Monday, April 22, 2019

The Lost Salvation Army Building - 120-124 West 14th Street

To the right of the Salvation Army building a sliver of the Harriet Douglas Cruger mansion can be glimpsed.  Architectural Record, August 1896 (copyright expired)

Founded in London in 1865 by William Booth with assistance from his wife, Catherine, the Salvation Army waged "warfare against evil," complete with military-styled uniforms.  Thirteen years after the group first arrived in New York City in 1880, a substantial headquarters building was deemed necessary.   On March 11, 1893 the Real Estate Record & Guide reported that Gilbert A. Schellenger "will furnish plans for a six-story building with stores, which the Salvation Army is going to erect as a memorial to the wife of General Booth, at Nos. 120 to 124 West 14th street."

William Booth lived in England and this project was in the hands of his son, Ballington Booth.  The multi-use structure would contain a street level shop for rental income, a "large auditorium on the second floor," and the offices and headquarters of the Salvation Army.

In mid-June 1894 ground was broken with little fanfare.  But a few days later, on June 27, a staged photo-op was held.  The Evening World reported "[Salvation Army] Soldiers in their bright red shirts, and Salvation Army lassies in suits of blue, each with a pick or shovel, with Mrs. Ballington Booth perched on a dump-cart, decorated with the Stars and Strips and the Army Standard, comprised the principal group.  A number of photographs of the scene was taken."

The newspaper admitted "The actual work of breaking ground for the new building was performed by brawny laborers some days ago.  Today's ceremony was the sentimental end."  

Already the plans had been expanded.  "The new structure will be eight stories high, with towers.  The first two stories will be of Indiana limestone, and the remainder of red brick.  The ground cost $200,000, and the structure will cost $120,000, most of which was raised by contribution of nickles and dimes."

It was undoubtedly no coincidence that William Booth timed his six-month inspection tour of the Salvation Army in America to coincide with the cornerstone laying of the new headquarters.  On August 14, 1894 "The street was crowded with men and women in the uniform of the army, and a salvation brass band added to the enthusiasm," wrote The Sun.  "Time and again the gathering burst into hallelujahs, amens, and cheers."

William and Ballington Booth conceded the honors of laying the stone to Ballington's wife, Maud.  It was inscribed:

Laid by Mrs. Ballington Booth
In Memory of Catherine Booth,
The mother of the Salvation Army
Aug. 14, 1894
Let her own works prevail here.

The total cost of the building had slightly risen by the time of the ceremony.  The Sun reported "It will cost $325,000 including the site."  That amount with be equal to nearly $9.8 million today.

Completed the following year, the headquarters building reflected the military persona of the group with a maw-like centered entrance reminiscent of a fortress or armory.  The uppermost floors resembled a castle, with crenelated towers and lancet openings ready to fend off attack with crossbows.  

The Architectural Record called it simply an "architectural aberration."  But the article did not blame Gilbert A. Schellenger; rather it praised him for giving the Salvation Army what the writer rather viciously deemed was what it deserved.  "The same vulgarity and foolishness that appear in the 'knee drill' and the big drum should appear in the facade of a building devoted to the uses of the Army," it said, dismissing the idea of the Salvation Army as a genuine religious organization.

Unwilling to disguise his contempt for the group, the anonymous critic said it was the architect's duty to reflect his patron in the structure's design.  "As a conscientious artist should he not cause the thing to reek of vulgarity?...Nothing could well be cruder or nosier or more discordant.  It would be hard for anything to exceed it in vulgarity."

The article suggested that the loop-holes in the towers might be "from which the besieged Salvationists must be imagined to pour physical melted lead upon their spiritual besiegers."

The Salvation Army and the Booths seem to have been unruffled by the bad reviews of its new headquarters.  Maud Booth was as popular a speaker as her husband and she filled the auditorium to standing room on Sunday night, September 1, 1895 when she spoke on "The New Woman."

Many Victorian women of the 1890's were testing their independence, no longer content with being subservient to their husbands and the male population at large.  Maud Booth was clear in her opinion of the upstarts.

She said in part "The revolting creature, gaudily attired in man's clothing, possessed of strange notions about the home, wifehood and motherhood, scorned and shunned by the men, is not my idea of the new woman.  The new woman, according to the popular acceptation, speaks of children as 'brats,' says they tire and aggravate her, and so she bestows all her love upon some ugly little pug-nosed dog, which she carries in one of her mannish pockets.  She is also a man hater, and in her going forth to seek emancipation and a world-wide rule for her sex she declares it to be her mission to down and belittle him."

Photographed in 1897, the down-and-out slept overnight in the 14th Street headquarters, under less-than-comfortable conditions.  photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In 1896 Ballington and Maud Booth were stripped of their command by General William Booth, following a serious falling out.  They broke away from the Salvation Army to form the Volunteers of America.  The pair retained the 14th Street building and attempted to convert the Salvationists.  General William Booth, hearing of the mutiny, sent his daughter Evangeline, to rescue the organization from her brother.

On April 8 The Sun explained "It has been evident from the beginning of the revolt of the American Booths that 'General' Booth saw at once that its prompt suppression was necessary to preserve the Salvation Army from disruption.  Accordingly he hastened to use all his resources to that end."

Eva, as she was popularly known, arrived in New York on the steamship Teutonic on February 21, 1896.  Salvation Army legends tell a dramatic story of what ensued.  Told and retold is the tale that Eva found herself locked out of the 14th Street headquarters.  Members loyal to her brother and sister-in-law booed and hissed from the windows.  Eva waved an American flag over her head (some say she wrapped herself in it) and cried out "Hiss that, if you dare!"  She immediately won over the throng.

In fact, newspapers nationwide reported a much less romantic, if no less emotional string of events.  The Salt Lake Herald reported on February 22 "Almost directly after Commissioner Eva's arrival a meeting of the international committee was held.  There were present only Commander and Mrs. Ballington Booth, Commissioner Eva Booth, Commandant Herbert Booth and Colonel Nicol."

Evangeline Booth, from the collection of the Library of Congress.

Although Herbert Booth explained to Nicol, who had come from England with Eva, that the New York Salvation Army members were almost universal in their support of Ballington Booth and his wife, the couple was asked to turn over their keys.  They "quietly retired," in Ballington Booth's words.

Meanwhile, across the sea, Bramwell Booth told reporters "I do not believe that the attempt of Ballington Booth to destroy General Booth's influence and to divide the army will seriously disturb many of our people."  The Sun, on April 8, 1896, disagreed.  "It is now proved, therefore, that the rupture in the Salvation Army is beyond healing," it said.  "It is not likely that the Salvation Army anywhere will long service 'General' Booth, who is now an old man."

In the same basement room where "lodgers" slept, Commander Booth Tucker addressed Salvation Army members in 1902.  photograph by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The newspaper was wrong.  In 1910 the Salvation Army expanded into the historic Harriet Cruger mansion next door.  Perhaps as part of the project, architect William S. Barker was commissioned in March that year to alter the interior walls of the main building.

In the meantime, the ground floor shop was home to the Collapsible Paper Box Co., in 1913, and the Novelty Stamp Co., Inc. the following year.

The Financial Panic of 1907 left thousands of New Yorkers out of work for years.  Evangeline Booth had proposed to hire unemployed young women to make bandages for European war victims; but finances were tight.  When the chairman of the mayor's Committee for the Relief of the Unemployed contributed $1,000 to the program, her plan forged ahead.  Eva Booth explained the money would be put toward her hoped-for fund of $6,000 "in order that 100 needy girls might be given employment for ten weeks at a daily salary of $1 each."

In 1918 the Salvation Army headquarters suffered a massive fire.  So devastating was the damage that the upper half of the structure was destroyed.  On March 2 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that architect William S. Barker had been hired to reconstruct "the Salvation Army Training School."  The renovated structure would now be just four stories tall.

With its remodeled building completed the Salvation Army returned to business as normal.  The day after Thanksgiving in 1919 the New York Herald reported "The Salvation Army has made it a custom each year to round up the victims of John Barleycorn on Thanksgiving and make an effort to reclaim them."  

Thanksgiving had become known within the Salvation Army as "Boozers' Day," and a team of members searched the city's Skid Rows each year for alcoholics who were lured to the headquarters by the siren call of a turkey dinner.  The only price for the hot meal was listening to speeches of reform, hymns, and prayers.

The New York Herald reported "During the afternoon William Sheely, who was reclaimed ten years ago, and since then has aided at every 'Boozers' Day,' directed the expeditions of five automobile buses which scoured the Bowery, the Battery, Hell's Kitchen and other localities in search of horrible examples."

On October 19, 1926 the funeral of Salvation Army Commissioner Thomas Estill was held in the headquarters building.  It was presided over by Evangeline Booth.  The ceremony was among the last high-profile rituals within the building.

The reduced headquarters and the annex next door were both outdated and too confining for the Salvation Army's work.  Both were demolished and in 1929 the massive Art Deco-style structure designed by Ralph Walker of Voorhees, Gmelin & Walker was begun.  Despite the ongoing Great Depression, work forged on and the striking structure was completed in 1935.

photograph by Beyond My Ken

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