Thursday, February 13, 2020

The 1913 Synod Hall - Amsterdam Avenue and 110th Street

After the grounds of the former Leake & Watts Orphan Asylum were purchased by the Episcopal Church as the site of its planned cathedral, the asylum building took on the duties of Synod Hall--the meeting place of the Episcopal General Convention.  But in 1911 J. Pierpont Morgan, for years the chairman of the Committee on Place of Meeting, and William Bayard Cutting, a New York Deputy of the group, agreed that a permanent, proper hall should be built and that they would build it.

The northeast corner of Amsterdam Avenue and 110th Street was selected.  The new Synod Hall would be the only building in the complex other than the cathedral to face Amsterdam Avenue.  On November 29, 1911 The New York Times noted that the trustees of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine had ordered work to begin the following week on the $300,000 structure, the cost of which Morgan and Cutting had agreed to split.  (Each of their contributions would equal a little more than $4 million today.)

The article noted "The architecture will be that of the cathedral as changed by the new architects."  Ralph Adams Cram of Cram, Goodhue & Ferguson had recently been appointed "consulting architect" and had changed the cathedral plans from Romanesque to Gothic.  The new Synod Hall would follow suit.

The plan was to have the hall completed in time for the next Episcopal General Convention, in October 1913.  The Sun explained that when the convention was not in session the structure would be used "for religious meetings of all kinds."  The general meeting hall would seat 1,200 persons and there would be a large banquet chamber for other gatherings, and a series of smaller committee rooms.  

Construction progressed according to schedule and on July 26, 1913 The Sun reported that it was nearly finished.  "Only the installation of the organ, the placing of the speakers' platform and the filling in of the seats remain to be attended to," it said.  "The new hall is Gothic within and without."  Over the main door were figures of five religious and historic figures, including Charlemagne, Constantine, Alfred the Great, Gustavus Adolphus and, perhaps a bit surprisingly, George Washington.

George Washington took center stage between the doors and directly below the figure of Christ.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York 
The newspaper noted it was built of "a new West Virginia sandstone, gray with pink tinges, which will mellow beautifully with age.  This is the first structure for which this particular stone has ever been used."  The stained glass windows were imported from England.

The building was dedicated on October 7, 1913 with Bishop David H. Greer officiating.  Notably missing from the ceremony were its donors.  William Bayard Cutting had died on March 1, 1912, and J. P. Morgan on March 31, 1913.  Greer called the building "a splendid memorial" to the men.  The New-York Tribune wrote "Mr. Cram's design has the right artistic salience and charm.  Perfectly adjusted to its surroundings, it also possesses a character and a beauty of its own."

Behind the newly-completed hall can be seen the rising Cathedral of St. John the Divine.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York 
Inside, the main meeting hall featured an open-beamed ceiling with colorful stenciling and two massive hanging candelabra.  The Tribune opined "Between the dark and discreetly carved panelling of the main floor and the galleries and the stately, yet somehow very friendly, roof the bare stone walls strike a weighty note, the piers and windows which break them serving to lighten their austerity, without disturbing their essential character."  The critic summed it up saying "It is a fine monument, of importance to the Church and to American architecture."

A massive chandelier hangs before the organ loft.  Convention delegates sat in theater-type chairs. The American Architect, December 17, 1913 (copyright expired)  

Not every critic was as accepting of Cram's design.  In its January 1914 issue, The Architectural Review insisted that "modern architecture should strive to reveal the modernity of a building's construction by expressing a modern point of view in its design rather than literally reproducing architectural forms from which vitality has departed."  It called Cram's exterior design "cold repression" and said the hall itself "partakes of the same bare coldness; although the organ-case and the balcony-rail are modern--and English--in type."

The conventions within Synod Hall dealt with weighty matters of the Church.  In its first sessions the delegates so disagreed upon various issues that on October 14, 1913 The Evening World began its article saying "There was every prospect to-day that the session of the General Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Synod Hall...would even more resemble a Republican national convention with Bull Moose trimmings than did the proceedings of yesterday."  The delegates grappled with the proposal to merge with the Church of England, the issue of intermarriage between Blacks and whites, and whether or not to have a "presiding bishop," or in effect a pope, over the Episcopal Church.

In the fall of 1918 The Most Rev. Meletios Metaxakis, Metroplitan of Athens and the primate of the Orthodox Greek Church came to New York.  On the afternoon of October 6 he was the principal speaker at a special service in the cathedral and the following evening he was guest of honor at a dinner in the banquet room of Synod Hall.

A special convention to elect a bishop was called for September 17, 1919 following the death of Bishop David Greer.  The Evening World noted that "If every clergyman and layman who has a right to vote is present, the convention will number 819."  That posed a problem.  Although Synod Hall could accommodate 1,200 persons, 500 of those would necessarily be in the gallery.  That, said the article, would resulting "great confusion in the casting of ballots."  Therefore the cathedral proper was used for the convention at which William T. Manning, rector of Trinity Church, was elected.

Manning was installed on May 11, 1921 in the cathedral.  The New York Herald anticipated it would be "the most impressive ceremony of the kind ever witnessed in New York."  The outspoken and decisive Bishop Manning got straight to work.  The article noted that later that day he would be addressing the session of the diocesan convention in Synod Hall with his "declaration of policy."

On August 7, 1942 President Franklin D. Roosevelt endorsed a program to scrap metal from public buildings and other locations for the war effort.  Bronze statues were melted down, copper trimming from the roofs of vintage buildings was removed, and other materials were pried loose to be remade into military implements.  On September 13 The New York Times reported that Bishop Manning had joined the cause by donating five tons of metal from the cathedral complex.  "The antique side rails from the steps of Synod Hall, more than 100 years old...were stripped away for scrap."

Bishop Manning looks on as workmen remove the vintage railings.  The New York Times, September 13, 1942

By now Synod Hall held the diocesan offices and exhibit space.  As the century progressed it was used as a concert space was well.  Admission went toward cathedral efforts like its homeless outreach program.  The main hall and the banquet room were available for rental by 1984.  An evening's rent for the hall that at the time was $1,250 (nearly three times that much in today's money).

Despite standing in the shadow of the magnificent Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Ralph Adams Cram's Synod Hall holds its own; a striking example of Gothic Revival architecture.

photographs by the author

1 comment:

  1. I pass this on the bus everyday on my way to Bank Street School and never knew always assumed it was part of St. John. WOW, I've have to take some time to go exploring. Thanks for the informative history.