Friday, October 6, 2023

The Altered True Reformed Protestant Dutch Church - 21 Bank Street

Repeated remodeling has left the former high-stooped residence less than appealing, architecturally.

Builders Linus Scudder and Henry I. Cathell erected a row of nine Italianate houses on the north side of Bank Street between Greenwich Avenue and Factory Street (later West Fourth) in 1856-57.  Faced in red brick above brownstone basements, they were intended for well-to-do owners.  Full-height French windows at the parlor level opened onto cast iron balconies.  Their segmentally arched lintels matched those of the double-doored entrances.

Henry Evesson and his wife purchased 21 Bank Street in 1857.  The couple had five children.  A prominent builder and real estate operator, Eversson's stature within the industry was evidenced on April 16 that year when the New York Herald reported that he was one of five men "named as commissioners to erect the new City Hall."

Following the death of her husband, Edward Conway, the Evesson's daughter Margaret moved in with her parents along with their granddaughter Fannie M. Conway.  Sadly, the 16-year-old Fannie died on the day after Christmas in 1868.  Her funeral was held in the house two days later.

There would be another family funeral in the parlor on September 1, 1875.  Henry Evesson, Jr. and his family were boarding nearby at 245 West 13th Street where Henry died on August 29 at the age of 42 "after a long and severe illness," according to the New York Herald

The Evessons sold 21 Bank Street in 1879 and moved to Hempstead, Long Island.  The house became home to the James Fitzgerald family by 1887 when they were the victims of a bizarre incident.

Part of the family's Fourth of July celebration that year was vanilla ice cream from Ernest A. G. Intermann's ice cream parlor on Sixth Avenue.  They, and 20 other families who ate the ice cream were poisoned, some of whom had to be hospitalized.  The Sun reported, "How the ice cream became impregnated with poison is a mystery.  Intermann has been making ice cream at the place he now occupies for fifteen years, and has built up an extensive trade by the excellence of his production."

It was only the vanilla ice cream that was tainted.  "This vanilla," said The Sun," Mr. Intermann prepares himself from the Mexican bean, and he is therefore as much at a loss as any of his customers to account for the trouble."  Luckily, James Fitzgerald had left over ice cream which was taken for analysis.  And, happily for Intermann, "None of the families affected were disposed to blame the confectionery."

Six years after the disturbing incident, incredible change came to 21 Bank Street.  The True Reformed Protestant Dutch Church had worshiped from a vintage church building at West Fourth and Perry Streets for years.  But according to its pastor, Rev. H. Iserman, by then the "class of people who attend church was gradually moving uptown."  By around 1890 there were only 60 members left and "it looked as if we might become very much embarrassed, financially speaking," he told a reporter from The New York Times.

A member of the dwindling congregation was an architect, Henry S. Ihen.  The pastor conferred with him and came up with a plan.  The trustees purchased 21 Bank Street and Ihen transformed it from a high-stooped residence to a high-stooped church.

"The desire was to reduce the expense, and at the same time encourage the congregation to stay with the church," explained Rev. Iserman.  He applauded Ihen's transformation, saying, "the homelike appearance of the building is so attractive, that we hope to gather in our fold many who could not otherwise be induced to come."  The entire renovation costs ($28,000, or about $940,000 in 2023) had been covered by the sale of the old church.

Ihen raised the building to four floors in order to accommodate the rectory on the top two.  On the exterior, shallow buttresses and stained glass windows added to the ecclesiastic feel of the architecture.  The stoop and entrance were now centered, and a stepped, Spanish Renaissance parapet flanked by finials took the place of a cornice.

A sketch of the renovated building appeared on an 1897 Christmas program.  image courtesy of Sue Ellen Fealko

The church opened on October 29, 1893.  The New York Times was diplomatic, saying "The place does not look much like a church, but it is, nevertheless, one of the most interesting houses of worship in New-York."  The article noted, "The building is equipped with all that a modern church generally contains, but everything is on a diminutive scale."

In the auditorium were "a gallery, a compartment for the organ and choir, a spacious platform, and accommodations for seating 250 people."  Those in attendance would sit on folding chairs.  Space for a Sunday school class was in the basement, along with the kitchen "which will be used on the occasion of festivals, &c."  

On the afternoon of the first service, Rev. Iserman admitted, "This is an experiment as yet, but I think it will succeed."  Indeed, that dedicatory service provided hope with over 300 people attending.

The True Reformed Protestant Dutch Church remained in the altered house for three decades before selling it in 1929.  When he photographed the building on March 19 that year, Perry Loomis Sperr noted, "although this was erected as recently as 1895, it is already about to be abandoned, and will be used in the 1930's by theatrical companies and political clubs."

The parapet was scaled down in the transformation to secular purposes.  from the collection of the New York Public Library.

The residence-turned-church was now converted to the meeting rooms, the Greenwich Village Music Hall, and the Knickerbocker Forum.  On November 10, 1934, the New York Sun announced "'Hansel & Gretel' by Humperdinck will inaugurate the series of operas for children and young people at the Music Hall, 21 Bank street, on Saturday afternoon," and a month later, on December 14, 1934, the Columbia Spectator reported, "The Red Flannel players have extended an invitation to all members of the football team to attend tonight's showing of 'The Greed for Gold' at the Greenwich Village Music Hall."

The Knickerbocker Forum provided a venue for meetings and lectures.  On November 1, 1935, the Columbia Spectator announced, "James Wechsler '35, former editor of The Spectator and author of the recently published 'Revolt on the Campus' will discuss his book tomorrow at the Knickerbocker Forum, 21 Bank Street."

But the lifespan of the venues would be short-lived.  In 1936, architect Abraham Grossman converted the building to apartments, two per floor.  This final metamorphosis stripped away almost any hints of Henry S. Ihen's church architecture (although the buttresses survived), lowered the entrance to the former English basement level, and squared off the parapet.

The converted building in 1941.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

Easily (and understandably) overlooked today, 21 Bank Street can claim little architectural interest.  But its remarkable history holds its own with any of the more intact vintage structures along the picturesque block.

photograph by the author
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