|photo by Alice Lum|
The Dr. Rev. Walter Rauschenbusch arrived to lead the congregation in 1885. Not only did he find a church building that was in serious disrepair; the Second German Baptist Church was barely functioning, and the neighborhood was crime-infested and dangerous.In the nearby neighborhood of West 38th and 39th Street, near 10th Avenue was a string of dilapidated frame buildings which the police had given names such as “House of Blazes,” “the Barracks,” and “Hell’s Kitchen.” The area was described by The New York Times in September 1881 as “one of the most miserable and crime-polluted neighborhoods in this City.” The newspaper said in an article a week later, “there is more disease, crime, squalor, and vice to the square inch in this part of New-York.”
Rauschenbusch was shocked by the vile and dangerous conditions in which his parish lived. Within three weeks between August 14 and September 21 of that year, a police officer, Andrew Smith of the 20th Precinct, was overpowered and beaten, the son of a detective was shot, and a small girl received a fatal bullet wound.
The Times said September 22, “the entire locality is probably the lowest and filthiest in the City, a locality where law and order are openly deified, where might makes right, and depravity revels riotously in squalor and reeking filth. The whole neighborhood is an eyesore to the respectable people who live or are compelled to do business in the vicinity, a source of terror to the honest poor, and an unmitigated nuisance to the Police of the Twentieth Precinct, whose record-books are filled to overflowing with the names of the residents of these tenement houses.”By the time Rauschenbusch arrived, the name of one squalid building was being used to define the entire area: “the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood.”
The minister had already begun forming ideas a bit more liberal than was expected among Baptist preachers; but his exposure to the squalor and suffering of the residents here would change his entire outlook. His 125 congregants were mostly factory workers who had immigrated from Germany. Their lives were joyless and difficult.Rauschenbusch would later explain his initial confusion. He had no concept of using the church as a social reform tool. “My idea then was to save souls, in the ordinarily accepted religious sense,” he said.
But gradually he set off to change things. His energetic, caring and compassionate sermons gave hope to a long-suffering congregation. He befriended John D. Rockefeller who had taken an interest in the minister’s bright and promising son. Rockefeller donated $8,000 to a building fund for a desperately-needed new church.Soon two plots of land—Nos. 407 and 409 West 43rd Street—were purchased from Honora O’Meara and Bridget Kelly in June 1889. Architect Henry F. Kilburn designed the new church in the highly popular Romanesque Revival style. The cornerstone was laid later that year with the inscription Christus der Eckstein – Christ is the Cornerstone. Dedicated in March 1890, the building reflected the strict, no-nonsense Germanic temperament of its congregation.
|The handsomely-carved cornerstone read "Christ is the Cornerstone" -- photo by Alice Lum|
It was not overly-impressive, nor meant to be, and The New York Times would later politely call it “an attractive edifice.”
Despite its nearly Spartan appearance, Rauschenbusch openly worried that the new building could be too grand for the spiritual health of his flock. But in the meantime, he continued to see the misery around him and to change his religious outlook.Writing to his cousin, Maria Doring, he said “the world is hard and without feeling. Here I see so much of this that my heart bleeds for the victims.”
Yet his more traditional colleagues urged him to forget social reform and get back to saving souls. The minister could not. The children of his congregation, packed into drafty, filthy tenement rooms, were malnourished and easily succumbed to disease. He regularly conducted funerals for the small German children.“Oh, the children’s funerals,” he wrote later. “They gripped my heart—that was one of the things I always went away thinking about0—why did the children have to die?”
Walter Rauschenbusch would become a leading force in social reform, socialism and women’s suffrage. Although, eleven years later, he would leave the Second German Baptist Church to accept the position of Chairman of New Testament Interpretation and Pastoral Theology in the Rochester Theological Seminary, he had made a tremendous impact on the German population of Hell’s Kitchen and social reform in New York City.The Second German Baptist Church struggled on. In April 1933, with a mortgage of $16,000 still on the property, the church was conveyed to the General Missionary Society of the German Baptist Churches of North America. Despite the diligent reform work of its leaders, the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood surrounding the church was little improved throughout the 20th century. Eventually, the congregation was no more.
|Despite the poverty of the neighborhood, it is clean and swept in 1927 -- photo NYPL Collection|
In what The New York Times would call “a painful period of transition,” Arnie Lord converted the church building into a nightclub called “Church” in the 1960s. Peter Shapiro, in his “Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco,” called it “perhaps the most over-the-top of all of the hippie sensoriums.”
The ironically-named Lord installed an enormous mural of Satan opposite the altar. Crowding around the demon were nude “angels” engaged in sexual acts. Pews were arranged around the perimeter of the sanctuary as banquettes and the DJ was stationed at the marble communion table, backed by a screen of organ pipes.
The sacrilege of Church was so offensive that the Roman Catholic Diocese, normally unaffected by Protestant affairs, pressed the courts to close the club down. What should have seemed to end the humiliation of the church structure in truth only worsened it.The building was taken over by another club, and it was now called Sanctuary. The patrons were mostly young gay men and in the pre-AIDS days of rampant sex, the club became a bacchanal. Shapiro noted “The sex wasn’t confined to the dance floor, nor was it confined to simulation. There were constant orgies in the toilets, and the club would be eventually closed down in 1972 because its patrons regularly used the hallways of neighboring buildings for impromptu ‘bump’ sessions.”
Dignity would return to the abused church building when it was converted to an off-Broadway theater in 1976. Home to the Chelsea Theatre Center and the West Side Arts Theatre, it premiered plays such as Vanities and What the Butler Saw.In 1991 the theater was renovated, including the opening of a central entrance. It is now the Westside Theatre, a respected off-Broadway venue with two auditoriums, the Upstairs theater, capable of seating 299, and the slightly smaller Downstairs theater.
The Hell’s Kitchen area that Warren Rauschenbusch tried so valiantly to reform is now an upscale residential neighborhood with trendy restaurants, apartment buildings and one off-Broadway theater with a great deal of history.