said “They act as teachers to the pupils, and also devote themselves to general missionary work for the Church.”

Among the missionary sisters was Sister Gertrude Verena; one of the original group.  By 1880 the Holy Cross Mission had been established by the sisterhood a few blocks away on East 17th Street and Avenue C.   Early on the morning of November 7 Sister Gertrude Verena went to the mission, as she always did; then headed back sometime after 10:00.

A tall, thin stranger had been noticed in the neighborhood during the past few days loitering around Stuyvesant Square and sometimes blankly staring at the St. John the Baptist House.  Thomas Stanton lived in a rented room in the basement of No. 43 Grand Street and, according to The Sun on November 9, “For the last week he had been out of work, and to pass the time he strolled up to the park in Stuyvesant square, and sat on the benches.  He saw Sister Gertrude pass in and out of the house several times.”

Stanton was a Roman Catholic and assumed that the woman in the black habit was a Catholic nun.  That morning, as she approached the stairs of the St. John Baptist House, Stanton was abruptly standing there on the sidewalk.  The Times reported “When Sister Verena had approached to within 10 feet of the strange man, he suddenly drew from his pocket a six-shooter, and taking deliberate aim, without saying a word, began firing at her.  Two shots were discharged and entered the woman’s left thigh.”

Sister Gertrude Verena, despite her wounds, ran up the brownstone stoop.  Stanton pursued her, firing his weapon over and over until the rounds were spent.  One entered the sister’s right ankle, another went through her left thumb and the other two struck the stone steps.

At the time the other sisters were in the chapel at the rear of the house; but the gunfire was audible, followed by the frantic ringing of the doorbell by the wounded woman.  The sisters rushed to her aid, helping her into the hallway where she fell unconscious.

The National Police Gazette provided its vision of the attack on November 20, 1880 (copyright expired)
In the meantime, Stanton casually walked along East 17th Street toward Third Avenue audaciously carrying the spent weapon in his hand.  The two men who had witnessed the shooting from across the street disappeared before they could be questioned.  It was a stalwart newsboy who seized Stanton and held him until Police Officer William B. Deems arrived to arrest him.

The National Police Gazette, under the headline “The Very Stones Cry Shame—A Little Sister of the Poor Shot While Returning From an Errand of Mercy,” opined “It was clear that he was insane, and he was locked up to await an examination.”

Indeed, Stanton appeared to be disturbed.  He told investigators he had been bewitched by the sister, who harbored a demon who spoke to him.  “I didn’t want to hurt her.  I only wanted to scare her and make the witch leave her,” The Sun quoted him as saying on November 9, 1880.  The witch, he said, was “always around me and talking to me.  No; I can’t see her, and never did see her.  I can’t repeat anything that she says, but I always hear her talking, day and night.”

For some reason the innocent Sister Gertrude Verena drew his attention.  “He saw Sister Gertrude pass in and out of the house several times, and on Sunday he made up his mind that she was the cause of all his trouble.”

Meanwhile, the sister was cared for by Dr. Stuyvesant F. Morris, the physician of the House, who pronounced the wounds “very serious, but not necessarily fatal,” according to The New York Times.  It was believed that the heavy fabric of her habit had helped break the force of the bullets.

Within two days The Sun reported that she was “in a fair way to recover” and Dr. Morris believed he would be able to extract “the bullet imbedded in the muscular tissues of her back” that day.
The wounded Sister Gertrude Verena desperately climbed the brownstone stoop seeking help.  At the time the school addition, at left, had not been constructed. -- photo by Alice Lum

The sisters’ work continued and in 1883 the plot at No. 331 abutting the House to the west was acquired for a school.   Architect Charles C. Haight received the commission to design the structure which sympathetically expanded on Littell’s original plan.   The St. John Baptist School doubled as a boarding and day school, and was described by “The Centennial History of the Protestant Episcopal Church” the following year “a new school-house for young ladies” which would accommodate about 30 pupils.  Haight’s building projected beyond the St. John the Baptist House nearly to the property line.  The addition resulted in the entrance of House becoming visually centered.

By 1892, in addition to the embroidery school in the House and the St. John Baptist School next door, the sisters had undertaken a staggering amount of work.  They were in charge of St. Hilda’s School, a boarding school “for young ladies,” in Morristown, New Jersey; the St. Andrew’s Hospital for Convalescent Women at 213 East 17th Street; the Mission of the Holy Cross and a Girls Day School in connection with it; St. Anne’s Cottage, a summer home for the women and children of the Mission; the Midnight Mission on Greene Street in the desolate area of brothels and vice where the sisters created “a refuge for fallen women;” St. Michael’s Home on Long Island which Living Church Quarterly described as “an offshoot of the Midnight Mission, chiefly for young and hopeful cases, and partly prevential;” and the Christ Church Home, an institution for children in South Amboy, New Jersey.  In addition to this all, Living Church Quarterly reminded readers that the sisters carried on “mission work among the German population of the East Side of New York.”

In 1915 the church sold the East 17th Street buildings to Evodkim Mescherky for $70,000—about $1 million today—who quickly established the Russian National St. Vladimir’s Home.    The buildings were little changed and Russian immigrants, some having fled the recent turmoil at home, were housed here. 

On March 24, 1918, with Russia caught up in World War I and revolution, Colonel Nicolay Nicolaywich Koch was living here.  Formerly a Colonel in the Russian Army, he issued a passionate plea to his countrymen to help fight Germany.

He said in part, “The world calls us an ignorant, unfortunate and poverty stricken people.  But this is only half of a misfortune.  It is not our fault; but, the most terrible thing of all, we are accused of treachery before our faithful allies in the fight for the world’s freedom.”  He said that because many called the Russians “contemptible,” that “many of us, because of lack of courage, begin to consider concealing our Russian nationality.”

His emotional plea continued “To you, sons of our downtrodden, beloved, and only recently great, free Russia, I appeal in this terrible hour of unheard-of trials and beg you from the depth of my tortured heart to firmly decide to stand up and defend our native land, threatened with long slavery and innumerable sufferings, to free her from the iron grasp of the tyrants.”

Among the Colonel’s co-residents here were some who openly supported the Bolshevik party.  When two of them joined like-minded protestors in a demonstration in Washington Square in October 1919, they found themselves behind bars.

The New-York Tribune reported on October 12 that “Six men and a woman who were arrested Wednesday, when several hundred aliens professing Bolshevik convictions tried to parade from Washington Square without a permit, were sentenced to six months in the workhouse yesterday.”   Among those arrested for disorderly conduct were 28-year old Karl Schula and 25-year old David Klipper of St. Vladimir’s Home.   

The judge was particularly mindful of the group’s banners; one in particular which read “Deport Us to Russia—We’ll Be Free There.”  The New-York Tribune noted “He agreed heartily with the suggestion of some one in the packed courtroom that Henry Ford or some other wealthy man would earn national gratitude by chartering a ship and giving free passage to those who approved of Lenine and Trotzky.”

On July 18, 1920 Eastern Orthodox history was made in the chapel of St. Vladimir’s Home.   The former chapel of the Sisterhood of St. John Baptist was now the Catholic Church of the Transfiguration, a branch of the Holy Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Nicholas.    The Times reported that “For the first time in the 1,894 years of the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Litany of St. Chrysostom will be said tomorrow morning in the English language.”

It was an extraordinary break in tradition, possibly prompted by financial problems.  The Times noted that “As the Russian Church in America has been embarrassed financially ever since the revolution in Russia, the English branch will be maintained by voluntary contributions.  All pecuniary aid from Russia stopped after the Bolsheviki took $200,000,000 from the churches there.”

The Church of the Transfiguration would not be here long, however.  A month later the building was sold in a foreclosure sale and was acquired by the Russian Church Relief Corporation for $64,000.  Just four months later, on December 10, newspapers reported that the buildings had been sold.

Controversy in the brick and brownstone buildings came to an end as the newly-formed Smith College Club converted them to club rooms, dining rooms and twelve sleeping rooms per floor above the first floor.  Here alumnae of the prestigious women’s college found temporary housing; and fund raising and educational events were held.  For eight years the society pages would publicize the glamorous affairs.  One of the first was the benefit dance “and bridge” at the Plaza Hotel on the day after Easter that year, a month after the club moved into their new clubhouse.

Then, in June 1929, the Smith College Club sold the building to the Friendly League for Christian Service; an organization for business woman.  The Times reported that it “will be opened as a home for business woman on July 1.”

A month later the newspaper would write about some of the organization's unusual features.  “The new Friendly Centre which has been opened by the Friendly League for Christian Service…has removed any age limit on employed women, and it is for business women that the residence will be operated.  Most homes of this kind do not permit women to stay after they are 35 years of age.  Nor will the centre refuse admission to a business woman who receives a generous salary.”

The article did point out that the cheapest rooms would be held for financially struggling girls.  “The reasonable rooms, however, will be reserved for employed girls and women with small incomes.”  The women living here enjoyed a library, lounge and auditorium.

The Friendly Centre would stay on in the building for decades; finally selling it in 1996 to the Salvation Army.   A minor conversion updated the facility, with laundries and offices on each of the floors, along with the bedrooms, and a chapel on the first floor.

The 2080 square foot apartment above was listed in 2013 for $2.3 million 
Then in 2008 the venerable structure was converted to luxury condominiums.    No trace of the interiors remains where sisters in black habits once shuffled dutifully about.  But while the windows have been replaced; the exteriors are remarkable intact and still delightfully picturesque.

photo by Alice Lum


  1. Dispiriting to see the interior view. The consuming, relentless plague of dreary white box apartments in Manhattan is a telling sign of the world in which we live.

  2. I totally agree Jeffinprov. So boring and predictable. When did color, texture, and individual taste in design go out of style?


  3. I resided for @ 1 year while taking courses in Manhatten. Shook hands with JFK when he spoke in the park one fine day.
    The building was fine, the staircase broad and well positioned with small open lounges at each floor. Other girls and I gathered there after dinner (in the dreary dining hall on the basement level) to chat.
    It was interesting, multinational and totally safe environment for a 19 yr old from the 'burbs.'