photo by the author
In 1843, two years after construction of the Janes Renwick-designed Church of the Ascension was completed at Fifth Avenue and West 10th Street, trustees turned their attention to a school building. A plot was acquired half a block away, at 12 West 11th Street, where refined homes of New York's upper class were being built. Completed in 1844, the four-story school building included a chapel and an office for the assistant minister. Over the next decades the school would count among its students some of the most recognizable surnames in Manhattan society--like Rhinelander, Astor and De Peyster.
The interior of the church was substantially redesigned in 1885 by Stanford White (including a pulpit designed by another McKim, Mead & White partner, Charles F. McKim). Three years later, on June 16, 1888, the Real Estate Record & Guide reported that McKim, Mead & White had filed plans to convert the school building into a "four-story brick and stone parish house." The American Architect & Building News placed the cost at $27,000--about $758,000 today.
Completed in 1889, the Parish House was faced in yellow Roman brick and trimmed in limestone. A three-story bay to the side of the entrance encased a staircase, its upward progression inside reflected in the stepped loophole windows on the outside. McKim, Mead & White carried on the Northern Renaissance and ecclesiastical motif with intricate leaded windows throughout, including the transoms of the charming dormers of the slate-shingled roof.
The Parish House bustled with activity. The Church Choral Society met and rehearsed here, The Churchman reporting on March 8, 1890 that J. Pierpont Morgan had been elected its president a week earlier. At the same time The Association for the Relief of the Industrious Poor operated from the building. The 1890 New York Charities Directory said it "furnishes sewing to poor women, and sells the garments made, at the Parish House. And that year the registry office for the Girls' Friendly Society for America, organized in 1875, was here. Its goal was to help "and to encourage purity of life, duty to parents, faithfulness to employers, and thrift."
In fact, on February 17, 1901, The New York Press said the Parish House "is the home of many interesting activities. Here 135 volunteer workers have given their services in connection with the Parish House alone, where twenty different organizations have been accustomed to use its rooms." The article mentioned, "The parish sewing room, the press room, where the Boys' Department turns out beautiful work, the Junior Brotherhood of St. Andrew, the Mother's meeting and many other items of work have their headquarters here."
At the turn of the last century, the rector of the Church of the Ascension was Reverend Percy Stickney Grant. He accompanied Bishop Henry C. Potter on an extended trip abroad in 1899, and on April 19, 1900 The Hempstead Sentinel reported that they were welcomed home "from their trip around the world" with a lavish reception in the Parish House. It was, no doubt, a bit awkward for at least three people in the room.
The newspaper said, "Mr. and Mrs. Perry Belmont are members of the church and Mr. Belmont was on the reception committee." The wealthy couple had shocked high society in 1897 when it became known that Jessie Robbins Sloane, who was at the time the wife of Henry T. Sloane, was having an extra-marital affair with Belmont. Six hours after the Sloanes divorced on April 28, 1899, Jessie and Perry were married in Connecticut. Now, in reporting on the reception, The New York Sun wrote, "It will be remembered that at the time of the marriage of Mr. Belmont, whose wife was Mrs. Henry T. Sloane, Bishop Potter preached a sermon against the marriage of divorced persons."
In the spring of 1919 a modern art exhibition of "paintings by distinguished contemporary artists including John [Singer] Sargent," as described by the New-York Tribune, was held in the Parish House. It was followed by a summer exhibition of "work by the younger generation of painters." The New-York Tribune said, "There is an even sprinkling of portraits, landscapes, marines and still life.
Rev. Percy S. Grant was progressive in his political and social views. In fact, years later in reporting his death in February 1927, The New York Times would call him "a militant liberal in the Protestant Episcopal Church." His socialistic viewpoints would sometimes clash with those of the wardens and vestrymen, as well as the Bishop, himself.
Grant's opinions came out in his sermons and in the discussion groups held in the Parish House assembly room. On January 7, 1911, for instance, The New York Press reported that the topics of his sermons the following day would be "The Needs of the Coal Miner" and "Wanted, Social Shock-Absorbers." The article noted, "The service will be followed by the People's Forum in the parish house," during which Benjamin C. Maran would speak on "The Real Rulers of New York." (The Day Book explained that the People's Forum "is designed to be to the working class movement in all its branches what the Sunday school is to organized religion.")
The People's Forum continued to meet in the Parish House for years, a situation that boiled over in January 1920. Bishop Charles Sumner Burch requested a report from the vestrymen of the Church of the Ascension regarding Grant's activities. He had recently decried deportation from the pulpit, and on Christmas Day 1919 the People's Forum met in the Parish House before marching up Fifth Avenue in what was called The Amnesty Parade for political prisoners.
On January 23, 1920, Rev. Grant received a stern letter from Bishop Burch. In it, reported the New York Herald, "he solemnly protest[ed] against the use of the consecrated building as a meeting place for a forum to which speakers who not infrequently are men 'who do not believe in God, who professedly are opposed to the government,' are invited."
Rev. Grant was equally stern in his response. "What position would a church be put in that refused the request of highly intelligent young women and young men to come together on Christmas morning in one of its halls, in order that they might sing the gospel of Christmas Day--'Peace on earth, good will toward men'--not only to the ear, in the tunes of the actual Christmas carols, which they did, but to the eye, in specific appeal on behalf of given cases demanding pace and good will at present before the public."
Even after Rev. Grant's death in 1927, social awareness and concern continued to play out in the Parish House. On June 27, 1942, The New York Age reported, "The first of a series of discussion meetings entitled 'Social Facts for Church People' will be held at the Parish Hall of the Church of the Ascension...under the sponsorship of the Provincial Committee of the Church League for Industrial Democracy."
The tradition of art exhibitions within the Parish House that had started in 1919 was continued in April 1956 with what The New York Times called an "exhibition of traditional and present-day religious art." The critic was tepid in his review, saying "For example, an abstract painting here by Minna Citron, a perfectly good example of its kind, is given a semi-religious title when any other kind of title would have done as well. It will stimulate neither those who come to scoff nor those who remain to pray."
Since it opened in 1889, the Parish House was a venue of lectures and a century later tradition continued. On April 2, 1975, for instance, famed architectural preservationist, historian and author Margot Gayle lectured here on "Cast-Iron Architecture In and Around the Village."
After more than 130 years, the exterior of McKim, Mead & White's handsome Parish House is essentially unchanged. It continues to serve the varied activities of the Church of the Ascension.
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