Friday, December 6, 2013

The 1894 Church Missions House -- No. 281 Park Avenue So.

photo by Alice Lum

On October 9, 1892 The San Francisco Call reported that “The cornerstone of what is said will be the finest church mission-house in the world will be laid on October 3 at the corner of Fourth avenue and Twenty-second street by Bishop Williams of Connecticut, as presiding Bishop of the Episcopal church in America.  For several years the Episcopal Mission Society of America has been planning to erect a home that would surpass anything of the kind in existence.”

The glowing account from the opposite side of the country foreshadowed a magnificent structure the beginnings of which went back decades.  The church’s Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society was founded in 1821 to coordinate missionary activities in the western states.  Later the efforts of the society would turn to Africa and China.

In 1835 the society moved from Philadelphia to New York and in 1864 the idea of a permanent church missions house first arose.  Not until 1888, though, would serious action be taken.  A committee was organized to collect funds and secure a location.  Among the members were six laymen and the society chose well; included were W. Bayard Cutting, William G. Low and Cornelius Vanderbilt.

With their significant clout the men helped amass sufficient funds to purchase the plot and to begin construction.  Cornelius Vanderbilt personally gave $50,000 toward the building fund and J. Pierpont Morgan donated a portion of the real estate.  The site ultimately chosen was the southeast corner of Fourth Avenue (later renamed Park Avenue South) and 22nd Street, directly across the street from the hulking United Charities Building.

The San Francisco Call noted that “The building site was the most difficult thing to secure, but Mrs. Pierpont Morgan came to the rescue by purchasing the plat of ground eighty feet on Fourth avenue and seventy feet on Twenty-second street and deeding it to the mission society.”

In September 1889 the committee presented the designs of four architects to the Board of Managers of the Missionary Society.  Most likely a concept put forth by the businessmen in the group, the ground floor included rent-producing space.  The New York Times would later comment “The first floor will contain stores, which will be rented only to firms engaged in some business connected directly with church work, probably booksellers.”

Architect Robert W. Gibson was given the task of choosing the winning design—that of Edward Stent which was made public in December of that year.  Stent’s original plans were subsequently altered and enlarged and by 1892 when the cornerstone was laid Stent and Gibson had collaborated on the final design.

In its presentation the committee predicted the cost of the structure to be around $200,000 including the land.  The men grossly underestimated their vision.

The San Francisco Call published the above sketch on October 9, 1892 (copyright expired)
The Call published a sketch of the coming building which it described as “seven stories high and built in a steel frame filled in with brick.  It will be grand in proportions, warm in color and commanding in size.” 

At the time of the cornerstone laying Edward J. N. Stent commented on the design and the increased cost.  “Without exception this will be the finest church mission building in the world.  Its actual cost will be about $350,000…The architecture will be Flemish, with a slight Romanesque tendency.  The first and second stories will be of red granite and the balance will be of buff terra cotta.”

sketch by Albert E. Flanagan, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York,
Stent predicted that construction would take about one year.  He mentioned the high-end finishes that would be incorporated into the finished structure.  “The hallways will be tiled in mosaics and handsomely colored marbles.”  An innovative system of portable walls would customize interior spaces for specific uses.  “The library and boardroom will be on the south side of the building on the second floor.  There will be a system of screens separating these rooms from the chapel, one of the handsomest in New York.  By removing these screens all the rooms can be thrown into one, thus completing quite a large chapel, with altar, vestibule, pews and organ ready for service.”

True to Stent’s word, construction neared completion in July 1893.  The New York Times predicted it would be finished by Thanksgiving Day.  By now the cost had rise to $500,000—about $11 million today.  Part of that cost went into the magnificent sculptures that would adorn the entrances, and in the finishes.  On July 10 The Times mentioned the mosaics and marbles and added “The stairways and passageways all through the building will be of stone and iron.  For the first two stories the joiner work will be of quartered oak, with the remaining five stories of ash.  The windows will all be of ornamental stained glass, leaded, with leaded transom heads for all the floors.”

Robert Williams Gibson was among the foremost architects of church structures in the state and his influence was obvious.  The New York Times noted “The mission building is a seven-story structure built in the Flemish style of architecture, treated from an ecclesiastic standpoint in minor features.”
Gibson's ecclesiastic touch appears throughout the structure -- photo by Alice Lum

The building was formally opened on New Year’s Day 1894; however the finishing touches to the façade were not installed until January 17.  On that day hundreds of people crowded the corner of Fourth Avenue and 22nd Street to see the unveiling of the marble sculptures above the entrances.  The New-York Tribune said “The completion of this work put the finishing touches on the exterior decoration of the handsome and costly home of the society, the most striking example of the Flemish style of architecture in the city.”

photographer unknown; from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York,
The white marble sculptural groupings depicted scenes “which combine both ecclesiastical and historical interest.”  One represented St. Augustine preaching to a group of 6th century Britons; the other showed the first bishop of the American Church, Samuel Seabury, preaching to Native Americans—which the Tribune called in politically-incorrect 21st century terms, “Aborigines.” 

photo by Alice Lum

The newspaper noted that “The work was executed from designs by Edward N. J. Stent, one of the architects of the building.”

Now comfortably ensconced in its glorious new home, the various groups comprising the Missionary Society could get on with their work.  On May 8, 1900 the New-York Tribune reported on once such outreach—this one quite close to home.

“The Women’s Auxiliary to the Church Temperance Society supports twelve free iced water fountains in the tenement house district.  The are in operation from May 1 to October 1, and are a great boon to the people.  The increase this season in the price of ice is practically prohibitory to the poor, so that the fountains will be a great blessing even than before.  Two hundred dollars will erect one, and contributions for that purpose will be welcomed at the Church Missions House.”

The Society’s concern for social reform and the well-being of the less fortunate classes was evident.  In 1902 the building would was the scene of a “sweatshop conference” under the auspices of the Sweatshop Committee of the Church Association for the Advancement of the Interests of Labor.  The Tribune reported that “The especial purpose of the meeting was to discuss factory laws now in force and further legislation in that line which is contemplated.”

During the conference, Rev. Mr. Morgan reported on his findings of “one woman who was paid only nine cents a dozen for finishing boys’ knee trousers, and how another woman received only 12 cents a dozen for the same work.”

The group kept constant pressure on legislators and inspectors for years.

In 1902, while the sweatshop conference was in session, New York saloons lured working men with their famous free lunches.  The Women’s Auxiliary of the Church Temperance Society came up with a solution—lunch wagons.  For ten cents workers could get a hot meal without being seduced into the wicked environments of a saloon.

Miss H. K. Graham reported to the group “There is no doubt that many [workingmen] would gravitate to the free lunch offered by the saloons but for these wagons.  That they have been successful from a financial point of view only serves to show that they have met a need and that the average workingman will patronize any place where he can get good, cheap food in preference to taking the so-called ‘free lunch’ at the saloons.”

The Auxiliary covered as many bases as it could.  It established coffee vans for the carriage drivers who had to wait for their wealthy employers at the theater.  “The coachmen’s coffee van is a handsome little wagon intended to provide refreshment for the coachmen and hackmen while waiting at entertainments,” she said.  “The temptation to take a drink at the nearest saloon while waiting in the cold is very strong, and that form of refreshment does not help the coachman to handle his horses with steadiness.”

Other vans were sent out in cold weather with insulated tanks of steaming coffee for motormen of the omnibuses; and they stopped by the scenes of fires as well, providing fire fighters with hot coffee in the winter.

The work of the various groups was such that it was proposed that same year to add stories to the eight –year old building.  In the will of Dean Hoffman the Society was bequeathed $50,000 and the Board announced that “it could not better invest the dean’s money” than to “add three, perhaps four, stories to the Episcopal Church Missions House.”

The proposal, which was publicized on September 30, 1902, never came to pass.  Thankfully.
The intricate decoration reaches into the uppermost portions of the magnificent structure -- photo by Alice Lum

Debutante Ethel J. Wheeler shocked some New Yorkers in July 1908.  A headline in the New-York Daily Tribune on July 21 read, “Miss Wheeler Renounces Social Life for Work at Wuchong.”   Ethel was among the 32 outgoing missionaries heading to China.

“The news of her decision to become a missionary came as a surprise to her friends,” said the newspaper.  She had traveled widely through Europe, had studied art, and was a member of the Art Students’ League.   Hers was not the sort of life decision one expected from a wealthy, well bred young woman.

“She will defray her own expenses and means to devote her money as well as her time to the work,” reported the Tribune.

Her father, the well-known attorney Everett P. Wheeler, expressed his support.  “I didn’t want my daughter to go, but since she is going I want her to make a success of it, just as I would want a boy who was going away to start in business to make a success of it.” 

As for Ethel, she did not see why there was such a fuss about it.  When a reporter asked to interview her, she replied “There is nothing to write about in it.”

Not all the churchmen were as enthusiastic about the missionary work among the Chinese.   A conference in the building on September 23, 1919, “brought out some opposition to the extension of the work to the Chinese,” reported The Sun.  Some clergymen saw more important missions to tackle.

“A lively discussion was precipitated over the problem of establishing missions for the Christianizing of Jews,” said the newspaper.

There was also a great thrust towards the “Americanization” of ethnic groups in the city.  “The campaign is now planned to include Czecho-Slovaks, Mexicans, Welsh, Assyrians, Jews, the Oriental people and some other races.  Dean D. C. F. Bratenahl of Washington raised objection to the work among the Chinese, stating that the effort was wasted, inasmuch as these people cannot become citizens.”

In a stance that is rather shocking to modern readers, the Rev. John L. Zacker insisted “The Jews control the world.  If Christianity is to convert the Jews, it must be attempted at once.”

In 1926 the National Council of the Episcopal Church turned its attention toward a different issue:  birth control.  Congress was considering an amendment to the Federal penal code and Tariff act that would make lawful the sending of contraception items through the mails.

On January 21 a meeting of the Council in the Park Avenue South building resulted in its joining forces with the National Catholic Welfare Council to oppose the action.  Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, The Right Rev. John Gardner Murray wrote in part “This is a challenge to the patriotism of every true American.  It faces our country with a moral crisis of great magnitude.  No one can be blind to the ultimate unhappy results of such information and practices, especially on the minds, morals and health of the younger citizens of our country, to whom we look for future growth and upbuilding of the United States.”

The Episcopal Church groups remained in the building until 1960.  Then, on September 12 of that year The New York Times reported that “The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States will move its national headquarters from 281 Park Avenue South to a new $3,500,000 building to be constructed on the northwest corner of Forty-third Street and Second Avenue.”  The newspaper added “The old edifice, regarded by many as an interesting example of late nineteenth-century Gothic architecture, is up for sale.  It has long been too small to house the administrative offices of the 3,000,000-member denomination.”

The structure became home to the Federal of Protestant Welfare Agencies which, in 1991, initiated a major restoration and renovation program.   The architectural firm of Kappell & Kostow were given the commission that included resurrecting and restoring the mosaic marble floors that had been covered with vinyl tiles; removing dropped ceilings to re-expose the plaster-ornamented ceilings, repairing the copper and terra cotta roof; restoring the leaded, stained glass windows; and bringing back to its former appearance the wooden wainscoting, doors and trims.
photo by Alice Lum
The restoration, costing about $5.5 million, reclaimed the remarkable building that still commands attention. 


  1. A tad ill-proportioned and gaudy, perhaps, but I've always been drawn to this building. Thanks for the post.

  2. I bought the New York 1890 book and most of Wall St during the 1880s looked liked this building. White or brown Romanesque mid rise buildings with expansive windows. They are not missed.