Monday, August 12, 2019

The Lost Amity Baptist Church - 310 West 54th Street

Raphael Guastavino's system of tiled arches made the grand auditorium space possible.  The Brickbuilder, August 1909, (copyright expired)

In November 1832 the trustees of the Oliver Street Baptist Church asked the William R. Williams to establish "a church for members living to the north and west."  Williams, whose father had been pastor of the Oliver Street church for years was ordained the following month and the project then got underway.

A section of the Oliver Street Baptist Church's burying ground on Amity Street (later West 3rd Street) was designated as the site and provided the name for the Amity Baptist Church.  After the congregation had worshiped in that Greek Revival style structure for more than three decades, millionaire Alexander T. Stewart purchased it in 1864 and converted it to a stable.   The congregation temporarily worshiped in a Young Men's Christian Association building, before buying the former chapel of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church on West 54th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Street, in 1866.

A charming wooden board-and-batten structure, the chapel building had been erected in 1860.  It sat within the impoverished and crime-ridden Hell's Kitchen neighborhood--a stark difference from Amity Baptist's politer Greenwich Village location.

The church responded to the special needs of the district.  By the end of the century it owned the plots from No. 306 through 312 West 54th Street, extending through the block to West 53rd Street.  A multi-use structure called the Amity Building was erected at No. 312.  Its meeting room was rented to groups like the citizens and architects who met twice a month in 1894 to discuss issues like "New-York's Houses" and "The Tenement Problem."  

The building also housed the West Side Fruit and Flower Mission, which provided help to the tenements.  On November 24, 1897 The New York Times reported that "the ladies in charge" of the mission "were busy yesterday distributing Thanksgiving food and delicacies to the poor of the west side...Many German and Spanish tenement dwellers were visited by them yesterday and their larders replenished.  Special care is being given to aged couples living alone and to widows."

The church also operated the Amity Settlement.  Its staff of medically-trained Deaconesses administered to the sick and poor in their squalid rooms.  On December 18, 1897 the Outlook commended Amity Baptist Church for being "the pioneer among American Baptist churches" in the settlement house movement.  And as part of the settlement house efforts, mothers and children were exposed to training and opportunities unavailable to them elsewhere.  The Amity Kindergarten was being run in the building at the turn of the century.

Early in 1905 the church received two legacies which totaled around $26,000--a windfall equal to about $765,000 today.  It caused Rev. Leighton Williams, the pastor and son of Rev. William Williams, to come up with two plans.  

First, the congregation commissioned the architectural firm of Rossiter & Wright to design a new, commodious structure.  Then Williams proposed to the town of Marlborough, New York, that the charming wooden church building be dismantled and reassembled in that village.   It could be used, he recommended, for the annual sessions of the Brotherhood of the Kingdom.  The Newburgh Register reported "Mr. Williams also suggested that such a hall would be non-sectarian, and that for Sunday school purposes it might meet a demand in the West Neighborhood."

Williams's aspirations went beyond what $26,000 could cover.  He would create a complex of new buildings.  But his political leanings proved a problem in raising additional funds.  The New York Herald in 1906 said that in addition to the church proper, planned construction included "an auditorium and a deaconesses' home and hospital."  The article went on to explain why "working men" donations were necessary to raise fund.

Christian socialism is realizing one of its ideals in the raising of $100,000 for the building of the new Amity Baptist Church and connected structures in West Fifty-fourth street by small subscriptions.  Owing to the radical view of the Rev. Dr. Leighton Williams, who is a socialist of the Fabian persuasion and a member of the Intercollegiate Socialistic Society, the church is to a large degree cut off from the receipt of funds which might come from the wealthy classes.

Rossiter & Wright filed plans for the brick and stone church, to cost $45,000, and for the five-story hospital, costing $38,000.  The Evening Telegram wrote "The new buildings are to be of gothic design and connected by a central tower, ornamented with large mullion bars."  The article noted that the church would have "a large dome in classic style."

It was that dome that led Rossiter & Wright to contract Raphael Guastavino, whose patented Tile Arch System of interlocking tiles was revolutionizing American architecture.  Extraordinarily strong, the arches and domes did away with the need for columns which interfered with vast spaces.

Ground was broken in July 1906.  On the 28th The Evening Post noted "the church will, it is expected, take some time to build...Services in the meantime are being conducted in Amity Hall."  The 1860 building had been already re-erected "as a union chapel" in Marlborough.

The church site sat between the Amity Building and the Deaconess' Home and Hospital.  The New York Times reported that it would be "modeled after the famous Mosque of St. Sophia."  On December 17, 1907, more than a year after construction had commenced, the cornerstone laying ceremonies were held.  Within the two-foot-square stone a brass box was placed.  The next morning when workmen arrived, it was noticed that bricks had been removed and the cornerstone tampered with.

The New York Times wrote "Hardly waiting for the mortar to set, an unidentified thief removed the cornerstone from the position in which it had been set for the new building of Amity Baptist Church...yesterday afternoon, and stole the box which had been deposited there."  The crook was disappointed when he pried it open, however.  Rev. Leighton Williams told reporters "I do not think much of the custom of placing money and such valuables in a cornerstone, so it was not done in this instances."  Therefore, instead of coins, the thief found only a copy of the church year book, a set of the plans, and several daily newspapers.

As construction neared completion the trustees ran out of money.  On October 3, 1908 a letter to the editor of The Evening Post from Rev. Leighton Williams  began "Sir:  The Amity Baptist Church, Nos. 310-312 West Fifty-fourth Street, Manhattan, is in urgent need of funds to carry on the building operations.  Its membership, while devoted, active and remarkably united, is weak financially and unable to furnish the amount necessary to complete the buildings project."

That inability was perhaps most noticeable on the exterior of the church.  While its interior was completed in October 1908, only the portico was finished outside.  Saying that the "design is developed from old Byzantine church architecture," The Architects' and Builders' Magazine promised that month that "further architectural emphasis will be added to the church."  Unfortunately, that would not happen.

The church building was situated unexpectedly far back on the plot between 54th and 53rd Streets, providing a vast piazza in front.  The elaborate two-story portico and balcony hinted at the architects' intentions for the general exterior.  None of the architectural magazines published photos of the outside of the church, Architecture & Building explaining "the exterior will not be seen with the exception of the entrance portico, [as] all architectural effort has been concentrated on the interior and the result is worthy of the effort."

The exotic decorations of the portico stood in stark contrast to the unadorned elevation of the main structure.  Architects' & Builders' magazine, October 1908 (copyright expired)

And, indeed, what the exterior lacked, Raphael Guastavino's interiors made up for.  A cavernous, uninterrupted space was made possible by his tile arch system.  Architect Charles Edwards remarked that no flammable materials had been used.  "All vaulting for the ceilings, domes and arches are of tile in natural terra cotta shade built on the Guastavino system.  No wood work enters the construction proper, even the floor is a fine terrazzo in tone to match the natural shades of the material from which the church is mainly constructed."

Even the pulpit and railing were executed in terra cotta.  Architects' & Builders' magazine, October 1908 (copyright expired)
The church was formally opened on December 13, 1908.  In announcing the dedication The New York Times reported "The new church building forms part of a big settlement equipment, which the Amity Church has established in the heart of the west side tenement district...It is of the Byzantine style of architecture, with a large dome like St. Paul's chapel at Columbia University."  The article added "The entire basement of the church will be utilized as a gymnasium and bowling alley.  These have not yet been equipped but soon will be."

The delay in equipping of the gymnasium was no doubt due to the lack of funding.  Over the coming years small steps would be taken to complete the building.  On April 17, 1909, for instance, The Evening Post reported "Amity Baptist Church has a new organ, the gift of Mrs. Washington Wilson...Another gift announced last Sunday was that of a window in memory of the Rev. George W. Hervey."

Its limited funds did not prevent Amity Baptist from continuing its social outreach.  The settlement house and deaconess programs went on.  And Leighton's liberal social views were reflected in concern for minorities and other groups in need.  The complex was the scene, for example, of the annual National Indian Association.  The group was concerned with the advancement of Native American rights.  

Architects' & Builders' magazine, October 1908 (copyright expired)
Nevertheless, it was most likely Leighton's ambitious building project and resultant over-extension of the congregation's finances that resulted in the selling of the complex in January 1913.  The New York Times reported on the scope of the real estate, engulfing Nos. 308 through 312 West 54th Street, and "running 200 feet through to Fifty-third Street."  The article noted "About $150,000 was involved in the transaction."

The stairway to the organ loft had treads and railings of terra cotta.   Architects' & Builders' magazine, October 1908 (copyright expired)
On January 25, 1913 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported the buyer as "a Greek Orthodox congregation."  That congregation was the Evangelismos Greek Orthodox Church.  

The architecture was, truthfully, more appropriate to a Greek Orthodox congregation than a Baptist church.  And the unfinished exterior of the building was rather suitable for the Greek congregation.  Its unadorned face was reminiscent of the white-stuccoed structures of the Grecian islands.  Raphael Guastavino's beige and brown brick and terra cotta interior, however, lacked the oomph expected in Greek Orthodox churches.   A remarkable renovation by artist Spiro Nicholas Rossolimo covered every square inch with colorful decoration.

A postcard depicted the redecorated interior.  photo via

While he worked on the project, Rossolimo and his wife lived in a studio in the former Amity Hall.  It was the scene of an impressive reception on March 29, 1919.  The New York Herald reported "A reception for Mgr. Alexandras Rodostolon, Archbishop of the Greek Church, was given by Mr. and Mrs. Spiro Nicholas Rossolimo in his studio at No. 312 West Fifty-fourth street on Saturday night."  

In attendance were the Consul General of France, Gaston Ernest Liébert; Consul Henri Goiran; the Consul of Haiti, Dr. Fanberg; and a profusion of titles including Countess Oleonta Cortina, Prince de Matta, and Baroness d'Etreilles.  The article noted "Mr. Rossolimo is at work on the decorations for the Church of the Orthodox Community 'Evangelimos,' which is situated next door to his studio."

The church supported a citizenship drive on May 1 which drew press attention.  The New York Evening World reported "To-day the Greek American National Union, Inc., will give a demonstration of mass naturalization when it brings in automobiles from the Greek Church at No. 312 West 54th Street to the Hall of Records to take out their first citizenship papers."  The article estimated than more than 200 "Greeks who have determined to become Americans" would participate.

On October 25, 1920 King Alexander of Greece succumbed to an infection caused by a monkey bite.  His death resulted in elections in November pitting monarchists against those who favored a republic.  The exiled King Constantine, Alexander's father, ran against Greek liberation leader Elefthérios Kyriákou Venizélos.  The latter lost.

The political ripple which traveled across the ocean arrived on West 54th Street on November 21 when a special service was celebrated by pastor Rev. Nickolas Lazarus "to celebrate the anticipated return of King Constantine."  The Philadelphia Inquirer reported the following day, "The Thanksgiving ceremony in the Greek Orthodox Church of Evangelismos ended in a riot when Constantino Momas and his wife, Anastadia, arose and shouted 'Hurrah for Venizelos.'"  The article explained, "All went smoothly until, as the congregation was walking out, Momas and his wife could restrain their feelings no longer."  Their shouts incited a rush of Constantine supporters who knocked Momas to the ground.  In the meantime, "women surrounded the wife who had dared to shout her loyalty to the defeated Greek leader."

Hearing the commotion, Policeman George Hirsch "fought his way to the badly used up Momas and with brandishing night stick managed to drive the crowd back.  He dragged the mob's victim to the parish home next door to the church.  The wife, now let alone by the mob of women, followed."  By now, said the article, "Momas had been beaten and knocked down several times.  His clothing and his wife's had been torn."   When Patrolman Hirsch returned to the scene to arrest the attackers, "all he found was a peaceful congregation walking home from worship.  He made no arrests."

The following year the church leased a floor in the Amity Building to Nicholas Roerich and Maurice Lichtman for their anticipated Master School of United Arts.  Chartered on November 17, 1921, it would offer musical classes in violin, cello, piano, composition and voice; as well as art courses in painting and drawing.

Opening night was on January 22, 1922.  Among the guests was Russian composer Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev.  Beginning that March a series of fund-raising concerts were held here.  

In 1932, nearly three decades after construction, the exterior was still unfinished.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
Then, on November 15, 1937 The New York Sun reported that the city had purchased the church properties, and hired architect Byron P. Wilson to design a "new police station, prison and garage on the site."  It signaled the end of one of Raphael Guastavino's grandest internal spaces.

photo via
many thanks to reader Doug Wheeler for prompting this post.


  1. What a marvelous story, with a less-than-wonderful ending. It must've made a stunning Greek church. Should we assume that additional buildings were meant to frame the large piazza and block views of the unadorned sanctuary?

    1. To an extent they auxiliary buildings framed it. The Amity Building was already there before construction started, but nevertheless they flanked the piazza.