|Architectural Record, 1903 (copyright expired)
As the 19th century rolled over into the 20th, the block of Tenth Avenue, between 50th and 51st Streets was lined with small shops and dingy tenements. For decades the neighborhood had been known as Hell’s Kitchen—a place rife with poverty, crime, vice and despair.
In 1894 the Fifth Avenue Baptist Church established Armitage House at No. 343 West 47th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. It was described by the Annual Report of the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1900 as “a center of benevolent endeavor, where a day nursery, kindergarten and other work, religious and secular, have since been carried on.”
Armitage House was an early product of the Settlement House Movement. Reformers hoped that by providing slum children a safe place to play, by teaching impoverished women about nutrition and health, and giving them skills to earn a living, their miserable lives could be improved. The day nurseries and kindergartens provided women freedom to work during the day and add to the family’s income.
Almost from the day it opened, Armitage House was overtaxed and in 1897 a committee was formed to investigate the needs Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. On the committee were the Fifth Avenue Baptist Church’s most notable congregant, John D. Rockefeller, Sr., and his daughter Alta.
The decision of the committee was to enlarge the operations of the settlement house. Rockefeller purchased about half of the western side of Tenth Avenue, from the 50th Street corner through No. 745. A new five-story West Side Neighborhood House would take up the corner, two old brownstones would provide what today would be called low-income housing, and a mission church building, the Armitage Chapel, would replace the two small stores at Nos. 743 and 745.
The two buildings were constructed mostly by men recruited from the neighborhood. Archibald A. Hill, head of the project, explained to The Commons in January 1901, “As far as possible the neighbors were given preference in filling [construction] positions.”
Like the settlement house, the Armitage Chapel was clad in red Harvard brick, laid in Flemish bond, with green-black header bricks. Vaguely Sicilian Romanesque, its no-nonsense design was humble at best when compared to the more elaborate settlement house.
|Between the new West Side Neighborhood House and the Chapel, an existing tenement remained. The Commons, January 1901 (copyright expired)
But the often-acerbic architecture critic Montgomery Schuyler was lavish in his praise. “Evidently it has been built at the ‘irreducible minimum’ of cost, with not a dollar to be had for ornamental superfluities. And yet it is not only inoffensive, which is rather high praise to be deserved in such conditions. It even takes on something of architectural character by taking on some structural and functional expression.”
Schuyler pointed out that “cheap” did not necessarily translate to “bad.” “Slight, cheap and simple as the thing is, there has gone some thought to the devising of it. Compare it with its flanking neighbors, which are merely the common New York tenement houses, with their pretentious sham cornices, and see how its plainness becomes even distinguished. If our cheapest buildings were all as good as this, what a basis we should have for the elaboration of it into architecture as it became more costly.”
The chapel was 50 feet wide and extended 65 feet back, affording space for 350 worshipers. A “primary room” upstairs held 150 and could be opened up as a gallery, increasing the total seating to 450. There were also three classrooms and three offices (one for the pastor and two secretaries’ rooms). The yard behind the chapel became an open-air playground—a rarity in the crowded, squalid tenement neighborhood.
Archibald A. Hill was quick to point out that the outreach of the Fifth Avenue Baptists Church in Hell’s Kitchen was not purely religious. He explained in January 1901 “The Settlement is not to be used as a bait to lure any one to the chapel. It exists to do that which in itself is worth the doing and hence has no motive back of the deed.”
In 1902 the Legal Aid Society was located in the second floor of the old tenement building next door, and George Duer ran his street level shop there. Among the residents in the building was Mrs. Margaret McKeever, a widow.
On Independence Day that year Mrs. McKeever was not at home in her top floor apartment as neighborhood boys played with fireworks in the street. With uncanny bad luck a Roman candle shot into the air and straight into Mrs. McKeever’s open window where it exploded on her bed.
A fire ensued, unnoticed by the other tenants until a man on the opposite side of the avenue noticed smoke. The New York Times reported “Two alarms were sent in during the excitement which followed…This brought a large force of firemen and the reserves from the West Forty-seventh Street Police Station.”
The fire fighters broke into Mrs. McKeever’s apartment and “after a hard fight” were successful in confining the fire to the top floor. At one point, when the flames were bursting through the window, the Chapel and the rest of the tenement seemed in jeopardy.
The loss was significant. John D. Rockefeller’s building suffered $4,000 damages (more than $115,000 in 2016 dollars), and the lower floors were damaged by water.
The Fifth Avenue Baptist Church’s assistant pastor, the Rev. W. S. Richardson, had been transferred from the fashionable Fifth Avenue church to the Hell’s Kitchen chapel upon its opening in 1901. He threw himself head-long into the work in the gritty neighborhood. Working with him in 1907 was W. H. Hellier, who addressed John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s Bible Class at the Fifth Avenue church on January 6 that year.
“You frequently hear that we have a tough element of citizens over on the West Side,” he began. “In our neighborhood there are six saloons. I shall be satisfied if we can put even one of them out of business.”
Hellier had a novel scheme for defeating the saloons, and he asked for volunteers from the upscale congregation. “My idea is to give a free Saturday night concert at the chapel to counteract the drawing power of these places. I want young men who can play the piano and offer other service in the entertainment line. Instead of going to the saloon for recreation on the night of pay day, we will offer the workingman another place, and it will cost him less. Who will help?”
Not one hand was raised; but the Hellier was optimistic. The New-York Tribune noted “It is believed that by next Sunday, when the class has had time to think it over, there will be plenty of volunteers.”
Hellier’s idea of luring the Hell’s Kitchen men away from the saloons and youths from the nickelodeons by providing entertainment expanded the following year. In 1908 the chapel initiated a silent moving-picture screening every Tuesday night. A beer or a nickelodeon cost a nickel; admission to the Armitage Chapel’s movie show was a penny. The average attendance was about 250 youngsters alone.
On November 11, 1909 John D. Rockefeller, Jr. had the titles to all of the Settlement House properties—including the Chapel—transferred to himself. For the past decade they had been held in the name of James A. Jenkins, John D. Rockefeller, Sr.’s private secretary.
His motive in taking over ownership from his father was most likely exposed five months later when, on April 10, 1910, plans were filed by theater architect Thomas W. Lamb to convert the Armitage Chapel into a moving picture house. The New York Times expounded, “The alterations will not be very extensive, consisting of enlarging the platform and installing a fireproof screen and building an operator’s booth.”
The venture did not last long. On January 5, 1915 the Young Women’s Christian Association announced it had hired architect William S. Miller to rebuild the former chapel “into a swimming pool and restaurant.” Miller’s plans called for reducing the structure “in size to a one-story building” for the joint swimming pool-restaurant.
By the 1970s Hell’s Kitchen was, finally, seeing improvement. The neighborhood had maintained its reputation as a squalid, dangerous area well into the second half of the century. It was the setting for Leonard Bernstein’s 1957 musical West Side Story which exposed the area’s racial and gang tensions. But now many of the old tenements and neglected buildings were being razed for modern housing.
In 1976 the entire block where the Armitage Chapel and the West Side Neighborhood House had stood was demolished; to be replaced by the 38-story Hudson View Terrace apartments.