With the end of the Revolutionary War and a renewed sense of normalcy, New York City again looked northward for expansion. James de Lancey Jr. had been banished from New York as a Loyalist and his expansive country estate was confiscated and later sold as building lots. By the 1810s and ‘20s, Grand Street, once a wide drive through de Lancey’s property, was becoming lined with Federal-style homes.
The residents of this new neighborhood required schools, shops and churches. In 1826 the handsome Willett Street Methodist Episcopal Church was completed just steps from Grand Street. The undressed schist of the façade had been quarried nearby on Pitt Street. Simple and refined, its perfectly-symmetrical temple-inspired front featured three doors and corresponding openings, each trimmed in contrasting stone. A striking lunette window enhanced the low-pitched pediment.
Religion for the congregants of the Willett Street Methodist Episcopal Church was not taken lightly. Four years after the building was completed a 19-year old man entered its doors. According to his obituary in 1874, William F. Gould’s life would forever change. The Minutes of the Annual Conferences of the Methodist Episcopal Church noted that when he found the Willett Street church “he had become deeply convicted of sin, and was led to embrace the Saviour by faith in the Willett-street Methodist Episcopal Church, New York city. His conversion was clear and powerful, giving indubitable evidence of a thorough and radical change of heart.”
The Willett Street church had a burying ground in the adjoining yard. The 1881 pamphlet The Cemeteries of New York and How To Reach Them explained that “In early days every church in New York had a graveyard connected with the church building. In 1822 there were 23 graveyards below the City Hall.”
But the city’s desperate need for land and the threat of disease led to the 1851 city ordinance that prohibited any burials south of 86th Street. The trustees of the church, therefore, agreed to move their dead to Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn. The transfers began in 1854 and continued for two years. What the families of deceased loved ones were unaware of was that the final resting spot was more ornamental than respectful.
A reporter from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle interviewed a watchman at the plot who admitted that the “bones and coffins” were buried in long trenches. Above, the headstones were nicely arranged--“put up to look good.”
No doubt highly involved in the removals and re-burying of the graveyard denizens were undertakers G. W. Relyea and his son, Peter Relyea. The men lived steps away from the church, at No. 3 Willett Street, and Peter was one of its sextons.
The 49-year old Peter Relyea was contacted on April 21, 1865 by the Board of Aldermen and given a nerve-wracking commission. He was put in charge of President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession through the streets of Manhattan. He had three days to build the elaborate catafalque that would carry the assassinated President’s remains. Peter Relyea’s hearse for the occasion was so large and so elaborate that it required 16 horses.
|Twelve pallbearers carry Lincoln's coffin to Relyea's elaborate creation -- Harper's Weekly May 13, 1865 (copyright expired)|
The immense pressure and the sleepless nights (he told reporters he and 60 employees worked day and night without sleep to design and construct the catafalque) would be worth it. Not only did he receive the staggering sum of $9,000, he would use the honor as a marketing tool for the rest of his career.
|Peter Relyea's business card would forever note "Undertaker for President Lincoln"|
Peter Relyea’s life could continue to be far more colorful than that of the average undertaker. He was sued by Margaret E. Bonifice three years later following the elaborate funeral of her father. While he supplied “a certain number of carriages and horses” to transport family and guests from Manhattan to the cemetery and back; a problem ensued on the return.
The driver of the carriage in which Margaret Bonifice rode made an unscheduled stop. Her complaint read in part “the driver of the carriage wherein was the plaintiff, stopped at a hotel, and left his horses unhitched; and while he was absent they ran away and throwed the plaintiff out of the carriage and injured her.”
Relyea was back in the news in 1878 when he walked into Police Headquarters and told Inspector Dilks that he knew the identity of one of the grave robbers of millionaire Alexander T. Stewart. The investigator chided Relyea for waiting so long to inform on the criminal. Not intimidated, “Mr. Relyea replied that he had a business to attend to, and that he could not afford to neglect it for the purpose of going about the country playing detective,” reported The New York Times.
In the meantime, the Willett Street church ministered to the neighborhood and offered occasional lectures and musical programs. In September 1868 Rev. Antonio A. Arrighi delivered an address on “Late In Italy.” The Times said “The church was thronged by an attentive audience.” The lecture apparently poked some fun at the Italians. “He gave a graphic description of the process of eating macaroni by the lazzaroni, which excited much mirth.”
In 1877 the 50-year old building received a make-over. On November 5 The New York Times reported that “Large congregations attended yesterday at the exercises in the Willett-Street Methodist Episcopal Church, which has been recently remodeled and improved, and which has just been reopened for divine worship.” Special appeals were made to the congregation “to aid in defraying the expenses of the recent improvements, and was liberally responded to.”
In December 1883 Rev. John E. Searles returned to the Willett Street church as its pastor. He commented on the changes since he first took the pulpit in 1843. “Since I came here first both the church and those who meet within its walls are changed. Those who formed the congregation 40 years ago have since then passed away. The building itself has been enlarged. I used to stand in a pulpit made like a box, so that when I sat down no one could see me.”
The minister noted “In the old times the population hereabout was quite different” and he blamed the dwindling membership on a “growing indifference to Christian duty.” In realty, the Grand Street area was changing rapidly. What had been a quiet residential neighborhood was now bustling with commerce. Already a large immigrant population had pushed the former residents northward and tenement buildings were replacing private homes.
Peter Relyea was one of the old congregants to surrender to the changes. In 1894 he sold No. 3 Willett Street for $16,000 and moved to Brooklyn. With its congregation dwindling, by the turn of the century, the Willett Street Methodist Episcopal church was in financial trouble. What had been a solely Christian neighborhood was rapidly filling with those of the Jewish faith.
On May 19, 1902 The New York Times noted “Once the church had a large congregation, but to-day it has a hard struggle to maintain itself amid the encroaching foreign population.” Pastor J. L. Smith tried a desperate scheme. For the church’s 83rd anniversary, he sent messages to all the old members who had moved away to attend the ceremony.
Former congregants responded—some from the Bronx and Brooklyn and others as far away as Philadelphia. At the end of the day “it was resolved that each member of the organization should provide himself with a toy savings bank shaped like a jug.” The members were to deposit a coin into the bank now and then throughout the year. Then, “at the end of the year the church is to hold a grand jug smashing contest, and turn over the funds to the pastor,” reported a newspaper. The somewhat far-fetched idea was hoped to “help keep up the church.”
The jug smashing fund-raiser was not enough. On May 20, 1905 The Christian Work and Evangelist reported “After an existence of eighty-one years, during the early part of which it was the place of worship of many of New York’s wealthiest families, the old Willett Street Methodist Episcopal Church was sold late week to the Congregation Anshai Chesed Ballystok, and soon will be used as a synagogue.”
The journal got the spelling wrong, but was otherwise accurate in its reporting. The congregation Chevra Anshei Chesed of Bialystok had been organized in 1865 by a group of Polish immigrants from the town of Bialystok. With their merging with the Congregation Adas Yeshurun (whose members also came from Bialystok), they needed a larger place of worship.
Alterations were completed within three months and the new synagogue was dedicated on August 20, 1905. But it was not without incident. The Sun reported that “The new synagogue itself is small, but nearly 3,000 packed themselves inside of it, while others filled the adjacent streets and he fire escapes and windows. The interior of the building was hung with flags and banners, while ribbons of bunting festooned the gallery.”
The celebration had started at 3:00 when the congregation marched from its former synagogue at No. 84 Orchard Street, led by a band of 75 boys from the Hebrew Orphan Asylum. Behind them 300 girls dressed in white bore flags. “A string of carriages, many blocks in length, bore the aged and infirm members of the congregation, while the rest marched on foot.”
But once they were in the new building, near tragedy happened.
The following day the New-York Tribune reported “A piece of bunting caught fire from an unprotected gas burner at the dedication festival of the congregation of Beth Hakneseth Anshei Bialystok, at No. 7 Willett-st., yesterday afternoon, and instantly the entire audience, which numbered about three thousand, was in an uproar.”
Captain Joseph McGlynn, in charge of the police reserves that day, ordered the choir to start singing as he headed for the burning drapery. But six-year old Gertrude Rosenblum got there first. The plucky little girl climbed onto a chair and pulled the flaming cloth down, burning her hand in the process. A grown-up stomped out the fire.
But panic had already set in. “Those in the gallery came piling down the stairs upon those on the floor below,” reported The Sun, “and in an instant the house was filled with a fighting, frightened mob. Outside, the crowd took up the cry ‘Fire!’ and there was a rush to the scene. The police, fifty of whom surrounded the place, were swept aside, unable to check the rush.”
Little Gertrude Rosenblum tried her best to calm the hysterical mob. “The crowd looked back, saw the little girl swinging the blackened stick in her hand and sat down.” It took 200 additional police to restore order and Captain McGlynn cleared the street each way for a block.
The Sun said “Those who wanted to leave the church were allowed to do so and in ten minutes the meeting was in full swing again.”
What started out in chaos and terror ended with joy. Immediately after the service, Ida Gottlieb and Benjamin Goldberg drove up in a closed carriage. The couple insisted on being the first to be married in the new synagogue. They were greeted with cheers “that took the nerve of the bride, while her husband-to-be turned the color of a Chinese laundry check,” said The Sun.
The newspaper added “To be the first married in a new synagogue is accounted a high honor and the privilege is usually well paid for. After the ceremony was over yesterday one of the members said that the parents of the bride and bridegroom would probably contribute $500 to the synagogue.”
Eventually the stretch of Willett Street was renamed Bialystoker Place. Throughout the 20th century the synagogue survived even as the neighborhood’s Jewish community slowly abandoned the Lower East Side. In 1988 the congregation restored the sanctuary, which is noted for its vibrant and colorful decoration.
According to Gerald R. Wolfe in his 2013 The Synagogues of New York’s Lower East Side, “Among the synagogue’s restored treasures is its nearly three-story-high hand-carved wooden Aron Kodesh, which is flanked by brilliantly colored stained glass windows of comparable magnitude and majesty. The Italian master restorer and decorative painter, Paolo Spano, performed the extensive restoration of the Ark.”
The nearly 200-year old fieldstone structure survives essentially unchanged since is 1905 change-of-hands--a remarkable relic from a time when the Lower East Side was a new suburb of New York City.
photographs by the author