Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The 1859 Friends Meeting House -- 28 Gramercy Square South

photo by Alice Lum

The Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as the Quakers, fled to America in the 17th century seeking relief from religious persecution.  They were gravely disappointed.

New Amsterdam’s Governor Peter Stuyvestant unabashedly despised both Jews and Quakers.  In 1656 he forbade the citizens of the Village of Flushing to “admit, lodge or entertain…any one of the heretical and abominable sect called the Quakers.”  Quaker worship was outlawed and the sect was forced to meet in secret.

Tolerance slowly surfaced.  By 1681 Quakers were openly worshiping and in 1734 they were granted the same civil rights as other British subjects.  The Militia Act of 1755 exempted the pacifist group from serving in the military.

Ironically it would be dissention from within their ranks, rather than outside influences, that caused the worst problems in the first decades of the 19th century.  A religious fashion swept the nation’s cities that focused on intense study of the Bible.  Traditionally, the Quakers were more concerned with direct inspiration from God than academic Bible teachings.

A difference of religious opinion among the Religious Society of Friends rapidly grew from a crack into a gaping chasm.  One group, led by Elias Hicks of Long Island, stood fast with the traditional Quaker traditions.  Another was open to the new movement.  In 1828 the Society of Friends underwent a quiet and peaceful split, known as the Hicksite Schism.  There were now the Hicksite and Orthodox branches.

Quaker worship, both in liturgy and architecture, was notable for its simplicity and lack of show.  So the Orthodox branch's choice of location for a building lot in 1855 was, perhaps, a bit surprising.  The group purchased the plot at 28 Gramercy Square as the site of its new meeting house.

The Square was two decades old.  Ringing the landscaped park were the brick and brownstone mansions of some of New York’s wealthiest and most influential citizens.  The wide lot at the southeastern edge of the square would place the unassuming Quakers squarely amid the city’s most assuming population.

The land was purchased for $24,000—nearly half a million dollars today.   On it the Friends would erect a chaste two-story meeting house.   The congregation hired the architectural firm of King & Kellum to design the structure with the admonishment that the house have no “useless ornament so as not to wound the feelings of the most sensitive among us.”

John Kellum and Gamaliel King carefully followed that direction.   Construction began in 1857 and was completed two years later.   What resulted was an unsullied Italianate design clad in warm, yellow Ohio sandstone.   Often mistaken for Greek Revival, the meeting house rose to a dramatic peaked pediment, the end returns of which defined the slightly-projecting end bays.
photo by Alice Lum

The unpretentious but elegant structure exemplified William Wistar Comfort’s later description of a Quaker meeting house.  “The meeting house is not a consecrated edifice, and if there is anything holy about it, it must be the lives of the people who meet there.”

Here in the years just before the Civil War, slaves escaping to Canada were reportedly given shelter.

To the mostly Episcopalian population around Gramercy Park, the quiet gatherings in the meeting house—which had no formal ceremony nor designated minister—must have been alien.   Quaker services were marked by “expectant waiting.”  Friends entered in silence and sat wordlessly to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit.  Only when one was moved to speak or sing was the silence interrupted.  Intervals between were often lengthy, and it was possible that no one would speak at all.

Such was the case when The Sun described the funeral of attorney Richard H. Bowne here on May 6, 1881.

“The funeral was plain.  The hearse, followed by about a dozen carriages, arrived at the meeting house door at 4:30 P.M.  The coffin was of solid oak covered with black cloth.  On each side were three silver-bar handles.  On the lid was a floral sickle, crossing a golden sheaf of wheat.  There were no other flowers…After the coffin had been carried into the church there was an interval of silence.  Then the Rev. Mr. Donaldson of the Fort Washington Episcopal Church, where Mr. Bowne usually attended in the summer, read from one of St. Paul’s Epistles, and made some remarks in which he said that Mr. Bowne was one of the men who leave the world better for their having lived in it.  There was another prolonged interval during which no one spoke, after which Henry Dickenson, the minister of the Friends’ Society, offered prayer.  There was a pause, and Mr. Dickenson made an address.”

Thirty-five years before Bowne’s funeral another rift had occurred among the Quakers.  An annual meeting was held in the larger cities, drawing Quakers from far away.  At the time of the meetings it was customary for each city to send friendly letters to the other groups.

In 1846 the annual meeting in Philadelphia was “divided over the question of heresy,” according to The New York Times, and “through motives of policy failed to send to New York and other yearly meetings the usual epistles of brotherly love, exhortation, and admonition.”

The New York Orthodox branch felt snubbed and communication between the New York Friends and those of Philadelphia ceased.  Then during the annual meeting in May 1897, after half a century of simmering bitterness, the first letter from Philadelphia arrived.  The Gramercy Park congregation reacted with expected Quaker decorum and politeness.

Clerk James Woods explained to the assembly about the letter and “asked if the epistle should be read.”

“I feel that God will that we should hear it,” said Sister Ruth S. Murray.

Her pronouncement was met with “It is right to do so,” “I also,” and “It is well we should,” from throughout the hall.  The clerk passed the letter to Assistant Clerk David S. Tabor to read.   “It was filled with sound doctrine and exhortations to all to stand firm in the faith, and for the great cause of universal peace and good will,” reported The Times.

Now the problem was how to respond; or if to respond.  The letter had not been addressed specifically to the New York meeting, but to “all bodies and individuals known as of the Society of Friends.”

Some felt that the epistle, being general, needed no response.  Others felt it was time to heal old wounds.  “Then came a reaction,” said the newspaper.  “Pride came to the fore.  It was displayed chiefly among the older men, some of whom could remember the bitterness of fifty years ago.

“Again the apostles of peace gave voice to the spirit, but in all there was a delicate choice of words, an almost painful care not to hurt the feelings of another or even to seem antagonistic.  It was like a flutter in a dove cote, and yet at the last one elder characterized it as a ‘heated debate.’”

In a decision worthy of Solomon, the congregation agreed to note in the minutes “with what pleasure and benefit the epistle had been received,” and to send a copy to the clerk of the Philadelphia yearly meetings.  And with that small act half a century of bitterness was healed.

It would be another half century before the initial great rift among the Friends would be addressed.

Behind the iron fence of the Meeting House, time seemed to have stood still in 1915 -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The modern views of the Orthodox Gramercy Park congregation was clearly evident by the turn of the century.  On February 20, 1913, a wedding took place; and while the Quaker customs were followed, there was practically no trace of the old Quaker garb.

“From the door to the curb ran a red-striped canvas sidewalk canopy and at 8 o’clock men and women in evening dress began to file in,” reported The Times.  “It was such a gathering as one might see at any evening wedding, groups of kindly old folk, nodding their heads as in benediction, hosts of young people, the girls in pretty evening gowns, and the men in correct evening dress.  In all that congregation only one woman wore the Quaker dress.  Friend Sarah Collins, sitting in the row, facing the meeting, reserved for the ministers, wore the plain Quaker Cap.  Time was when the meeting house was new and the three front rows of seats would have been filled with those clothed soberly in the Quaker gray.  But that was years ago, when many of the older ones there last evening were young girls.”

At mid century the Friends Meeting House was still going strong.   It was home to a non-Quaker, although pacifist, resident in the 1950s.  A large, dark-shelled tortoise somehow found the verdant yard of the meeting house and made his home there.  Meyer Berger wrote on May 9, 1956 that he “has lived on and off the Square for years, though no one seems to know how many.  Gramercy ladies feed him moistened bread and dainties…In winter, near as anyone can make out, he holes up somewhere in the Friends Meeting House in Twentieth Street.  The sexton knows it’s spring when the turtle stirs from somewhere in the hedges, tests the sun and starts moving across the pavement toward the park.”

That same year The Times reported on movement towards the reconciliation between the Orthodox and Hicksite groups—the latter having built a handsome complex of buildings on Rutherford Place and 15th Street.  “It seems that for the past five years or so, four-man committees from each of the meeting houses have held a series of sessions with a thought to reunion.”

The newspaper did not hold out promise of a speedy reconciliation.  “They are a patient, unhurried people, strangers to rashness and sudden impulse.”

It did note, however, that a reunion could spell the end of the Gramercy Park meeting house.  “If reunion comes, whether in months or years, it seems fairly certain that the old gray meeting house off Gramercy Park will be leased, or sold, and that the two groups will thereafter meet in Fifteenth Street.”

The photographer who took this shot on October 5, 1965, certainly realized that the building was slated for demolition -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

It was nearly a decade before The Times’ prediction came to pass.  On March 29, 1965 a headline read “Quaker Building To Be Razed Here.”   The 106-year old building had been sold to a developer for $500,000 “who intends to build there.”

What he intended to build was a modern apartment building.

When the congregation had moved out six years earlier, the new Landmarks Preservation Commission rushed to designate the structure.  Unfortunately, landmark status in 1965 did not guarantee preservation and the Commission had no legal backing.  Geoffrey Platt, chairman of the commission, used the meeting house to push for the passage of laws.

“The loss of this handsome, unique building is an example of the necessity for the landmarks legislation now pending.”

In the meantime, the Ninth Church of Christ, Scientist was using the building for regular church services.
photo by Alice Lum

Following public outcry at the impending loss of the meeting house, it was purchased from the developer by a foundation hoping to convert it to a performing arts center.  That failed.   It was sold to the United Federation of Teachers, which intended to use if for offices and meeting space.  That failed.

Amazingly, however, the wonderful Italianate structure was saved.  On June 15, 1975 architecture historian and critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote “After a series of vicissitudes, the Brotherhood Synagogue, formerly located on West 13th Street, and the Friends’ Meeting house, on Gramercy Square, have found each other.  The result is an admirable demonstration of appropriate contemporary reuse of a historic structure through sensitive rehabilitation, and the preservation of a building that is as lovely, architecturally, as it is important to the New York scene.”

Through the turn-overs and grandiose if unworkable ideas, the building had continued to deteriorate from disuse.  Huxtable said “It was structurally sound, but a bad roof and open joints in the solid masonry walls led to leaks and water damage that left the interior ankle-deep in fallen plaster and debris.”

The Synagogue purchased the building for $420,000 then brought in architect James Polshek to renovate and restore it.  Both Polshek and the contractor, Lawrence Held and Son, donated their services.  The sensitive restoration cost around $300,000.  In the words of Huxtable, “The building… meets a universal need to touch base with the past, to savor timeless esthetic excellence, to enjoy an essential and enriching aspect of New York life.  In art and amenity, it is beyond price.”

photo by Alice Lum


  1. It's a nice and cool church environment

  2. The developer who wanted to raze it in 1965 was Harry Helmsley.

    1. Who was a Quaker… Member of the 15th Street Meeting.