Sunday, December 18, 2022

The Lost Sunshine Chapel - 550 West 40th Street

The Brickbuilder magazine, May 1909 (copyright expired)

On March 13, 1875, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper published an article about the work of St. John's Guild, whose members ventured into the dangerous and impoverished Hell's Kitchen neighborhood to offer food or shelter.  In describing the conditions, the article noted,  "Another place visited was 550 West Fortieth Street, where in a tumble-down shanty a poor Frenchwoman lived with six small children."
The house at 550 West 40th Street in 1875.  Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, March 13, 1875 (copyright expired)

Another group that worked in the district was the Sunshine Mission.  It operated from rented rooms at 484 Eleventh Avenue, "under difficulties that might easily discourage the ordinary Settlement worker," according to the New-York Tribune later.  In 1886 the Marble Collegiate Church took over the struggling mission.

After it was evicted from its rooms in December 1905, a single, temporary room at 509 Tenth Avenue was rented.  The reduced space, according to the New-York Tribune, "made it necessary to disband the clubs and other work was neglected."  In response, the Marble Collegiate Church purchased the property at 550 West 40th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, and hired the architectural firm of Werner & Windolph to design a structure that could accommodate the many works of the Sunshine Mission.

Plans were filed in January 1906 for a "two-story brick and stone parish house" which would cost $12,000 to erect.  The total expense of the project, including the property and furniture, would total $30,000 (around $932,000 in 2022).  Construction forged ahead rapidly and by November the structure was nearly completed.  The New-York Tribune called it "a handsome structure, that will be an ornament as well as a blessing to the neighborhood."

Construction was nearing completion in November 1906.  The windows and doors had not yet been installed.  The New-York Tribune, November 22, 1906 (copyright expired)

The following month, The New York Observer reported, "The lower floor contains a commodious auditorium, reading room, office and kindergarten.  On the upper floor are a large clubroom and a gymnasium."  The basement held a basketball court--a significant lure to keep young Hell's Kitchen boys away from the dangerous streets.

The Brickbuilder magazine, May 1909 (copyright expired)

Once in its new building, the name of the organization was changed to the Sunshine Chapel.  The number of groups it supported was exhausting:  a Young Men's Guild, a Martha and Mary Society, a Senior and a Junior Boys' Club, and a Sunday School.  Free classes were offered in cooking and sewing, and another in gymnastics.  The kindergarten classroom was located at the rear of the first floor.  Directors told reporters, "it is believed that the accommodations in the new building will be as pleasant and as suitable as those of any kindergarten rooms in the city."

Like other missions, in the summer the Sunshine Chapel did "fresh-air work," which took children who had never played on grass or enjoyed fresh air into the country.

On December 17, 1907 the Sunshine Chapel celebrated its first anniversary in the new building with a two-part reception.  The New York Post reported "From nine to twelve...the kindergarten will welcome visitors," and that evening, "The clubs, physical culture class, and basketball teams will be seen in operations."  The basketball teams were a major source of recreation for the neighborhood youth, and their victories and defeats were followed in the sports columns.

The auditorium of Sunshine Chapel was the scene of nearly weekly lectures throughout the fall through spring seasons.  The topics were more likely to attract a middle- or upper-class audience, rather than the impoverished and ill-educated locals.  On October 21, 1908, for instance, Rubin Goldmark discussed "Siegfried," and on February 2, 1910, Dr. Toyokichi Iyenaga spoke on "An Andean Tour."  Although the lectures were free, the affluent audiences were almost assuredly asked for donations.

Donations, after all, were essential in keeping the Sunshine Chapel in operation.  Groups around the city routinely held benefit activities to support it.  On April 30, 1915, for instance, The Sun reported that the students of the private Gardner School on Fifth Avenue had presented Robert Bridges's play Achilles in Scyros at the Bandbox Theatre.  "It was an annual effort of these pupils in aid of charity," said the article.   "The proceeds this year are for the benefit of the Sunshine Chapel, at 550 West Fortieth street, a mission which is seeking to relieve some of the conditions brought about by the hardships of the winter."

Children are corralled to either side to allow the photographer a clear shot of the building.  photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York. 

By 1913 the chapel operated an industrial school, as well.  Here local boys learned skills that would enable them to find work as adults--carpentry and metal working, for example.  On August 9 that year, the New York Herald reported that the school had 200 enrollees.

Since the building's opening, Rev. Harry Williams Murphy had been in charge of the Sunshine Chapel.  His varied experiences here prompted him to write his 1931 book, Twenty-five Years in Hell's Kitchen.

When Rev. Murphy died in 1935, the West Side Improvement Project was seeking to redevelop the squalid Hell's Kitchen neighborhood.  The following year, the Sunshine Chapel along with blocks of surrounding properties, were demolished to make way for the New York Central railroad beds.

The entire block was rubble on May 1, 1936.   In the background is Sts. Cyril & Methodius, St. Raphael Croatian Catholic Church, which survives.  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library.

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