Tenements go down, and a church reemerges

For decades, passersby on 79th Street between First and York Avenues could only see the facade of gorgeous, Gothic-style St. Monica’s Catholic Church, with its intricate stonework, spires, and wood doors at the main entrance.

Though this church, which was built in 1906, extends almost all the way to 80th Street, both sides of the historic sanctuary were long blocked from view by other buildings.

On the right is the church rectory, and on the left was a freestanding early 1900s tenement. At the corner stood a row of nine similar tenements stretching from 79th to 80th Streets. (At right, 1939, and below, 1940)

But in the 2000s, a developer came along.

Eyeing the corner for a new mixed-use building, Extell Development Company bought up all the tenements and demolished them during the summer of 2019, leaving what Our Town nicely described as the “black hole” of East 79th Street.

Nearly a year later, the black hole is still there, behind a plywood barricade. Work on the site seems to be stalled.

It’s an eyesore, but there is an upside to the open space, at least until construction inevitably ramps up.

For the first time in perhaps a century, it’s possible to see the full length of St. Monica’s from the street, including the enormous and beautiful stained glass windows that make a walk down First Avenue a little more inspiring.

St. Monica’s doesn’t get the architectural love it deserves. But the church and parish have a long history in this stretch of Yorkville.

Established in 1879, St. Monica’s served a mostly Irish-American community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—when Irish immigrants and their descendants followed the development of elevated trains and streetcar lines and moved to Yorkville.

In the early 20th century, Hungarian New Yorkers migrated to East 79th Street, opening Hungarian restaurants and businesses and founding cultural organizations and churches in what was then called “Little Hungary.”

Two of those churches, St. Stephen’s and St. Elizabeth’s, merged with St. Monica’s in recent years.

The parish is now officially known as “St Monica-St Elizabeth of Hungary-St Stephen of Hungary”—a long name but one that hints at a long history, too.

[Second photo: NYPL; third photo: New York City Department of Records and Information Services Tax Photo]

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13 Responses to “Tenements go down, and a church reemerges”

  1. countrypaul Says:

    My wife and I frequently say that throughout New York there are buildings that, in other cities and towns, would be major local landmarks or even greater attractions. From at least what the exterior indicates, if this was in a European city, it would be “the place” to visit. Here, it’s “just another building.” We New Yorkers are blessed with an embarrassment of riches.

  2. MICHAEL MORRIS Says:

    Unfortunately it may be years and perhaps never, that the boarded up property is built on. We’ve come back before but what’s happening now just seems different with so many moving out and vacant apt rentals skyrocketing.

  3. Brian Andersson Says:

    It is a church, not a cathedral.

  4. Greg Says:

    Quite a shame, those modest tenements are much more human than whatever monstrosity replaces them will surely be.

  5. Ricky Says:

    The building seemed to come down in a flash! I take the bus up First Avenue at least once a week and suddenly there was the hole and a view of the church that surprised and delighted me.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      It is a treat to see from First Avenue and makes a nice interruption in amid a stretch of businesses and residences.

      • countrypaul Says:

        It would be nice if the new developer built a structure that would be set back from the property line far enough to give some “air” to the church, turning it into an attraction for the new construction. Does anyone know what kind of plans have been filed?

  6. randomlyreading Says:

    I wish they would wash those stained glass windows so we could see the better before they are covered up again with yet another ugly new building.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I agree with Michael Morris; that demo site will likely stay that way for a long time, considering the state of New York City real estate right now. A power wash would make the stained glass really spectacular, but I’m just glad the church can breathe and the windows are seen!

  7. petey Says:

    two of my aunts were buried out of st monica’s, and i was baptized in st elizabeth’s.

    but as said above, it isn’t a cathedral.

  8. Tom B Says:

    I always heard this area was German.

    • BklynMaven Says:

      It would probably depend on how broadly or narrowly you consider “area”. As far as I know, the heaviest German concentration was a bit further to the north, from the low 80s to low 90s. The Hungarian concentration tended to run from the upper 70s to low 80s, and the low-to-mid 70s were more predominantly Czech/Bohemian. All of this was to the east of 3rd Avenue (and the El), of course.

      When I grew up in the general neighborhood in the 1970s, there were still a decent number of outposts from each group: churches, bakeries, specialty food shops, restaurants, etc. A handful of these still remain, but it’s not as though they’re catering primarily to local clientele anymore.

      I have no idea if this is still the case, but also back in the 1970s, the public library branch on York between 77th-78th Streets (Webster Branch) had the better part of an entire floor of its building for Czech books, newspapers, recordings, etc., and was known for having the largest collection of Czech-language materials in the US.

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