Monday, May 11, 2020

The Lost All Souls' Church Rectory - 104 East 20th Street

An orgy of visual delights, Mould's design included a circular overlight above the entrance and a balcony at the third floor.  Old Buildings of New York City, 1907 (copyright expired)
Born in 1814, the Rev. Dr. Henry Whitney Bellows graduated from Harvard and the Cambridge Divinity School.  He was appointed pastor of the First Congregational Unitarian Church in 1839, the name of which was later changed to the Unitarian Church of All Souls.  A powerful orator, he was admired for his ability to speak without preparation with remarkable lucidity and style.  He was the author of many pamphlets and lectures.  His interests were not restricted to religion.  He was made an honorary member of the National Academy of Design in 1849, and was attentive to medical issues.

Decades later, in 1914, The Pacific Unitarian recalled that by 1852 "the First Congregational Church had grown so strong that once again it decided to move to a more desirable part of town."  Land was acquired on the southeast corner of Fourth Avenue (later Park Avenue South) and 20th Street, "one of the choicest residence parts of the city, still certified by Gramercy Park, near by."

The trustees set out to find an architect, initially choosing C. F. Anderson.  Although the board approved his plans it's president, Moses H. Grinnell, rejected them.   He had his eye on a young English architect, 27-year old Jacob Wrey Mould.  The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide explained later, "Mr. Mould came to this country, it is said, at the instance of Moses H. Grinnell, to design a Unitarian church.  At any rate his first employment was to design the Church of All Souls."

Mould's plans, submitted to the board of trustees on July 8, 1853, were possibly shocking to some of its more conservative members.  His vibrant Italian Romanesque design featured alternating red brick and white limestone creating a striped effect.  As Helen W. Henderson explained in her 1917 A Loiterer in New York, “This was...long before New York had become accustomed to see planted, on her stern rock foundations, those exotics that now bloom so easily in the strong sea-light of the island city.” 

Whether the other board members approved on not, Grinnell was won over.  Rev. Bellows would later remark that Grinnell was "bewitched by the architect."

The rectory sits behind the church, which took on the popular name The Church of the Holy Zebrafrom the collection of the New York Public Library
As architecturally unorthodox as the church was the rectory, directly behind at No. 104 East 20th Street.  Mould continued the striped motif in the residence, but its effect was greatly diluted by the prominent repetition of arched and circular openings.  A projecting second story bay supported by beefy supports like backwards buttresses stole the spotlight with its paired windows within a large red-and-white arch.

Rev. Bellows sat for Civil War photographer Matthew Brady for this portrait.  from the collection of the Library of Congress
Bellows's wife was the former Eliza Nevins Townsend, whose father, Elihu Townsend, had been one of the founders of the First Congregational Church in 1819.  Their daughter Anna told church historian H. S. Bates "of the time when the Bellow family moved into the parsonage, adjoining the new church, and of her delight at its large, lofty rooms and numerous passages which her mother found most impracticable for house-keeping."  She was quoted by Helen Henderson as adding "I thought the complicated and somewhat mysterious and inconvenient parsonage delightful, but my mother did not."

Family historian Thomas Bellows, in his The Bellows Genealogy, described Eliza as "a woman of strong spiritual and intellectual endowments and, although always delicate in health, entered heart and soul into the various duties of domestic and parochial life."

The wife of the pastor of a wealthy congregation like this one (it counted among its influential and well-known members the likes of William Cullen Bryant, Peter Cooper, and Joseph H. Choate) oversaw a domestic staff like other society women.  

Things apparently did not always work out with servants; but Eliza Bellows seems to have been accommodating in allowing them to see prospective employers in the house.  An advertisement in The New York Herald on September 30, 1856 read:  "Wanted--A situation by a respectable woman, as laundress, who has a perfect knowledge of her business, and has the best of city references.  Can be seen for two days at the parsonage of All Souls' church, corner of 20th st. and 4th avenue."  And in May 1858 another servant was looking to move on.  Her ad read, "Wanted--A situation by a respectable girl, as waitress, or as chambermaid and waitress.  Apply at Dr. Bellows' parsonage house, All Soul's church."

Eliza was hostess to any number of gatherings in the rectory.  Thomas Bellows recalled "Their home was always the centre of a wide and generous hospitality, and the young minister lent a patient and willing ear to all sorts of appeals in behalf of educational and philanthropic schemes with which he was supposed to have sympathy."

Among the groups that would meet in the library or drawing room was the Sanitary Commission, formed by Bellows after he convinced President Lincoln of the need to protect soldiers in the field as much as possible against unsanitary conditions.  In an open letter to the Executive Finance Committee in the City of New York in 1861 Bellows pleaded in part "In such a struggle, it is madness to waste a single hour, still more a single life.  Most of all should we avoid the ruinous delay of slowly replacing in the wasted camp the tens of thousands which our neglect may thoughtlessly leave to die, almost within our sight."

Following the war the house saw meetings of the Flower Mission, which distributed fresh flowers to hospitals during the warm months of June through September, and the American Society of Civil Engineers.  

The women of the Flower Mission distribute flowers in the Women's Ward of the Convalescent Hospital.  Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, May 5, 1877 (copyright expired) 
Having served as pastor for 43 years, Rev. Bellows died on January 30, 1882.  The congregation created a Memorial Fund for the Bellows family of $50,000--just under $1.3 million today.  life-sized bronze memorial tablet designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens was installed in the main church in 1883.

Saint-Gaudens's massive bronze tablet of Bellows.  A Loiterer in New York, 1917 (copyright expired)
The rectory was converted to the Church House (the new pastor, Rev. Theodore Chickering Williams was provided a home at No. 150 West 59th Street).  In 1914 The Pacific Unitarian wrote "Pictures of the various pastors of the church can be seen on the walls of the room where the Woman's Alliance of All Souls' Church holds its meetings together with some rare, old paintings of religious subjects."

The New York Flower Mission continued to be headquartered in the former rectory, and in 1909 the Unitarian Advance, a monthly magazine "of Progress in Religion" had its offices here.  The following year The Individual and Social Justice League of America was formed at a meeting in the building.  The New York Times described it as "an anti-Socialism organization, having in it many prominent preachers, educators, labor union men and legislators."

In 1929 the once-vibrant contrast of red brick and white stone was dulled by soot and grime and significant deterioration of the stonework below the second floor was evident.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In 1917 Park Avenue, once lined with elegant mansions, was a busy thoroughfare.  The church doors were locked and the entrance was moved around the corner to the former rectory.  "One enters [the church] through Dr. Bellows' house," explained Helen Henderson in her A Loiterer in New York, "now transformed into a church house and a hive of useful activities."  She lamented, however, that the church proper was "neglected and shabby.  Its stone work is scaling off, its garden is overgrown, and its gates padlocked and rusty."

The congregation sold the property in 1929 for $475,000--more than $7 million today.  The church sat empty for two years before being destroyed by fire on August 23, 1931.  The ruins and its rectory, called by The New York Times "one of the most remarkable architectural creations ever placed upon Manhattan Island," were replaced by a brown brick apartment building.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this interesting post! I have been researching family history and recently learned of the connection to Henry Whitney Bellows via Eliza Nevins Townsend. How sad that the church is gone, but I am somewhat tickled to find that I have dined on more than one occasion at the L'Express that now stands in its place. One other note - my research into Eliza's father Elihu Townsend found that he lived just around the corner at 16 Gramercy Park South, which now houses The Players (