Thursday, June 6, 2013

The 1889 Vissani House -- No. 143 West 95th Street

photo by Alice Lum
In 1868 Italian priest Father Charles Vissani da Nazzano was sent to New York to establish the Commissary for the New York Franciscan Custody of the Immaculate Conception.  He also spent a good deal of his time working with the growing Italian immigrant population.   In 1874 he was appointed president of St. Bonaventure University in Allegany, New York but returned to the city three years later.

Visanni was authorized in 1880 to establish the Commissariat of the Holy Land in the United States.  The purpose of Commissariat was to protect holy shrines and places in the Holy Land from desecration from infidels.  He established the Commissariat's first headquarters at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi.

In 1891 "Sandliers’ Catholic Directory" explained the functions less-than-succinctly.  The “Commissariat of the Holy Land [was] established by direction of the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda, with the approbation of His Eminence the late Cardinal McCloskehy, to promote among Catholics in America interest in the Sacred Monuments of our Lord’s Passion.”

By the end of 1888 a permanent home for the Commissariat was deemed necessary and in December of that year Vissani purchased the building lot at what would become No. 143 West 95th Street from Jane Ann Brown.   The deed established strict restrictions prohibiting Vissani and all future owners from erecting anything other than a “private dwelling house for the use of one family.”  Vissani's intended building would stretch the definition; but only slightly.

Simultaneously Vissani was planning a four-month pilgrimage to Palestine.  The trip would not only provide public relations for the Commissariat and afford the clerics an opportunity to inspect holy places; it was a fund-raising tool for the new headquarters.

A month later, on January 22, 1889 The New York Times reported on the trip that was scheduled to leave New York on February 21.  “Among the pilgrims will be two Bishops, two monsignori, and thirty-four priests.” 

Four months was not an exceptionally long time for the pilgrimage, especially considering the long sea voyages and the stops in Paris and a private audience with the Pope in Rome.

On February 12, 1889, a week before the group left, construction began on the new headquarters.  The newly-established architect James W. Cole had received the commission and for the 27-foot wide structure he drew inspiration from the Gothic.  By now Gothic Revival was among the favorite styles for ecclesiastic buildings.

Cole would not over-emphasis the style, however.  The “AIA Guide to New York City” would later remark that the neo-Gothicism here was “as if done in the Renaissance fashion by a student trained at the Ecole des Beaux Arts.”

A hefty dog-legged of rough-cut stone leads to the entrance -- photo by Alice Lum
Cole used the dog-legged stoop which would become characteristic of many Upper West Side homes—but the stoop was where comparisons ended.   The parlor level openings were surmounted with ambitious Gothic arches that slightly overlapped the cornice of second floor, giving the building a near church-like appearance.  In the shield above the entrance was the Franciscan coat of arms and those over the windows were carved with the Crusader cross.   

A close inspection reveals that the foliate carvings in the tympanums are slightly different.   Oak leaves decorate the space above the door, symbols of strength; the middle window is decorated with palms, symbolizing pilgrimage; while laurels are carved into the eastern-most arch, symbols of victory and honor.

The arches were carved with individual, symbolic foliage -- photo by Alice Lum
The Gothic influence became diluted with each subsequent level.  Peaked drip molding connected the three square windows of the second floor, and the arched openings at the top level were embellished with French Gothic carvings.  Above it all a tall parapet enclosing a niche distinguished the building from a purely residential structure.

Vissani’s successful pilgrimage was completed in June 1889 and the following month the house was completed.  The building became home to the Franciscan priests working in the Commissariat and it included a chapel for daily prayer.

photo by Alice Lum
Two years later Vissani sailed to Palestine again.  His pilgrimage this time, which began on August 8, 1891, would be more extensive.  The Sun reported on his departure on the Arizona.  “He is to make a tour of the Holy Land with the object of determining on a route for a pilgrimage of American Catholics in 1892…He is to be away nine months.”

Once again the priest would meet with the Pope.  In his absence the Rev. Godfrey Schilling who had arrived in New York from Jerusalem only a few months earlier took charge of the Commissariat.  He had previously been working with the Province of St. John the Baptist in Cincinnati.

Upon his return, Vissani’s health began to noticeably decline.  In hopes of restoring his health he traveled to Rome in 1896.  The deed to the Commissariat building was transferred from Vissani’s name to Schilling’s in August of that year.  A month later, on September 27 Father Charles Vissani died in Rome at the age of 75.

Almost immediately Schilling began plans to transfer the Commissariat’s headquarters to Washington D. C.   On September 2, 1899 the Washington D. C. Evening Star reported that the “immense building whose yellow dome can be seen rising against the sky a long distance off,” was near completion.  The newspaper predicted that the Commissariat of the Holy Land would occupy the building “early in September.”

The Commissariat retained possession of the 95th Street building until 1905 when the Rev. Godfrey Schilling sold it to Peter B. Englebert.   By 1908 it was home to the Greve Family who would stay on in the house for decades.  By now the crosses and carvings associated with the Catholic organization had been removed and the building had become a highly-distinctive townhouse.

When the building was converted to a single-family residence, the religious carvings and applied crosses were removed -- photo by Alice Lum
Ellen Greve visited Europe with her brother, John, who was a priest in Pittstown, Pennsylvania in the summer of 1908.  In October they boarded the White Star liner Arabic in Liverpool to return home.   On Sunday evening October 5 the priest became ill and, according to The New York Times a week later, “seemed to realize that he must die.  He begged Dr. Gilmore, the ship’s surgeon, to keep him alive until port was reached, as he wanted to receive the last rites of the Church.”

Elen Greve was frantic and begged the ship’s doctor to keep her brother alive.   On Friday, October 11, Fire Island appeared on the horizon as the liner finally neared New York.   Sadly, The Times reported the next day that “Dr. Gilmore did all in his power to prolong the priest’s life until he should reach port, but without avail.  Mr. Greve died on Friday afternoon, when the ship was within sight of land.”

Following Mary Josephine Greve’s death in the house on July 28, 1934 it became home to the Fagan family.  Henry F. Fagan had married Evangeline Greve and the couple had three children in the house, Evangeline, Leo and Pancratia.   Henry Fagan died in the house on September 23, 1943 and three years later the house was sold, ending nearly four decades of Greve family ownership.

In 1946 the house was converted to apartments; one commodious apartment on each of the lower floors and four on the third.   Twenty years later a three-year conversion, completed in 1969, resulted in two apartments per floor.

photo by Alice Lum
Today the wide stone house is a commanding and dignified presence on the block, and an interesting page of social and religious history in New York City.


  1. tell alice lum i said thank you for these wonderful pictures. the best brownstone i have ever seen

    1. I forwarded your comment to her and mentioned your work, in case she had not seen it yet.