Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Travesty of St. Ann's Church 120 East 12th Street

LeBrun's 1870 sanctuary nestled up against the original 1847 facade, seen here before the 2005 dismemberment -- photo

In 1870 St. Ann’s Catholic Church was the religious equivalent of a hermit crab–having successively taken over structures built by previous congregations.

The parish was formed in 1852 by Bishop Hughes in the fashionable Lower East Side – the Bond Street neighborhood – with Rev. John Murray Forbes as pastor. Forbes secured a church on East 8th Street, opposite Lafayette Place, built by an Episcopalian group and later used by Presbyterians.

“Its purchase by the Catholics gave rise to much comment," noted The New York Times.

By the time the Civil War had ended, St. Ann had outgrown the building and also needed to build a school. Rev. Thomas S. Preston, finding no suitable property in the immediate area, purchased the 1847 church at 120 East 12th Street. The 1914 edition of The Catholic Church in the United States maintained the church was built by Episcopalians while The New York Times reported it was erected by Baptists.  In either case, it was subsequently renovated into a synagogue, the Temple Emanu-El, before Preston acquired it.

The land stretched through the block to East 11th Street, allowing for the construction of a school building.

The church fathers had big plans for the structure.  Saving only the 1847 façade and tower, they commissioned architect Napoleon Le Brun, who would become most remembered in New York for his elegant and fanciful firehouses, to demolish the main portion of the building and start over.

Le Brun drew up plans for what The New York Times pronounced would be “in the pure French Gothic style of the thirteenth century;” 166 feet long by 63 feet, 8 inches wide.

In 1914 St. Ann's sat behind a handsome fence.  The unusual open-work spire has Gothic touches -- The Catholic Church in the United States (copyright expired)

On Sunday, July 10, 1870 at 6:00 p.m., the cornerstone was laid with great fanfare. A procession from the 8th Street church, headed by the 7th Regiment Band, marched to the construction site. There were 100 young girls in white dresses and veils, members of the Societies of the Blessed Virgin, the Men’s Society of the Immaculate Conception, the Young Men’s Society of St. Aloysius, acolytes, thirty clergymen, the Very Reverend Vicar-General (“dressed in a splendid cope”), and more. Inside the cornerstone was placed a box containing United States coins and currency, the names of the church leaders as well as national, state and city executives and a parchment history of the church.

Within a few months the building was completed.  On New Year’s Day, 1871, St. Ann's Catholic Church was dedicated; The New York Times calling it “among the most beautiful and costly churches in this City.” The structure, not including the land, cost a staggering $160,000. Inside, the altars and communion railings were of carved marble and the gallery fronts and pews were fashioned of chestnut and black walnut. Slender clustered columns rose to a soaring Gothic-groined ceiling. The church could comfortably seat 1,600 worshipers with standing room for an estimated total of more than 2,300.

The nave soared majestically to Gothic groining -- photo

Along with Grace Episcopal Church on Broadway, St. Ann’s was counted among the wealthiest congregations. The famed restaurateur Lorenzo Delmonico made note of his pew rent being $575.  New York historian Thomas J. Shelley wrote that “On special occasions, when Preston was the featured preacher, carriages lined East 12th Street from Second Avenue to Fifth Avenue,” and noted St. Ann’s “reputation as a bon ton parish.”

The New York Times, in 1887, credited St. Ann’s professional choir, “among the best of the Catholic churches in this city,” as adding to the church’s attraction among the wealthy.  The choir, it said “has always been esteemed one of the causes which drew a fashionable congregation there.”

A handsome late Victorian organ case filled the rear wall -- photo

That moneyed reputation may have been what urged 26-year-old Robert Meldron, “a brutal-looking fellow,” to sneak into the church on a Sunday afternoon in February 1885 and break into the poor box, stealing $27.37 in pennies and small coins. Rather than make a fast getaway, however, Meldron hid in a confessional box and was discovered by the assistant sexton at 4:00 in the morning.  The $27.37 did not cover his $1,000 bail.

In 1920 French stained glass windows were added--up-to-date, straight-forward designs in lush primary colors.

The great treasure of St. Ann was its relic: a finger bone of the saint.  After many years of its having possessed the bone, on December 8, 1929, a papal designation was handed down making St. Ann’s Church a shrine.  Auxiliary Bishop Dunn celebrated a solemn pontifical mass inaugurating the Archconfraternity of the Motherhood of St. Ann.

Just two years later, on July 24, 1931, the New York World-Telegram reported of the miraculous cure of the young son of Hugh F. Gaffney.  The boy, who lived at 348 East 18th Street, was stricken with paralysis.  The bone of St. Ann was brought from the church to his hospital bed at the Medical Center Hospital where, the newspaper claimed, after being touched with the bone, the invalid was cured.

One of the surviving, 1920 French stained glass windows -- photo

As the neighborhood changed, so did its ethnic make-up and in 1983 the church was re-established as St. Ann’s Armenian Rite Catholic Cathedral.  It was one of the three last Manhattan churches to offer traditional, pre-Vatican II, Latin masses.

To the despair of the neighboring community and the parish, in 2003 the Archdiocese of New York announced it would close the church and sell the property.  A year later the doors were locked for good.

Pleas went to the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission to landmark the historic structure, but the Commission balked, sealing the fate of the century-and-a-half old church.

Hudson 12th Development LLC purchased St. Ann’s for $15 million in 2005 and later that year New York University announced plans for yet another dormitory building; this one 26 stories tall.  Despite protests by concerned citizens and the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, and despite NYU’s promise to integrate community concerns into the designs, in July 2006 plans were filed and construction started on what is universally panned as an eyesore.

Referring to the controversy, Alan Bell, a principal with Hudson 12th, simply said that “the church was not landmarked and the space was fair game,” according to The Real Deal.

In an effort to console preservationists, the 1847 façade was chopped off, left to stand like a post-apocalyptic ruin.  “The effect,” said the AIA Guide to New York City, “is of a majestic elk, shot and stuffed.”

Like a stage set, a thin section of the facade sits awkwardly and isolated before the new high rise -- photo by Alice Lum

The Perkins Eastman-designed dorm was opened in 2009 and has been variously described as “monstrous,” “Soviet-inspired,” and simply “ugly.” Alan Bell, himself, admitted, “At the end of the day it’s a pretty innocuous 26-story building.”

In the meantime, the beautiful and notable façade of St. Ann’s Catholic Church stands in its shadow as a mute symbol of callous disregard for historic structures.

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  1. Disgraceful and as much a testament to the apathy and incompetence of the NY Landmarks Preservation Commission which is corrupted by political self-interests, but it is also a sad reflection on today's diminished interest in preservation in general. An unfortunate historic loss for future generations plus a lasting statement to the poor quality of design by many architectural firms who are only interested in dollars as are the developers, in not in leaving the place better than what they found it in. Abysmal design at best.

  2. This is really sad....I was doing research on a friend who had gotten baptized there before this
    desecration. Does anyone know if or where there might be any records about the parish members from before the
    destruction? It's a shame they have lost that historical integrity.

    1. For St Ann's Records, see website for R.C. Archdiocese of NY, then Archdiocesan Archives. This leads to list of all parishes, including the names of the existing ones which retain the records of defunct parishes. For additional info, e-mail Archdiocesan archivist.

  3. I bought all the stained glass recently from a fashion mogul who had an office next door. Trying to get verification that the church was visited and blessed by Pope John Paul II. I plan on trying to restore the glass (it sat on the floor of a barn for years) or create art from it. Any help would be appreciated in tracking down this information.


    Rich Williams

  4. I also would like to know where the records from this church have gone. I believe my great grandparents were married here in 1908. Do you think any of the church records still exist?

    -Rachel Lantz

  5. I've recently posted an article of my own on the aesthetic experience of witnessing the folly of St. Ann's Church as I pass it to and from work everyday at my blog: I have provided a link to your article there and wanted to express my thanks for the historical efforts and research done on your end. All the best, GDB

    1. Thanks for the acknowledgement. Your post gives an interesting, different perspective to the issue and is well appreciated by everyone invovled, I'm sure.

  6. My family lived on 12st and we always went to St. Anne's. Does anyone know what happened to the relic of St. Anne and the replica of
    the Pieta.

  7. My uncle was the pastor in the 80......when I came to him I played the organ

  8. Where can one go to find school records from St. Ann's School? My grandmother may have attended it circa 1917.

  9. My mom's Armenian Catholic and I used to go this Church often as a kid and then a teen in the 1980's-'90's. I think what has gotten lost, and if my memory serves, St. Ann's as well as the rectory which was affixed to the church were asbestos laden. In fact, one of the last priest who decided to do a renovation project died of cancer due to it. Although I agree that the cathedral had significant historical value, it may have also been a public hazard.

  10. My great grand mother Anne Casserly married her first husband Michael McKeon (McCue) in the parish of St Ann East 12th Street New York, Manhattan on 6 February 1871 so if the marriage took place in St Ann's it must have been just after the church opened. The church records are now on Find My Past. Marg

  11. Just read that Eugene O’Neill’s parents were married in this church in 1877. He fictionalized them in “Long Day’s Journey into Night”.