Wednesday, December 23, 2020

James Renwick Jr.'s 1847 Grace Church Rectory - 804 Broadway


photo by Alice Lum

Henry Brevoort's country estate engulfed 86 acres between East 9th and 18th Streets and Fifth Avenue to the Bowery.  Wealthy and apparently stubborn, when Broadway was extended to meet the Bloomingdale Road he demanded that it take a sharp bend at 10th Street so as not to intrude on his land.  And because the family house sat directly upon the proposed site of 11th Street, between Broadway and the Bowery, he prevented the opening of 11th Street throughout the 1830's.  But following Brevoort's death in 1841, his son, Henry, Jr., began selling off the family lands.

Grace Episcopal Church had been located at Broadway and Rector Street since its organization in 1808.  Rector Thomas House Taylor and his congregation were considering an uptown move, following the northern migration of its fashionable members.  Two years after Henry Brevoort Sr.'s death, the trustees bought the large plot of land at the northeast corner of Broadway and East 10th Street.

It is possible that Henry Brevoort, Jr. worked a deal into the transaction.  His nephew, 23-year old James Renwick Jr., was an engineer with a bent towards architecture.  An engineer on the massive Croton Reservoir project, completed in 1842, he was responsible for its hulking Egyptian Revival design.  He had also designed a fountain in Bowling Green.  Nevertheless, with no formal training his architectural credentials were sorely lacking.

Renwick was given the commission to design the new Grace Church.  Rev. Taylor had spent extensive time in Europe touring the great Gothic cathedrals and it was most likely he who influenced Renwick's design choice.  Gothic Revival architecture was relatively new and Grace Church would be the first significant structure in the style in Manhattan.

The masterful white marble church was completed in 1846, followed closely by the rectory.  Sitting back within a grassy yard encircled by a magnificent Gothic Revival iron fence, the charming marble house echoed the church looming above it.  Renwick's skill at design resulted in a romantic edifice that refused to be overshadowed by its cathedral-like neighbor.

Although having the appearance of a cozy cottage, the rectory was essentially a mansion.  Renwick hid the actual symmetry of the floorplan by adding different faceted bays on either side of the centered entrance.  Gothic tracery, spires and crockets, and pointed arch windows combined to form an excruciatingly picturesque structure.

The charm of the rectory was deserving of its own postcard around the turn of the last century.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Grace Church was the second wealthiest Episcopal Church in New York, after Trinity Church.  In his 1882 New York by Gaslight, James D. McCabe, Jr. would point out, “At the morning service a greater display of wealth and fashion is presented here than at any other city church.  Grace Church has been the scene of more fashionable weddings and funerals than any other place of worship.”

Rectors of such churches were highly paid.  They and their families lived in a style similar to their millionaire congregants.  Many owned country estates and traveled to Europe or fashionable resorts in the summer months when their churches were closed.  

Rev. Henry Codman Potter was rector in 1875 when his wife, the former Eliza Rogers, planned an extended trip abroad.  She placed an ad in the New York Herald on September 30 hoping to find positions for excess servants who would not be needed in her absence:

804 Broadway, Grace Church Rectory--A lady, going to Europe, wishes to obtain situations for a cook, a seamstress and lady's maid, and a waitress, whom she can highly recommend.  Call for one week.

In 1880 James Renwick, Jr. was called back to design Grace House, a seamlessly matching 30-foot wide, three story structure that connected the church to the rectory.  The New-York Tribune reported on August 10 that it would have "a handsome white marble front, each story possessing a well-proportioned bay window.  Completed in 1881, it completed the country-like yard.

Renwick's Grace House perfectly complimented the rectory and the church.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society.

Henry C. Potter was elected Assistant Bishop of New York on September 27, 1883 and the rectory next became home to Rev. William Reed Huntington.  He and his wife, the former Theresa Reynolds, had two daughters, Margaret and Theresa, and a son, Francis.  Like their predecessors, they moved among society's elite.

During the debutante season of 1885-86 the rectory was the scene of a glittering entertainment.  On December 30, 1885 The New York Times reported "There was a tea and reception yesterday afternoon in honor of Dr. Huntington's second daughter, Miss Theresa, at the Grace Church Rectory.  The parlors in which the guests were received were hung with evergreens and decorated with flowers.  Miss Theresa, who reached her eighteenth birthday a few days since, wore a white satin dress, with a cluster of roses at the waist and diamond ornaments."  The guest list included society names like Depew, Tiffany, Dix, Reid, Duncan, and Kingsland. 

Among Huntington's staff in 1893 were assistant ministers Rev. Hubert M. Wells and Rev. George H. Bottome.  The kind-hearted men became victims of a masterful scam artist that year.  George Stabell traveled alone to New York from Denmark in 1891 at the age of 14.  With no friends and no money, according to The Sun, "he turned his good looks, easy manners, and quick intelligence to account."  He realized that the clergy were easy marks for a sad story and lived comfortably off his scams.

One-third of the rectory was enveloped in ivy in this late 19th century stereopticon view.  from the collection of the New York public Library

In January 1893 he turned his attentions to Grace Church.  The Sun reported a month later that he told Wells and Bottome "that he had not lived an exemplary life...He admitted he had been playing the races and living a fast life.  'Now I want to reform,' said he, with tears in his eyes...'I want to be a Christian and a gentleman.  I'm out of money and have no place to eat or sleep.  Give me a chance, just one chance.'"

Moved by the repentant teen's story, Wells took him to a boarding house on West 31st Street and paid a week's rent in advance.  He gave the boy letters of recommendation to use in finding a job.

The following week Stabell returned.  He said while he had made friends at the boarding house, he still was unable to find a job.  Wells gave him $10 to pay the next week's rent (about $295 today).  The very next day the boy returned, telling Rev. Wells:

A strange thing happened last night.  When I went to my room I found there my brother, my own brother, ragged, penniless, and cold.  His hat was gone, his shoes were flapping on his feet, and his clothes were in rags.  He begged for money.  What could I do?  I bought him a ticket back to Baltimore, and with what was left I got him a pair of shoes, a hat, and something to eat.  Did I do wrong?"

Stabell had so carefully planned his story that he knew the exact amount of a ticket to Baltimore.  Wells gave him another $10.

The Sun reported, "The next day the boy was back again, this time to see the other assistant, Mr. Bottome.  It was bitter cold, and he had on no overcoat.  'I didn't tell Mr. Wells last night,' said he, 'but I had to pawn my overcoat to get my brother home.  Now I'm almost frozen without it."  He needed money to get his coat out of pawn.

At a meeting with clergy of other churches it was discovered how widely Stabell had been carrying out his scams.  The ministers had a policeman "come and talk to the boy to frighten him by threats of arrest and imprisonment."

The end to the teen's infamous career began on February 11 when he came to Wells for another $10.  "He got it on promising to return $3 of it, his necessary expenses being but $7," explained The Sun.  "By this time the clergyman had been to the boy's boarding place and discovered that instead of being busy in the morning trying to find work he was lying abed; also that he usually came home about 3 A.M."  Stabell did not return that afternoon with the $3 as promised.

That night Wells went to the boy's room and waited until 2:00 in the morning before giving up and going home.  Stabell showed up at the rectory the next morning and Wells "taxed him with treachery and deceit."  The teen "confessed, and begged for forgiveness with all the dramatic power which he possesses."  He was told to return the next day.

He returned, without the $3, and Wells and Bottomes "had a long talk with him which resulted in a conviction on their part that he was a hopeless case."  While Bottome detained him, Wells swore out a warrant at Jefferson Market Court for the theft of $3.  The Sun reported that at Stabell's arraignment, "He begged for just one more chance before he was sent to prison, but Mr. Wells had been through it all before and he declined to be deceived again."  None of the other clergymen he had duped would answer the plea-filled notes he sent from jail.  One said "He could make one believe that he was a saint in ten minutes, no matter how much appearances might be against him."

A disturbing incident occurred on April 27, 1894.  Policeman Sullivan arrested John Sullivan, described by the New-York Tribune as "a homeless, insane man, fifty years old," after he was caught "pushing his fist through the windows of Grace Church rectory."  By the time the officer arrived, he had broken several of the panes of glass.

In 1899 Rev. Huntington added a notable ornament to the rectory garden--an ancient Roman jar.  In his comments in the Year Book that year he explained that when excavations in Rome were being dug for the Rectory of the Church of St. Paul, "some six of seven terra-cotta jars" dating from Nero's reign were discovered about 30 or 40 feet below the surface.  Two were brought to the surface.

When I was in Rome in 1884, the two jars, covered with ivy, were standing one on either side of the entrance to the church.  I was hard-hearted enough to urge upon Dr. Nevin, the Rector, the propriety of his showing his appreciation of all that Grace Church had done toward the building of St. Paul's by giving us one of his two jars; and he was kind-hearted enough to acquiesce in the suggestion.

When the relic finally arrived in new York a bronze mounting was created for it and it was placed in the garden where it sits today.

At around 10:00 on the night of February 7, 1900 servants discovered a man in a room in the basement.  The Sun reported, "He seemed to be very much startled, but when one of the servants returned with a policeman, he pretended to be intoxicated."  Burglar tools were found on him and he was locked up "as a suspicious person."

The incident was a precursor to a more significant incident one year later.   On the morning of April 30, 1901 a maid entered the dining room to find silverware littered over the dining room carpeting.  "It was evident to her at once," reported The New York Times, "not only that burglars had gotten in, but that they had been frightened off, without having been able to take all that they had prepared for removal."

The thieves had carefully plotted their heist down to the point of apparently watching through a dining room window to see where the maid hid the key to the silver safe.  They had entered through a basement door, as the intruder the previous year had, and stealthily crept upstairs by the light of a candle.  That they had been scared off was evidenced by the candle, a box of matches and the chisel they had used to jimmy the basement door, all of which they left behind in their haste.

Despite their rapid departure, they managed to carry off "knives, spoons, salt cellars, and other small pieces which could be stuffed into pockets or carried away under a waistcoat or coat."  The article noted "The unfortunate feature of the robbery is that Dr. Huntington lost through it a number of heirlooms, which as he explained last evening, had been in the family a long time."

The detectives and patrolmen on duty in the area received a "lecture" from Police Captain Chapman who called it "a shame that men in his precinct should have allowed a burglary to be committed in so prominent a place."

photo by Beyond My Ken

More than a century later James Renwick Jr.'s charming rectory, along with its garden complex behind the cast iron fence, is a Victorian time capsule.  The rectory warrants almost as much attention for its architectural beauty and significance as does the church beside it.

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