Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Presbyterian Building - 156 Fifth Avenue

The Presbyterian Building shortly after completion -- postcard from author's collection
In the last years of the 19th century, the strip of Fifth Avenue from 13th Street to 23rd Street was lined with so many religious institutions – churches, publishing houses, and missions – that the area became familiarly known as Paternoster Row.

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
Today No. 156 Fifth Avenue remains an striking presence on lower Fifth Avenue, amazingly little unaltered.

16 comments:

  1. I know this building well and have always been taken by its beautiful entrance on 5th Ave. I had no idea its full history - thanks!

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  2. I think it is Knabe, not Enabe

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  3. absolutely correct. Thanks for the catch. I corrected it.

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  4. Thanks. I was curious about this building

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  5. I have a small basket with the label still attached, reading: "From National Missions Gift Shop, Room 722, 156 Fifth Avenue, New York City". Price was 75 cents. I am guessing it was purchased in 1930s?

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    1. Hard to say without seeing it. The Missions offices were in the building for decades

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  6. This was not mentioned in the article, and is perhaps not known to the author, but the architect of this building is James B. Baker.

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  7. In 1902 landscape architect Harold A. Caparn moved his office into 156 Fifth Avenue. He was in 1911 elected President of the American Society of Landscape Architects and taught briefly at Columbia University. In 1912 he was named landscape architect of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden which position he retained until his retirement in 1945. Thanks for the info on the building.

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  8. I came across a few certificate of Church of Memberships , dating from 1912 - 1922 . I don't want to throw the away, any suggestions? Thank You

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  9. Worked as an office boy in the building during the early 1960's for the ADA (Americans for Democratic Action) and a notable feature of the building was that it was powered by DC not AC. This building was a relic of the Edison vs Westinghouse battle over wick mode of electrical power was superior.

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  10. The National Missions Gift Shop was located there. I have an ethnic cloth doll with a yellow tag that reads, National Mission Gift Shop, 156 Fifth Avenue, New York City.

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  11. During the very early Sixies, the New York John Birch Society had its headquarters here, in the office of some other right-wing group.

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  12. I believe the Mission was selling items from the American Indians in their gift shop. The labels verify this. Today many of these are valuable such as jars and dolls. You may have a treasure if you find some.

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  13. I have a small Bible with an FDR introduction dated Jan 25, 1941 that was distributed by the Pocket Testament League - National Headquarters for USA - 156 Fifth Avenue, New York City, N.Y.

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  14. This location was also the site of the New York offices of Sir Wilfred T. Grenfell's non-denominational medical and evangelical mission to Newfoundland and Labrador. Industrial handicrafts (wooden toys and carvings and hooked silk stocking mats) were produced by local Newfoundland and Labrador residents, and were sold to raise money to support the mission's many activities.

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