Saturday, July 9, 2011

The 1841 Church of the Ascension Rectory -- No. 7 West 10th Street

photo by Beyond My Ken

By 1839 when Richard Upjohn was chosen to design the new Church of the Ascension just above Washington Square, he had achieved a reputation as an esteemed architect. He was also well known for his leanings towards “High Church” and those leanings would result in a clash.

The congregation lost its Gothic-style church on Sunday, June 30 of that year when a fire after services destroyed the building. After heated arguments that finally split the congregation, the decision was made to move the church uptown to Fifth Avenue. Here fashionable homes were just appearing as the mansions of Washington Square spilled northward.

The Episcopal Church at this time was clearly divided between High Church – such as Trinity Church with much pomp and elaborate ritual – and Low Church, intent on less complex liturgies and closer spiritual contact with the congregants.

Dr. Manton Eastburn, the rector, was decidedly Low Church and had no intentions to allow Upjohn to create a long chancel intended for majestic processions. Upjohn, on the other hand, pressed for the traditional deep chancel expected in Gothic architecture.

To ensure Upjohn would not get his way, Eastburn purchased that land at No. 7 West 10th Street as the site of the rectory; effectively limiting the length of the church structure. Now there “would be no room for high church doings," as he put it.

According to the National Register of Historic Places, “aside from this difference of opinion, the church was a great success.”

Both the church and the rectory were completed in 1841 at a cost of $46,459.75 – a dizzying sum. The architect carried the Gothic Revival style of the church through to the rectory, creating a charismatic cottage that appears both dignified and cozy.

It was also ground-breaking. The rectory was the first residential building in Manhattan to be faced with brownstone. This locally-plentiful sandstone is stained a warm chocolate color from iron deposits. Before long the material would be so commonly used in the construction of townhouses and mansions that the Manhattan row house today is still referred to as a “brownstone.”

It was, as architectural historian Charles Lockwood put it, “a startling architectural innovation at the time of its construction.”

The rectory rose two floors over an English basement with an attic. Both the entrance door and the windows, the frames of which gently angled in, were topped by carved square-headed Gothic eyebrows. Above, lancet windows graced the dormers, one of which jutted out mid-cornice, supported on small brownstone brackets, creating a charming picturesque appeal.

The Ascension Rectory was frequently used as a meeting space and lecture hall. In 1887 repeated meetings were held here by the Citizens’ Committee on High License. The group was intent on the passing of the High License Bill which would make liquor licenses more difficult to obtain.

Their expressed goal was “restricting a traffic which imposes upon the city enormous expense and evils innumerable.”

In March of 1895 a series of lectures was highly publicized. Harvard professor George H. Palmer gave a series of four lectures on “The Province of Ethics in Relation to Neighboring Provinces,” which the New Outlook promised “will awaken a good deal of interest, for Professor Palmer is not only a man of thorough scholarship, with a trained philosophical mind, but he is also a very charming speaker.”

The hearts of New Yorkers were touched when, in May 1921, a five-pound baby girl was left in a basket on the doorstep of the rectory. The housekeeper, Mrs. John Graham, found the basket – from which The Times said, “issued a voice with the fierce, peremptory and threatening ring which comes from the chests of new babies and masters of sailing ships.”

Although the rector, Dr. Percy Stickney Grant, ran down 10th Street in an attempt to find the parent, no one could be found. A note in the basket said that the parents had heard favorable comments on the church and Dr. Grant and believed “the child’s welfare was assured in his hands.”

Detectives making the investigation asserted that “the writer of the note found with the child was a person of some culture.” Cultured or not, the parents were never found.

Dr. Grant received permission from the Charities Department to keep the week-old infant; at least temporarily. Grant told reporters “I will keep it until I find out what is best for its welfare.”

Grant baptized the little girl on May 5, giving her the name Faith Willard. Five months later she was still in his care in the rectory and, according to The Times, had “endeared herself to the heart of the bachelor clergyman.”

Tragedy came when little Faith was taken to Presbyterian Hospital in October with intestinal problems that resulted in septic poisoning and pneumonia. New Yorkers read with grief of the heart-broken rector’s pain as he watched his little ward dying. “When I saw her pitiful little frame and how she was suffering,” said Grant, “and realized that she was likely to die, I could comprehend the pain of a parent separated from his child.”

Nearly a century later Leo J. Blackman Architects were brought in to update the rectory. The basement level contained a Sunday School room that received very little natural light. The architects excavated the garden, expanded the rear window openings allowing daylight to pour in, and created handicapped access.

According to the firm’s website “The design preserves the character of the rectory by retaining as much existing fabric as possible, with only necessary and efficient interventions.”

The 1841 Gothic Revival building that introduced brownstone to Manhattan home builders is as charming today as it was in 1841.

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