Friday, February 28, 2014

The Madison Ave Baptist Church Parish House -- 30 E 31st St.

On August 1, 1859, when Catharine Vanderpool sold the five plots of land at the southwest corner of Madison Avenue and 31st Street to the Madison Avenue Baptist Church, Murray Hill had already supplanted the Bond Street and St. James Park areas as a fashionable address.  The congregation built an imposing brick church on the plot which reflected the substantial wealth of its members.

The ivy-covered Madison Avenue Baptist Church at around the turn of the last century.  The structure directly behind the church (left) would become the site of the new parish house -- photograph by Byron Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Almost half a century later, on November 14, 1905, the church announced plans for a new parish house.  The house directly behind the church, at No. 30 East 31st Street, which was once the home of esteemed physician Joseph T. Evans, would be razed for the new building.  The New-York Tribune reported “It is to cost $150,000, and work on the structure is to begin this winter.”

The trustees remained arcane regarding the name of the architect.  “The trustees held a meeting recently, at which the plans for the new building were revised and turned over to expert draughtsmen,” said the New-York Tribune on November 14.  “The new building will be of brick and stone, conforming as nearly as possible to the design of the old church.  An entire floor of the building will be given up to a gymnasium and a hall for public entertainments.  The other floors will have boys’ and young men’s clubs, girls’ clubs, a library and reading room, besides all the features incident to institutional work as carried out on the upper East Side.”

It was proposed that construction, scheduled to start in December 1905, would be completed by the summer.  That proved to be an optimistic timeline and the building was not dedicated until January 6, 1907.  It came in right on budget, with the structure and its equipment costing about $150,000—or about $3.4 million today.

The promise that the parish house would conform “as nearly as possible to the design of the old church” resulted in a near-copy of the unusual entrance portico, a brick facade and arched openings.  Other than that, the purely Edwardian structure was a quaint asymmetrical five-story concoction of Romanesque Revival with a touch of Mediterranean.   Stained class filled the first floor openings, including a spectacular radiant half-round overlight above the entrance door.  Carved limestone panels beneath the three-story arched openings, intricately decorated spandrels, a deeply overhanging cornice supported by remarkable cast brackets and a roof garden with pergola gave the parish house an exotic air.  Three small limestone balconies with iron railings accentuated the fifth floor windows.

The entrance portico was a near-match to that of the church (the church building can be seen to the right).  The extensive pergola on the roof is seen in this photograph taken shortly after the building's completion -- photograph by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Within the parish house was Saunder’s Hall where every Sunday morning Dr. W. W. White taught “Everybody’s Bible Class.”  Dr. White had no intentions of spoon feeding his students the lessons.  A week in advance they received their assignments for the following Sunday.  On January 12, 1908 the assignment read:

I.                     Glance through the Gospel by John with a view to anticipating the Outline to be given by the Teacher.  A diagram of the book will be drawn while the Outline is being given.

II.                  Taking John I:1-18, consider:
a.       What Progress in thought is apparent in this passage as a whole?
b.      What Propositions does this passage contain?
c.       What Parallelisms in though are here?
d.      What Purpose does this Prologue serve?
e.      What Problems do these verses present?

The cost to attend Everybody’s Bible Class was $3.00 in total—about double the average working man’s weekly wage.

Church women (and one man) pose inside the newly-completed parish house in 1907.  The building boasts electric lighting and to the left a handsome and clever folding wall with stained glass panels can be seen.  -- photograph by Byron Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In 1914 the parish house became central to the newly formed Vacation Bible School movement.  That year 40 schools opened after July 4.  “The growth of this line of Christian endeavor has been rapid,” said the New-York Tribune on June 27, 1914, “and this city has been a leader in it.” 

The newspaper noted “It has led in an important advance this year in having in the Madison Avenue Baptist Church parish house a training school for teachers in these schools.  Practically all other schools in the city profit by this training school, which has had forty scholars.”
Fabulous filigree brackets uphold the overhanging cornice

Saunder’s Hall was not relegated mere to Sunday and Bible School classes.  On February 23, 1916 The New York Times reported on Frederic Poole’s reading of “The Yellow Jacket” for the benefit of the missionary fund of the Woman’s Society of the Madison Avenue Baptist Church.  A year later, with the country’s entrance into World War I just two months away, a heated debate was held concerning compulsory military training.

A year later, with the nation embroiled in the conflict, Worth Marion Tippy published The Church and the Great War.  He described the Madison Avenue Baptist Church as “an example of a down-town congregation readjusting itself to changed conditions, with a modern parish house, and extensive neighbourhood work.”

Tippy was taken with Dr. Eaton, the pastor, who had been named Chairman of the National Service Section of the United States Shipping Board.  “Dr. Eaton was also influential in forming public opinion in New York before entering this specialized field, and was outspoken for the Allies before the Unit4ed States entered the war,” he noted.

The congregation, he wrote, “is also active in war causes, Liberty Loans, War Savings, Red Cross, etc.  Dinner is served to enlisted men on Tuesday evenings and the club rooms of the parish house are thrown open to them.”  In addition, the women of the church met in the parish house on Tuesdays and Wednesdays as a unit of the Red Cross auxiliary.

Somewhat surprisingly, the hall was also used by the National Indian Association’s annual meetings.  The 14th such meeting was held here on December 4, 1919 and The Indian’s Friend remarked that “The afternoon session was interspersed with two vocal solos by Louise Maitland of the Royal Albert Hall and Queen’s Hall Concerts, London.  Mrs. Maitland rendered most impressively and in a voice of remarkable range and sweetness Gounod’s ‘O Divine Redeemer’ and ‘Ave Maria.’”

In December 1921 the Board of the American Baptist Home Mission Society held an all-day meeting at the church, following by a dinner in the parish house.  One hundred and fifty guests were served dinner prepared by the church women.  “In the evening stereopticon views were given of the Architectural Department and of the proposed boys’ camp work,” said the Convention report.

As more and more of the refined homes between Fifth and Park Avenues were demolished, the Madison Avenue Baptist Church suffered.  But in mid-century residents began returning—not to private houses but to modern apartment buildings.  On May 20, 1955 The New York Times noted “Older churches have experienced a rebirth, such as the Madison Avenue Baptist Church, 30 East Thirty-first Street, New York City, which has been revived by a new apartment building in its neighborhood.”

By now the grand church structure had been gone for nearly a quarter of a century.  The parish house survived and in the 1950s began a “Friday Film Festival,” described in 1962 by pastor Rev. John S. Bone as “an experiment in the use of prize-winning secular art films and carefully chosen shorts to delineate basic human values.”

Among the films screened that year were “The Life and Death of a Hollywood Extra," “Weegee’s New York,” and “On the Waterfront.”

The church’s focus towards the arts was evident when in 1971 the first performance of “Jesus Christ Superstar” was staged here and in 1978 when the Bel Canto Opera Company made the old parish house its home.

Then in July 2013 the Madison Avenue Baptist Church put its architecturally-unique and consummately charming parish house on the market.  Trustee Faith Grill, in a letter to parishioners, cited “exorbitant upkeep cost.”  By now the New York Theatre Ballet leased the fifth floor, and the Dokoudovsky New York Conservatory of Dance used the second.

The building is not landmarked and the realtor notes in its listing that the site “is zoned for ground-up construction of a residential or hotel property.”   Once again preservationist and New Yorkers in general hold their breath to see what is to come.

non-historic photographs taken by the author


  1. I hope it is preserved--unlikely as that is in today's climate--and wouldn't it be wonderful to see the rooftop pergola rebuilt?

  2. This wonderful building has been demolished