Monday, March 4, 2019

The Lost St. Paul's Vestry House - 29 Vesey Street

The rear of the large complex edged up to St. Paul's burial ground.  photo by Irving Underhill from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
As New York City expanded northward, a "chapel of convenience" was deemed necessary for those Trinity Church parishioners who had moved farther away.  Completed in 1766 St. Paul's Chapel sat in what, prior to ground breaking, had been a wheat field.  The chapel turned its back to Broadway so as to afford pleasing views of the river and to take advantage of its cooling breezes.

At the end of the Civil War the neighborhood around the chapel was bustling.   The famous Astor House hotel sat on the adjoining Vesey Street corner to the north and commercial buildings now girded the church property.  In 1868, according to A History of Real Estate, Building and Architecture in New York"St. Paul's School, Church street, in the rear of St. Paul's Church, was under way."

The outreach of St. Paul's expanded as the city grew around it.  In 1886 architect Charles C. Haight was commissioned to design a sprawling multi-use building that would stretch the width of the Church Street block, from Vesey to Fulton Streets.  It edged up against the lower fringe of the burial ground.

His brick and stone neo-Tudor structure featured the expected historical elements--diamond paned windows, romantic stone oriels, and a decorative belfry with a copper bell-shaped cap.

Numerous facilities were housed under the new building's roof, the Parish Hall and Parish House, the chapel offices, and the schools.  There were two schools, one for boys and another, opened later, for girls.  The courses of instruction within the two were, given the period, necessarily different.  While boys were trained in the academics they would need in business, girls received instruction as well in "sewing, drawing, vocal music, and modeling in clay."

In a clever scheme to ensure trained voices in the St. Paul's Chapel choir, the venue also provided one-on-one sessions for adults wishing improve their singing abilities.  The only price was their committing to join the choir.  The Extract from the Year Book and Register of Trinity Parish that year included a description of "The St. Paul's Chapel Free Training School for Church and Concert Singers."

The members, twelve ladies and ten gentlemen, receive from the organist one private lesson a week of an half hour's duration, in cultivation of the voice and reading at sight.  For this they bind themselves to assume the duties of choristers in the choir of this Chapel.

photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

As with all private boys' schools, the St. Paul's School included a drill room where male students received military training.  On December 27, 1895 the New-York Tribune reported "There was a numerous assembly of men and women last night in the main hall of St. Paul's parish house, No. 29 Vesey-st., at the presentation of a large silk American flag to the St. Paul's cadets by Lafayette Post, no. 140, G. A. R."

Simultaneously the girl students had been plying their talents for another presentation to the boys.   Two months later, on February 14, 1896, The New York Times announced "The St. Paul's Cadets held a special drill last night in their drillroom, at 29 Vesey Street, and were also the recipients of a set of guidons [military standards], which were presented to them by the Girls' Friendly Society of St. Paul's Church.  The two guidons are of blue silk, each bearing the letters, 'S.P.C.,' worked in gold braid."

Girls students in a reading circle and in patriotic exercises around the turn of the century.  photo via

The building was the scene of meeting of 200 "business and professional men" on November 12, 1897.  Hosted by the New York Local Assembly of the Brotherhood of St. Andrew, its purpose was to impart the importance of the "fundamental ideas of Christian life" in business dealings.

That meeting was a hint of the evolution of the neighborhood and, in response, of St. Paul's Chapel's redefining its services.  Once surrounded by refined residences, the chapel now also served businessmen and tenement residents.  

On June 26, 1898 The New York Times reported "The mothers of some of the children who come to the missionary meetings to sew for the poor of the parish and for missions in other parts of the country, tell of their parents who were educated at St. Paul's School."   The article noted "There are three school rooms occupied by the girls, though all the girls of the parish do not attend, by any means, for the cable cars on Broadway run too frequently for careful mothers to allow their little ones to cross the busy street.  In addition to the day school, where the children learn all kinds of plain sewing, in addition to other studies, there are societies for the children, the older girls, and the mothers."

At the turn of the century St. Paul's was highly active in outreach to the business community around it.  Women now held jobs in offices--a situation previously unheard of.  And there was no shortage of unprincipled employers willing to take advantage of the young women.

Two shots from the same vantage point show the city rising up around the Vestry House (lower right)  photos from the collection of the New-York Historical Society
The vicar of St. Paul's Chapel responded by organizing a "guild of stenographers and typewriters" in the Vestry House building in 1907.  ("Typewriter" was early term for "secretary.")  Rev. W. Montague Geer explained to reporters "There is peril in abundance in this condition of affairs, and this peril ought, of course, to be reduced to the lowest possible term."

On February 22, 1907 the New-York Tribune reported "At the end of its fourth week, St. Paul's Chapel Club for Business and Professional Women has reached its limit of membership."  A typewritten sign in the "pleasant parish house of St. Paul's" explained that the group now had 300 members and enrollment was closed.  A waiting list already held 100 hopeful names.  

Among the advantages of the club were a lunch room where hot foot was available (a monthly ticket cost 25 cents) and reading room.

Female professionals chatter over lunch in what the New-York Tribune described as "the beautiful, banner hung, oak raftered, lead paned hall in St. Paul's parish house."  photo via
Others while their lunch hour away in the reading room, one catching up on her needlework.  photo via

St. Paul's Chapel continued to adapt to the changing demographics of downtown Manhattan.  In 1909 The Chinese Sunday School was formed.  Three years later the curiosity of local businessmen was satisfied when The New York Times explained "A sign in Chinese characters hanging on the Broadway fence surrounding St. Paul's Church, which has attracted considerable attention from passersby, was translated yesterday by one of the clergy attached to the church.  It is merely an announcement of the Chinese Sunday School run in connection with the church at 29 Vesey Street."  The article added "The sign is the handiwork of Yu Yuo Tsu, one of the twenty Chinese students at the Sunday school, which has been organized about three years."

Members of the Chinese Sunday School.   photo via

In the spring of 1913 the City was planning a new subway which, according to the New-York Tribune on May 21, "will run down Broadway and curve under the southeasterly part of the Astor House, across Vesey street and under the northwest corner of St. Paul's churchyard into Church street to Trinity Place and on to the East River."  But the City promised there was no danger to St. Paul's Vestry House.  It had agreed to pay Trinity Church $129,000 for "easement rights" under the building, and budgeted another $89,000 to ensure support of "the parish house and school."

And so business in the Vestry House complex went on as usual.   Memorial exercises for the 17th anniversary of the sinking of the battleship Maine were held here on February 15, 1915; and with a new war raging in 1917, a lunchroom for soldiers and sailors in uniform was opened.  Later that year, on October 27, The Living Church reported "Large classes are attending the free lessons in military French which are given at the parish hall of St Paul's Chapel, 29 Vesey street, to soldiers, sailors, doctors and nurses preparing to go to the battle line."

In the meantime construction of the subway was going on underneath the Vestry Building.  On October 4, 1916 engineer H. De B. Parsons addressed a meeting of the American Society of Civil Engineers, during which he explained in part "As the tunnels run diagonally beneath the building, it was necessary to remove its original foundations entirely, to construct new foundation piers, and to transfer the load of the building to these new piers by means of cross-girders."

Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers, 1917 (copyright expired)

In 1918 the membership of the Business Women's Club had grown to 800.  The Vestry Building now also housed the Missionary Society, the Young Men's Club, Boy Scouts of America, Camp Fire Girls, the Girls' Friendly Society, the Women's Singing Class, the Candidates Class "for girls under fifteen," the Chinese Sunday School and "popular half-hour band concerts every week," according to the Directory of Social and Health Agencies of New York City.  There was also an Employment Bureau, described as "a free bureau to counsel and help male and female applicants."

On February 29, 1922 The New York Herald reported "Clouds of smoke poured from the upper windows of St. Paul's Parish House at 29 Vesey street yesterday and many thought the church buildings in Church street doomed."  The Evening World reported "Fire Watchers Fill St. Paul's Graveyard" and reported that people fled down to the fire escapes.  Fire fighters, however, found the source of the fire and soon extinguished it.

Two weeks later, however, a more serious blaze erupted.  On March 21 the Fire Marshall Brophy established that "the fire started from spontaneous combustion in a wooden closet in the luncheon club on the top floor, in which were stored a collection of cans partly filled with paint, some turpentine and a case of paraffin drinking cups."  Damages amounted to $100,000, according to The New York Times; nearly $1.5 million today.

Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers, 1917 (copyright expired)

New Yorkers may have been shocked when The New York Times reported on June 4, 1927 "After operating every week-day for some twenty years the Mid-Day Lunch Club for Business Women at St. Paul's house, Vesey and Church Streets, has been closed because the city has taken over the property on which the building stands for subway construction...The clergy offices have removed to the second floor of the Astor House Building, 217 Broadway."

The venerable brick and stone structure, long a landmark in downtown Manhattan, was demolished, leaving no hint that a building ever stood on the site.  Today a wide sidewalk, pierced by subway entrances, and a widened Church Street appear to have always been there.


  1. Traditional church building required that the altar be placed against its east wall. That may be the real reason the chapel was built with its back to Broadway.

    1. That's possible. Period commentary suggests otherwise, but it's an interesting theory.