Archive for the ‘Houses of worship’ Category

An 1843 orphanage behind a Manhattan cathedral

August 24, 2015

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine—begun in 1892 and still unfinished—is one of the city’s most magnificent houses of worship, occupying 13 acres on a plateau on Amsterdam Avenue and 112th Street.


But there’s a building on the cathedral grounds that predates St. John’s by 49 years and stands as a reminder of how 19th century New York handled parentless or unwanted children.

LeakeandwattspamphletThe lovely building is the former home of the Leake and Watts Orphan Asylum, built in 1843 when this part of Manhattan was wide open countryside.

Leake and Watts cared for “full orphans, between the ages of three and twelve years,” according to the 1892 King’s Handbook of New York City.

The orphanage was founded by wealthy lawyer John Leake, who died in 1827 with no heirs. He left his fortune to a good friend’s son, Robert Watts, on the condition that he either adopt the surname Leake, or forfeit the money so it could be used to open an orphan asylum.

Watts died before he could inherit the fortune, however, so the orphanage got the go-ahead.


At its opening, the orphanage housed 60 boys, and soon girls were cared for there as well.

Leakeandwattscathedral1900“Here the institution cares for homeless and friendless orphans, educating them and, at the age of 14, finding Christian homes for them,” states King’s Handbook.

After four decades in the open country of Morningside Heights, Leake and Watts sold their land to the trustees who planned to build the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

Leake and Watts moved their orphanage to Yonkers, abandoning the Greek Revival-style building with its impressive Ionic columns.

LeakeandwattscathedralOne wing was sheared off in the 1950s, but the Ithiel Town Building—named after its architect, who also designed Federal Hall downtown and St. Mark’s Church on East 10th Street—still remains.

It’s a link to the city’s institutional past, when orphanages abounded and were considered a humane alternative to turning unwanted and homeless kids out into the street. [Fourth image: MCNY Collections Portal, 1900]

The piece of Plymouth Rock in a Brooklyn church

July 20, 2015

PlymouthchurchBrooklyn’s Plymouth Church, on Hicks Street, is a 168-year-old Congregational church with a long and impressive history.

Founded by transplanted New Englanders, it reportedly was a stop on the Underground Railroad and was visited by President Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth.

Pastor Henry Ward Beecher’s fiery abolitionist sermons and mock slave auctions made him famous.

(Beecher later gained infamy for having affairs with congregation members as well as for his 1875 adultery trial, but that’s another post).

But the church has something else to boast about: it houses a football-sized chunk of the original Plymouth Rock, on display in a part of the church called the Arcade.

The backstory? Apparently the piece of rock came from a parishioner at neighboring Church of the Pilgrims.

Plymouth_Church,_Brooklyn,_New_YorkWhen Plymouth Church merged with Church of the Pilgrims in 1934 (and changed its name until 2011 to Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims), it acquired this artifact of colonial history.

Of course, no one knows for sure if Plymouth rock really was the landing place of the Mayflower in 1620. Real or fake, a fragment of this symbol of religious freedom has found a home in Brooklyn Heights.

[Second image: Suarez; third image: Plymouth Church in 1866]

A bit of the London Blitz adorns a downtown gate

April 6, 2015

CherubgateThe front entrance to Trinity Church (and its 17th century burial ground) faces Broadway.

It’s a fascinating, haunting place to lose yourself in early New York history and read the faded gravestones of city founders.

But it’s on a lonely gate at the back of the churchyard (at left), on Trinity Place, where a curious relic—a stone cherub head—can be found.

What’s it doing there?

The head comes from St. Mary-le-Bow church in London’s East End, founded in 1080 and built in 1680 by Christopher Wren.

CherubgatecloseupDuring the Blitz in May 1941, St. Mary-le-Bow, along with thousands of other homes and buildings in London, was leveled by German air raids.

After the war, Trinity Church, a sister church to St. Mary-le-Bow (below, in the 1890s) since Trinity was founded in 1697, pledged $50,000 to help the parish rebuild.

Found in the rubble during construction, the cherub head was gifted to Trinity Church by the people of St. Mary-le-Bow in 1964 as a thank you.

Stmarylebow1890sThe strangely undamaged cherub head now adorns what Trinity has renamed “Cherub Gate” on Trinity Place.

It’s not the only bit of the Blitz to make it to New York City. The landfill used to create the FDR Drive contains pieces of bombed out buildings from Bristol.

And many New Yorkers, including Mayor La Guardia, feared the arrival of German bombers on our side of the Atlantic, so much so that they commissioned this public service poster to alert residents of what to do if a devastating attack on the city actually happened.


A young socialite goes down with the Titanic

March 30, 2015

EdithCorseEvansTales of incredible heroism mark the sinking of the Titanic, doomed by an iceberg in the North Atlantic 103 years ago next month.

One young New York City woman’s quiet sacrifice, however, has been mostly forgotten.

Edith Corse Evans was born into a wealthy New York family in 1875. She survived the Blizzard of 1888 (years later, her sister recalled trudging to school with Edith after the storm ended, in “an enchanting city with trackless snow”).

By all accounts, Edith became an independent, socially prominent woman.


In the spring of 1912, when she was 36 years old, she reportedly went to England to attend a family funeral, then embarked on a clothes-shopping trip to Paris.

Accompanied by her aunt and two female relatives, she decided to take the Titanic home to New York, boarding at Cherbourg, Normandy and booking first-class accommodations.

GracechurchpostcardAt 11:40 on April 14, the mighty Titanic was ripped by an iceberg. Over the next few hours, as the ship listed, women and children were lowered into lifeboats.

As time went on and the situation became increasingly grave, Edith and one relative, Mrs. Caroline Brown, remained on deck, according to passenger Archibald Gracie IV.

Gracie (of the Gracie mansion Gracies) survived the sinking and recalled Edith’s last moments in his 1913 book, The Truth About the Titanic.

“I heard a member of the crew, coming from the quarter where the last boat was loaded, say there was room for more ladies in it,” wrote Gracie.

Gracie grabbed Edith and Caroline and rushed them to the last boat. “You go first,” Edith reportedly told her friend, according to Gracie. “You are married and have children.”

EdithevansobitnytWith Caroline safely on the lifeboat, Edith tried to board it as well. But she had difficulty climbing over the ship’s gunwale. “Never mind,’ she is said to have called out. ‘I will go on a later boat,'” wrote Gracie.

There was no later boat, and Edith perished in the sea with 1,516 other passengers. Her body was never recovered.

Shortly after her death, a plaque for Edith was installed under a stained glass window inside Grace Church, where her memorial service was held (above, her New York Times obituary notice).

“Love is strong as death” it reads, a quiet monument to a small act of great bravery.

From Gothic-style church to infamous nightclub

December 29, 2014

Recognize this solitary Gothic Revival church, set on what looks like the countryside of an older New York City?


It’s the Church of the Holy Communion, an Episcopal church built between 1844 and 1846 on Sixth Avenue and 20th Street.

Churchoftheholycommunionwiki2010But it might be better known as the church that from 1983 to 2001 housed the Limelight, the notorious nightclub famous for its celebrities, club kids, and bridge and tunneler crowd (and a link to a gruesome murder in 1996).

This sketch, from the New York Public Library, isn’t dated. But it appears to depict the church during its early years, when 20th Street was at the outskirts of the city.

Churchoftheholycommunion1907mcnyDesigned by Richard Upjohn (he also built Trinity Church in 1846, among others), Holy Communion was architecturally groundbreaking at the time.

“Holy Communion was the first asymmetrical Gothic Revival church edifice in the United States and was the prototype for hundreds of similar buildings erected all across the country,” states Andrew Dolkart’s Guide to New York City Landmarks.

“Upjohn designed the building to resemble a small Medieval English parish church; the rectory and other additions complement the church in style and massing.”

Churchoftheholycommunion1933nyplAs the area developed, the church blended into the urbanscape.

Here it is in 1901, in a photo from the Museum of the City of New York, and again in 1933 in another New York Public Library shot.

Since the Limelight shut its doors, the space had been configured as an upscale Limelight-branded shopping mall.

It now serves as a gym, a monument to the preservation of the physical over the spiritual.

[Second photo: Wikipedia]

A spooky Gothic skyscraper next to Trinity Church

October 13, 2014

Well, skyscraper by 1905 standards. That’s the year the 21-story Trinity Building finished construction.

Designed as a Neo-Gothic complement to Trinity Church on Lower Broadway, it’s loaded with gargoyles and creepy human faces, as well as fanciful gables and moldings topped by a gorgeous cupola.


This vintage postcard doesn’t reveal all the incredible detail on the facade, but it’s a nice look at Broadway in 1910, I’m guessing.

The cemetery next door is so tourist-free and green, it looks like a lawn. And hey, streetcars!

A former thief dedicates his life to the city’s poor

October 13, 2014

JerrymcauleyBy his own account, Jerry McAuley was a rogue and a serious crook.

Born poor in Ireland and sent to live in New York City at age 13, he became a drunkard and river pirate who frequented the rum shops and brothels on Water Street, one of the worst sections of pre–Civil War Manhattan.

At 19, he was convicted of highway robbery and went to Sing Sing in the 1850s. McAuley learned to read and write and found religion in prison, he explained in an autobiographical sketch.

When he was released seven years later in 1864, he returned to Water Street—and after a couple of relapses into crime, he decided to change his ways and help men like himself straighten out their lives.

In 1872 he renovated a former dance hall at 316 Water Street and called it Jerry McAuley’s Mission.


This “helping hand for men” was one of many religious missions in the city determined to aid the down and out with food, job training, and lodging via prayer meetings and bible study.

McauleycremornemissionMcAuley’s effort was similar, except in one crucial way: he accepted everyone.

At a time when an increasing number of missions and benevolent societies were dedicating themselves to helping the poor, the sentiment was that only the “deserved poor” should be offered charity.

The so-called undeserving poor—drunks and criminals, basically—were on their own. And thanks to the Panic of 1873, there were many more deserving and undeserving poor who desperately needed help.

“No one, however wretched, however far gone in sin, is ever turned away; a helping hand is extended to all, and the vilest outcast is made to feel welcome and confident that there is still a chance for salvation left him,” wrote James D. McCabe, Jr. in his 1882 book New York by Gaslight.

McauleyfountainMcAuley’s mission earned notoriety citywide, and many wealthy New Yorkers provided financial support.

In the 1880s, McAuley and his wife founded a mission on West 32nd Street in the Tenderloin called McAuley’s Cremorne Mission to help prostitutes and other “fallen” women turn their lives around.

McAuley didn’t live much longer. He died in 1882 from tuberculosis, contracted during his stay at Sing Sing. His mission still exists as the New York Rescue Mission.

He’s also memorialized on a 1913 water fountain in Greeley Square, with the inscription: “I will give to him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely.”

[Last photo: via]

A wintry view of the end of Christopher Street

October 4, 2014

Christopher Street in the far West Village really hasn’t changed very much since Beulah R. Bettensworth depicted it in 1934. Well, at least this corner of it.


This Depression-era painter lived a block away at 95 Christopher, and her stretch of the street looks like the downtown of a small village: there’s the Ninth Avenue El Station that once ran up Greenwich Street. Victorian Gothic St. Veronica’s Church peeks over the station.

The PATH station entrance has a similar awning. And there still is a yellow three-story building on that northwestern corner. Too bad the cigar store is gone!

The firemen tomb in a former Village cemetery

September 15, 2014

James J. Walker Park at Hudson Street and St. Luke’s Place is named for the colorful, corrupt, showgirl-loving former mayor, who governed the city during the highs and lows of the Jazz Age and the start of the Great Depression.


But like most city parks, this landscaped stretch of playgrounds and ball fields had a more somber start—as a necropolis.

From 1799 to 1858, this acre of green served as an active burial ground called St. John’s Cemetery, part of Trinity Church.

Hudsonpark1895mcnyAn estimated 10,000 New Yorkers were interred there—mostly lower-class immigrants who lived in what had once been a posh residential enclave and slowly became a rougher-edged waterfront neighborhood by the middle of the 19th century.

When the city banned burials in this part of Manhattan, St. John’s slid into disrepair.

“The cemetery has for many years been in a dilapidated condition,” wrote The New York Times in an 1894 article about the new park to be built over the dead. Beer bottles and other trash littered the grounds.

“The monuments have toppled over, and many of the tombstones have fallen.”


“Many of the bodies will undoubtedly be removed, especially those contained in the underground vaults. Thousands of those buried in ordinary graves long ago mingled with the earth.”

Because relatives of those buried there were likely also deceased, “it is probably that thousands of the friendless dead will be allowed to rest in peace under the surface of this new park, as they do in the old Potter’s Fields, now known as Washington Square and Tompkins Square Parks, respectively.”

StjohnscemeteryplaqueToday, beneath kids playing T-ball and soccer, the “friendless dead” remain, with the occasional marker turning up during construction.

The only visible remnant of the the burial ground is a fascinating artifact: an 1834 sarcophagus dedicated to three young firemen from Engine Company 13 who were killed fighting a blaze on Pearl Street.

StjohnscemeteryhelmetsTheir tomb (today and in a 19th century photo at its original site, above) is marked by a granite coffin with stone helmets resting on top.

It’s near the bocce courts on the St. Luke’s Place side.

[Second photo, MCNY Collections Portal; third photo: NYPL Digital Gallery]

Four beauties in a row an Upper East Side block

September 2, 2014

East67thstnyplEveryone has their most beautiful street in the city. I’m always stunned by East 67th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues.

Situated one after the other on his quiet block are four distinct Gilded Age institutional buildings with lovely design features and architectural grace.

First from the Third Avenue side is Park East Synagogue, a circa-1890 Moorish building with asymmetrical towers, stained glass windows, a stunning rose window, and arcades. Considering the ethnic mix of this rough-edged neighborhood at the time, it must have been a crowded congregation.

“The Orthodox congregation at the Park East Synagogue was largely German, but included many Polish, Russian, and Hungarian Jews as well,” states The Landmarks of New York: Fifth Edition.


Next down the line is the Fire Department Headquarters at 157 East 67th. Constructed in 1886-1887 and designed by Napoleon LeBrun, the architect who standardized the look of New York City firehouses in the late 19th century.

This Romanesque beauty was built to house the telegraph operations and offices.


Too bad the top of the 150-foot lookout tower was lopped off in the 1940s (it’s visible in the first photo). Here at the pinnacle of Lenox Hill, firemen in the tower could supposedly see flames all the way down to the Battery.


Third in the row is the 1887 19th Precinct Station House. There’s a lot of architectural styles here, according to the AIA Guide to New York City: “A Victorian palazzo: brownstone and red brick borrowing heavily from the Florentine Renaissance.”


Like all precinct houses, this one has two green lights flanking the doorway—a tradition established by the men of the “rattle watch” of New Amsterdam, who carried green lanterns with them while on patrol.

Last but not least at 151 East 67th Street is this handsome brownstone opened in 1890 by Mount Sinai Hospital, then around the corner on Lexington Avenue at 66th Street, as a dispensary and clinic. It’s now called the Kennedy Child Study Center.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,287 other followers