|The Presbyterian Building shortly after completion -- postcard from author's collection|
When Mary Stuart, widow of millionaire Robert L. Stuart, died in 1891 leaving a $1 million bequest, the Presbyterian Church laid plans for an office building to house its missionary work. With unintentional appropriateness, the location chosen was the northwest corner of Fifth avenue and 20th Street, where Mary and Robert Stuart's brownstone mansion still stood.
Designed by architect James B. Baker the 12-story structure cost $1.76 million to build--nearly $51 million in today's dollars. Baker drew inspiration from French Gothic chateaux, giving the Presbyterian Building spiky dormers capped with finials, a red tile roof and an imposing entranceway of successively smaller arches leading to an ornate lobby.
The structure was intended to house the Presbyterian domestic and foreign missions and provide income through office rentals. Timing, however, was not the best. The country was mired in the Financial Panic of 1893, which would last until 1897, and nationwide worker strikes. The New York Times reported on September 27, 1895 that “the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions is the only tenant in the vast building…and its landlord pays taxes on about $475,000.”
The Presbyterian General Assembly met in June of the next year to discuss the problem, including the possibility of selling the building. A decision was made to retain the structure with a recommendation that the Church should give the missions the financial support necessary “to relieve them from the existing indebtedness which embarrasses them in their current work.”
|The original elements of the lobby--mosaic floors, caen-stone walls and grand coffered ceiling--have been sympathetically restored. -- photo by Larry W. Smith|
Slowly other tenants moved in. The Daughters of the Revolution rented “a large room” as their business headquarters in January 14, 1896 around the same time the "King’s Daughters” took space for their devotional exercises.
By May of 1897 the building was 90 percent rented with rental income of $82,438; although the outstanding mortgage of $900,000 still made many General Assembly members nervous. The possible sale of the building was repeatedly discussed but never acted upon.
One new lease holder, The Woman’s National Sabbath Alliance met here on March 3, 1897 to unanimously adopt a resolution that condemned the United States Senate for holding a Sunday session on February 28. The next year, a few days before Christmas in 1898, the Woman’s Board of Home Missions of the Presbyterian Church held a heated meeting when Brigham H. Roberts of Utah was elected State Representative.
“The objections put forth against Mr. Roberts are that he is an avowed polygamist, and the idea of the Woman’s Board in this movement is to array all women’s organizations of the country in a campaign against him,” said the Board. The women, choosing not to mince words, branded Mormonism a “foul, dishonest and treasonable organization” and Representative Roberts a “defiant polygamist, confessed lawbreaker, and criminal, not a citizen…a man without a country.”
With the 20th Century Paternoster Row became more diversified. Dr. A. C. Alberston had his offices at No. 156 in 1900, piano manufacturer William Knabe and Company occupied the corner store space in 1903 and in 1906 the building was home to construction firm Charles T. Wills, Inc. which built such structures as the Judson Memorial Church, the New York Life Insurance Company building and the Carnegie mansion.
|The Presbyterian Building in 1903 with Wm. Knabe & Co. in the corner store -- NYPL Collection|