|photo by Alice Lum|
In the years following the end of the Civil War the area around Tompkins Square on the lower east side of Manhattan was populated with, mostly, Irish Catholic immigrants working in the nearby shipyards along the East River. The neighborhood increasingly saw the influx of Germans, however, who fled their homeland where unemployment, political and religious oppression and land shortages made life difficult.
Victorian ladies spent much time in charity work—an overt gesture of helping the poor; although usually at arm’s length. The Ladies Home Missionary Society was formed in 1844 and succeeded in founding missions in some of the most impoverished sections of the city, including the notorious Five Points neighborhood. In addition to the religious instruction, these missions provided food and clothing to the poor.
The Dry Dock Mission at the corner of East 9th Street and Avenue B was built between 1846 and 1847; however it was closed in 1864 when “the foreign population was rapidly gaining ascendency in the neighborhood and the congregation became discouraged,” according to Samuel A. Seaman in his 1892 “The History of the Methodist Episcopal Church.”
Yet The Missionary Society felt the area still needed a mission. Using the funds from the sale of the Dry Dock building as a start, the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church passed a resolution on August 12, 1867 to construct a mission on East 11th Street. The Board, of which William Wiggins Cornell was chairman, gave the contract for construction to James C. Hoe & Co, and G. F. Coddington. Architects William Field and Son, known best for designing tenement buildings, would design the building.
By now Gothic Revival was replacing Greek Revival as the preferred style of church architecture. Unlike James Renwick’s lavish Grace Church on Broadway or his St. Patrick’s Cathedral rising on 5th Avenue; this structure needed to be less flashy. In 1770 John Wesley had clearly laid out his direction for church architecture: there should be little adornment, if any; worshipers should be supplied with adequate air and light; seating should be plain and simple and, ideally, the sanctuary should be eight-sided for good visibility and hearing.
The cornerstone was laid on in October 1867 and construction was completed within three months. The New York Times described the new chapel as “modernized Gothic, adapted to the locality and its internal arrangements.” Composed of red brick, two stories high, the Gothic the handsome, simple building had a lacy, arched corbel table; pointed finials at the corners and center of the roofline; and attractive window hood moldings.
The sale of the Dry Dock Mission building had provided $9,697.50 towards construction, which amounted to $25,000. Another $5,000 had been raised during construction and on the day of the dedication another $9,000 was raised. W. W. Cornell’s brother, Jack Black Cornell, provided the rest of the money needed to pay for the building.
The architects followed the Methodist tradition of symmetry and order in its design. The entrance way was centered between two first floor windows while three second story windows lined up above these openings.
Within the year William Wiggins Cornell, funded the Cornell Reading Room. The magnanimous Cornell brothers had made their fortunes in the J.B. & W. W. Cornell Iron Works and were erecting cast iron buildings throughout lower Manhattan. The New York Times described the room on March 27, 1869, saying it provided “intellectual instruction and amusement for persons of both sexes, above fourteen years of age, who live in that overcrowded and poverty-stricken locality. Supplied with books, magazines, newspapers, stereoscopes, zoetropes, and other parlor amusements.” (A zoetrope was a canister-type gadget with a series of pictures inside. By cranking a handle and turning the canister, the pictures seemed to move when the viewer looked through a small opening.)
George T. Powell was hired in 1874 to design a one-story Sunday school and lecture room in the rear of the building. By this time the Children’s Aid Society was busy shipping indigent boys to the American West as part of its “The Orphan Train Movement.” The boys were inspected by local farmers, chosen, then put to work. The theory was that the boys were better off by learning a means of livelihood and by escaping the evils of the tenement districts.
In a less radical move, the 11th Street Methodist Episcopal Chapel sent indigent children “into the country for two or three weeks,” as reported in the New York Times on May 21, 1895. The grim poverty of the children was obvious when that year the Chapel pled for second-hand clothing for the waifs. “The mission is hampered in its efforts to get the children into the country by a lack of clothing,” said the article.
As the turn of the century approached, the settlement movement was in full swing in American urban centers. The movement sought to alleviate poverty by educating the poor, including women and children, and introducing them to culture. In 1899 the church purchased the tenement building next door at No. 543 East 11th Street and hired architects Louis E. Jallade and Joel D. Barber to renovate and enlarge it. The new facility would have classrooms, a gymnasium, nursery, baths and a kindergarten. While they were at it, the firm moved the entrance to the church from the center to the left.
Although the architects matched the new window, where the original door had been, with the existing Gothic Revival windows; they disregarded the style entirely for the new doorway. Using instead the highly popular Colonial Revival style, they plopped a heavy stone lintel with splayed keystones upon a frame of brick quoins.
Renovations were completed in 1901 and the church and classroom building were opened; now called the People’s Home Church and Settlement. The settlement catered to the poor German and Italian immigrants in the neighborhood and offered services in both languages. The facility offered industrial classes, lessons in instrumental and vocal music, social clubs, a “fresh air program,” and a reading room.
The day nursery, opened in 1905, allowed women to work outside their homes without worrying about their children. By 1927 the congregation was, according to the Methodist New York East Conference Minutes, “almost entirely of foreign extraction.”
Despite its good works and the ongoing needs of the community, the People’s Home Church and Settlement closed its doors in 1930.
|The building in 1930, the year The People's Home Church and Settlement closed its doors -- photo NYPL Collection|
A Russian church began worshiping in the building the following year. In 1941 the Methodist Episcopal Church sold the church and the accompanying building at No. 543 to the Russian Ukrainian Polish Pentecostal Church. Although the Polish and Ukrainian factions established their own buildings later, the Russian congregation remained, conducting services in both Russian and English. In 1983 they renamed the church the Evangelical Christian Church.
Finally, in 1998, The Father’s Heart Ministries merged with the church, creating The Father’s Heart Ministry Center. Continuing the community-focused work upon which the building was founded, the Center provides family crises prevention and recovery, classes (including English as a Second Language), GED instruction, job training, hunger prevention programs and religious instruction.
The unassuming little church on East 11th Street which the AIA Guide to New York City calls “dignified eclecticism,” is remarkably preserved. Its quiet architecture does not scream for attention, exactly as the architects intended; but it should not be overlooked.