|LeBrun's 1870 sanctuary nestled up against the original 1847 facade, seen here before the 2005 dismemberment -- photo nyago.com|
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 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” maintains the church was built by Episcopalians while The New York Times maintained 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 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 pm, 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 Times calling it “among the most beautiful and costly churches in this City.” The church, not including the land, cost a staggering $160,000. Inside, the altars and communion railings were carved marble and the gallery fronts and pews were constructed of chestnut and black walnut. Slender clustered columns rose to a soaring Gothic-groined ceiling. The church could comfortably seat 1600 worshipers with standing room for an estimated total of more than 2300.
|The nave soared majestically to Gothic groining -- photo nycago.com|
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 nycago.com|
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 possessing 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 lonelyplanet.com|
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.