Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The 1905 Christ Church Bldgs-- 344 W. 36th Street

Grimy and mostly overlooked, the stately Gothic complex is slated for demolition -- photo by Beyond My Ken

In 1900 Rev. Dr. Maltbie Daveport Babcock was brought as pastor to Manhattan’s fashionable Brick Presbyterian Church.   Babcock was well known for his stirring oratorical powers and outstanding intellect.  His wide-ranging talents included music and he composed several hymns including the popular “This Is My Father’s World.”   His popularity was reflected not only in packed pews, but in his salary of $30,000—about $860,000 today.

photo "The Critic: An Illustrated Monthly Review of Literature, Art and Life" (1901, copyright expired)

Babcock may have preached to Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens; but he was intensely interested in the plights of the less fortunate.  Some attributed his death at the age of 42 just a year later, on May 18, 1901, to overwork.

Soon after Babcock’s death an anonymous donor presented Brick Church with a gift of $50,000 for a memorial “whatever might be decided on.”   The congregation decided to further Babock’s work by erecting a church and  parish house in the impoverished Hell’s Kitchen area.

The Church had decades earlier established a Sunday school on West 35th Street to minister to the area.  It grew into Christ Church and in 1888 became an independent church.  By now, however, the church and facility were inadequate.  Brick Presbyterian Church members soon amassed $250,000 to start construction of the new Christ Presbyterian Church, Babcock Memorial.

On May 4, 1903 The New York Times reported that the site had been established—“in Thirty-sixth Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues.”  The paper added “Title to the site is to be taken in July.”

A competition resulted in architects Parish & Schroeder receiving the commission to design the buildings in December 1903.  Although a sketch was released that month, plans would not be filed until May 14, 1904.  The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that the site would cover “Nos. 334 to 344 West 36th st, and to be known as the Christ Church Memorial Buildings.”  

The architects dealt with the long but comparatively shallow building plot by placing the church building sideways.  “The edifice will measure 75 feet in height, with a fa├žade of granite and brick with Indiana limestone trimmings.  The second-story plans call for a large gallery, with a library arrangement.  The parish house will harmonize with the general Gothic style of the church and will contain a 2-sty Sunday school hall, a gymnasium, club rooms for girls and boys, and a roof garden adjoining," said The Guide.

The architects released a sketch in December 1903 The Architectural Review, Dec. 1906 (copyright expired)

What might have appeared as amenities—the library and gymnasium, for instance—were necessary in the church’s outreach to the crime-ridden and impoverished community.  Christ Church, even before the first brick was laid, intended to educate its neighbors and provide training and recreation for the youth who faced the temptations of vice at every corner.

The cornerstone was laid on October 26, 1904 and the Rev. Dr. Henry Van Dyke of Princeton University made the differences between Fifth Avenue and Hell’s Kitchen churches quite clear.  The Epworth Herald said “A strong word was uttered by Dr. Henry van Dyke at the laying of the corner store of the Christ Church memorial buildings in New York the other day.”

Van Dyke told the crowd that we need “churches that can get close to the life of the people; churches that will know how to help a man when he gets into difficulties without making a botch of the matter; churches that understand how the people live; churches that are neither side tables for poor relations, nor mere gloomy praying closets; churches that can assist a man to round out his life splendidly.”

The $350,000 project, including land, opened on October 27, 1905.  The Christian Work and Evangelist said “The architecture is simple English Gothic, and an innovation in Presbyterian churches has been introduced in the arrangement for the ministry and choir.  Altogether the arrangement is like that in an Episcopal church.  The choir of men and women wear long black gowns and enter in procession.”
The Parish House, right, appeared to be part of the church, the entrance to which is at the far left.  photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The parish house was L-shaped, wrapping behind the church which was “architecturally the most important feature,” according to The Brickbuilder.   The parish house included a “men’s club” with a bowling alley in the basement.  Upstairs were a Sunday school hall, about 100 feet by 50 feet and capable of seating 1,000, six Bible-class rooms and two large galleries that seated 200 children each (these were used for infants and the “intermediate” departments).  The Sunday school floor included the large library.

The girls’ club rooms were on the fourth floor, as were children’s or kindergarten rooms, the two-story gymnasium with lockers and baths, and quarters for workers who lived in the building.

The gymnasium provided a space for recreation.  Here basketball players share the floor with a band while onlookers gather on the gallery.  photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The interior of the church reflected its no-nonsense mission.  Nearly Spartan, its stucco-covered walls relied almost entirely on the northern stained glass windows for decoration.  The Journal of Presbyterian History said “The church is kept for worship.  It has a simple and stately interior, with plain brick walls.”

The interior of the church proper was modestly decorated -- The Brickbuilder, December 1906 (copyright expired)

The Journal added, “The Christ Church Buildings are surrounded for the most part by the homes of people of most modest means.  Some of them are very poor.  It was to minister to these that the institutional work was started in connection with the church when it was in the old building on Thirty-fifth Street.”

Men relieved workday stress by a game of bowling in the basement -- photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

At the time of the opening of Christ Church the city was terrorized by tuberculosis—especially in the crowded and filthy tenement districts like Hell’s Kitchen.   Among the church’s first efforts was the establishment of Tuberculosis Classes.  Dr. Walter L. Niles reported on the classes to the National Tuberculosis Association in 1906.  Explaining that the church was “in the heart of the crowded west-side tenement district, where the population is largely German and Irish,” he said “All of our original patients lived in the immediate vicinity of the church, and we have since restricted the membership to within a radius of about one-half mile.”

Niles and his staff tried to educate the community on the need for fresh air; but they were frustrated with the inability of the ill-educated residents to grasp their concepts.  “Most of our members have been comparatively ignorant, one or two stupid, and all have been very poor, requiring considerable financial aid in every instance.  We not only direct them what to get and what to do, but see that they have and do everything necessary.”

Classes were not merely for the children.  Here women participate in a sewing class.  photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Christ Church also operated the Sick Children’s Aid Society and was highly involved with the Fresh Air Fund.  The Fund collected donated money which enabled tenement children to spend time in the country during summer months.  Dr. John Bancroft Devine managed the Fund in 1910 and meetings of “missionaries, settlement workers, hospital nurses and visitors for charitable agencies,” met at the Parish House, as described by the New-York Tribune.

That year 26-year old Rev. Norman Metton Thomas was assistant pastor of the Brick Presbyterian Church; but he was more interested in the Hell’s Kitchen residents than his Fifth Avenue congregation.  The New York Times on September 2 said he “has always been identified with charity work” and “his work for the Summer Garden, at the foot of Thirty-fourth Street, endeared him to the people of the district.” 

Thomas was slated to move to Christ Church as assistant pastor in 1911.  But before that happened he married Frances Violet Stewart on September 1, 1910.  The young woman lived in the fine residence of her parents at No. 27 East 38th Street but had spent much of her time in the slums, working with Rev. Thomas.   The Times noted that she “has often helped him in his work, and besides taking charge of the Sunday school has financially helped the church work.  She has been known as ‘the Angel of Hell’s Kitchen,’ and is much beloved by those in the poor districts for her untiring devotion.”

The bride would give up her fashionable address for the tenement district.  “Mr. and Mrs. Thomas will make their home at 351 West Forty-second Street, which is in the district of Mr. Thomas’s work,” said the newspaper.

The church offered classes to improve the lots of the impoverished community.  Top: Girls are instructed in the art of cooking.  Middle:  Boys learn carpentry.  Bottom:  girls clustered on pews bend over their needlework.  photos by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

By 1915, with Europe gripped by world war, the Mayor’s Workshop was established in the Parish House.  “Several hundred men are employed at this place making bandages for the American Red Cross,” reported The Times on March 7.  “The pay for this work is 50 cents a day” and the men were given a free lunch.

But George McAneny, President of the Board of Aldermen, had an innovative idea.  He personally knew a few hotel and restaurant managers and convinced them to donate soup.  Suddenly what we would today term “celebrity chefs” were preparing meals for the poor.  By the time the program got off the ground chefs from high-end hotel restaurants like the Waldorf-Astoria, Holland House, and Ritz-Carolton were involved.

The Times remarked that the men working at Christ Church Parish House “are given a meal at noon, and now, as a result of the aid given by the hotels and restaurants, those that have families bring pails and carry them home at night filled with steaming soup.”

The kindergarten class poses with the teachers in 1908 -- photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Somewhat surprisingly, a performance of King Lear was staged in the Parish House on April 25, 1916.  How many tenement dwellers showed up for the Shakespearean production is unclear; however it was the foreshadowing of drama in the building in years to come.

When the United States entered World War I the focus of Christ Church turned from the making of bandages to the accommodation of soldiers and sailors.  On July 29, 1917 The Sun reported that “Special dances for sailors are to be given every Wednesday night in the auditorium of Christ Church.”  Laura Johnson Moore who ran the program “said the sailors may bring their dancing partners with them or attend singly and be introduced to some of the girls of the neighborhood who will be there.”

The newspaper pointed out the success of the dances.  “Heretofore dances to which the sailors have been specially invited have been held on Thursday, but the crowds were so great it was found necessary to give the sailor boys a special exclusive night.”

In December the following year New York braced for the arrival of 15,000 military men on leave in for the holidays.  Christ Church opened its doors to provide sleeping arrangements for some of them.

Even worse than the war in terms of fatalities was the 1918 influenza pandemic that broke out just a month later.  An estimated 50 to 100 million people died worldwide.  As it had done since 1905, Christ Church offered what assistance it could.  On October 21, 1918 the New-York Tribune reported that the Christ Church House had been made a relief station “where any person needing help may obtain it.”  The station was overseen by the Emergency Advisory Committee of the Health Commission.

Christ Church’s outreach continued as times changed.  In 1932 the Maternal Aid Association opened in the building.  By now the city’s Garment District had engulfed the area and the buildings of Christ Church were surrounded by fewer tenements and more garment factory buildings.  In 1935 Christ Church became the strike headquarters of the Ladies’ Apparel Shipping Clerks Union.  Thousands of strikers assembled here on August 27, 1935 to parade through the garment district.  Instead, they had to give up their plans when police refused to grant a permit fearing “possible disorder.” 

Nevertheless, the women (who demanded “a thirty-five hour, five-day week with time and a half for over-time, six legal holidays, equal distribution of work in the dull season, a closed shop and a minimum wage ranging from $23 to $40 a week, as against the present reported average wage of $15 a week”) crippled the industry for days.

The church’s affiliation with labor continued and in 1939 it was the meeting place for the American Labor Party Women’s Division.

A new Manhattan congregation, the Greek Evangelical Church, was established in October 1946 and shared the building with Christ Church.   Then, in 1950, signs of change appeared.  On May 6 The New York Times noted “The Circle Theatre company will offer a fourteen-week season of centrally staged presentations in the Christ Memorial Church building, 344 West Thirty-sixth Street, beginning July 17.”

What at first seemed like a temporary arrangement was not.  Three weeks later the newspaper noted “The construction of the Circle Theatre’s theatre-in-the-round is scheduled to begin today at 344 West Thirty-sixth Street, the gymnasium of Christ Memorial Church, which is being converted into the new playhouse.”

The theater opened with a combination of Moliere’s The Physician in Spite of Himself and The Man Who Married a Dumb Wife.  It was the beginning of a decades-long residency.  The church would hold on until 1970.

In 1975 the Christ Church Memorial buildings were taken over by the Postgraduate Center for Mental Health.  The facility, staffed by social workers and psychologists, offered clinical services to both children and adults.   Outwardly, the Gothic structure was grime covered and dreary.

Then in 2014 the complex was sold to Sam Chang’s McSam Hotel Group for $50.75 million.  Chang immediately made his intentions for the property known, saying through a representative “it is well-positioned for hotel or residential conversion.”

By January 2015 the choice was made.  Parish & Schroeder’s Gothic memorial buildings, where impoverished Hell’s Kitchen residents were helped for decades, was slated for demolition to be replaced with a hotel.

many thanks to Elissa Desani for requesting this post


  1. The McSam Hotel Group and its architect Gene Kaufman have littered Manhattan with dozens of bland, dull mid-rise hotel structures which break with the street wall and leave the large expanses of unfinished raw masonry sides of adjoining buildings exposed. The mid-priced hotel rooms are needed, but the architecture is as unforgiving and brutal as the rear loading dock on a big box warehouse store. I have a good idea that your blog will never feature any of his architectural eyesores.

  2. It is quite obvious the NYC Landmark Preservation Commission has sold out to developers..............................


  3. Another developer (Sam Chang) and his talentless architect with zero imagination. You would think one could incorporate the facade and the great hall into a common lobby for the hotel and build on top of the church complex but instead we get dumb and dumber and destroy such a wonderful architectural group for yet another cheap glass box with no character created by people with zero respect for the communities in which they build. Your blog showcases and highlights the period in NYC when builders cared what they built, creating monuments with brick, mortar, terracotta and cut stone. Today it is all about building cheaply with glass imported from China, stone veneers that crack and buildings whose facades deteriorate almost as fast as these developers build them. There is no longer any thought or consideration to our future cityscape.

  4. The gymnasium picture above doesn`t look like it belongs to the building, we are currently dismantling the building now, and looking at some of the old photos especially the gym, doesn`t match anything in the building now. We did find the original wood paneling where the bowling alley was in basement. There are many hidden details that were found behind sheetrock walls. The building looks like it was renovated, the 3rd floor was made into 2 floors with new steel and concrete. The front church wall will be preserved and shored up and used for the new hotel, so some history will remain.