Monday, June 17, 2019

The Lost Eglise du St. Esprit - 45-47 East 27th Street

American Architect & Building News, July 27, 1901 (copyright expired)

The French language church L'Eglise Francaise a la Nouvelle York was organized in the 17th century by the Rev. Pierre Daille.  His was the first French-language congregation to have a dedicated structure in which to worship.  The small church building was located near today's Battery Place.  It was the first of several locations; the moves prompted by one or both of two factors: a growing congregation and an increasingly commercial neighborhood squeezing out the parishioners.

The congregation no doubt thought they had found their permanent home in 1862 when a handsome new brownstone edifice was erected at Nos. 28-32 West 22nd Street.  The block was one of high-stooped homes and just half a block to the east on Fifth Avenue Manhattan's wealthiest citizens lived in enviable luxury.  But by the end of the 19th century the millionaires of Fifth Avenue had moved further north, while stores and lofts invaded Sixth Avenue and the side streets. 

Apparently newspapers and their readers found the cumbersome French name too inconvenient; for the church was variously referred to simply the Eglise du St. Esprit, the French Church of the Holy Spirit, or the French Church of St. Esprit.  And so it was on March 25, 1899 when the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide announced that "The French Church of St. Esprit is the buyer of Nos. 45-57 East 27th Street."  The journal noted the property would be used "as a site for a new church edifice."  (The site had for years been part of the Stephenson car factory complex.)  The church paid $55,000 for the plots.

By the end of summer the trustees had selected the architectural firm of Brun & Hausen, whose name has almost entirely disappeared from memory.  Construction of the "three-story brick and stone, steel construction church" according to The Engineer Record, would be $50,000--bringing the full price of the project to nearly $3.3 million today.

The office of Brun & Hausen released the above rendering to the press. The World, October 10, 1899 (copyright expired)

Construction commenced on October 9, 1899.  Newspapers were especially struck by some details requested by the Rev. Alfred Victor Wittmeyer and the trustees.  The World reported "It will be the first church in New York with billiard and recreation rooms and a complete gymnasium in the basement."  The article explained that the funds to erect the limestone and brick structure came from the sale of the 22nd Street property.  

The Evening Post added that there would also be a bowling alley, reading-room, Sunday-school room, recitation-room, lecture-room, and an apartment for the janitor.  It made special note that the "young men's room" and the "young women's room" would have "bathrooms and a douche attached."  The article noted "The style of architecture is to be pure French Gothic of the fifteenth century."

Interestingly, because the stained glass windows of the old church were "of a kind, it is said, that is not now made," they were carefully disassembled and reinstalled in the new edifice.  The Gothic motif was carried on into the interior where cast iron columns, rather than stone, upheld the balconies and roof.

The trustees were also intent on creating "a temporary house for French working-girls, which has long been greatly needed," according to The Evening Post on June 29, 1899.  Young women arriving from France could find shelter in the Huguenot Home until employment was found for them.

Construction was completed in February 1900.  At the time the congregation numbered around 300; many of them traveling relatively long distances since finding a French-language church was not easy.  The Evening Post commented that they "are scattered all over Greater New York and its neighborhood.  They include residents of Brooklyn, Staten Island, Jersey City, and Hoboken, while many live in Harlem."

Rev. Wittmeyer had been rector of the church since 1879.  Born in Lorraine, France, he was brought to America by his father, who had been banished by Napoleon III "for excessive republicanism."   The young man had enlisted in the Union Army and fought in both the Battle of Gettysburg and the second Battle of Antietam.  At the end of the war he traveled to France to prepare for the ministry and there became entangled in the Franco-Prussian War.  Once again he fought in battle.

Back in America Wittmeyer was one of the founders of the Huguenot Society of America and would go on to write several books on French Protestantism in the United States.  The French translation of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer used in the L'Eglise du St. Esprit was by him.

Three years after construction of the new building was completed, Wittmeyer took on another mission.  On June 4, 1904 The Globe and Commercial Advisor explained "He will sail on the Rhinedame of the Holland-American Line on June 28 and will spend the summer in France, Belgium and Switzerland, speaking in the interest of French immigration from a religious and material standpoint."

The church as it appeared in 1916.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society
Wittmeyer had seen first-hand the difficulties the immigrants experienced upon arriving in an unknown land.  "He will tell his audience how they should prepare for business life here and who should not come here at all," said the article.

The churches of well-to-do congregations closed during the summer months.  There was little need for them to remain open when the bulk of their communicants were gone from the city at fashionable resorts or summer homes.  So Wittmeyer's leaving in June made sense.  His return, however, was a bit late.  On September 3, 1904 The Globe and Commercial Advisor announced "The French Episcopal Church, Eglise du St. Esprit, will reopen tomorrow, but the Rev. Dr. A. V. Wittmeyer, who is on a mission abroad, will not return until later."

A month later, on October 9, he was back in the pulpit and his sermon, "The Religious Crisis in France," reflected the trip.  The New York Press noted "Mr. Wittmeyer has been addressing audiences in France since early in the summer and has had exceptional opportunities to learn the facts of prevailing conditions there."

Around 1926 once again the congregation found itself hemmed in by commercial buildings.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
New Yorkers aware of the good works of the congregation were possibly shocked when they read a headline in The Sun on April 10, 1925:  "French Girls May Lose Home / Church du St. Esprit Sells Building and Sues to Evict 24 in Huguenot Institution."  The trustees had sold the Huguenot Home at No. 237 West 24th Street, built simultaneously with the church, and "provided no other place for the home."  When the young women, many of whom spoke no English, found themselves with no place to go, they stayed.  And so the church started eviction proceedings.  It was an unexpectedly cold move.

After heading L'Eglise du St. Esprit for 45 years, Rev. Wittmeyer died on November 12, 1926.  The New York Times said his death was due to "ailments incident to his age."  He was 79.

It may have been only Wittmeyer who had kept the congregation in the 27th Street location.  Not long after his death the property was sold and the congregation moved its worship services to the auditorium of the French Institute uptown.   The Brun & Hausen designed church and other surrounding properties were demolished for the 20-story office building known today as 386 Park Avenue South.

image via 42Floors. com

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