Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The 1893 Judson Memorial -- Washington Square

photo by Alice Lum

In 1884, when the devout Baptist John D. Rockefeller permanently moved his family from Cleveland to New York City, he was probably already well aware of the works of Edward Judson.   On March 20, 1881 The New York Times had reported that the “Baptist papers refer with great satisfaction to the course of the Rev. Edward Judson, of Orange, N.J..”  The paper explained, “He resigns his pastorate in a wealthy church to become a missionary in New-York City.  He begins work in September.  Meantime, he is to finish a life of his father, Adoniram Judson, the famous missionary to Burmah.”

Judson had good reason to want to finish his father’s biography.  Deemed by The New York Times the “first missionary to foreign lands,” Adoniram Judson spent forty years spreading Christianity abroad; especially in Burma where he translated the entire Bible into Burmese.  His missionary work was not always appreciated by the locals and he spent two years imprisoned at Ava and at Oung-pen-la.  He died at sea in 1850 and was buried in the Indian Ocean.  Edward Judson was troubled that because of the burial at sea his father had no material memorial. 

At the time, Washington Square served as a sort of demarcation point between the elegant, refined residential district of Fifth Avenue, and the squalid immigrant neighborhood on the southern side of the park.  Minetta Lane nearby was the called "Little Africa" where the black population here swelled with emancipated slaves just after the Civil War.  And crowded into the district's tenements, described by Jacob Riis described as “vile rookeries,” were impoverished European immigrants.

The New-York Tribune said “Dr. Judson had conceived the idea of doing for the neglected masses of New-York what his father had done in India.  He believed that there were thousands of people in the great city to whom the word of God was unknown, and he proposed to carry it to them, as his father did to the heathen, among whom he lived for six years before he had made a convert, and still kept up the fight.”

Judson took to the pulpit at the Berean Baptist Church on Downing Street.  He instituted programs of education, recreation, health and nutrition.  And he envisioned a memorial church to his father that would close the Washington Square gap between the poor and the rich.

By the time Judson sat down with John D. Rockefeller, his dream was taking form.   The Judson Memorial would be a complex—church, children’s home, young men’s building and tower.   By October 2, 1889 plans were well underway.  The New York Times reported that “The Rev. Edward Judson, pastor of the Berean Baptist Church, corner of Bedford and Downing streets, who has undertaken to erect a church edifice, Young Men’s Building and Children’s Home as a memorial to his father, Adoniram Judson, was secured $220,000 of the $280,000 required.”  Rockefeller was the largest donor, giving $40,000.

The newspaper praised Judson’s own work.  “His son has done an excellent work in lower New-York during the last eight or nine years, and the undertaking he now has in hand will serve at once to commemorate his father’s memory and to aid in his own mission work in this city.” 

The large plot of land at the west corner of South Washington Square and Thompson Street had already been purchased and the architect selected.   Judson went to the top, giving the commission to McKim, Mead & White.  As was often the case, the firm turned to Europe for inspiration and for the Judson Memorial found it in Rome’s towers of San Georgio in Velabro, and that of San Lorenzo in Lucina.

The tower of San Giorgio in Rome served as inspiration for the Judson tower -- photo Wikimedia Commons, by Zelo
Eight months later the cornerstone was laid “with proper ceremony,” according to The Times on June 30, 1890.  Reportedly over 2,000 people were on hand for the ceremony.   The cornerstone box was “of an especially elaborate design” and contained a copy of the Burmese Bible as translated by Adoniram Judson, a copy of his son’s biography of him, various Burmese tracts, and other expected items like coins and newspapers.

The Times predicted that the building “will stand in many ways unique among the hundreds of temples of Christianity in this city.”  During the service, the Rev. Dr. George Dana Boardman made note of the strategic position of the plot.  “It is on the border of a dense tenement house district, and yet only a stone’s throw from a most respectable and aristocratic neighborhood, from which we hope many will come to join us in our work.”

“The property will be a very handsome one when completed,” said The Times, and it mentioned that McKim, Mead & White was simultaneously at work designing the Washington Memorial Arch on the opposite of the square.  The Judson Memorial plans included “a church building, a one hundred and sixty-five-foot tower, a children’s home, and a young men’s building.  All will be distinct, yet on the same frontage, and all will be Romanesque in style, strongly influenced by an early basilica treatment.”

While the church building was a monument to Judson; other prominent Baptists would be memorialized.  “The children’s home will be a memorial to Hiram Deats.  There will be a memorial window for each of the three Mrs. Judson, and a marble baptistery to the memory of Boardman, the first Baptist missionary to the Karens.  There will also be memorial windows to Drs. Hague, Dowling, and Gillette, whose lives were identified with Baptist foreign missions.”

“In the young men’s building it is proposed to provide furnished rooms with a library, reading room, and gymnasium,” reported The Times.  “The revenue from this will go to the mission work of the church.” 

With construction underway, the financial footing of the project seemed secure.  The total projected cost, including the land, was $320,500 (over $7 million today).  Of that amount only about $90,000 still needed to be raised.   

As the building rose, at least one additional memorial was included.  On September 21, 1891 The Times reported on the unveiling of “an ice-water fountain at the corner of the Judson Memorial Church…which has been erected to the memory of Duncan Dunbar, who for nearly forty years was pastor of the Macdougal Street Baptist Church.”  The white marble fountain which dispensed water cooled by a coil of pipe on which a block of ice was laid was especially appropriate.

Now protected by an iron cage, the marble fountain once dispensed ingeniously-cooled water -- photo by Alice Lum
According to the newspaper “Mr. Dunbar had conceived the idea of having a free drinking fountain, he said, many years ago, while on a voyage from Halifax, in the course of which the water on board gave out and the reverend gentleman learned the value of a pint of water.”

Artist John La Farge received the commission for the stained glass windows in the church—the single largest glass commission he would ever receive.  By the time the project was completed La Farge would produce seventeen windows: ten monumental figure memorials, two suites of glass for stair landings, a circular stair light, and three figure circular windows.  (Although La Farge expert James L. Yarnall attributes the rose window to the artist; the church’s website is less sure, saying the designer is “unknown.”)

Completed in 1892 the Italian Renaissance complex commanded the attention of the Square.  Clad in yellow Roman brick banded in splendid terra cotta, the buildings did not rely on ostentatious decoration; but on the dignity and classic lines of their historic precedents.  The ten-story campanile, or bell tower, created the focal point and stole attention from the handsome church it served.  The projected cost of $320,500 proved conservative.  The final costs as recorded by the “New York City Guide” decades later was $450,000.

The completed complex -- The Architectural Review April 3, 1893 (copyright expired)

The Architectural Review made note of the Roman models the architects relied on.  “As example which will serve to emphasize the importance of regarding similarity of use where a precedent is to be closely followed may be found in [the tower] of the Judson Memorial on Washington Square.”  The Review disapproved of the architects’ straying from the originals.  “But both these towers depend for their beauty largely on the plain shaft with blank arcades crowned by an open story.  In the Judson Memorial one of the conditions seems to have been a series of rooms in the tower one over the other.  The open windows of these rooms seriously injure the design adopted for the tower, and should have suggested a different treatment springing from the conditions in hand.”

Architectural Review objected to the open windows in the tower -- photo by Alice Lum
 Architectural critic Montgomery Schuyler obsessed with his own definition of “monument” and objected to the term being applied to the tower.  “The church-tower, as a church-tower, much be distinguished from the tower of the skyscraper by being obviously monumental.  And, in this connection at any rate, monumentality connotes uselessness.  So it must, by its beauty, be its own excuse for being”  This is why, he believed, that “the tower on the Judson Memorial Church is not satisfactory, architecturally considered, as a memorial.”

When it came to the church building, however, The Architectural Review was much more approving.  “The church itself follows precedent with complete and scholarly knowledge, yet with more freedom and therefore more successfully.  It is, in fact, a development from the Roman churches which suggests its design.”

The formal dedication of the structure finally was held on January 23, 1893.  Edward Judson said at the time “Standing as it does between the rich and the poor, the wealthy on the north side and the needy on the south side of Washington Square, this church has large opportunities for the great and good work in which it is engaged.”  At the time of the dedication the church had raised $415,000, but still needed more.

The following year the Judson Memorial did something that may have proved shocking to some.  It erected a large illuminated cross on the pinnacle of the tower; a brilliant beacon that could be seen for blocks. It was an innovative and unexpected use of electricity; possibly raising the eyebrows of the more conservative neighbors. 

That same year Edward Judson’s spirit of outreach and inclusion was demonstrated when the newly organized congregation of Greek Orthodox worshipers assembled in the basement of the church.  The Greek church, only the second of its kind in the city, was rebuffed by Roman Catholic and other denominations as it searched for temporary space to worship.

“Just as the situation became most perplexing the Rev. Dr. Edward Judson, pastor of the Memorial Baptist Church, came forward and tendered to the Greeks the use of the basement of his church…and the offer was gratefully accepted,” reported The Times on January 8, 1894.

The Greek Orthodox congregation most likely worshiped in this room -- photograph the New-York Tribune January 16, 1898 (copyright expired)

Judson’s vision of the rich and the poor coming together in his new church never came to be.  The money that had once flowed in came to a near standstill and in 1906 the $90,000 deficit still remained.  The preacher knocked on the door of John Rockefeller once again and the millionaire exhibited his trademark mantra of financial responsibility.  In June he promised Judson that he would provide $40,000 if the minister would first raise $50,000 by October 1.

Judson set off on an exhausting appeal.  He sent out 1,500 letters, made personal visits to wealthy citizens, placed advertisements and issued circulars.  As he told a reporter “I have been devoting all my time and strength to the accomplishment of this splendid result.”  But by the middle of September, with the time running out, he still was short $10,000.

Judson wrote an appeal that appeared in the New-York Tribune.  In part he said “No stone has been left unturned.  I have just rounded the corner of $40,000, but the remaining $10,000 will be the hardest to raise, because I have got about to the end of my resources.  Much of the money given so far and subscribed is conditional on the whole amount being raised, so that if we fail we shall not only lose Mr. Rockefeller’s $40,000 but a good many thousands besides.  I cannot bear the thought of this, and so appeal to your readers in our time of greatest need.”

A postman poses next to the mailbox outside the church entrance in 1900 -- photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York,

Sadly, Judson’s heart was apparently broken, for when he died in 1914 the church was still paying off its debt.  His death prompted a movement to clear up the balance.  On March 13, 1915 the New-York Tribune reported that “New York Baptists are taking the lead in putting the Judson Memorial Church on a sound basis.”  A plan was to clear the church of debt so the income from the rooms in the young men’s building (ranging from $12,000 to $15,000 annually) could be used by the for the organization’s works.

The work of the church among the poor was evidenced in the bitter winter of 1918 when coal became in such short supply that the schools were threatened with closing.   Now neighborhood children, with no heat at home, were in danger.  Judson Memorial came to the rescue.

On January 27 that year the Anabel Parker McCann reported in the New-York Tribune “If the doors of New York schools are closed next week for want of coal, the youngsters living in the neighborhood of Washington Square will feel sorry ‘not a little bit.’  Not they.  They will let out whoops of delight, and as soon as they are out of bed in the morning, make a ‘bee-line’ for Judson Memorial Church, on the south side of the Square, where they will be kept warm and happy until bedtime comes.”  Here plans were laid to provide the children exercise in the gymnasium and “a plate of hot soup and maybe some coffee at noon, and last, but not least, will spend an hour or longer every evening in the Judson movie show.”

photo by Alice Lum
Edward Judson’s tradition of outreach continued throughout the century.  It offered firewood, fresh milk, sewing classes, health care, and employment counseling to those in need.  When Howard Moody became pastor in 1956 he expanded on the tradition.  He founded the Village Aid and Service Center that would offer help to drug addicts, provide shelter for runaways and abused women, make abortion counseling available, and reach out to AIDS victims when the social stigma of the disease made assistance nearly impossible.

Moody, a social activist, joined in the civil rights demonstrations and anti-war protests of the 1960’s and ‘70’s; many of which were staged in the Square directly in front of the church.  The church was active in the gay rights, women’s rights and civil rights movements.
Also in the 1960’s, in an effort to help struggling artists, he arranged art exhibitions in the church.  Unknown abstract and Pop artists who exhibited here later became famous; among them Claes Oldenburg, Tom Wesselman and Jim Dine.  The church also sponsored performances by artists like Meredith Monk, Yoko Ono and “happenings” by Alan Kaprow.

In the 1990’s, with Rev. Peter Laarman as pastor, the church affiliated with Baptist Church and the United Church of Christ. 

photo by Alice Lum
The magnificent La Farge windows were restored in the 1990’s by the Cummings Studio.  Today McKim, Mead & White’s wonderful complex remains the anchor of the south side of Washington Square; and the Edward Judson’s founding concept continues 120 years later.

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