Wednesday, June 10, 2020

A Church Turned Studio Turned Theater - The IFC Center (Waverly Theater) 325 6th Avenue

The peaked roof of the 1830's church structure can still be seen.  photo by Ajay Suresh

In the first years of the 1830's a church was built for the Third Universalist Society on leased ground at Nos. 23-25 Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village.  The building would see a rather rapid turnover of congregations in the next two decades.  In 1839 it was acquired by the Third Associated Presbyterian Church which sold it four years later to St. Jude's Episcopal Free Church.   The trustees remodeled the church and it was possibly at this time that it attained its Gothic Revival arched windows.  The Greek Revival entrance with its classical, triangular pediment was left intact.

Decades later, after having been converted for business, the ecclesiastical personality of the structure remained.  Note the Greek Revival doorway, original to the building.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Controversy soon swirled around the church, which embraced the "new school" teachings of the English churchman Dr. Edward Bouverier Pusey.  A sermon in May 1843 caused him to be banned from preaching for two years.  St. Luke's Episcopal took up a collection (its second one) for his benefit in its new church building on December 3 that year.  The editors of the New York Herald decried it as "enterprise."

To-day a strong effort will be made to shake the devil from his vantage-ground...St. Jude's Episcopal Free Church offers to receive Episcopalians and others for anything or nothing, and the inducement offered is not from the Bible or from Dean's theology, but the word is Enterprise!  Not the pure and orthodox religion of the protestant church, but the individual enterprise of a new school enthusiast, whose only aim is, pence and Dr. Pusey.

Only ten years after making the significant changes to the building, St. Luke's Episcopal sold it to the Union Reformed Church.  The Dutch Reformed congregation, which would remain for more than half a century, enjoyed quiet success.

The minutes of May 1872 recorded "While there has been no great revival, there has been a high degree of spiritual life; the membership have been earned in pray and labor.  As many as forty-three have been added to the Church, on confession of faith, the past year."

Affluent churches closed their doors during the summer months as their congregants left the city for country homes and other resorts.  It was an opportune time for repairing and redecorating their buildings.  On September 16, 1872 The New York Times entitled an article "Reopening of the Union Reformed Church, Sixth-Avenue" and reported "This comfortable place of worship was reopened for service yesterday, having been thoroughly repaired and beautifully decorated and upholstered, the walls and ceilings handsomely frescoed, and the stained-glass windows renovated.  The members of the congregation having returned from the country and sea-side, were present in their accustomed places."

By the third quarter of the 19th century the neighborhood around the church had changed.  Immigrant families were filling tenement buildings and former private homes.  The immediate area around Minetta Lane, across Sixth Avenue, had become the center of the Black community, earning it the nickname Little Africa.  Its impoverished residents lived in decrepit homes described by reformer Jacob Riis as "vile rookeries."  

That the trustees were considering moving was evidenced on January 31, 1884 when the New Amsterdam Gazette pointed out that the leasehold on the property would expire in six years, "and can now be sold for some $5,000."  It would have been a nice windfall for the congregation, about $134,000 today, towards erecting a new building.  The article added "The present tendency of Sixth Avenue certainly renders new arrangements, in regard to a church-building on that Avenue a delicate question."

On October 20 the following year, during the fall meeting of the New York Classis, the Rev. Dr. Fairchild reported that a move was "a necessity."  According to the New Amsterdam Gazette he complained that the church was "situated in the vicinity of countless disreputable resorts, and that husbands and fathers would not have their wives and daughters pass them on their way to church."

The editor of that newspaper found the pastor's remarks misguided.  "Such neighborhoods as these need churches and schools far greater than others of more refinement."  It added, "Those who know our city well will agree with us, that to find a street in New York completely free from vice must be regarded as an impossibility."  The writer flatly denounced his plan as "absurd."

Apparently the Reformed Classis and Synod agreed, for the United Reformed Church remained in the Sixth Avenue building until 1893.  That year the trustees sold it to the J. & R. Ecclesiastical Art firm, which renovated it for its studio and factory.   

Established by brothers Joseph and Richard Lamb in 1857, by now it was run by Joseph's three sons, Richard, Charles Rollinson, and Frederick Stymetz Lamb.  Charles R. Lamb doubled as an architect, chiefly designing churches.  In a symbiotic relationship, his family's firm routinely collaborated in creating the stained glass and interiors.

The Church, April 1898 (copyright expired)
Charles's wife, Ella Condie Lamb, was an artist and stained glass designer.  The same year the firm moved into the renovated church she won a medal at the Chicago Exposition for her oil painting The Advent Angel.

This painted and stained glass window, "Memory," was the work of Ella C. Lamb.  image via
An example of the scope of projects undertaken by J. & R. Lamb was the major remodeling and redecoration in 1903 of the Church of St. Edward the Martyr on East 109th Street.  The New-York Daily Tribune described the transformation on December 14 as "almost a new church" and noted "To Charles R. Lamb, of J. & R. Lamb, this city, was intrusted by the rector and wardens the decorations of the interior of the church, including all the choir and sanctuary furnishings, stained glass, mosaic, marble and metal work."  The journalist called the finished product, "one of the most effective and churchly interiors, not only in New-York, but probably in this country."

The renovated Church of St. Edward the Martyr.  New-York Tribune, December 14, 1903 (copyright expired)
In important commission came in 1908 when J. & R. Lamb was hired to design and execute three stained glass windows for the historic Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights.  The portrait windows, which were unveiled in December, were described by the New-York Tribune as "illustrating historical subjects."  "The windows represent Henry Ward Beecher speaking at Exeter Hall, London, on behalf of the federal government; Abraham Lincoln standing by a table on which the Emancipation Proclamation lies, and, finally a group which consists of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Emma Willard, Mary Lyon and Catherine Esther Beecher.  The topics of the pictures are: 'The Champion,' 'The Emancipator' and 'The Educators.'"

Richard Lamb died on March 24, 1909 at the age of 74.  On the day after his funeral a memorial service was held in the Sixth Avenue studio for the employees and business associates.  The addresses given by his brothers seem a bit out of context for the occasion.  Frederick spoke on "Relations of the Employees to the firm," and Charles on the "History of the House."

Taken in 1932, this photograph shows the sharp curve of the Sixth Avenue Elevated to the left.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
When Sixth Avenue was extended to the south in 1925 the building received its new address of No. 325 Sixth Avenue.  J & R. Lamb Ecclesiastical Art Works remained at the location until 1935 when architect Harrison Wiseman was hired to convert the structure into a motion picture theater.  He replaced the church-like facade with a vaguely Art Moderne panel and marquee. The renovations were completed in 1937.

As renovations continue, the facade has been removed and the interiors gutted.  The peaked roof was retained.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
The new facade slopes backward to meet the original 1830's roofline.  Playing here at the time of this photo was The Great Waltz with Luise Rainer, and Flirting with Fate, starring Joe E. Brown.   from the collection of the New York Public Library
The Waverly Theater was a fixture for Greenwich Village movie-goers for decades.  It joined a trend in the 1980's by showing cult films late at night.  In the November 4, 1984 issue of The New York Times critic Donal Henahan commented "The most devoted New York audiences are those obsessed, enthusiastic, monomaniacal nighthawks who attend the special midnight shows at theaters such as Greenwich Village's Waverly."  The fare, he said, "can be just about any old thing: a sentimental valentine like 'King of Hearts,' a camp expose like 'Reefer Madness,' a horror film like 'Night of the Living Dead' or 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,' or a cult extravaganza like 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show.'"

When the Waverly closed in 2001 the ground level had been tiled over and the upper portion painted blue.  photo by Ross Melnick
But in 2001 the Waverly closed its doors and the theater sat empty for four years.  Then, on June 17, 2005, WNYC News reported "Tonight, it will re-open as a lavishly renovated three-screen movie theater run by the Independent Film Channel."  Reporter Alicia Zuckerman said the posh cinema "has seats that were flown in from France, organic popcorn served with truffle butter, a 70-seat theater filled with love seats, and, in the main theater, a 49-foot high ceiling."

photo by Bruce C.
That 49-foot ceiling was possible because of the 175-year old church roof above it.  

1 comment:

  1. I met a boy called Frank Mills
    On September twelfth right here
    In front of the Waverly
    But unfortunately I lost his address…
    Hair - 1968