Friday, December 31, 2010

Train Tracks, Cowboys and The Church of the Guardian Angel

In 1929 the city, the State of New York and the New York Central Railroad agreed that something had to be done. The freight trains that had run up 10th Avenue since the late 1840s caused so many accidents and fatalities that the thoroughfare was termed Death Avenue. “West Side Cowboys,” horsemen with red flags, rode in front of the oncoming trains to warn pedestrians and vehicles. But it wasn’t enough.

A West Side Cowboy rides before an oncoming train on 10th Avenue - NYPL Collection
 The heavy street congestion forced the group to authorize elevating the train tracks, removing the danger altogether. The $150 million project (more than $2 billion today) would eliminate 105 street-level railroad crossings.

It would also eliminate the Church of the Guardian Angel.

Sitting on 23rd Street just east of 10th Avenue, the church was directly in the path of the planned project. Built in 1910 and designed by George H. Streeton, the Roman Catholic church served neighborhood as well as the stevedores and seamen from the piers two blocks away.

The New York Central Railroad, reportedly, paid for the relocation to 193 10th Avenue, two blocks south. John V. Van Pelt was given the commission and his resulting structure is striking. Working in the Southern Sicilian Romanesque style, Van Pelt used the Clunic Abbey of Saint Peter in Moissac, France as his inspirtion.  Using red brick trimmed with limestone, he copiously embellished the exterior with bas reliefs, pillars and a deeply-hooded entrance. A large and complex rose window dominates the 10th Avenue façade.

Inside medieval stone columns and an exposed beamed ceiling add to the early Sicilian flavor of the building.

The church was completed in 1930 and dedicated with a pontifical mass on November 8, 1931 celebrated by Cardinal Hayes with the mayor in attendance. Outside the freight trains still rumbled down 10th Avenue, directly in front of the new church. When the elevated tracks – later to be known as the High Line – were completed three years later, they came within mere feet of the chancel windows to the rear of the church.

A freight train rumbles down 10th Avenue directly in front of the newly completed Church of the Guardian Angel in 1931 - NYPL Collection

In 1980 the last freight train, carrying three carloads of frozen turkeys, ran along the High Line behind Guardian Angel. For two decades the tracks would remain abandoned and overgrown before being recycled into a public park which opened in 2009.

Today the piers and stevedores are gone, the clattering trains are a memory, yet the Church of the Guardian Angel continues its work in the much-changed Chelsea neighborhood. Now surrounded by art galleries and cafes, it is a rare example of Sicilian Romanesque architecture and a delightful surprise to High Line visitors.

"The Travel Channel" described the church spot-on saying "New Yorkers, numbed by constant grandeur, too often pass architectural gems without noticing. But buildings such as this one deserve attention."

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Nos. 183-185 West Fourth Street

Nos. 185-183 W. 4th Street -- photo Fairfax & Sammons Architecture

The streets of Greenwich Village, essentially unaffected by the grid plan of 1811, wander this way and that, often creating a tangle of angles and intersections only the veteran Villagers can easily maneuver. On the triangular-shaped block where West 4th Street angles sharply northwest from 6th Avenue towards Sheridan Square a charming row of Federal style houses terminates with two surprising and unexpected buildings.

Here in Manhattan sit two quaint Georgian-looking houses, like a slice of old London transplanted into New York. Their cozy, antique appearance exudes the romance of a Currier & Ives lithograph of 18th Century domesticity.

They are in reality only about half that age and their beginnings are not so romantic.

The little two story house at No. 185, which deftly appears to be a single story, started out life as the carriage house for the owners of a townhouse on Washington Place. In 1917, as horse-drawn carriages gave way to motorcars and Greenwich Village saw the beginnings of its Bohemian attraction, it was converted into a residence.

The architect, reportedly named Fayerwhether, embraced the Colonial Revival style that had become trendy with the 1876 Centennial and would last for another few years. A simple arched doorway topped by a fanlight and two multipaned windows with paneled shutters gave the little house a Revolutionary period flavor.

As the renovation was being completed, Annette Hoyt Flanders was serving with the American Red Cross in France, during World War I. Flanders earned her B.S. degree in botany at Smith College in 1918 before leaving and would go on to study landscape architecture at the University of Illinois, civil engineering at Marquette University, and design, architecture and architectural history at the Sorbonne.

She became famous through landscape architecture and opened her own office in New York in 1922. Around this time she moved into No. 185 West 4th Street.

In 1936 the little house got another facelift when it acquired its modified mansard roof with Chinese Chippendale railing. Grills set into the broad cornice board disguise the small windows of the second story and echo the railing’s motif.

In 1917 the Buildings Department documented the construction of No. 183, next door, noting a “one floor studio with mezzanine.” The artist’s studio was architecturally compatible with its little next door neighbor and as the decades passed, both served a succession of artistic owners and tenants.

By 1962 when wealthy art dealer Armand Hammer discovered the two buildings, No. 185 had “two one-half apartments on each floor.” Hammer purchased both structures on October 15, 1962 and set about converting them into a single home (on the same day he purchased three contingent Federal houses on Washington Place).

photo Fairfax & Sammons Architecture
Jazz-loving Hammer used the home as his downtown getaway, within walking distance of jazz clubs, for nearly four decades. In 2000 his estate sold the property to esteemed architect and designer couple Anne Fairfax and Richard Sammons. The peculiar pie-shaped form, the odd angles and unintended joined interior spaces created a challenge.

photo Fairfax & Sammons Architecture
Fairfax worked with decorator Marina Killery to create a sophisticated residence that respects the history of the buildings and the Village. Extra charm was effected by shrubberies and flowering plants, designed by landscape architect Charles Stick.

photo Fairfax & Sammons Architecture
Nos. 183-185 West Fourth Street are indisputably two of the most charismatic and unique buildings in Manhattan and the surprising residence behind the front doors is matchless.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The 1851 First Moravian Church -- 154 Lexington Avenue

In the spring of 1852 the Rose Hill Baptist Church moved into their new structure at the corner Lexington Avenue and 30th Street, changing its name to the Lexington Avenue Baptist Church. The red brick church, begun around 1849, was handsome and unassuming designed in the Lombardian Romanesque style. Tall arched windows on the sides sat in shallow arched recesses formed by brick pilasters. The shapes were echoed in the arched corbel tables beneath the Lexington Avenue eaves.

The structure, which could accommodate approximately 500 worshippers, was situated on a high brick basement level.  A short stoop led to a decorative, multi-paneled doorway.

On May 15 of that year, The New York Times announced that “The Lexington-avenue Baptist Church, (late Rose Hill) corner of Lexington-av and 30th-st., will open their Lecture-room in their new building, the Lord willing, next SUNDAY.  Services in the morning, at 10-1/2 o’clock, 3-1/2 o’clock in the afternoon, and 7-3/4 in the evening.  The pastor is expected to preach in the morning, Rev. THOMAS ARMITAGE in the afternoon, and Rev. J. L. HODGE, of Brooklyn, in the evening."

A year later, 
in reporting on the naming of Rev. P F. Jones as pastor, the newspaper commented on the building. “The church has recently been erected, is plain and capacious, and its congregation daily increasing.”

By 1856, the area around the church was developing. The New York Times published a list of the many high-stooped homes and several new churches being erected throughout the neighborhood.  Within four years the Baptist Church had sold their building to the Episcopal Church of the Mediator.

As part of its updating, in 1863 the church purchased the ornate pipe organ built by Henry Erben in 1840 for the French Episcopal Church du St. Espirit at Franklin and Church Streets.  The New-York Spectator had described the organ o
n July 6, 1840, saying “The case of the organ is entirely different from any yet constructed in this country.  It is ornamented with carved columns, representing the palm trees at Athens, surmounted by a cornice enriched with carved water leaves and honey suckles, the whole bronzed and gilt in the highest style of elegance.”

The 1840 Henry Erben organ with its extraordinary carved cabinet

On February 1, 1869 the Church of the Mediator sold the church to the First Moravian Church for $35,000 and relocated to the southeast corner of Sixth Avenue and 34th Street.  The Moravian Church, which had been without a permanent building since their Houston Street property was sold in 1865, held its first service in the Lexington Avenue edifice on April 18.

The Moravian Church had been in New York for over a century.  But, according to Harry Emilius Stocker in A History of the Moravian Church in New York City, it was “in anything but a flourishing condition” when the new church was acquired.

The church had remained too long in Houston Street.  By staying there after conditions had become well-nigh insufferable, it seriously damaged its strength and prestige. This detriment was increased by the homeless wanderings after the church-property had been sold.  It was therefore like starting afresh when the little congregation began its labors at Lexington Avenue and Thirtieth Street.

The Moravians were zealous in their missionary efforts and on January 27, 1881 Reverend William H. Weinland gave “an illustrated lecture in the church on ‘Alaska,’ a subject in which he was not only deeply interested but one with which he was thoroly [sic] acquainted because he had made, in company with Missionary A. Hartmann, during the previous year, an exploratory visit to that distant field.”  More than 200 people attended the lecture.

Because worshippers complained that the church was difficult to find, a bronze tablet was affixed to the façade in December 1890 that read, “First Moravian Church of New York, Founded A. D. 1748.”  Stocker noted, “To a certain extent this difficulty was obviated by the tablet."

Fist Moravian Church circa 1930 - NYPL Collection

On Christmas Day that year, lighted candles were distributed among the congregation during the service.  The church diary recorded “This was the first time that this pretty and very significant Moravian ceremony was held here and all appeared pleased.  Ninety candles were distributed.”

The lecture room was refurnished in February 1893, at which time the first “love feast,” a Moravian tradition, was celebrated in the Lexington Avenue church.  Improvements included new chairs, gas fixtures, window shades carpeting a pulpit and three pulpit chairs.

A large space behind the lecture room “hitherto utilized for storing boxes, ash-cans and all sorts of junk,” according to Stocker, was renovated into a church parlor by architect James Grunnert.  A concrete floor was laid, the walls “tastefully decorated,” and furnishings such as an oak library table and sectional bookcase were brought in along with portraits of the leaders of the church and other “pictures of historic value.”  At the same time electric lights, a steam heating plant and a kitchen were installed.

During the summer of 1894 the main church was renovated “from roof to foundation.”  Carpeting was installed and the walls and ceiling “frescoed.”

By the 1920s, the neighborhood had substantially changed. Stocker commented that “Altho [sic] the slums are not many blocks away, the church is not located in the slums.  On the contrary, the surroundings of the church are clean. The encroachment of business is slowly but surely driving residents from the neighborhood.  This has the advantage of keeping away cheap tenement houses, but it also restricts the immediate field of the church’s labors.”

Today the prim brick church has changed little.  Inside the clean white walls and painted woodwork attest to the simple values of its congregants and the extremely rare and beautiful Henry Erben pipe organ still stands in the organ loft.

UPDATE:  A permit for "full demolition" of this building was issued on August 25, 2022.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The 1783 Dyckman Farmhouse -- Broadway and 204th Street

The Dyckman House as it appears today

When the American Revolution broke out in 1776, the Dyckman family had been farming upper Manhattan for nearly a century. Jan Dyckman, a German immigrant from Westphalia arrived in the Dutch settlement below what is now Wall Street and soon thereafter purchased several hundred acres far to the north where he established his farm in 1661.

As land was added, the Dyckman farm stretched from river to river and roughly from today’s 213rd Street to the 190's. The original Dyckman farmhouse was located near the Spuyten Duyvil Creek, at Manhattan’s northernmost point.

As time passed wealthy country squires established estates in the area. The Dyckmans, however, referred to their land as a “farm” and famously raised cabbages and cherries. A second, larger house replaced the original, nearer to the Harlem River.  The Revolution would change the idyllic atmosphere of the farm.

Jan’s grandson, William, had inherited the land.  The Dyckman family fled north to Westchester in 1776 when British General Howe moved northward after the Battle of Long Island and took the Anthorpe Mansion in Bloomingdale, just to the south of the farm, in anticipation of the coming Battle of Harlem. After that conflict, the Continental Army took possession of the Dyckman house for a short time, followed by the British who occupied it until 1783.

The Dyckman family returned that year to find that the British had burned their home and their orchards to the ground. Undeterred, William’s eldest son, Jacobus, with the help of slaves, rebuilt between 1783 and 1785. Set on a stony bluff, it was built of fieldstone, brick and wood, with the upper story of clapboard.  Characteristic of the Dutch Colonial style so familiar to the family was the high basement and the low-pitched gambrel roof, curved to swing over a full-length porch. Two large parlors and two private bedrooms comprised the main floor, the second story being a large open loft space. A winter kitchen doubled as a heating source while a separate summer kitchen in the garden, with a small bedroom area above for, most likely, a cook, was used in hotter months.

The orchards on the 250-acre farm were replanted and in 1787 when William died, the farm had a barn, cider mill and several outbuildings. Jacobus took over the farm, moving his sizable family in to the homestead – eventually totaling eleven children.

As time passed, Jacobus–who became a New York City Alderman in 1822--renovated the home, partitioning off bedrooms upstairs in the 1820s and adding a wing to the north around 1830.  The building housed ten people in 1820 including Jacobus (whose wife had died in 1814), three sons, a grandson, niece, a white woman and freed black woman, one male slave and one freed black boy. Other family members and workers lived in three other homes spotted around the farm.

After Jacobus died in 1832, his sons Michael and Isaac lived on in the home for another two decades. Michael died in 1854 and Isaac in 1868.

Upon his death 148 acres of land, divided into 151 plots, was auctioned off. “This is the largest quantity of land ever offered for sale at one time within the City limits,” said The Times. Two years later another 92 acres, divided into 900 lots, was auctioned. The subsequent lay-out of new streets would place the Dyckman homestead at the corner of Broadway and 204th Street.

The farmhouse around 1895 - photo NYPL Collection

In the later years of the 19th century, socially prominent John H. Judge and his wife purchased the house at auction. Although The New York Times remarked “It fell into good hands, for Mr. Judge has guarded the old place from damage as jealously as if it were the home of his ancestors,” period photographs show the building in a state of serious neglect.

The neglected Dyckman farmhouse around 1900 - photo NYPL collection

The Judges never lived in the home, residing instead in their mansion at 27 West 94th Street. In November of 1913 the couple announced their intentions to give the house to the Daughters of the Revolution to convert into a museum. The caveat was that the Judges wanted to keep the valuable land on which the home stood – “Mr. Judge, however, has stipulated that the building must be placed on a satisfactory site in Isham Park,” noted The New York Times.

Despite the city’s promises, appropriations for the new site and moving costs were not forthcoming. In May 1914 the Art Commission photographed the Dyckman House as an architectural record, along with other threatened historic buildings. The future of the colonial building was shaky at best.

In an eerie coincidence, on December 18, 1914 Winifred Judge and Fannie Dyckman, widow of Isaac Dyckman, both died. Spurred by the death of their mother, Mary Alice Dyckman Dean and Fannie Fredericka Dyckman Welch purchased their family home to rescue it and present it to the city as a memorial to their parents.

As luck would have it, Mary’s husband was Bashford Dean of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Columbia University, and Fannie’s husband was architect Alexander M. Welch. While the sisters gathered family furniture and relics for the museum, their husbands spent over a year restoring the structure. Welch oversaw the restoration while Dean worked on the interiors. The architect carefully removed features not original to the house, such as the 1830s addition. By July, 1916, it was ready for presentation to the city.

The farmhouse as restored, around 1920 - photo NYPL Collection

“It is doubtful if any old house in the country has ever been restored with such care to preserve its former features,” reported The New York Times. “To get hand-hewn timbers and other old material with which to make necessary repairs, Mr. Welch purchased two century-old houses about to be torn down in New Jersey and part of many others. Every lock and bolt is more than eighty years old, and scores of hand-made nails were used. In the house itself little actual restoration was required, but the old smokehouse in the rear has been restored, as originally built.”

On the ground floor, a room was set apart to display Revolutionary and native American relics excavated on the Dyckman property and a Hessian hut was rebuilt behind the house, using original bricks.  A year later the sisters purchased two additional lots adjoining the house as a gift to the city. “The additional property will make it possible to enlarge the garden, which had been laid out in old Dutch style,” said The New York Times.

While a laudable, early example of architectural preservation, the restored rooms most closely reflected the Edwardian romanticized view of colonial life than the more realistic hardships 18th century farmers endured.  Helen W. Henderson, in her 1917 A Loiterer in New York, was not impressed, calling it an "almost too clean restoration." 

"Its proportions are unpretentious, for it was a simple farmhouse," said Henderson, "but the two Dyckman daughters, who presented it to the city, in 1916, have spared no trouble or expense in outfitting it with family heirlooms and Revolutionary trophies found in the neighbourhood, and in making the house as homelike and intimate as a public museum can hope to be."

Controversy swirled around the museum when in 1918.  While the United States was embroiled in World War I, German-born Park Commissioner William F. Grell abruptly dismissed the curator and another employee and replaced them with Captain Frederick Hensler and his wife “who are of German birth, but naturalized here,” according to The New York Times.

The newspaper went on to list Commissioner Grell’s memberships in German clubs and societies and lament the “precarious circumstances” of the fired employees.

Today the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum is owned by the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. A member of the Historic House Trust, it is both a New York City Landmark and included on the National Register of Historic Places. Nestled among the modern buildings of Upper Broadway, the charming 18th century house is both a surprise and a delight.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Stern Brothers Dry Goods -- West 23rd Street

The Stern boys, Louis, Benjamin and Isaac, sons of German Jewish immigrants, started their dry goods business in Buffalo, New York in 1867. A year later they moved their one-room store to New York City. With apparent marketing genius, the brothers quickly outgrew two stores and by 1878, despite the financial panic that was bankrupting businesses city-wide, were ready to make their mark on Manhattan’s emporium district.

As the great stores crept up 6th Avenue from 14th Street, creating what would become The Ladies’ Mile, Sterns Brothers Dry Goods opted for 23rd Street, around the corner. Wide brownstone residences lined most of the block and the imposing white marble Booth’s Theatre anchored the corner of 6th Avenue and 23rd. The brothers purchased three lots in the middle of the block, between 5th and 6th Avenues and commissioned German-born architect Henry Fernbach to design their store.

On June 2,1878 The New York Times announced the anticipated store. “On Twenty-third street the neighborhood of Sixth-avenue is to be improved by the erection on the lots Nos. 32, 34, and 36 of a store, about 75 feet front, for Stern Brothers,…The estimated cost is about $100,000.” The article said the new building would be five stories tall, occupied entirely by Stern Brothers and was expected to be completed “early next year.”

Stern Brothers Dry Goods Store in 1878, surrounded by brownstone residences with Booth's Theatre at 6th Avenue - print from the NYPL Collection
 Instead, the impressive cast iron emporium was finished in five months and one day. Displayed in the Renaissance Revival-style emporium were imported goods targeting middle-class to upper-class shoppers. On opening day, October 22, 1878, The Times reported “Among the novelties of which Mr. Stern is particularly proud is a large ostrich feather made in imitation of an American flag, the first ever made. The display of lace goods is very fine. The novelty display is too varied and extensive to attempt description and the same is true of all the other departments. The firm expects to have everything in apple-pie order before the opening hour this morning.”

Stern Brothers' Monogram Over the Entrance -- photo
In a forward thinking innovation at the time, the Stern brothers installed a dining room for employees in the basement . A separate carriage entrance on 22nd Street ensured that the wealthy customers did not have to rub shoulders with the more common shoppers entering on 23rd Street and doormen in silk top hats held the doors. Invitations were sent to preferred customers and private showings were held annually when new fashions were introduced.

Within only two years the new store was too small. “The remarkable increase in the business of the Messrs. Stern Brothers, the dry goods merchants, has made imperatively necessary the building of a large addition to their already spacious store,” said The Times on August 6, 1880. The houses at Nos. 23, 25 and 27 to the east of the building were purchased and expansion begun. In order to rush construction, powerful electric lights were brought in so workman could work through the night.

The extension did not pretend to be anything but an addition; there was no attempt to create the illusion that both sections had been designed together. Nevertheless the arched windows and connecting cornices joined the original to make a handsome façade.

While 5th Avenue socialites would shop here for Worth suits, for instance, priced at $375 in 1879 or one by Pingat in beige-colored silk for $400, less moneyed shoppers could choose among items like parasols ranging from $2.50 to $25.00. In 1884 The Times remarked “And believing the nimble sixpence to be better than the slow shilling, they mark their goods at prices of which no reasonable buyer can complain.”

Their marketing strategies and diversity of merchandise worked. In 1885 another extension was planned. “Not content with the enormous business which they have heretofore done in their large establishment on West Twenty-third street, Stern Brothers last year determined upon enlarging their actual selling space and decided to build an extension to their building,” said The Times on September 21, 1886.

One hundred square feet of land was purchased between 22nd and 23rd street to the west of the building and on June 30, 1886 construction began. Within three months the $150,000 addition was completed, matching the first addition to the east. Sterns was now employing a staff of over 1500, there were 1800 incandescent lamps – the largest amount in any building to date – and thirteen elevators. On the second floor was a “unique little reception room, fitted up with artistic taste for the lady shopper…and Stern’s to-day is the only place in the city where such a thing can be found,” reported The Times.

Sterns Brothers with the second addition to the west -- circa 1905 -- print NYPL Collection

The enormous space was still not enough and in 1892 Architect William Schickel enlarged the building for the final time.

Carriages wait for shoppers across from Sterns Brothers Dry Goods - 1903 -- photograph NYPL Collection
In 1902 Macy’s moved from 14th Street to its gargantuan new store on 34th Street, sparking the upward migration of the retail stores from the Ladies’ Mile. One by one the giant emporiums were abandoned until, on September 2, 1913 Stern Brothers joined the trend. The gleaming white 23rd Street store was emptied as Sterns moved north to 42nd Street.

The elaborate cast iron building that a century later the AIA Guide to New York City would say “reeks of birthday cake with vanilla icing” slowly declined. By mid-century it had been converted to industrial and warehouse use, with a mish-mash of street-level stores.

Change came in the 1980s as the Ladies’ Mile buildings began being rediscovered. Hasbro Toys transformed the rusting structure into its offices and showroom. To prevent espionage of next season’s products, the company blocked out the ground floor windows. Stern Brothers became widely known as the Hasbro Building.

It was during this time that the Tom Hanks motion picture Big used the building as the headquarters of MacMillan Toy Company where Josh Baskin went to work.

In 1986 an well-intentioned but unfortunate updating by Rothzeid Kaiserman Thomson & Bee removed much of the easterly two floors, replaced by glass curtains; exceptionally out of keeping with the architecture.

The Stern Brothers Building today, with the glaring 1986 glass curtain renovation

In 2001 the toy company decided to relocate and the 120,000 square feet it had occupied became available. An unlikely tenant, Home Depot, took over the space in 2004 and Stern Brothers’ immense emporium shines again.

non-credited photographs taken by the author

Thursday, December 23, 2010

First Presbyterian Church -- 48 Fifth Avenue

photograph by Beyond My Ken
From the beginning of the 18th century throughout the 19th century, New York's religious community was dominated by Anglicans (or Episcopalians post-Revolution).  Their patience with the immigrant Scots and Irish Presbyterians was short at best, yet the original persevering group of eighty worshipers organized the First Presbyterian Church congregation in 1716.

Their little church on Wall Street was closed throughout the American Revolution when the British occupied it first as a barracks and later as a stable.  It was destroyed in the Great Fire of New York in 1776 and the two subsequent buildings were also destroyed by fire, the last in 1835.

By this time New York was spreading northward and after lengthy discussion, land was purchased uptown on Fifth Avenue at 12th Street around 1844 on the outskirts of the expanding Village of Greenwich.  Around Washington Square to the south, fine Federal mansions had already begun rising.

English-born architect Joseph C. Wells was given the commission for the Gothic Revival style building. Wells based the bulk of the building on the Church of St. Saviour in Bath, England and modeled the central tower after the Magdalen Tower at Oxford.  Interestingly, the same tower had inspired Richard Upjohn for his Church of the Ascension just one block to the south, completed in 1841.

The similar towers of the Church of the Ascension (foreground) and First Presbyterian, both based on the Magdalen Tower at Oxford from the collection of the New York Public Library
Wells made optimum use of the broad block-wide lot, setting the brownstone structure back from the street and surrounding the grounds with heavy cast iron fencing.  Rich Gothic tracery both in the tower and large side windows were complimented by stone quatrefoils along the roofline.

Construction was completed in January 1846 and the New York Herald remarked that “The interior of the edifice presents a novel and yet a very agreeable and impressive aspect.  It is of the perpendicular Gothic Style, without columns to sustain the long extending arch, which makes the seats in a remarkable degree available and unobstructed.  This is a new feature in modern architecture.”  According to The New York Times “The new edifice cost $55,000.”   (That amount would equate to around $1.6 million in 2020.)

The Wall Street churchyard was excavated and the deceased re-interred in the south lawn of the new church, according to former deacon John Rhodes.  The gravestones, however, were never re-erected; instead they were stored in the church house basement.

Throughout the 19th century memorial windows were donated by members of the congregation, including three by Tiffany Studios, two by Charles Lamb (of J. & R. Lamb nearby on Sixth Avenue) and five by Maitland Armstrong.  In 1893 McKim, Mead & White, then the foremost architectural firm in the country, was hired to design a south transept; creating one of the most picturesque corners in the city.

The picturesque South Transept and yard
First Presbyterian remained on the cutting edge of theological and social ideas and, on June 25, 1911, initiated the first of its Sunday evening outdoor services “in an attempt to bring the institution into closer touch with the masses.”

“Since New York Was young,” said pastor Dr. Howard Duffield, “it has been a custom for its people to gather on the steps of their dwellings at the end of a hard day’s work and by association with others like themselves to learn that their struggles and tribulations are part of the common lot, and to find sympathy and encouragement in place of their loneliness.  That is just what we are doing this evening.”

Two nearby congregations merged with First Presbyterian in 1918 and, at the same time, called upon fiery Baptist minister Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick to be associate pastor.  Fosdick was renowned for his outspoken opinions against racism and social injustice.

A year later interior renovations were initiated when a chancel was added and the reredos, painted in 1917 by Taber Sears, was relocated to that new wall and repainted.  The striking blue rose window was donated by Robert W. de Forest as part of the renovation.  Completed in September 1920, the 40-foot extension and interior changes, designed by architect John Almy Tompkins of the firm of Grosvenor Atterbury, cost more than $3 million in today's money.

“One of the most striking innovations in the new furnishings is a highly carved Gothic pulpit of oak,” reported The New York Times, “standing ten feet high.”

In the meantime, Dr. Fosdick’s popularity grew as did his following; the church membership burgeoning to 1,800 congregants.  His rhetoric however, offended fundamentalist members and in 1924 amid great controversy and dissension, he resigned his post.  On October 23, he spoke publicly in the church after having formally resigning his position a few days earlier.  Crowds jammed Fifth Avenue, tying up traffic in an attempt to hear his final words.

Toward the end of the 1950's, the need for more space for church programs led to the construction of the Church House toward the rear of the church on 12th Street.  At a time when mid-century sympathies regarding harmonious blending of historical and modern architecture were weak at best, the end product could have been disastrous.  Instead, architect Edgar A. Tafel, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, created a work of art.  The AIA Guide to New York notes that the main church’s Gothic quatrefoils “form the motif for the adjacent, properly reticent, Church House, built more than a century later."  It went on to say that "its copper-clad structure shares Wright’s sense of materials and proportion.”  In addition to the quatrefoil design, Tafel colored the brick of the new building to match the brownstone of the church. The $1 million addition was dedicated on May 15, 1960.

The handsome iron fence was restored in the 1980's and a decade later a major restoration of the south wing was completed.

First Presbyterian’s tradition of support for social justice and tolerance lives on today. The racially-mixed congregation is gay-inclusive and is active in a homeless shelter program. The handsome English church and churchyard on lower Fifth Avenue remains a serene and welcoming oasis.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The 1874 Bond Street Savings Bank - 54 Bond Street

On April 29, 1874 The New York Times ran a one-line story that reported “The Atlantic Savings Bank will remove tomorrow to its new building, corner of Bond Street and the Bowery, and will in future be called the Bond Street Savings Bank.”

The bank was making a big move. The Bowery in 1874 was a thriving, exciting thoroughfare lined with German beer gardens and dance halls, theatres and businesses. The directors of the Atlantic Bank recognized the potential and the distinction of the area.

Henry Engelbert, who had designed the fashionable Grand Hotel on Broadway and the renovation of old St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1868 and three years later the gargantuan Broadway Central Hotel, was given the commission for the new bank.

As he did in the two Broadway hotels, Engelbert designed the bank in the French Second Empire style, although passing on the mansard roof for this project. The plot of land with which he had to work, which cost the bank $89,500, was long and narrow; a long slice of Bond Street terminating on the Bowery. The architect solved the problem by treating both facades similarly; giving neither special importance.

The result was an especially handsome cast iron structure. Stately columns, coupled on the Bond Street side, flanked the windows and an daunting cornice topped the fifth floor. A shallow pediment crowned the Bond Street side. Englebert’s cast iron design masqueraded as stone, giving the bank building an aura of solidity. To unify the two facades, he ran a cornice course around the building between each floor.

The bank was, however, the victim of bad timing. The year that the land was purchased and the new building project was initiated, the Financial Panic of 1873 set in, a great depression that would last for six years. Two years after opening, the Bond Street Savings bank failed.

On September 21 the bank ceased operations under order of the Supreme Court.

The German Exchange Bank took over 330 Bowery. In 1885 it was leasing a corner space to Clark R. Trumbull’s stationery store. In 1918, with World War I anti-German sentiment rampant, the bank changed its name to the Commercial Exchange Bank and continued doing business.

The Bowery, however, radically changed. Its reputation changed from an entertainment district to one of derelicts and drunkards. Reputable businesses moved away and buildings degraded through neglect. The Commercial Exchange Bank left No. 330 Bowery and the building was used for various purposes for a while; then was essentially abandoned for half a century, rusting and boarded up and used for storage.

No. 330 The Bower in 1940
In 1963 salvation for the grand old building came when Honey Waldman converted it into an off-Broadway theatre called the Bourwerie Lane Theatre. Resurrecting the Bowery’s tradition of theatre entertainment, the unexpected venue in the still-gritty area featured well-known stars and became a popular destination for theatre lovers. In its first year the theatre staged The Immoralist with Frank Langella. In 1974 it became home to the Jean Cocteau Repertory Theatre for 32 years.

When the curtain dropped on Jean Genet’s The Maids X 2 in 2006, the theatre closed it doors for good. A year later in June businessman Adam Gordon, known as the Self-Storage King, purchased the now-landmarked building for $15 million with the intention of creating a sensational residence for himself on the upper-most floors and “respectable” retail spaces below.

Changing the address to 54 Bond Street, Gordon created a triplex penthouse for himself, and two other apartments on the fourth and third floors. Working with architectural restoration firm Architectural Components, Inc., he used period-appropriate materials such as wood from an old Alabama cotton gin to revitalize the interiors. “As a developer,” he told the New York Post, “I really have a passion for reclaiming historic properties.”

The owner’s penthouse was ample – a full 4,863 square feet of interior space and 1,277 square feet of terraces and rooftop garden space. Pocket doors, 10’4” ceilings, and two full kitchens added to the comfort.

The unsightly fire escapes that clung to Engelbert’s stately façade could now be stripped away. To recreate the appearance of 19th Century glass in the residential spaces, the window glass was machine-rolled using the same process as the original. The method creates minor distortions as would be expected with vintage glass.

The window sashes were reproduced in wood, carefully retaining the original designs.

In February 2010 Gordon put the three residential properties on the market; his penthouse at $15.45 million, the fourth floor apartment for $4.95 million and the third floor residence at $4.875 million. The entire building including the lower two floors of retail space was marketed at $34 million.

Once rusting and neglected, the former Bond Street Savings Bank building now gleams like new. In its assessment of the structure in 1967, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission noted that “…it is an interesting example of the skillful treatment of disproportionate elements and that the history of its varied uses is a clear indication that landmark buildings can serve the needs of the community over a long period of years without necessarily being destroyed or defaced.”

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Surrogate's Courthouse / Hall of Records -- 31 Chambers Street

By the second half of the 19th Century the need for a larger, more secure hall of records was evident. The population of Manhattan had grown from 61,000 in 1800 to 942,000 in 1870. Necessarily, as the population burgeoned so did the amount of paper records to be archived. In 1888 the Sinking Fund Commission was formed to erect the new facility.

Concurrently, a plan to demolish the elegant 1803 City Hall was initiated and John R. Thomas won the commission for its replacement with an exuberant Beaux Arts design. Thomas was a prolific architect credited with designing more public and semi-public buildings than any other designer in the country, including armories, the old Stock Exchange and more than 150 churches.

Public outcry against the demolition of City Hall was immediate and strong. Subsequently the State Legislature voted down a new City Hall and, as compensation, the commission for the new Hall of Records was given to Thomas.

photo New York Public Library collection

It would be nearly a decade before the city obtained the land for the new building. The Board of Estimate and Apportionment met on December 16, 1897 to award the building contract to John Pierce, who had bid $1,997,900. The board estimated the total cost to be $2.2 million.

By the time the building was finally completed that figure would rise to $8 million.

Thomas’ plans, a gentle re-do of his City Hall design, were approved by an advisory committee of William E. Ware of Columbia University’s Architectural School, noted architectural critic Montgomery Schuyler, and Metropolitan Museum trustee Henry G. Marquand. It was a grand French Beaux Arts building in keeping with the new City Beautiful Movement.

The theory of the movement held that monumental and classical buildings would not only beautify the urban area, but citizens who were surrounded by civilized structures would behave in a civilized manner. Thomas’ Hall of Records would be monumental beyond imagination.

A lavish mansarded giant constructed of granite from Hallowell, Maine (the same quarry used for the stone of the State Capitol building), it would be embellished with sculptures on three levels. Groupings closest to street level would depict “various races and nations,” the second tier would be portraiture of distinguished city fathers, while the uppermost sculptures would be allegorical.

The Hall of Records 1907

 As sumptuous as his exterior design would be, the interior was doubly-so. Opulence was created with yellow Siena marble, mahogany woodwork, and an intricate arched mosaic ceiling in an Egyptian motif. White marble sculptural groupings of “The Consolidation of Greater New York” and “Recording the Purchase of Manhattan Island” would sit above the east and west doorways.

The inlaid foyer floor would be of pink Tennessee and Blue Beige marble, illuminated by a bronze chandelier and wall sconces; even the radiator covers would be bronze , topped by spread eagles atop globes.

Photo New York Citywide Administrative Services

If the visitor was struck by the foyer, he would be awed by the lobby where a grand baroque split staircase rose two floors to a balustraded level. A century later, author Bill Harris in his “One Thousand New York Buildings” said “Want to see the Paris Opera? Step into the lobby right here.” Thomas’ interior design was one of lavish theatricality.

Ground breaking did not occur until 1899 and the cornerstone was laid in April 13, 1901. Shortly thereafter, on August 28, John R. Thomas died unexpectedly. Reaction on the part of the new Tammany-backed Mayor Robert A. Van Wyck was immediate.

Photo New York Citywide Administrative Services

He gave the job of completing the project to architects Horgan & Slattery, also connected to Tammany Hall. The firm recommended various alterations to the plan, which The New York Times grumbled was “horganizing and slatterifying” the design.

On April 28, 1902 the first of the eight mammoth granite columns was hoisted into position. Carved in a single piece, it was 36 feet high, 4 feet two inches in diameter and weighed 41 tons. Transporting the monolith from Pier 1 took a team of 21 horses.

Construction dragged on for eight years during which time the grandiose plans for the 54 separate sculptures threatened the completion deadline. The Fine Arts Association and then the Municipal Art Society gave their opinions, chiming in on materials (bronze, marble or granite) and subject matter. “The material used is of the greatest importance, very naturally,” reported The Times. “Marble will weather, and is easily broken, but granite also is not proof against the folly and malice of boys and degenerates, of fanatics and drunken men. Bronze will stand the wear and tear of the crowds who will pass the Hall of Records, and will always contain a sprinkling of those imbeciles who knock off a finger or toe in sport or to keep as a souvenir.”

Thomas had given the commissions to two sculptors only, H. K. Bush-Brown for the roof sculptures and Philip Martiny for the rest; far too much work for the allotted time. Martiny did his work at the Hallowell, Maine quarry where the stone for rest of the building was cut. As work progressed, delays were caused when his plaster casts for the statue of former Mayor Hewitt were rejected four times. Finally on December 8, 1905 the finished 12-foot, four ton statue was completed and prepared for hoisting into place on the cornice at the sixth floor. When the sculpture was about two and a half feet from the cornice, the main boom of the rigging snapped, sending the statue plummeting to the sidewalk where it smashed.

Luckily, because of the long construction process, a new mayor took over and most of the changes to Thomas’ original design were reversed. Nevertheless, as city workers began moving in to their offices in 1906 they were shocked to find that the gray and white marble on the upper floors was actually plaster.

The Times explained “The presence of the plaster where the marble ought to be is explained by the fact that the hall was planned in one administration, replanned in another, and finally planned in a third.” No graft was involved, the newspaper said. Nevertheless, “…the imitation work is very poorly done indeed, and, though the hall has been opened but a few weeks, is already beginning to show signs of wear.”

Amid the controversy, Horgan & Slattery publically admitted the substitution of materials was a mistake.

In 1961 when Centre Street was widened, the two sculptures flanking the entrance were removed to the front of the New York County Courthouse at 60 Centre Street. A year later the Hall of Records was renamed The Surrogate’s Courthouse.

The building that the Work Progress Administration’s “New York City Guide” pronounced in 1939 “New York’s best example of eclectic baroque style used in French nineteenth-century municipal buildings,” was deemed a New York City landmark in 1966. A decade later the interiors were also given landmark status.

When opened, the Hall of Records was called “the most Perisian thing in New York” and a century later it could still hold that designation.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Henry J. Hardenbergh's 1904 All Angels Parish House -- 251 West 80th Street

In 1846 the idyllic plot of land in Seneca Village, far north of the established city, seemed the perfect spot for the new All Angels Episcopal church.

It wasn’t.

The wooden structure was built for an ethnically and culturally diverse congregation – freed slaves, “cross-breed Indians” and multi-national immigrants worshipped side by side. The rector, Thomas McClure Peters called it a church “in which white and black and all intermediate shades worshipped harmoniously together.”

Within seven years the city fathers would come knocking on Father Peters’ door. The land on which the church stood, as well as the rest of Seneca Village, sat squarely in the designated area of the newly-planned Central Park. The city condemned all the structures standing there.
The new church, built two years later in 1858, sat on the corner of West End Avenue and West 80th Street. When the Reverend Dr. Charles F. Hoffman took over as rector in 1873 he envisioned a grander, loftier building. The extremely wealthy clergyman was worth an estimated $15 million and he volunteered to personally pay for the new church.

All Angels' 1858 church as it appeared around 1887 -- photo

And so once again the congregation of All Angels watched their church demolished and a new one erected.

NYPL Collection
The stately building, costing the Reverend around $100,000, was spectacular. A two-and-a-half story Tiffany window, mosaic alter, limestone angels girding the pulpit and a sanctuary lamp from Venice decorated the interior which could seat 1,200 worshippers.

All Angels had come a long way from the wooden building housing former slaves, Indians and poor immigrants. In 1901 The New York Times hinted that, after the gift of a new chapel was announced, “another parishioner is contemplating the gift of a new parish house in place of the one to be razed to cost $100,000.”

Three years later the newspaper announced that plans had been filed for the building. “It is to be 50 feet front and 77 feet deep, with a façade of brick with trimmings of limestone. It is to cost $90,000. The architect is H. J. Hardenbergh.”

Hardenbergh, who had designed the Dakota Apartment building in 1880 and the gargantuan Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on 5th Avenue at 34th Street in the 1890s, played with styles and periods in designing the parish house. Gothic tracery blends smoothly with tall Flemish dormers. Irregular limestone quoins rise at the corners to a two-story hipped slate roof. By framing the grouped windows of the second and third floors with a stone, Gothic arch, Hardenberg created the illusion of a two-story chapel window. An architect of symmetrical, ordered buildings, he allowed himself to abandon balance in favor of character as he did in, possibly, no other structure.

The parish house was the center of activity for the parish. Attesting to the forward-thinking of the church, it was here in 1922 – three years before the famous Scopes Trial and during a period when the religious and scientific did always agree – that Dr. Rayond L. Ditmars of the Bronx Zoo, gave a lecture on 30,000,000 years of evolution, accompanied by a 4,000-foot series of films, including scenes of dinosaurs shot using close-ups of a South African lizard.

By 1976 the parish was in trouble. Changes in the neighborhood had reduced the congregation to 150 parishioners. The church, built to serve over one thousand, became a financial burden. The offices and the services were moved to the parish house and, once again, this time in 1979, a church edifice of All Angels was demolished. In place of the great Gothic Revival church a 21-story apartment house was built.

From its distinguished Hardenbergh home, All Angels holds two services on Sundays and evening services on the weekends when the homeless are invited to participate. Meals are served afterwards. On Sundays the church offers an evening shelter and a community meal.

“Pathways,” a weekly program, provides clothing, showers, and social, psychiatric and medical services for those in need.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Fanciful "French Flats" at No. 21 East 21st Street

photo by Alice Lum
In 1878 Miers Coryell, an expert in marine engines, and his wife Marie commissioned architect Bruce Price -- who would be remembered for buildings like Quebec City’s Chateau Frontenac -- to design an apartment building at 21 East 21st Street in the latest American Queen Anne style.  Working with builder David H. King, Jr. (who would become famous for more memorable structures like the Cornelius Vanderbuilt mansion, The Knickerbocker Club and the original Madison Square Garden), Price produced a Victorian delight.

At a time when apartment living was a novel idea among the financially comfortable, the apartments–one to a floor--offered a parlor and master bedroom to the front, three additional bedrooms, dining room and, to the rear, a servant’s room and kitchen.

photo by Alice Lum
A circular staircase at the front of the building was intended for guests and residents; a smaller one at the rear was for deliveries and servants’ use.

The architect (whose daughter, Emily Post, would go on to fame as the American dictator of etiquette) used red brick trimmed with carved limestone and white terra cotta to create visual interest and touches of tongue-in-cheek humor.

The AIA Guide to New York City called the little free-standing column "marvelous whimsy" -- photo by Alice Lum

The three-story bowed oriel bay with its many-paned windows is supported by fanciful corbeled medieval pillar; what the AIA Guide to New York City called “a marvelous example of late Victorian structural whimsy.”  Above the oriel, a semi-circular balcony is protected by a simply iron railing.  The sixth floor has a steeply slanted roof with two charming and decorative dormers.

Robust terra cotta fronds embellish the oriel window -- photo by Alice Lum
Carved into a stone over the doorway Price put “MC,” for Miers Coryell. He also included both his own name and that of the builder flanking the date stone.

When the building, marketed as “French Flats” to distinguish it from lowly tenements, was completed the Coryells moved in along with a lawyer and doctor.  Two years later in 1880 The New York Times reported that Fletcher Harper, the eldest son of J. Henry Harper of the publishing family, had taken an apartment there “before returning from his Summer residence in the country.”

A grotesque creature emerges from the terra cotta trim -- photo by Alice Lum
A year later a resident placed an ad for “an excellent cook, who will also wash bed and table linen.”  Within the decade, in 1890, the first floor apartment was renting for $1,400 a year (about $3,385 per month in today's money).  Among the residents in the 1890's was Dr. Wickes Washburn who established his office of psychiatry here.  He would remain through the first years of the 20th century.

Trouble came in 1901 when one of Bruce Price’s architects, Count Jules Henry De Siborn, accused a new “hallboy," Ulysses Oppenheim, of stealing $84.  Hallboys ran errands, delivered mail and were generally useful to the residents.  The New York Times reported that the count “lives in the fashionable apartment house at 21 East Twenty-first Street.”  The hallboy disappeared.

A menacing monster peers from above the balcony, another of Price's delightful touches -- photo by Alice Lum
On September 3, 1908 Elmer A. Darling purchased the building, which by now had a store in the lower level.  Darling, who owned the ten-story loft building next door to the east, was concerned that the apartment house would be razed and a larger structure erected. The Times said he “makes this purchase to protect his side light.”

photo by Alice Lum
The “fashionable” spirit of the apartment house quickly faded as little by little the apartments gave way to other uses.  In 1919 the building was the headquarters of the Pressmen’s Union and later the home of the American Institute of Phrenology.

In 1953 the once-fashionable apartment building was renovated into a “Class B Hotel.” The floor-long apartments were cut up into seven rooms to a floor, the sixth floor carved into ten rooms.  In 1977 the hotel was closed and the interiors gutted for a conversion to an apartment house.  Opened a year later, it now houses 26 apartments.

Today No. 21 East 21st Street looks remarkably unchanged on the outside; although there are severe alterations to the stoop and basement level and a truly unfortunate choice of entrance doors.  Overall, however, Bruce Price’s eccentric design lives on and the fantastic little column still catches the eyes of passersby.