Monday, September 26, 2016

The Lost Chelsea Methodist Episcopal Church -- 333 W 30th St

In 1910 the church building was being renovated for a publishing firm.  Otherwise, the West 30th Street block remains steadfastly residential.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
 
In the 1820s the area north of 23rd Street on the West Side was sparsely sprinkled with small houses and commercial buildings.  But within two decades development was rapidly transforming the Chelsea neighborhood into a northern suburb.

In 1841 a "small mission," as described by The New York Times, was organized in a basement at 10th Avenue and 29th Street.  The group quickly grew, moving into the second story of a factory building at Ninth Avenue and 27th Street.  Then, when the mission was incorporated as the Chelsea Methodist Episcopal Church in 1843, it leased vacant lots on West 24th Street, east of Ninth Avenue, and erected a small wooden church.

Within only three years it was obvious that the frame building would not be sufficient for much longer.  Two lots, Nos. 331 and 333 West 30th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, were purchased and in 1848 the cornerstone of "a substantial building" was laid.  Construction was completed a year later.

The brick and brownstone Greek Revival edifice was dignified and austere.  Unlike some of the wealthier, showier Greek Revival churches to the south with stone facades and columned porticoes, Chelsea Methodist Episcopal Church was ornamented with only shallow pilasters and a classical pediment.  Above the two-and-a-half story entrance a marble plaque embedded in the facade announced the construction date.

The first pastor in the new church was 28-year old Erastus O. Haven.  Decades later the Minutes of the Annual Conferences of the Methodist Episcopal Church would remember him at the time as "a brilliant young man" and described Chelsea Methodist as "a young but promising enterprise, in the suburbs of the city of New York."

Three blocks to the north, on Ninth Avenue between 33rd and 34th Street, the New York Asylum for the Blind had stood since 1831.  In 1839 it had taken in a 19-year old student, Franny J. Crosby, who quickly was recognized for her talent in writing poetry and hymns.  Fanny had been blinded by an incompetent physician at the age of six months.  But never having remembered seeing, she was pragmatic about her condition, saying "she could climb a tree or ride a horse as well as anyone."
 
By the time the Chelsea Methodist Episcopal Church was completed, Fanny was an instructor in the Asylum, teaching rhetoric, Greek, Roman, and American History.  She had written her first poem at the age of eight.

Fanny J. Crosby joined the Chelsea Methodist Episcopal Church in 1850 and became its most celebrated member.  By the time she died at the age of 95 on February 12, 1915 she had written over 8,000 hymns, including the popular "Blessed Assurance."

As the Chelsea neighborhood developed, the membership grew.  The New York Times later explained "The large debt accumulated during the society's rapid growth was increased in 1861, extensive alterations and improvement were made, but it was paid off in 1865.  In 1878 $6,000 were expended in more improvements, and ten years later a five-thousand-dollar debt was cleared."

The financial stability of the congregation was further evidenced when, around 1890, it spent $2,200 on a new organ--a $65,000 outlay in 2016 dollars.

The Chelsea Methodist Episcopal Church was, of course, the scene of many weddings and funerals.  Not all of those marriages drew the most favorable press coverage, however.

One of these involved 19-year old Saira Collins.  Saira was the daughter of a sea captain and in the fall of 1896 she met Andrew J. Collins, whom she described as "neatly dressed and courteous."  Collins told the girl that he was a traveling salesman "with a large salary and bright prospects."

Swept away by the attentions of the salesman, Saira soon agreed to marry him.  The wedding took place in Chelsea Methodist Episcopal Church on January 18, 1897, just three months after the two met.  They moved into No. 329 West 35th Street.  Because of his profession, Andrew was gone much of the time, but, according to The Sun a few months later, "she understood he was attending to the selling of goods."

Actually, he was not.

What Saira did not know was that only a day or two before she met Andrew he had been released from the Trenton Prison and that he "was a noted highway man."  His time away from home was actually spent in robbery and burglary.  Within only a few months of their wedding his picture had reappeared in the Rogues' Gallery at Police Headquarters.

When Andrew was arrested one morning on a 34th Street streetcar on a charge "of highway robbery," Saira came to his defense; even after he was convicted and sentenced to 18 months in Sing Sing.  But when police gave her a detailed history of his criminal past and showed her his photograph on the headquarters wall, she awoke to reality.

Saira moved back into her father's house and applied to have the marriage annulled.  Her plea to Justice Traux of the Supreme Court was true-life Victorian melodrama.  She said she "was the victim of a most unholy fraud and deceit, and was deceived and led into marriage with the defendant by reason of the villainous and base acts of the most unscrupulous of ex-convicts and prison birds."

A much more bizarre wedding took place in November the following year.  The pastor, Rev. Dr. W. N. Searles was asked by Derby, Connecticut resident Fred Piper to perform the marriage.  The bride-to-be was, seemingly coincidentally, also named Piper and had been visiting the Omaha Exposition.  Fred met her in New York in hopes to head back home to Connecticut as man and wife.

Rev. Searles performed the marriage on Wednesday, November 16, only to be asked rather awkward questions a few days later.  The Sun reported "Piper's relatives were greatly surprised at the announcement of his marriage."  That surprise came from the fact that the new Mrs. Piper was also Fred's grandmother.

Truman Piper, Fred's grandfather, had died two years earlier.  Mrs. Piper was his second wife, so there was no blood relationship between her and her step-grandson.  Nevertheless, the unconventional romance was broadly reported, causing the Rev. Searles public embarrassment. 


Rev. Searles explained that he assumed they couple had the same surname because "he thought the woman might be the widow of the man's brother."  And he said Fred "appeared to be prematurely gray, and at first sight looked fully the age of his wife."  He also claimed that "he also walked with a crutch, which made him seem older."

By the turn of the century Chelsea Methodist Episcopal had a new pastor, the Rev. Dr. Philip Germond.  The minister's greatest battle against sin and vice was not on the sometimes-gritty Chelsea streets, but within his own family.  By the spring of 1903 his 25-year old son, also named Philip, was wanted "in nearly every large city east of Chicago for forgery and passing worthless checks," according to New York Police Inspector McClusky.  The inspector told reporters "there were thirty complaints against him so far."

Germond's life of crime began in 1900 and he was sentenced to the Elmira Reformatory on September 24 that year for passing a worthless check.  He and "a woman who was known as his wife" continued passing bad checks and committing forgery from state to state over the ensuing years.

On May 14, 1903 the New-York Tribune reported "Dr. Germond said his son from an early age showed evidence of being utterly irresponsible, and finally went entirely wrong."  The preacher tried his best to track his son's movements, warning Methodist bishops and preachers in each city.  Young Germond would use his father's name to borrow money from the clerics.  Dr. Germond paid the men back from his own pocket.  "By these methods my son impoverished me," he told reporters.

The young Germond's callous criminality extended to his own family.  When his parents were away one summer he came to New York, broke into the parsonage, stole valuables and pawned them.

During his trial Professor John D. Quackenbros of Columbia University testified about Philip's mental abnormality.  "I have never seen another like it.  He has no moral sense.  He never had any, so far as distinguishing between that which belongs to him and to others is concerned."


The new Pennsylvania Station brought with it traffic congestion and on October 24, 1907 the City announced its solution--a new street parallel to Eighth Avenue to be cut through the block between 30th and 31st Streets.  The New-York Tribune pointed out "the proposed street will result in tearing down the building in 30th street in which the congregation of the Chelsea Methodist Episcopal Church worships."

In response the congregation purchased land far north in Washington Heights, at the corner of Fort Washington Avenue and 179th Street, as a site for a new church.  Ground for the imposing structure, designed by Bannister & Schell, was broken on June 3, 1908.

Ironically, the proposed cut-through street was never realized.  So as the new edifice was nearing completion on November 27, 1909 the Record & Guide said of the 30th Street church "This valuable property is now for sale."

Somewhat surprisingly, the old building became home to The Rural New-Yorker, publishers of the journal of the same name and sellers of farm-related books.  Advertisements throughout the coming years offered "If you want books on farming of any kind write us and we will quote you prices" and announced "Books on all subjects of farming by leading authorities are for sale by The Rural New-Yorker."
This January 12, 1918 cover, like all issues, was dominated by a charming farm scene. (copyright expired)

The publisher converted the sanctuary and interior rooms for its offices and print shop; but left the facade essentially untouched other than removing the stained glass windows and adding other openings.  The casual passerby would most likely assume the building was simply a vintage church.

Three men who did not mistake the building for a church entered the building through a 30th Street window late on the night of June 12, 1926.  When the nightwatchman, Henry McCormick happened upon them around 3:00 a.m., "one of the bandits pointed a pistol at him and ordered him to 'stick 'em up and hold 'em high," according to The New York Times the following day.

As if from a scene in a crime movie, McCormick's hands and feet were bound with rope and he was tied to a chair.  And the similarity to silver screen thrills did not end there.  While one man watched over his captive, the other others made their way to the offices.

"Using the most modern of drills and nitro-glycerine, they blew open the door of the larger of the two safes.  The force of the explosion scattered its contents about the floor for more than fifteen feet.  From this safe the men took the payroll."

They repeated the procedure on the other two safes, gathering up the weekly payroll of $4,500 cash and $8,000 in Liberty bonds.  They left their burglary tools behind, took their loot and, with their cohort, calmly exited through the main door.

After some struggling McCormick managed to work the gag from his mouth and thrashed around in the chair until he managed to knock the telephone receiver off the hook.  He kept shouting "notify Police Headquarters!" until the operator heard his cries. After police arrived and freed him, McCormick was later able to identify two of the thieves from the Police Headquarter's Rogues' Gallery.
Construction of the French Hospital, begun in 1927, required the clearing of much of the block facing the old church.  The Rural New-Yorker's renovations, including the punching through of office windows, is apparent in this September 27, 1927 shot by P. L. Sperr.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
While the Manhattan location for the farm journal may have seemed peculiar to some; Meyer Berger of the New York Times pointed out that the city had its share of gentleman farmers--and actual farmers--at mid-century.  On February 17, 1954 he profiled taxi driver Raphael Gomez who everyday "pours over The Rural New-Yorker" between fares.


"Mr. Gomez dresses like a husbandman, and that's what he is," wrote Meyer.  The cabbie had a 30-acre farm outside of Wickstown, near Egg Harbor City, New Jersey.  "He puts a fortnight behind the wheel in Manhattan, then three or four days on his farm."

Mrs. Gomez and the six children worked the acreage while he was in the city.  Meyer's article explained "He reads The Rural New-Yorker to keep up on the best buys in chicks or fertilizer and drops a letter every day or two advising his spouse what to pick up at Egg Harbor."

After surviving 120 years, the Greek Revival church building came to the end of its road in May 1960 when it was sold to the 33 West Thirtieth Street Corporation.  They group announced its plans "to clear the site and improve it with apartments for nurses and doctors in the French Hospital, which is across the street."

Without a whimper of protest the Chelsea Methodist Episcopal Church building was demolished.  It was replaced by an eight-story white brick apartment building, completed in 1963.

photo via cityrealty


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