Friday, January 27, 2023

The 1888 Holy Cross School - 332-336 West 43rd Street


The parish of the Church of the Holy Cross was established in 1852.  The original church structure on West 42nd Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues was destroyed by lightning in 1867.  It was replaced by a Romanesque Revival structure designed by Henry Engelbert which survives.  

Directly behind the church on West 43rd Street was the Chapel of the Shepherd's Flock.  In 1887 it was razed to make way for the Holy Cross School.  Architect L. J. O'Connor's plans, filed in August, called for a five-story brick school building to cost $60,000--about $1.13 million in 2023.

O'Connor saved the parish money with his sparse use of stone.  The decorations of his Romanesque Revival structure were executed mostly in terra cotta--like the pronounced eyebrows over the arched windows and foliate intermediate cornices--and in brick, as in the handsome corbel table below the cornice.  Rough cut granite made its appearance in the bandcourses above and below the second floor and the entablatures over the two entrances which labeled them "boys" and "girls."

Gender-specific entrances were obligatory in Catholic schools.  Note the elaborate Romanesque carvings on either side of the doorways.

The construction of the relatively costly building came only after substantial fund-raising.  The parish of the Church of the Holy Cross, which sat within the bleak Hell's Kitchen neighborhood, was a poor one.  Despite the crime and poverty around them (and perhaps partly due to the strict, no-nonsense methods of the nun teachers), the students' names rarely appeared in newspapers for serious misbehavior.

The assembly room of Holy Cross School often served the community as a meeting place.  Locals, many of them newly-arrived from Ireland, crowded in on September 20, 1914 to hear Member of Parliament Richard McGhee (known popularly as Dick McGhee) speak on the Home Rule Bill he had introduced.  In reporting on the speech, the New-York Tribune titled its article "Says Ireland Is Free."  It quoted him saying, "The Irish people have no quarrel now with the British democracy.  The fight is over and a thing of memory only."  (As it turned out, he was being optimistic.  And when home rule was finally legislated in 1921, it merely triggered the Irish Civil War.)

A Holy Cross School success story was William Meehan.  Born in 1886, he saw the stage as his route out of poverty.  After he graduated he went into acting, debuting at the Casino Theatre in The Runaways in 1903.  The Irish immigrant boy became a success, appearing with his wife Violet Pearl for eight years before his untimely death in 1920 at the age of 34.

At the time of Meehan's death, the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood had not improved.  Greek immigrant Louis Sidoris and his wife lived in the district that year.  He was brutally abusive to his wife, who finally left him in 1920.  The 25-year-old woman temporarily moved in with her friend Mrs. Peter Segalas, who lived directly across from the school.  The New York Herald explained the arrangement would enable her to earn enough month to "be able to go back to her folks in Greece and be independent of the husband whose brutalities, she said, had forced her to leave." 

She was peeling potatoes for lunch on March 17, 1921 when Louis Sidoris burst into the apartment.  He pleaded for her to return to him.  When she refused, he said, "There is only one thing to do then," and pulled out a revolver.  He fired all six rounds, three of them hitting his wife.  Too shocked to move, Mrs. Segalas watched him grab the knife his wife had been using.  The newspaper reported, "He rushed through the apartment to a mirror in the parlor, slashed his throat and jumped to the street, three flights below."

The children of Holy Cross School, out of class for lunchtime, witnessed the body crash to the sidewalk.  They notified a nun who sent word to Monsignor Francis P. Duffy, rector of the church, who arrived to give last rites.

O'Connor's intricate terra cotta detailing includes masks, each of them slight different, between the smaller arches of the fifth floor.

While almost all of Manhattan buildings were electrified by the Great Depression, that was not necessarily the case with Hell's Kitchen tenements.  On October 23, 1929 "several hundred pupils of Holy Cross Parochial School, let by the Rev. Francis P. Duffy," as reported by The New York Times, joined in the funeral procession for six of their classmates.  The article said, "The procession of seven hearses, one gray and six white, attracted much attention as it moved through the streets."  Walter Cavanagh, a widower, and six of his seven children had died of gas asphyxiation in their apartment at 544 West 56th Street.  The children ranged from eight to eleven years old.

The Holy Cross students, many of whom had meager Christmases and Thanksgivings in their tenement homes, were not forgotten by businessmen and socialites during the holidays.  On December 23, 1937, The New York Sun reported, "Milk replaced Manhattans and Martinis as the favored drink at the Game Cock Restaurant...yesterday afternoon.  Jack Stutz, proprietor of the Game Cock, was host at his third annual Christmas party for about 200 under-privileged children of the Holy Cross Roman Catholic School."  The children, aged five to twelve, were entertained by actor Bert Lytell and "the Yippe Boys, currently appearing in the Broadway production 'Red, Hot and Blue.'"  After a turkey dinner, the children received "candy, books, gift stockings and dolls."

A sudden announcement from the New York Roman Catholic Diocese in January 2011 enraged many of the parents of Holy Cross students.  The New York Times reported that the school was being merged with the Sacred Heart of Jesus School on West 52nd Street, and the 43rd Street building closed.  The diocese explained that the Sacred Heart building "has the larger capacity" and was in better condition.

Parents complained of being "blindsided."  A parent writing to The New York Times in response said in part, "I find the use of the word 'merger' insulting as it is not a merger at all, but a closing."  Another said with caustic sarcasm, "Will the new name for the combined schools be called, 'Cross Your Heart'?"

In 2013 the building became home to the the private De La Salle Academy.  Founded in the 19th century as a co-educational Roman Catholic school, today the 6th through 8th grade institution focuses on "academically talented, economically less advantaged children of diverse backgrounds," according to its website.

After 135 years, L. J. O'Connor's imposing educational fortress is little changed, a commanding reminder of a far different period in Hell's Kitchen.

photographs by the author
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