Monday, August 3, 2015

The Lost YMCA Bldg, No. 52 E. 23rd Street

Harper's Weekly, October 1869 (copyright expired)
On June 6, 1844 London draper George Williams founded the Young Men’s Christian Association.  Williams and his colleagues were concerned about the evils and temptations surrounding young men in the teeming city.   Starting with prayer meetings, the organization grew; its purpose being “the improving of the spiritual condition of young men engaged in the drapery, embroidery, and other trades.”

Williams, no doubt, had no idea how far-reaching his concept would become.

The Young Men’s Christian Association in New York City was established in 1852.  The fledgling group operated from a number of rented rooms while gaining the support of several wealthy New Yorkers while growing to in size and influence.  The Association not only provided spiritual guidance and activities for young men, it was active in social reform. 

In February 1866 an investigation “into the condition and needs of the young men of New-York…called the attention of the Board of Directors to the traffic in obscene books, prints, &c., as a fruitful source of demoralization and crime.”  The Association managers were shocked when they were told there was no law against the purveyance of such materials.  Through its lobbying an anti-obscenity law was passed in 1868.

By now the Association was in dire need for a permanent, substantial headquarters.  With private donations—the most substantial of which came from millionaire William E. Dodge, Jr.—a large plot was purchased at the southwest corner of 23rd Street and Fourth Avenue (later renamed Park Avenue South) for $142,000.  The site stretched 175 feet along 23rd Street and 83 feet down Fourth Avenue.

To design its grand new building the Association commissioned James Renwick, Jr.   The New York Times was, apparently, not overly impressed.  Its passing mention noted “The architect is Mr. Renwick, who built Grace Church and several other public edifices.”   Among those other edifices was the masterful St. Patrick’s Cathedral, still rising on Fifth Avenue.

The cornerstone was laid at 3:30 on the afternoon of October 31, 1868 “in the presence of a large concourse of spectators,” according to The New York Times the following day.  The newspaper pronounced the architectural style to be “the French Renaissance,” the term then used for what would later become French Second Empire.

To provide additional income to the Association, Renwick designed the ground level for stores, and studio space for artists on the fourth and fifth floors.  The fifth floor studios would open onto a large exhibition, or “picture gallery.”  

“We are assured that this will have a very beautiful interior, as no money will be spared in its adornment,” said The Times.  The newspaper added, “It will cost about $300,000, and will be finished next Summer.”

As construction continued, members worked on compiling a library.  On February 19, 1869 The Sun reported that the Young Men’s Christian Association “are getting together a free library for workingmen and others.  A ladies’ fair in furtherance of this object will begin at 473 Grand street on Monday.”   The results were astonishing.  By the time the library stacks were ready to receive books, there would be more than 3,000 volumes.

In July 1869 the great structure had taken form, diminishing the National Academy building on opposite corner.  In a rather left-handed complement, on July 18 The Times said that the “Academy is certainly more attractive than the brick and Dorchester stone of the Christian Association.  But the latter building is yet one of the finest of the recent additions to the architecture of the City, and is at the same time a noble monument to the philanthropy of the Christianity of New-York.”

The newspaper was pleased that the building would include “a splendid gymnasium.”  “This concession to the muscular Christianity of the time has been made, we are glad to hear, almost without dissent.”  Indeed, when completed the gymnasium of the Young Men’s Christian Association building would be the largest in the city.

Young men exercise on the latest in gymnastic equipment in October 1870 --Harper's New Monthly Magazine (copyright expired)
By August two of the stores had been rented in anticipation of the structure’s completion within three months, and all of the 30 artists’ studios were taken.   James Renwick, Jr. had produced a stately stone pile that announced that the Young Men’s Christian Association in New York City had arrived.  The entrance was centered on the 23rd Street front within a slightly-projecting pavilion that rose to a stunning four-sided cap erupting through the mansard.

Among the series of paintings by Thomas Cole hanging in the first floor rooms was this one.

On November 29 a private tour of the building was held for donors and specially invited guests, including the press.  The New-York Tribune described the lavish interiors.  It deemed the Reception Room “a spacious apartment, tastefully carpeted and furnished, and bearing upon its walls, side by side, two paintings by [Thomas] Cole, of the series The Cross and the World.”   Also on the first floor were the reading room, “which contains the best reading matter—newspapers and magazines—which the brains of America and Europe can supply,” and three parlors.  The parlors were for “conversation, informal meetings, and committee work” and contained the companion paintings by Thomas Cole.

The pipes to the grand organ can be seen at upper left.  Harper's New Monthly Magazine (copyright expired)
Above the main stone staircase was the great hall, capable of seating 1,500 persons.  It would be used for lectures, concerts and religious meetings below its frescoed ceiling.   According to James Dabney McCabe in his New York by Sunlight and Gaslight, “It is one of the largest and handsomest halls in the city…It is two stories in height, and is beautifully and tastefully decorated.  A broad gallery extends around three sides of the hall, and this and the floor below are provided with ion chairs, such as are used in the principal theatres.”

Along with a grand Chickering piano, donated by the Musical Committee, there was an immense $12,000 pipe organ built by J. H. & C. S. Odell.  The New York Times said “The instrument has many great advantages over any organ in the country, and possesses more mechanical appliances than any organ in the world—no less than 500 combinations can be effected without touching a draw stop.”

The Library, also on the second floor, was, like the great hall, two stories tall; here too were several lecture rooms and classrooms.

The New-York Tribune explained that income from the stores, the artists’ studios and the leasing of the great hall when not in use, would offset much of the working expense of the structure.  (Eventually the combined rentals would amount to $13,000 per year.)  The total cost of the building, including land, had reached $487,000 (in the neighborhood of $8.7 million today) of which $435,000 had been paid for by donations.   During the private preview the speakers urged “the advantages of having this $52,000 made up before Thursday, when the building is to be formally dedicated.”

Immediately upon opening the night classes commenced.  Courses were available in music, writing, bookkeeping, German, Spanish, drawing and the natural sciences.   Young men wishing to take advantage of the Association paid $2 per year membership.  Unlike the impoverished men of the downtown missions, the young men frequenting the Young Men’s Christian Association could afford the dues.  The Times mentioned on July 18, 1869 “the Association appeals mainly to the young men employed as clerks.”

The great hall was leased regularly to political and social groups.  Only two weeks after the building’s opening, the hall was used by the Woman’s Parliament.   The group was quick to clarify that it was no suffrage organization.

“The ladies of the Woman’s Parliament are not in favor of securing the ballot for woman,” reported The Sun on December 15, 1869.  “To that undertaking as we understand, they are opposed.  Their purpose is to bring about cooperation among women in respect to education, sanitary reform, the treatment of questions that are strictly social, improvement in the present system of housekeeping and the like.”

Another women’s group, the Working Woman’s Protective Union, held its anniversary meeting here in April 1871.  Among the speakers was Rev. Henry Ward Beecher and, “by special request” a reading of “The Song of the Shirt” was done by Sidney Wollett.

Despite its good works, the Young Men’s Christian Association did not always garner praise.  In June 1872 the New-York Tribune felt the group had gone too far after it had proposed “to make a simultaneous attack on alcohol, tobacco, and the Pope; the assaults to be made, too, with all the vehemence and contempt of prudence or expediency characteristic of youthful soldiers in religious battles or elsewhere. Total abstinence was to be made a test for membership; tobacco to be prohibited as ‘inconsistent with the highest type of Christianity;’ the Bible was to be forced into the public schools, and a copy of it placed immediately in every Catholic family.”

A fire in 1886—the second in only a few years--prompted not only repairs, but updated materials aimed at preventing further problems.  On August 7 the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide reported that architect B. L. Gilbert had filed plans for “interior alterations, iron girders furnished, new fire-proof iron structure in open court.”  The repairs and renovations were expected to cost about $15,000.

Despite the precautions, the 1886 fire would not be the last.  

In 1889 offices on the fifth floor were occupied by the architectural firms of Hoar & Day, and William Hunt.  Studios here were fully leased to artists like Hillary Bell, Frank P. Carpenter, J. R. Brevoort, W. S. Macy, and J. C. Durand, among others.  One floor below were more artists, including Charles A. Vandenhoof, A. C. Howland and J. H. Dolph.   The street level stores included the New-York Sunday School Union and American Tract Society; Robert Lefferts’ laundry soap store; William McClenahan’s shoe store; Hahn & Co, opticians; real estate agents F. T. Hebbard & Son; Dr. Smith, a dentist; the Woodlawn Cemetery Association; and merchant tailor James L. McEwen.

A stereopticon view captured a pedestrian-free view.

On Sunday, July 28, 1889 there were few residents in the building.  The artists were all away for the summer; however the building’s engineer and janitor, W. S. Brazier, and his family were at home in their apartments on the fifth floor.  About 100 men had assembled for a late afternoon evangelical service in one of the parlors, and there were approximately 60 men in the reading rooms.

At around 6:45 a fire broke out in the basement engine room, just at the foot of the elevator shaft.  Brazier discovered the fire and headed downstairs for the alarm box.  But when he found the elevator shaft “a seething mass of flames,” he returned to his apartments to save his wife and three children.  He managed to get the terrified family out by groping through the dense smoke and, finally, onto the street.

The fire rushed up the elevator shaft, as through a chimney, and spread to the two uppermost floors.  The men of the religious service marched, single file, down the staircase singing hymns.  They were joined by those from the reading room and “in perfect order…the crowd marched out into the street singing,” reported The Times.

The studio of Hillary Bell contained paintings worth approximately $10,000 and was in the center of the fire.   The Times reported “Mr. Burr McIntosh, a well-known actor and a friend of Hillary Bell, rushed into the building to save his absent friend’s pictures.  After working like a beaver for over an hour and placing a large number of valuable pictures in safety he found that he was not in Mr. Bell’s studio, and had saved the paintings of a total stranger.  He emerged from the building looking like a downed rat, thoroughly disgusted, and went home.  While he was at work Bell’s studio had been gutted by the fire.”

By the time the blaze was extinguished, a 20-foot hole had burned through the roof and the large mansard cap had been destroyed.   “The main staircase will have to be thoroughly redecorated,” reported The Times.  “Water deluged the gymnasium, but its contents were not injured.”

Some of the artists’ studios were destroyed, or heavily damaged.  “The heaviest loser among the tenants is Artist J. H. Dolph, who occupied two large studios on the fourth floor…His studio was a perfect treasure room of antique furniture, rich old rugs and tapestries, and art gems.  Hung about his walls was a valuable collection of old Spanish and Italian stringed instruments, and a collection of antique firearms, sabres, and swords.  Several rich old cabinets were filled with choice costumes, and rare specimens of crockery, china, and glassware.  There were sixty finished pictures and a hundred unfinished bits of canvas scattered about.  Mr. Dolph says that his treasures were worth at least $20,000.”

The library escaped damage.  By now the lit had amassed more than 12,000 volumes; a number that would almost quadrupled by 1894.  That year the Report of the Secretary of the Interior would count 40,000 volumes among the Association’s collection.

Despite the terrifying history of fires, artists continued to move in.  In 1898 Percival de Luce took a studio.  He completed a commission portrait of Horatio N. Twombley that year which was presented to the Berwick Academy in Maine.

Around 2:00 on the afternoon of May 28, 1899 John Cummings, about 30-years old, walked into the crowded second floor reading room.    Men in the room that day described his clothing as showing “the sign of considerable wear.”

Cummings, who was homeless, sat in a corner of the room, resting his head in his hand.  After a while he took a large pair of scissors from his pocket; and then a large pocket knife.   He showed signs of agitation as he ran his fingers through his hair and began mumbling.   Uneasy men at the same table quickly moved away.

An attendant found Secretary Frank Peterson and reported the unknown visitor’s behavior.  “Mr. Peterson walked over to the man and tried to speak to him,” reported The New York Times the following day.  “Before the third word had left his lips, however he man was upon him.  As the man rushed, Secretary Peterson jumped back and a dozen persons came to his aid.”

There was a fierce struggle, but by the time police arrived the Cummings had been subdued.   Secretary Peterson, having barely escaped a stabbing, assumed his attacker was intoxicated.  “But the policeman thought otherwise.”  A doctor from Bellevue was called, who “said there was no question but that he was insane.”  The Times’ headline read “Crazy Man In Y. M. C. A. Room.”

A carriage awaits a shopper on the Fourth Avenue side as street cars rumble along West 23rd.  Photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The changing neighborhood and the age of the structure prompted the Young Men’s Christian Association to sell the building for approximately $800,000 in April 1901.  It remained here while its new structure on 23rd Street west of Seventh Avenue, was constructed.

In the pre-dawn hours of November 27, 1902 yet another fire broke out in the basement.  Fireman battled the blaze from 2:00 to 5:00, dealing with the problem of the excavations for the new subway which hindered access.  In the meantime, firemen rushed to evacuate the many artists’ families who still lived on the upper floors.

Four months later, on March 28, the Young Men’s Christian Association said good-bye to the old building.  The grand hall was packed with members, contributors and clergymen.

Not long afterward demolition of James Renwick Jr.’s massive stone structure began.  When a remarkable building is lost, there is comfort when it is replaced by another fine example.  And so it was here.  In 1904 304 Park Avenue South (originally 44 East 23rd Street) was completed by designs of Clinton & Russell.  It survives today.

photograph by the author

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