Monday, May 9, 2016

The Lost 3rd Unitarian Church -- Nos. 54-56 West 40th Street

The Third Unitarian Church was equal in height to the abutting five-story houses.  Note the iron fencing of Reservoir Square (now Bryant Park) in the foreground.  from the collection of the New York Public Library.

On October 5 1858 fire erupted in the magnificent Crystal Palace, the glass-and-iron exhibition hall erected five years earlier.  Twenty-one minutes later the world-renowned structure was a smoldering ruin.

The Crystal Palace had taken up about half of the block between Sixth and Fifth Avenues, from 40th to 42nd Street.   The eastern half, facing Fifth Avenue, held the massive Egyptian Revival style Croton Reservoir which provided fresh water to the city to the south.  Half a decade later it would become the site of Carerre & Hastings’ magnificent New York Public Library.  But the Crystal Palace site would remain a park, known as Reservoir Square, as the mansions of Manhattan’s millionaires slowly engulfed the neighborhood.

About the time of the fire, the Third Unitarian Church was organized with the young Octavius B. Frothingham as its pastor.  The New York Times would later remember “He never wished to preach in a church, and when his society determined to build him one in Fortieth-street, he refused to enter it until every dollar of its indebtedness had been discharged.”

The church that Frothingham so vehemently did not want was at Nos. 54-56 West Fortieth Street, facing Reservoir Square.  While the congregation worshiped from a rented hall at the northeast corner of Broadway and 32nd Street, it worked feverishly to raise the funds to pay off the rising building.

The structure was completed in January 1864.  On Thursday evening January 14 the trustees held an auction for the pews.  “Free churches” (those not requiring the renting or purchase of pews) were still relatively rare.  A notice of the auction in the New York Herald that day advised “A full and punctual attendance of the subscribers and congregation is requested.  Diagrams of the pews will be ready on Thursday morning at the church, which will be open during the day and evening.”

The congregation’s new Gothic Revival edifice was faced in brownstone.  Entrance doors flanked an arcade of openings, over which rose a dramatic three-story stained glass window.  Whether he wanted it or not, Rev. Frothingham was now the pastor of a substantial and fashionable church.

Among the pastor’s first notable ceremonies here was the funeral of John Hopper.  Like his father, the well-known Quaker abolitionist Isaac T. Hopper, John had ardently opposed slavery and he had been active in New York’s Underground Railroad.  As early as the 1830s his reputation had reached the deep South and on April 28, 1837 he narrowly escaped being lynched after arriving in Savannah on business.

On July 23, 1864 the New York Herald described Hopper’s funeral, saying that Reverend Frothingham “delivered a touching eulogy of the deceased.”  Following the services the coffin “which was covered with wreaths and festoons of flowers, was carried from before the pulpit outside the church, and placed immediately in the wooden case.  It was deposited in the hearse at once; the funeral cortege formed and drove to Greenwood, where the remains were buried beside those of his father, the late Isaac T. Hopper.”

For some former slaves, emancipation solved one problem and caused another.  Employment and financial stability were not guaranteed by-products of freedom.  And while the Civil War put an end to slavery, it had little effect on racism.  The well-heeled congregants of Third Unitarian Church did their part to help.  On January 19, 1868 the New York Herald reported that “A dramatic entertainment, in aid of the freedmen, was recently given in this city by the social committee of the Third Unitarian Church.  The performance consisted of the drama of ‘The Jacobite,’ the farce of ‘Popping the Question’ and other novelties.”

Octavius B. Frothingham never warmed to the lavish brownstone church.  A few months after the fund raiser for former slaves he “persuaded his followers to sell the church and return to a hall, which he has ever advocated as far less expensive and in every way more independent,” as reported in The New York Times.

St. Paul’s Reformed Dutch Church had been worshiping in Lyrick Hall on Sixth Avenue at West 21st Street.  On June 23, 1868 that congregation held a fund-raising “strawberry and music festival” there.  It was most likely no coincidence that Lyrick Hall would become Third Unitarian’s worship space.

On April 10, 1869 The New York Times reported that St. Paul’s had purchased the Unitarian Church.  “Some few alterations and improvements will be made in the interior of the building, and the new congregation will take possession on the first Sunday in May.”

An undated photograph shows the sanctuary prior to the 1880s.  A History of the Parish of Saint Ignatius, by Louis H. Gray, 1946
St. Paul’s Reformed Dutch Church brought an understated religious approach to the fashionable neighborhood.  While other society churches placed announcements of their extensive Holy Week services in 1870, the notice in the New York Herald for St. Paul’s read simply “Please God there will be divine service and a sermon in this church this (Good Friday) afternoon, at 4-1/2 oclock.”

The congregation’s stay on West 40th Street would be short-lived.  In December 1871 the Episcopalian Parish of St. Ignatius was founded by Reverend Dr. Ferdinand Cartwright Ewer.  His “high church” stance was in direct opposition to mainstream Episcopal leanings at the time.  Suspicion and distrust of “Papists” and “Romanists” ran high.  Ewer’s adherence to “Catholicity” forced him to resign his rectorship of Christ Church and found the new parish.  Somewhat surprisingly, the powerful Bishop Horatio Potter approved the organization.

Within months the Church of St. Ignatius had rented the 40th Street building from St. John’s Reformed Dutch Church.  Rev. Ewer wrote in his 1884 Sanctity “It was speedily altered to adapt it to the services of the Church, which were celebrated in it, for the first time, on Easter Sunday, 1872.”

The congregation agreed to a one-year lease on the building at $5,000—a significant $100,000 annual rent in 2016 terms.   The lease was extended; but the expense was eventually unsupportable.  On June 21, 1874 the New York Herald noted “They have spent large sums of money in decorating and fitting up the church and it is probable they may make the purchase.  In any case no further lease of the property will be made, as the congregation of St. Paul’s wants the money to build.”

The congregation now had to decide whether to build or to meet the $80,000 price tag on the brownstone church.  Negotiations resulted in a discounted sale and on February 20, 1875 the Real Estate Record reported that St. Paul’s Reformed Dutch Church had transferred title at a cost of $50,000.

If Rev. Ewer had been seen as “high church,” his successor would far surpass him.  In April 1884 Frank Leslie’s Sunday Magazine reported that Rev. Arthur Ritchie of Chicago would succeed Ewer.  A vestryman told the periodical “He is not more than thirty-five years old, but is above the average minister in ability, and will take a foremost place among the Episcopal clergymen of New York…Yes, he belongs to the High Church—we could have no other rector—and he is a man of strong and earnest conviction.”

Rev. Arthur Ritchie would cause significant waves within the Episcopal community.  Frank Leslie's Sunday Magazine, April 1884 (copyright expired

Frank Leslie’s clarified the vestryman’s comments.  “Mr. Ritchie is more than a High Churchman.  He is a Ritualist of the most advanced type, going even further in that direction than did the late Dr. Ewer.  In September 1882, he occasioned much controversy and excitement in Chicago by his use of the term ‘Mass’ in referring to the office of Holy Communion.”

The redecorated sanctuary at the time of Rev. Ritchie's rectorship.  A History of the Parish of Saint Ignatius, by Louis H. Gray, 1946.
Under Ritchie the church, which the same vestryman had claimed “has never been prosperous,” thrived.  Within ten years of his arrival there were three full masses being celebrated every Sunday and the vested choir boasted “34 boys, women and men.”  But Rev. Ritchie’s insistence on the rituals of the High Church flew in the face of high-powered mainstream Episcopalians—most notably Bishop Henry C. Potter, who had taken over from his uncle.

It all came to a head in March 1894.  The New York Times ran a headline that read “St. Ignatius’s Under The Ban – Omitted From Bishop Potter’s Confirmation List.”  The Bishop of the New York Diocese was required to celebrate the rite of confirmation in each church at least once every three years.  Potter chose to do it every year.  Except now, for the second year in a row, he ignored St. Ignatius on his schedule.

The newspaper said the snub had caused “much bitterness of feeling” and noted “the trouble is of several years’ standing, and may result in an open breach between Father Ritchie and his Bishop.”  The main problem, Ritchie admitted, was that the Bishop disapproved of how he celebrated Communion.  In the Catholic tradition, only the celebrant received the bread and wine.  Too, Father Ritchie did not read the confession and absolution, “as is generally understood to be obligatory,” explained The Times.

Father Ritchie was fearlessly outspoken, calling the omission a “snub” and “discrimination.”  He threatened Bishop Potter, saying that he had clearly outlined his method of worship prior to coming to New York and he had the Bishop’s approval letter.  “If he does not visit our church next year, as he is bound to do by the laws of the Church, I may see fit to give it out for publication.”

On March 11, 1901 the church building had only a few months left.  New-York Tribune (copyright expired)

The ugly episode eventually blew over.  Growing ever more prosperous the congregation looked for a new home as the new century dawned.  By 1900 the Upper West Side was the city’s most vibrant area of development.  On April 20, 1901 The Church Standard reported that the Diocese had approved the move of the Church of St. Ignatius to its new plot on West End Avenue and West 87th Street.  The article mentioned that $50,000 had already been amassed for the new building.

Two weeks later the New-York Tribune mentioned that the Transfiguration Chapel would possibly take over the 40th Street church.  That would not come to pass.  Shortly after the Church of St. Ignatius moved out, the old building was demolished to be replaced in 1902 by the Republican Club headquarters.  The 12-story limestone-clad structure, designed by York & Sawyer, survives.

photograph by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

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