Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The "Sisters' House" - 664 Sixth Avenue

The 1850 house, now home to the Ridgeway Diner, became the Sisters' House in 1854.  The Sisterhood established the infirmary which would later become St. Luke's Hospital in the abutting house.

In 1846 the forward-thinking Episcopal priest William Augustus Muhlenberg established his "free church" (one in which congregants did not have to pay for their pews), at the northeast corner of Sixth Avenue and 20th Street.  Designed by Richard Upjohn, the Church of the Holy Communion was among the first Gothic Revival buildings in the United States.

That was just one of the far-reaching firsts the church would initiate under Muhlenberg's direction.  According to a December 12, 1885 article in The Churchman, it was "...the first free church in this country, the first to have daily Morning and Evening Prayer, the first to have Holy Communion weekly, the first to have early Christmas and Easter celebrations, the first to decorate the chancel with flowers on festival days, the first to establish a boy choir, the first in the whole English speaking church to introduce a sisterhood, for its sisterhood antedates those of England."

The "sisterhood" mentioned in the article was a group of women who wore habits similar to those of Roman Catholic nuns and who dedicated themselves to church and humanitarian works.  Founded by Muhlenberg in 1845, the Sisterhood of the Holy Communion initially focused on providing health care.

Five years after the Sisterhood was organized, William Johnson filled the rest of the block, to the corner of 21st Street, with modest, brick-faced homes.  Four stories tall and two bays wide, they were comfortable; but in no way on par with the lavish homes being erected on Fifth Avenue, just a block away.

The Sisterhood was running an infirmary in a tenement house at the time.  In 1853 John H. Swift and his wife purchased the house next door to the church, No. 328 Sixth Avenue (renumbered 664 in 1925).  They refurbished it as the Sisters' House in memory of their daughter, Virginia Swift.   The sisterhood moved in in the spring of 1854.  A dispensary was opened in the Sisters' House, and the infirmary was moved into the abutting house at No. 330.

The Sisters' House nestled up to the crenelated tower of the church complex.

While the sisters resembled Roman Catholic nuns, there were significant differences.  The New York Herald, on January 24, 1869, explained "Candidates for admission into the sisterhood, when under twenty-five years of age, must have the written consent of their parents or guardians before entering.  After a suitable probation, they are elected by the vote of the other sisters, and join for a term of three years, renewable or not at their pleasure, and with the late reapprobation of the other members."

In 1858 the Sisterhood's infirmary became St. Luke's Hospital and moved into a newly-completed building on Fifth Avenue at 54th Street.   The sisters continued their work on the Sixth Avenue block.  The house formerly used by the infirmary became the Home for Aged Women, and in 1871 the sisters opened the Day Nursery and Babies' Shelter around the corner at No. 118 West 21st Street, and the Shelter for Respectable Girls and Home for Convalescents in another of the William Johnson houses, No. 332 (now 668).

In 1876 the State Board of Charities described the goals of that facility as "to provide a shelter for unemployed Protestant girls, and a home for those requiring rest before employment again."  One of the sisters explained "The great object aimed is to keep girls from getting into trouble, when they find themselves without means and strangers in the city."

Considering the scope of the women's duties--they also were tasked with "parish visiting, nursing, care of altar service, clergy and choir vestments and embroidery class"--it is astounding that there were only six sisters living in Sisters' House in 1871.  Lay employees of the Home for the Aged and the Babies' Shelter also lived here.

In 1885 the sisters enlarged the Sisters' House with an extension to the rear, designed by architect Henry Marshall, to accommodate a Training School.  The facility apparently served blind clients, especially.    When the improvements were completed, Bishop Henry C. Potter officiated at the opening ceremonies on November 24.

At the time a drastic change in the Sixth Avenue neighborhood was on the near horizon.  The elevated railroad was extended up the center of the avenue around 1878 and by the end of the century massive retail palaces would line the avenue from 14th Street to 23rd Street.

In 1895 the Home for Aged Women in No. 330 still housed 25 indigent women; but before long it was relocated to "the old fashion brownstone dwellings," as described by the New-York Tribune, on West 20th Street, near Fifth Avenue.  The Churchman explained "Sixth Avenue became too bustling; the old women were mewed up."

The church sold off the Sixth Avenue houses, including the Sisters' House, which was purchased by to Josephine Geenen.  While she leased the upper floors to the Church of the Holy Communion for the Sisterhood, she hired architect Patrick F. Grogan in 1898 to install a storefront at street level.  As the sisters came and went in their religious habits, well-dressed women shopped for cloaks and suits in the store.

Josephine Geenen renovated again in 1904.  She commissioned architect Patrick F. Brogan to update the ground floor storefront and add building-wide show windows at the second floor--eye level with potential shoppers about to disembark the elevated train at 23rd Street.

Later that year, in December, Dr. Henry Mottet, rector of the Church of the Holy Communion, announced that the church had an endowment fund of $200,000 and the Sisterhood had one of twice that much (nearly $11 million for the Sisterhood alone in today's dollars).  He told reporters "the parish will never have to move uptown, as many Episcopal and other churches have had to do."

But change was inevitable.  On February 1, 1909 the Sisterhood of the Holy Communion celebrated its 61st anniversary in the church.   That year the Hygrade Lunch Company was operating a luncheonette in the lower two floors of the old Sisters' House; and on April 20 it was announced that the 20th Street houses used as the Home for the Aged were to be demolished and the facility moved to Long Island.

The last to go was the Sisterhood of the Holy Communion.  The sisters finally left the Sisters' House around 1919.  The following year the house was converted by architect Max Muller to a store and factory.  The Church of the Holy Communion managed to survive in its historic church until 1976.

By then the street level of No. 664 had continued to house a restaurant of one name or another, and Department of Building documents restricted the upper floors to "offices."  Despite that designation, the second through fourth floors were actually unsanctioned apartments.  In November 1969 American artist and writer Joe Brainard took the top floor apartment, for instance.

No. 664 is one of the three of William Johnson's 1850 houses that survive.

In 1995 a conversion was completed which resulted in one apartment each on the third and fourth floors, with a restaurant space at ground level and a shop space on the second floor.  The beleaguered structure with its peeling paint, zig-zagging fire escape and hodgepodge storefronts gives no hint that more than 160 years ago it was home to the tireless Sisterhood of the Holy Communion.

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Jason Kessler for suggesting this post

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