Wednesday, June 28, 2023

The Methodist Mission Building - 209 Madison Street


photograph via

When Joseph C. Skaden's three-story brick house at 209 Madison Street was offered for sale shortly after his death in 1853, it was described as having "all the latest improvements, cold and hot water baths, gas, &c."  The advertisement noted, "The location [is] one of the most desirable in the seventh Ward."  And an inventory of the furnishings testified to the high-end status of the neighborhood.  It included a "rosewood parlor suite in crimson plush, with covers; mahogany marble-top chamber furniture" as well as "fine oil-paintings [and] marble mantel ornaments."

By the mid-1870s, 209 Madison Street was home to the family of Reverend M. F. Compton.  His son, George N. Compton, would become a Methodist minister as well.  

On June 25, 1885, a trio of purchasers acquired the house for $15,000--or about $435,000 in 2023 money.  In the three decades since Joseph Skaden's death, the neighborhood had greatly changed.  Most of the once-refined homes had been converted to rooming houses, or demolished to make way for tenements for the waves of immigrants flooding the Lower East Side.  

The group had purchased 209 Madison Street for the New York City Church Extension and Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church.  Rev. George N. Compton, who had previously lived in the house, was no doubt highly involved in the transaction--he was the pastor of the Madison Street Mission, founded around 1856.

The trustees hired the architectural firm of D. & J. Jardine to make massive renovations.  Their plans, filed in June 1886, called for the "front [wall] taken down and rebuilt and rear wall in basement and first story taken out and iron beams furnished, height of building increased 4 feet."  The plans further noted that the top floors were "to be occupied as a mission chapel."  

The new home for the Madison Street Mission (better known as the Methodist Mission), left little trace of the building's domestic beginnings.  D. & J. Jardine's design was an ecclesiastical take on Romanesque Revival.  The three arched openings of the first floor shared a continuous, terra cotta triple eyebrow.  The architects saved the Mission Society funds by placing a flat terra cotta pediment over the entrance, rather than a hood or portico.  The double-height chapel in what had been the second and third floors was illuminated by two tall stained glass panels that flanked a rose window.

Rev. George N. Compton, who also served as the superintendent of the Sunday School, had a considerable commute.  He lived far north at 223 East 124th Street.  Only the sexton, John R. Hayes, lived in the mission building.

The Methodist Mission administered to the impoverished residents of the neighborhood by supplying medical aid as well as religious services.  Physician William James Hall was in charge of the mission's dispensary and tended to the sick locals.  The Gospel in All Lands would later say (rather self-righteously), that the Methodist doctor worked "among Roman Catholics and Jews, drunkards and thieves, in the Madison Street Mission...rejoicing in the work of relieving distress, and leading the sinful to the Physician of souls."

On August 12, 1890, Dr. Hall addressed an open-air meeting of the Seventh Ward, demanding that Rutgers Slip be made into a park.  The World commented that the neighborhood housed "one of the densest tenement populations in the city."  Hall said in part, "Some years ago, the people of the neighborhood could get a breath of pure air along the river front, but the demands of commerce have driven them back, and now they have only narrow and ill-smelling streets, confined by tall tenement houses."  He predicted victory for the locals, saying "This place that is now a disease-breeding scar on the face of New York will become a health-giving ornament and a joy to all the children."

A week later, The World reported that children were flocking to the Methodist Street Mission to join the fight.  The article said the mission "has become the recruiting place during the past week of the little people of the Seventh Ward who have set their heads on having Rutgers slip as a playground."  (An open space for children was, indeed, needed.  Of the 75,000 people living in the ward, 35,000 of them were children.  Dr. J. Coughlin of the Anti-Poverty Society told a reporter from The World that on hot days, "They have nothing left them but to sit in the windows and on the doorsteps and shrivel up in the sun.")

An example of the plight of the tenement dwellers was Norbert Pfannerer, an unemployed shoemaker who was referred to the mission in January 1894 by Police Headquarters.  He had gone there in desperation, begging "for some work that he might earn bread for his loved ones," according to The Evening World on January 23.  

"We are starving," he pleaded, "but I don't want charity.  I only want to work and earn bread."

Pfannerer and his family lived on the top floor of a tenement building.  His eldest child was 6 years old and the youngest not yet a year.  When his wife gave birth to the last child, according to The World, "her husband was too poor to furnish her with the necessaries of life which her condition required, and consumption [i.e. tuberculosis] rapidly seized upon her."  For the past few days the family had eaten only "a soup made from stale bread."

In 1895 the Methodist Mission Society moved the Hope of Israel Mission into the building.  Founded in 1893, it continued the dispensary work, under Dr. A. C. Grimm, who treated from 50 to 80 patients a week that year.  

In his first report to the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Rev. A. C. Gaebelein said:

Our new quarters at 209 Madison Street are admirably fitted for our mission work.  By the help of kind friends, we have been enabled to refurnish the whole house, and also to make very necessary repairs in the plumbing roof painting, etc., amounting in all to about four hundred dollars.  Here we have our offices and the headquarters of our publication department.

A reading room in the basement contained Bibles in English, German, Hebrew and Russian, along with newspapers in those languages.  

The goal of this group, however, was notably different from the Madison Street Mission.  As the 20th century neared, the Lower East Side was increasingly filling with Jewish immigrants.  The Hope of Israel Mission set out to convert them.  

Rev. Gaebelein insisted there were no strong-armed tactics involved.  He said the neighborhood Jews "understand now that we are not doing this work from any selfish motive or trying to proselyte them, but that we have a higher aim...No effort is made to induce passers-by to enter the church, though a few signs in jargon bidding everyone welcome hang in the windows."

Ironically, in June 1897 the Mission Society sold the building for $24,000 to congregation Chevra Etz Chaim Anshe Walosin.  Now a synagogue, the basement of the building where the Hope of Israel Mission attempted to convert Jews to Christianity was transformed into a mikveh (a ritual bath) in 1907.  Architect David Stone's renovations included, "toilets, tubs and vault" at a cost of more than $445,000 by today's conversion.

In 1915 the congregation hired architect Fred Horowitz to make exterior alterations.  It was possibly at this time that the a Magen David, or Star of David, was imposed upon the rose window and onion dome-like pinnacles crowned with Magen Davids were placed upon the parapet.

image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

At some point following World War I the building became home to Congregation Agudath Achim Anshei Barisoff, organized in 1891.  The synagogue continued to serve the neighborhood until the structure was converted to residential purposes in 1993.  The double-height worship space was floored over, creating two internal stories.  

The stoop and stained glass windows were removed, and the rose window bricked up.  Shop spaces were installed in the basement and former first floor.  There were now three apartments per floor in the upper portion.

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