The eerie facade of a Yorkville orphanage chapel

It’s a phantom relic of 19th century New York: the hauntingly preserved facade of an orphan asylum chapel built in 1898 at 402 East 90th Street.

Facing York Avenue to the east, the chapel facade rises several stories and is embedded into the side of a 12-story condominium.

And it’s in view for contemporary New Yorkers to marvel at thanks to a construction project that bulldozed the parking garage in front of it—which for decades had shielded so much of it from sight.

The chapel was once on the grounds of St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum, founded in 1859 by a German Catholic religious order called the Redemptorists, “for destitute children of German parentage, writes David Dunlap in a 2008 New York Times article.

Yorkville was the country at the time, an ideal place for an orphanage, of which there were many in the city at the time, typically run by a religious sect.

St. Joseph’s “occupied several buildings between 89th and 90th Streets and York and First Avenues,” states Daniel B. Schneider in a 1998 piece in the New York Times.

As Yorkville grew in the second half of the 19th century and eventually replaced the East Village as the city’s Little Germany neighborhood, a parish called St. Joseph’s was formed in 1873—borrowing the name of the orphan asylum and soon building its own church and school.

The orphan asylum remained, as this late 19th century images show. it was described in King’s Handbook of 1892 as “a large and cheerful edifice with accommodations for nearly 300 inmates.”

The asylum stood until about 1918, when land values rose and parts of the property was parceled out for sale.

Layers of New York development obscured it, and now the chapel facade is slated to be covered up entirely when the construction project—an athletic center for the Spence School—is finished.

[Third and fourth photos: NYPL] Thanks to Charlie J. and the Friends of the Upper East Side Historic District for bringing this to my attention]

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15 Responses to “The eerie facade of a Yorkville orphanage chapel”

  1. Mykola (Mick) Dementiuk Says:

    Looking at that window bricked up you can still hear little cries and whimpers echoing from the past…sigh 😦

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Yes, there’s something melancholy about it. But New York had so many orphans and half-orphans, it might have been the best option.

  2. Says:

    Dear Ephie

    Thank you! thank you! for doing this piece. I spotted this a few months ago on an early morning walk and never followed up to research! I’m so glad you and FUESHD did! it’s really a little bit of magic popping up for a very brief time!

    Garrett Glaser


  3. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thank you! I’m so glad FUSEHD and the local newspaper Our Town got the word out:

    • Matthew Haines Says:

      I am on the Board of Managers of the building with the facade of the Yorkville orphanage chapel on its East-facing wall. I offer a few corrections to an excellent story. 1) The building is located at 402 East 90th Street, not 411 East 90th Street, 2) The building is a condominium, not a co-op, and 3) The Spence School athletic facility is being built immediately to the east of 402 (hence the reason why the facade will be covered up), not a block away.

  4. Anthony Picco Says:

    Yorkville was created when most of the Germans on the Lower East Side fled the area after the horrible steamboat accident wiped out a huge number of mothers and children from the community. It was too painful to stay in the area.

  5. Kevin Says:

    Interesting how the old postcard notes the address as ‘Ave A’. When did that change?

    • Anthony Picco Says:

      When uptown rich folk got all uppity and didn’t want to be associated with the riff raff on the Lower East Side. (OK I don’t have a date, but that’s why…)

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      You are perceptive! I’m not exactly sure when the street name changed, but there’s an old public school building around 77th Street and York that still says Avenue A on the corner.

  6. Anthony Picco Says:

    Details here:

  7. Annette Springer Says:

    How did this happen? Did they just tear down half of the chapel and build onto it?

    It’s a shame that it can’t be left out in the open for all to enjoy. It seems like you never know when ‘Old New York City” will be discovered!

  8. David H Lippman Says:

    It does look extremely weird.

  9. Bob Says:

    The Private School vs. the Radical Priest

    “Before a recent Catholic youth league basketball game, Father Ramsey walked three blocks north to the future Spence site. ‘My aim is to make a fuss about this, and I will continue to make a fuss about this,’ he said. ‘What frustrates me is that Spence should have consulted with the neighborhood. All I want is a plaque. Something that will show what was here. That way the privileged children of Spence can know that children who had no such privilege came before them.’ “

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