Thursday, September 10, 2020

The 1862 College of St. Francis Xavier Bldg - 39 West 15th Street

In 1846 Archibishop John Hughes authorized the Jesuit priests who operated the ecclesiastical seminary and boarding college of St. John's in the village of Fordham, New York to established "a church and a college for day scholars" in New York City.  The 46-year old Rev. John Larkin was given the task and in 1847 was appointed President of the College of St. Francis Xavier.

He faced a daunting undertaking.  An old church on Elizabeth Street was acquired, which almost immediately burned to the ground.  Now with no money, he opened his school in the basement of another church on James Street.  Larkin set out to find a site for the new college, but according to the 1897 The College of St. Francis Xavier, "This was no easy task, as no one wished to rent his house for a Jesuit school."  But on May 1, 1848 the school moved into a house on Third Avenue near 11th Street.

However commodious, by 1860 the College of St. Francis had outgrown its building.  The school had received a new president that year, Rev. Joseph Durthaller.  His first act was to charter the school with the Regents of the University of the State of New York, and his second was to build a new school building.

Ground was acquired on the north side of West 16th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues and architect Patrick F. Kiely was commissioned to design a monumental academic structure.  Two four-story wings, each 60 feet wide, flanked an 80-foot wide single-story central section.   Stylish mansard roofs would top all three sections.

Patrik F. Kiely's original plans called for an imposing 200-foot wide structure.  Only the eastern wing (right) would be built.  The College of St. Francis Xavier, 1897 (copyright expired) 
Because of political turmoil Father Durthaller was faced with a decision.  A school historian in 1897 recalled "Fort Sumter was besieged.  Business, always sensitive to political trouble, stagnated.  Prosperity seemed about to forsake the land.  Another man might have hesitated."  But Durthaller forged ahead and ground was broken on the eastern wing on August 13, 1861.  The cost of construction of the wing was projected at $45,000--or about $1.5 million today.  The original plans were amended to provide for an entrance and short stoop.

The interior walls of the new building were of "solid masonry" and each classroom was deemed "roomy and lofty, airy and well lighted."  The third and fourth floors held the double-height College Hall, capable of seating about 1,200 people.  The College of St. Francis Xavier said "It was the finest academic hall in the city, with no columns to obstruct the view, and acoustically perfect.  The ceiling was simply but tastefully frescoed by Artist [William] Lamprecht."

Sciences were not overlooked by the college.  In 1861 Dr. Francis Englehardt was appointed professor of Chemistry, Mineralogy and Botany.  Under his direction the second floor chemistry laboratory was outfitted with up-to-date scientific apparatus.  On the same floor was the museum of natural history where specimens of minerals and plants, gathered from across the globe, were exhibited.

Construction made graduation exercises in July 1861 unusual.  The New York Herald reported it "was celebrated at half-past three o'clock on Monday afternoon, in the play ground attached to the college, which was literally crammed by the relatives, friends and admirers of the students...The oppressive heat of the day would have been unbearable on the ground where the exercises took place had not the fostering care of the good fathers attached to the college developed itself in the shape of a capacious awning, of canvas, which completed extinguished the burning rays from Old Sol, and kept those so protected comparatively comfortable."  

Although the carpenters and painters were still at work inside, the lower part of the building was opened for classes in May 1862.  And when those workers left, work stopped on the grand scheme of the College of St. Francis Xavier buildings.  Nearly all of Manhattan's construction workers were fighting the war in the South.  Building projects across the city ground to a halt, including this one.  And it seems that as the years passed, enthusiasm waned.

The lot intended for the rest of the grand complex sat vacant when this photograph was taken.  The College of St. Francis Xavier, 1897 (copyright expired) 
The crowded conditions could no longer be ignored in 1885.  An 1872 graduate, John F. O'Connor, provided a massive endowment equal to about $2.67 million today.  On July 1 The New York Times reported "The college authorities intend devoting the endowment to the removal of the old church on Sixteenth-street and to the building of a new wing to the college on Sixteenth-street, which will be in harmony with the other buildings and the church."

Architect Thomas Henry Poole designed the new structure.  As it neared completion in January 1887 The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide deemed it "one of the most expensive and striking buildings" being erected in the city.

The 16th Street college buildings diminished the old building.  The College of St. Francis Xavier, 1897 (copyright expired) 
While the College of St. Francis Xavier moved into the 16th Street building, the old structure became St. Francis School.  Catholic schoolboys were expected to be models of good behavior, but that was not the case on Saturday afternoon, October 18, 1890, after 50 students saw their baseball team badly beaten by the Jaspers in Harlem.

School boys pose on the steps in this photograph in 1894.  The College of St. Francis Xavier, 1897 (copyright expired) 
The New York Herald reported the boys "boarded a Sixth avenue 'L' road train at 135th street" and "ran the train."  They "immediately made a rush through the cars for the last one, where they made themselves at home by turning hand-springs, hooting, yelling and going through acrobatic performances on the handstrap rail at the top of the car."  The guard attempted to calm the situation by "threatening to put the ringleaders off the train, but his threats were drowned in laughter and he was forced to beat a retreat."  One can imagine that after the priests of St. Francis Xavier's School read the account there was less laughter from the boys.

The old college building on West 15th Street continued to serve various purposes.  In the early 1920's it was home to the Evening High School, run by the Knights of Columbus.  It offered a "complete four-year high school course" and ads promised it "Prepares students for entrance to Professional Schools and Colleges."

The Tablet, September 8, 1923 (copyright expired)

Today the amazing survivor--once part of a grandiose plan--is part of the Xavier High School's Keenan Commons.  Its exterior remains unchanged since its completion while Civil War raged in the South.

The reverse-painted Victorian signage on the overlight survives.

photographs by the author


  1. Posting a link to this in the Brooklyn Heights Blog Wednesday Open Thread, about the history of St. Francis College before it moved to the Heights.

  2. There is no connection, nor has there ever been, between St. Francis College in Brooklyn, which was founded in 1859 and operated by the Franciscans and St. Francis Xavier College (now just Xavier High School), founded in 1847 and operated by the Jesuits. In 1912, the Jesuits closed their college department here on 15th and 16th Streets and concentrated their college level efforts on Fordham University in the Bronx.

    1. I'm sure I read here about it moving to Brooklyn, but now can't find any reference. Hmmm....

  3. Andrew: You did read it. But despite clear newspaper accounts of the 16th Street school buying the Brooklyn property, I received two adamant assertions that the two schools had never been related. Since the detail was incidental to the overall history of the 15th St bldg, I simply removed that one sentence. Sorry to confuse you.