Saturday, April 18, 2020

The Friends' Meeting House and Seminary - 15 Rutherford Place

photo by Beyond My Ken
In 1657 a "company of traveling ministers of the Society of Friends from England, first landed at New Amsterdam," according to the February 1872 issue of The American Historical Record.  Their arrival did not sit well with Governor Peter Stuyvesant who passed an ordinance imposing a fine of 50 pounds on any person harboring a Quaker.  In 1892 The Sun's Guide to New York added that Stuyvesant "used to banish their co-religionists from New York after having them beaten and dragged at the tails of carts."

In an ironic twist that would have infuriated the governor, in 1860 the "Hicksite" Friends began construction of a three-story brick meeting house on the northwest corner of Rutherford Place and East 15th Street--formerly part of Stuyvesant's farm, or bouwerij.   The building was completed in 1864.  It faced Stuyvesant Square, a four-acre section of the former farm which Peter Gerard Stuyvesant, the governor's great-great-grandson, sold to the city for $5 in 1836 for use as a park.  

The group had been organized in 1827 after a quiet schism.  In the first decades of the 19th century the country was swept by a religious revival that focused on intense Bible study.  Traditionally, the Quakers relied on direct inspiration from God--"The Inner Light."  More important than Bible teachings was the personal interaction between the worshiper and the Diety.

While one group of the Society of Friends accepted the new Christian movement, another group led by Elias Hicks of Long Island adhered to the traditional Quaker teachings.  Known as the Hicksites they quietly removed themselves from the larger sect.  Rather than disturb the customary peace of yearly meeting of the Society of Friends in 1827 the Hicksites abstained from the proceedings.  The following year in what was to be called the Hicksite Schism, the Society divided itself into the Orthodox and Hicksite branches.

The new meeting house was erected by congregation member Charles T. Bunting, a builder, and he is presumed to have been the architect as well.  The Greek Revival style was out of date by now, but the simple lines and unadorned lintels and sills spoke to the simplicity of the lifestyle of the Society.  A harmonious seminary building was erected next door.

The Seminary building, right, was a near-match to the Meeting House.  photo by Irving Underhill, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The Meeting House was just that--as much a place for conducting meetings and lectures as of worship.  On May 31, 1861 The New York Herald reported "The Society of Friends (Hicksite branch) have been holding their annual business meeting at their new association building...The influx of Quakers from the country is quite as large as ever, the troubles of the country seeming to have little influence upon their affairs."  The newspaper dismissed the agenda, saying "So far as we have been able to learn, no particular business has been before the meeting."

In fact the pacifist group had much to discuss as rumbles of war echoed in the South.  The Society was vocally opposed to slavery, as well.  The New York Herald noted that over the past decades "numerous abolition societies were formed, comprising principally the Society of Friends." The members most likely saw great hope in the newly-elected president, Abraham Lincoln.  As the newspaper pointed out, "His ancestors...were respectable members of the Society of Friends." 

Following the end of war and slavery at least one Society member turned his attention to things less bellicose.  A letter to the editor of the Friends' Intelligencer in May 1869 praised the "bird castle" on the grounds.

One of remarkable good taste and arrangement was erected in the night last week by some unknown friend and lover of birds, within the grounds of the Friends' Meeting-House, corner East Fifteenth street and Stuyvesant Square...It is pronounced by good judges to be the most beautiful, durable (being made of iron) and appropriate house for the sparrows that has ever been erected and will accommodate over two hundred birds, and is well worth going to see.

The Meeting House was the scene of annual meetings, including those of the Universal Peace Union, organized in 1866.  Prior to the two-day conference held on May 13 and 14, 1889, an invitation was sent to President Grover Cleveland.  He politely declined, noting that "My engagements are so many," but agreed "The substitution of peace and arbitration for war and destruction is certainly an object worthy of the best efforts of civilized and enlightened men and nations."

The interior is essentially unadorned.  from the collection of the Library of Congress
Worship in Society of Friends' Meeting Houses were quite unlike other services.  There was no "form" in the meetings--no formal structure of the service.  As member Henry B. Hallock said in a letter in 1898, "While with us, the preaching of the Gospel and vocal prayer are frequent accompaniments of worship, these are not pre-arranged, but are entered into only after a period of silent waiting for the direct influence of the Holy Spirit.  Another distinguishing feature in Friends' meetings for worship is the absence of music, both vocal and instrumental, and in place thereof a period of profound silence."

The purpose of Hallock's letter was to oppose the gentle push to introduce music into the "First-day school," known as Sunday school in other sects.  He saw it as a slippery slope and warned his fellow communicants "to consider whether such a course is likely to lead ultimately to its introduction into our meetings for worship, and if so, to set their faces resolutely against so great an evil."

Funerals were routinely held in the Meeting House, but interestingly weddings were a rarity.  On October 22, 1893 the New York Herald reported on "a wedding of more than ordinary interest."  Elizabeth Willetts and Dr. Samuel W. Lambert had "declared themselves man and wife" the day before.

"It is nearly twenty years since a marriage has occurred in this meeting house, and it is safe to say that but very few present had witness such a ceremony.  The occasion was one of considerable solemnity, and there was an absence of most of the accompaniments of a fashionable wedding."  There was, of course, no music and no minister to lead the ceremony.  "After the pair had declared themselves in audible voices man and wife, each signed the marriage certificate which, according to Quaker custom, was then read to the congregation by Elder J. Howard Wright."

In 1961 the neighborhood had greatly changed, but the Society of Friends complex remained an 1864 time capsule.  photograph by Wurtz Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Constantly and tirelessly working for human rights and relief of human misery, the Society of Friends congregated in the Meeting House over the decades for a wide range of causes.  

On January 27, 1915 The Sun reported "A 'Quaker' suffrage meeting will be held on February 1, when the suffrage city convention meets in the old Friends Meeting House."  Three years later, as war ravaged Europe, J. Henry Scattergood updated the congregation on the work of the English and American Friends who were erecting portable houses in ruined villages.

A meeting here on May 26, 1920 called for "prison reform and aid for Mexico," and in January 1922 an appeal that would last several months was kicked off for aid to Russia which was suffering a devastating economic depression.  "Russia is in need of everything, broad toed, low heeled shoes, second hand warm clothing, or new material to be made up," said a spokesperson.

As the Second Avenue neighborhood around the Meeting House and Seminary changed in the last quarter of the 20th century, neither the quaint architecture nor the ideals of the congregation did.  On November 8, 1981 The New York Times journalist Marian Courtney reported on the Alternatives to Violence Project, Inc. headquartered here.  She described it as "a Quaker-inspired program that is designed to encourage the resolution of conflict through peaceful means."  And that was done in prisons.  A spokesperson told her "There is a waiting list of inmates who want the workshop, and we don't attempt to reach those who don't want it."

photograph by Momos

A restoration of the facade begun in 1989 included the reparation of the wooden doors and portico.  A century and a half after being built, the Friends Seminary continues as a vibrant private day school; the oldest continuous coeducational school in the City.  


  1. In his 1938 book, "New York, Oddly Enough," Charles G. Shaw includes a photo of "Penn's Hitching Post" with this caption: "William Penn often stepped on this granite carriage block, and as often his horse was hitched to this spot, for at one time they stood in front of his house on Letitia Street in Philadelphia. Now, however, this relic of past times decorates the southeast corner of the Friends' Meeting House in Stuyvesant Square, where it was placed as a gift of William G. McIlvain on May 7, 1936." In the 1961 Wurz Bros. photo you include above, the post is just below that tiny black spot on the lower left corner of the meeting house facade. It looks like a flaw in the negative, but it's actually a plaque!

    1. Took me a while to find it! Thanks! Very interesting.

  2. You can just make it out in Google Street View!

  3. The hitching post and plaque can be viewed at The Historical Marker Database.

  4. Pieter Stuyvesant's sentence of public torture against a 23 year old Quaker convert brought about the Flushing Remonstrance, in which the non-Quaker residents of Flushing stood up for freedom of religion as was noted in their town charter. They were arrested and/or forced to recant. But when Stuyvesant arrested a farmer, John Bowne, in 1662 for holding illegal meetings in his home, Bowne was banished from the colony. He immediately went to Amsterdam to plead for the Quakers. There he won his case. Though the Dutch West India Company called Quakerism an “abominable religion,” it nevertheless overruled Stuyvesant in 1663 and ordered him to “allow everyone to have his own belief.” Thus did religious toleration become the law of the colony.

  5. Very interesting. I went to Friends Seminary from kindergarten to 12th grade -- my closest friends are from there

    1. So did I. My closest friends at are also from there . Did you have Mr. Schwartz for English or Latin? If so, were you at the memorial for him yesterday?

  6. What do you now about origins of Pennington Friends HOuse at 215 E. 15th Street next to the Meeting?