Wednesday, April 15, 2020

The Church of the Transfiguration - 1 East 29th Street

An early 20th century postcard captures the rural charm of the urban refuge.

In his 1882 New York by Sunlight and Gaslight, James Dabney McCabe described the Church of the Transfiguration on 29th Street, just east of Fifth Avenue.  "It is popularly known as 'The Little Church Around the Corner.'  It is a pretty, rambling sort of structure, built of brownstone, beautifully ornamented and decorated within, and of a size that by no means merits the popular title given it.  A pretty churchyard shaded by fine trees and laid off with green sward lies between the church and the street, and luxuriant vines clamber over the edifice, giving to the place a charming rural aspect."  McCabe had painted a vivid, accurate word picture of the complex which had begun thirty-four years earlier.  

George Headric Houghton was admitted to the Episcopal ministry around 1846.  He was made assistant to the Rev. Dr. Muhlenbach in the Church of the Holy Communion, but he remained only one year.  In 1848 at the age of 28, he organized the Church of the Transfiguration in the still developing Murray Hill neighborhood.  

The Rev. Lawson Carter owned a house on East 24th Street which he offered to the fledgling congregation to use for sixteen months rent-free.  There the first service was held on the first Sunday in October 1848.  The Sun later recalled "the room was furnished with a few benches, a lectern made of pine wood, and a small parlor organ, which bore the marks of long and severe service."  When the sixteen months were up, a small building was acquired at No. 1 East 29th Street.  "When Dr. Houghton moved his congregation to the building in East Twenty-ninth street, there was not another building on the block, and the view was unobstructed from Madison square to Murray Hill."

A new structure, the eastern most part of the present church, was opened on March 10, 1850.  Despite its shaky start (Rev. Houghton was forced to find various outside jobs to provide the finances to keep the church afloat), by the time of the Civil War years the congregation of the Church of the Transfiguration had grown to "a very fashionable one," as described by James McCabe.  

Among its prominent members was Dr. Valentine Mott, an internationally renowned surgeon whose mansion was at No. 1 Gramercy Park.  A close friend and adviser to Abraham Lincoln, Mott was so disturbed by his assassination that the incident hastened his own death.  He died a week after the President.  On April 30, 1865, in reporting that his funeral would be held in the Church of the Transfiguration that day, The New York Herald noted "It will be attended by the most eminent medical men in the country, and also by distinguished persons in every profession."

By now the church complex had grown with the addition of a handsome rectory in the French Second Empire style--the only section of eventual string of additions to take on a sophisticated, urban personality.   

The rectory (left) strays from the Gothic Revival motif of the rest of the complex.  photo by Beyond My Ken
Although not nearly so socially-important as Dr. Mott's, the funeral of George Holland in December 1870 would change the course of the Church of the Transfiguration forever.  Holland was a well-known actor and when The New York Times eulogized him on December 22, two days after his death, there was no hint of the controversy that had surrounded the arranging of his funeral.

He lived to a great age--hard upon eighty--without a stain on his name, or the performance of any part in the drama of life over the memory of which those who loved him need blush.  He died at last in his sleep.

But once the actor had been respectably buried, the newspaper felt no need to restrain its indignation.  In an article entitled "Pharisaical Delicacy" on December 29, it told how Joseph Jefferson, an equally famous actor, had gone to the Church of the Atonement on Madison Avenue and 28th Street, on the suggestion of one of Holland's female relatives.  The Rev. W. T. Sabine was in the course of making the arrangements when Jefferson happened to mention that Holland had been an actor.

"On hearing this announcement, Rev. Mr. Sabine immediately exclaimed that he strongly objected to officiating at the funeral if such was the case.  Instead of complying with the request he referred his visitor to the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration in East Twenty-ninth-street, near Fifth-avenue, which he spoke of 'the little church around the corner,' telling him at the same time that they might 'do it' (meaning the funeral service)."  The Times said Jefferson left "with his feelings greatly shocked."

Forever more the Church of the Transfiguration would be popularly known as The Little Church Around the Corner--so much so, in fact, that many people forgot the true name--and became the unofficial church of the theatrical community.  Ironically, Rev. Houghton himself had only been in a theater once in his life, at the age of 15 on his first visit to the city.  The New York Times recalled on November 18, 1897, "He went with a cousin to the old Chatham Street Theatre.  But the horror and grief of his mother at the time forever took away from him the desire to attend again."

The list of actors' funerals held within the Church of the Transfiguration over the next decade alone was impressive.  Among them were services for George Belmore, B. O. Porter, and John Brougham.  And there were weddings, as well.  On January 8, 1882 William G. C. Seymour and May Caroline Davenport, "both members of the theatrical profession," according to The New York Times, were married here.

photograph by Bestbudbrian
All the while enlargements to the church continued.  In the September 6, 1873 issue of Appletons' Journal, Rodolphe E. Garczynski wrote an article entitled "Church Architecture In New York" in which he fondly called it "the Church of the Holy Cucumber-vine" and commented "Few persons pass it without feeling inspired with an affectionate regard for the straggling mass of buildings cropping up out of a beautiful garden."  In 1888 King's Handbook of Notable Episcopal Churches in the United States added "The peculiarity of this structure is, that it represents stages of the growth of the parish; part being added to part as it was needed, and could be paid for."

Brownstone residences lined the street at the time this postcard photo was taken.
Among the most notable of the funerals held in the church was that of Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth on June 9, 1893.  The New York Times said it "will pass into history as among the most remarkable ever held in New York City.

Encaustic tile and wooden parquet flooring, and vibrant stenciling decorate the choir.  photograph by Bestbudbrian

Among those in the procession from The Players on Gramercy Park where Booth had lived to the 29th Street church were not only actors like Joseph Jefferson, but figures well-known in architecture, business and finance, art and politics.  Among them were John T. Sullivan, Stanford White, Robert S. Minturn, Augustus St. Gaudens, Joseph Holland, Stuart Robson, and Daniel Frohman to name a few.

The Times remarked "The scene in and about the 'Little Church Around the Corner' was even more remarkable than that in front of The Players.  Men prominent in business and professional circles, and women who figure as leaders in the social world, crowded the sidewalks and were so eager to obtain a view of the coffin and the mourners that it required all the skill of Capt. Richard O'Connor of the Nineteenth Precinct to preserve order."

The intimate, magnificent Lady Chapel.  photo by Bestbudbrian

At around 4:00 on November 17, 1897, after having performed two services, the Rev. Dr. George H. Houghton "seemed much distressed," as reported in The New York Times.  A physician was called who found him suffering from rapidly worsening congestion of the lungs.  Houghton died within an hour and a half of showing symptoms.  He had been the only rector of the church he had founded, having served 49 years.

Houghton's body laid in state in the chapel on November 19.  Nearly 2,000 people filed past the oaken casket that day.  The funeral was held the following day.  Not unexpectedly, among the tributes from around the city were those from the Actor's National Protective Union, the Lambs Club, The Players and the Twelfth Night Club.

Construction continued on the holy cucumber vine.  On October 15, 1898 the Record & Guide reported that the vestry "has decided to erect a tower and spire on the church in East 29th street" as a memorial to Rev. Dr. George H. Houghton; and on July 15, 1904 architect John H. Knubel filed plans for a "brick porch" to cost $2,000 (about $59,200 today).  On November 8, 1908 The New York Times reported "Probably the most beautiful mortuary chapel in this city will soon be consecrated by The Church of the Transfiguration, better known as the 'Little Church Around the Corner.'"  The chapel was dedicated on November 17 to the memory of Dr. Houghton.

The Rev. Dr. George Clarke Houghton, had become rector upon his uncle's death.  In reporting on his twenty-fifth anniversary on November 20, 1922, The Times commented, "Aside from its distinctive location and architecture, 'The Little Church Around the Corner' is best known as a magnet for Cupid.  Ten weddings a day in 'the season' are nothing unusual."  Indeed, the Works Progress Administration's 1939 New York City Guide said "More marriage ceremonies are performed here, perhaps, than in any other church in the city."

That fact was substantiated when Mary C. Hanlon, the parish secretary, retired in April 1948 after serving thirty-two years.  "She estimated that she probably had arrange 50,000 weddings at the 'Little Church,'" reported The New York Times.

The expansion of the church complex continued into the second half of the 20th century.  In October 1964 a new parish house, designed by Holden, Egan, Wilson & Corser, was completed.  

photo by Beyond My Ken
Through it all, the tranquil garden has been a place of respite for 170 years, the rambling architecture a relief from the city's pressures, and the art-filled interior a place of magnificence.

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