Thursday, June 1, 2023

The 1929 Warren Hall / Baptist Tabernacle - 162-166 Second Avenue


Founded in 1839, the Baptist Tabernacle left its Mulberry Street location in 1850 and erected a striking Gothic Revival building at 166 Second Avenue between 10th and 11th Street, designed by David Henry Arnot.  In 1886 a large parish house was constructed next door.  Despite its official name, the church was widely known as the Second Avenue Baptist Church.

The Baptist Tabernacle and the parish house are at the right.  The New-York Historical Society building occupied the corner of East 11th Street.  image from King's Views of New York City 1892, copyright expired

By the turn of the century the neighborhood, once filled with the mansions of "some of the best known of New Yorkers," according to The New York Times, was one of immigrants and tenement buildings.  On December 6, 1909 the newspaper said that the Second Avenue Baptist Church, "one of the oldest church edifices" in the city, "has been described 'as a congregation of thirty languages."

But with no more wealthy congregants, debts began to mount and by the 1920s a solution was needed.  At the time, a new concept was sweeping metropolitan areas--the "skyscraper church."   Congregations from coast to coast were demolishing their old structures and erecting apartment or office buildings that incorporated a ground floor church space.  In theory the congregation would reap tremendous income from the rental properties.  Not everyone was thrilled by the concept.  The New York Times, for instance, editorialized, "Must we visualize a New York in which no spire points heavenward?"

In 1928 the trustees demolished its masterful church and the parish house and hired hotel and apartment building architect Emery Roth to design a 15-story combination "apartment hotel" and church building on the site.  Their choice in architects may have been prompted by Roth's skyscraper church, the Hotel Carteret, which he had designed for the Chelsea Presbyterian Church two years earlier.

A 1929 real estate brochure featured the building on the cover. from the collection of the Columbia University Libraries

Completed in October 1929, Warren Hall was entered at 166 Second Avenue.  The Baptist Tabernacle entrance was on the opposite end of the building, at 162 Second Avenue.  The doorways reflected the stark differences in their purposes.  The round-arched entrance to Warren Hall was flanked by fluted pilasters that terminated in Art Deco urns of flowers.  Between, a bas relief panel depicted scantily-clothed figures on either side of a basket of fruit.  In severe contrast, the entrance to the church was unmistakably ecclesiastical.  Its pointed Gothic arch and heavy double gates with Gothic tracery sat below a crenellated entablature carved with the church's name.  On either side were bas relief torches, symbols of inspiration and knowledge.  Roth's only other nod to the ecclesiastical motif came as three angels that served as the balcony bases at the third floor.

photograph by Beyond My Ken

A brochure for Warren Hall insisted that the neighborhood was on an upswing, saying, "This district, so rich in City tradition is once more coming into prominence as a desirable location for the modern home."  It boasted two- and three-room apartments "each consisting of large living room, foyer, kitchen, bath and several roomy closets."  The three-room suites came with "large Dining Alcove Rooms."  The advertisement noted, "Kitchens are equipped with artistic dressers [i.e., cupboards], gas range and mechanical refrigeration, and are lighted by windows."

Warren Hall brochure, 1929,  from the collection of the Columbia University Libraries

The fifteenth floor, or penthouse, held four apartments.  They were "designed in the form of country bungalows, yet have all the city conveniences, large private roof gardens and wood-burning fireplaces," said the brochure.

Residents of the 15th floor enjoyed outdoor space.  Warren Hall brochure, 1929,  from the collection of the Columbia University Libraries

Although Warren Hall opened in the fall of 1929, it would take a few months before the Baptist Tabernacle was completed.  On March 3, 1930, The New York Times reported, "Six nationalities worshiped in their own languages yesterday at the first regular Sunday services of the Baptist Tabernacle in its new edifice in the fourteen-story apartment house at 164 Second Avenue."

The church engulfed the entire ground floor other than the Warren Hall entrance.  The New York Times explained that the congregations of the Second Avenue Baptist Church--the Italian Baptist Church, the First Estonian Church, the Russian Church, the Polish Church, and the Chinese Baptist Church--were "housed under one roof and incorporated into the tabernacle."  Their "three chapels, standing side by side from north to south, occupy all of the ground floor of the $1,200,000 apartment house, and are connected by a corridor extending from the separate entrance for the church," said the article.

Change would once again come.  In 1953 stores were installed at street level, signaling a vast reduction in floor space for church use.  It was a temporary fix, and four years later the church space was converted to the Gate Theatre.

In August 1959 the Gate Theatre produced a revival of The Drunkard.  The New York Age commented that it "has been acted more often in the United States than any other by an American author--except possibly 'Uncle Tom's Cabin.'"  Indeed, Matt Conley who had the title role had already played it more than 1,000 times.

By 1964 the Cricket Theater shared the space with the Gate.  In addition to offering plays for children on weekend afternoons, it presented serious drama, like Athol Fugard's The Blood Knot that dealt with racial tensions, which opened on March 2, 1964.

On September 17, 1970 The New York Times reported that Robert L. Steele had purchased both theaters.  Continuing to use the name the Gate Theater, the article said he "plans to present a new musical, 'Stage Movie," the following month.

Around the same time, part of the former church space (presumably the basement) was converted to a nightclub, Sanctum Sanctorum.  The New York Times called it "a so-called 'juice bar,'" meaning that it did not have a license to sell alcohol.  But patrons found other ways to get high. 

On April 18, 1973 The New York Times reported that Sanctum Sanctorum had been ordered temporarily closed "because of drug selling and other unlawful activity."  The closing, said the article, was "part of the Mayor's campaign to close the several nonalcoholic discotheque-like enterprises that have attracted youthful clientele and a number of drug dealers."

The owners, Jerry Sands and CinemaDisco Corporation, argued that the club was a private facility.  State Supreme Court Justice Sidney A. Fine disagreed, saying their contention "is really a dance to camouflage the illegal activity."

The Gate Theater continued until 1977, replaced by the Theater for the New City.  Known familiarly as TNC, it was founded in 1971 in the West Village.  A sort of triplex, the space now held three theaters, named after Joe Cino, Charles Stanley, and James Waring.

In 1978, according to The New York Times, the theater commissioned Sam Shepard to write Buried Child, which premiered here the following year.  It became the first off-off-Broadway play to win the Pulitzer Price.  In 1984 the theater would premier two Heiner Muller plays, Hamletmachine and Quartett.

Unfortunately, when the landlord increased the rent a reported 300 percent in 1984, the Theater for the New City was forced to relocate, moving out a few years later.  The space that had seen the introduction of award winning drama became a Mayfair Supermarket in 1996.

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Graham Nash for requesting this post
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1 comment:

  1. A neighborhood improved by the fact that, below 23rd St., the Second Avenue El ran on First Avenue.