Archive for the ‘Houses of worship’ Category

This modest Forsyth Street walkup was once a synagogue

September 6, 2021

Forsyth Street between Grand and Hester Streets is a pretty typical Lower East Side block, with an uneven row of shabby but serviceable tenement walkups lining the east side of the street along Sara Roosevelt Park.

But one of those walkups, number 80, has some curious architectural touches. The third floor of the three-story building features Gothic arched and circular windows; you can almost imagine them filled with stained glass. And iron stars of David decorate each fire escape landing.

There’s good reason for these design flourishes. Though 80 Forsyth was built in 1874, according to 2013 post in The Lo-Down, what was once a house or tenement was converted into a synagogue in the late 19th century.

Turning a residential or commercial space into a synagogue may not have been unusual at the time. (Just as it’s not so unusual now, with storefront churches.) In the 1880s and 1890s, the Lower East Side was filling up with thousands of Jewish immigrants, who formed or joined congregations and needed places to worship.

Several congregations used the synagogue over the years. In the 1880s, a congregation identified by The New York Times as Kol Israel Anschi Poland occupied the space. The Times wrote that the congregation was fighting a tax bill from the city because the property was used for religious purposes, the congregation asserted.

But the city won the case, convincing the judge that since the ritual baths in the basement were open to “all Hebrews,” not just congregants, the building was liable to taxation.

I’m not sure when the last congregation abandoned the building. But this 1939-1941 tax photo of 80 Forsyth (above) appears to have a commercial tenant on the ground floor. (There’s the stained glass; if only the photo was in color!)

In the 1960s, the house turned synagogue took on an entirely new life: It became the studio of Abstract Expressionist painter Pat Passlof, per The Lo-Down.

Passlof bought the building in 1963 for $20,000 with her husband, painter Milton Resnick, and help from her parents, who pronounced it a “rat hole,” according to a 2011 New York Times piece.

“They called it a rat hole, but I couldn’t deny that,” Passlof said in the Times article. She was 83 and died later that year.

In 2014, the ex-synagogue went on the market for $6,250,000. Number 80 Forsyth has returned to its original purpose as a residence, it seems.

[Third image: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

Two mystery gargoyles on a 57th Street building

June 27, 2021

When you walk along New York City streets, you never know who is looking down at you. And on a busy corner at West 57th Street and Broadway, you’re getting the evil eye from two mysterious grotesques.

These stone figures are affixed to what was once the main entrance for the Argonaut Building—a terra cotta beauty with Gothic touches that opened in 1909.

Back then, the building was the showroom for the Peerless Motor Car Company, a long-defunct carriage and car manufacturer that vacated the premises in the 1910s.

This stretch of Broadway near Columbus Circle was known as Automobile Row, thanks to all the car showrooms that popped up there in the early 20th century.

After Peerless (above, in a 1909 ad) left, General Motors took it over. Eventually the building was renovated and converted to office use. The Hearst company bought it and based many of their consumer magazines here through the 2000s.

When it was important to have a presence in this car-showroom neighborhood, Peerless made sure they occupied prime real estate.

But they also designed the building to fit into the corner, which explains why it has the Gothic look of the Broadway Tabernacle Church, which held court on Broadway and 56th Street (above photo, likely from the 1940s).

But back to the grotesques. Spooky and sly, laughing or crying out, they’re either holding up the building or hiding under it with sinister intentions. Shrouded in what looks like robes and slip-on shoes, they’ve been with the building since the beginning…and are apparently here to stay.

[Third image: New-York Tribune, December 12, 1909; fourth image: NYPL Digital Collection]

The anti-slavery past of a Bowery house built in the 1790s

June 14, 2021

Numbers 134 and 136 Bowery, between Broome and Grand Streets, look like they were designed to be twins.

Both houses were constructed when the Bowery was a fashionable address north of the city center. Each reflects the Federal style that was in vogue at the turn of the 19th century—with dormer windows, steep roofs, and Flemish-bond brickwork.

But 134 Bowery (on the left) has the edge when it comes to New York history. This 3-story house dates back to the 1790s, making it one of the oldest houses still extant in Manhattan. Number 136 is old by Gotham standards, but it didn’t go up until 1828, according to the Bowery Alliance.

Sources vary on who built the houses, but one or both were constructed and occupied by Samuel Delaplaine and his family. Delaplaine, a Quaker, was an outspoken member of the city’s nascent abolitionist movement.

“…may servitude abolish’d be, As well as Negro-Slavery, To make one LAND of LIBERTY!” read a manifesto Delaplaine reportedly wrote in 1793, according to The Historical Markers Database. (Below, 134-136 Bowery two doors down from the bank building on the left in 1910.)

Delaplaine’s ancestors made their wealth as merchants. “The Delaplaines were descendants of a Huguenot refugee who landed in New Amsterdam after fleeing France,” states Alice Sparberg Alexiou in her book, Devil’s Mile: the Rich, Gritty History of the Bowery.

His Quaker faith may have spurred on his opposition to slavery, which was legal in New York City until 1799, when the first of a series of gradual emancipation laws were enacted. (New York state fully abolished slavery in 1827.)

In 1795, he donated the land for St. Philips Church, New York’s first black Episcopal church, notes Alexiou, which originally stood on Centre Street. He also donated plots he owned on Chrystie and Rivington Streets for a cemetery for black New Yorkers, who made up about 20 percent of the city’s population the time.

“Delaplaine was one of a group of ‘diverse, well-disposed individuals,’ as described by the Common Council, who were well-disposed to the ‘African society’ (‘free people of color’) for a Negroes’ cemetery,” Alexiou wrote.

Delaplaine’s descendants were also active in the abolitionist movement, which became stronger in antebellum New York. “Booksellers and circulating libraries published and distributed anti-slavery literature in these buildings, which also served as boarding houses and possible fugitive-slave safe houses in the 1830s to the 1860s,” states the Bowery Alliance.

After the Civil War, 134 Bowery became one of the first YMCAs located on the Bowery. “Partnering with the New York Mission Society, a reading room and the Carmel Chapel were opened, and food, lodgings, and baths were provided to ‘all persons, without respect to country, creed, color, sex, or age,” per the Alliance.

While both houses have long had commercial tenants on the ground floor, their link to abolition can hopefully save them from the wrecking ball.

“The historic houses at 134-136 Bowery are now documented to be significantly associated with the anti-slavery movement beginning at the end of the 18th century,” wrote Mitchell Grubler at Place Matters. “They meet the established qualifications to be deemed of most important historic value through documented connections.”

[Third image: Library of Congress]

5 remnants of the old Czech neighborhood on the Upper East Side

April 19, 2021

It’s been decades since Czech could routinely be heard on the streets. Restaurants like Praha and Vasata, heavy on the goose, duck, pork, and dumplings, are long defunct.

The Little Slovakia bar has vanished, and markets, bakeries, relief organizations, and travel agencies catering to Czech and Slovak immigrants closed their doors long ago.

Yet traces do exist of the former Czech neighborhood centered on East 72nd Street between First and Second Avenues. Created after waves of immigration in the late 19th century and then again in the 1940s, Little Czechoslovak once had a population of 40,000—with many finding work in local breweries (alongside their German neighbors in Yorkville) and cigar factories in the east 70s.

One of the oldest remnants stands on East 71st Street near First Avenue. This beige brick Renaissance-style structure opened in 1896, and its name is still carved into the facade: Cech Gymnastic Association. (Interesting side note: The architect is the same man who designed the building that housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on Washington Place.)

The Gymnastic Association, or Sokol Hall, was an elegant community center. “Old photographs show a space full of gymnastic equipment, ringed by a great oak gallery and painted like a European concert hall—marbleized columns and elaborate stencil and decorative work on the walls,” wrote Christopher Gray in the New York Times in 1989.

“The hall was a centerpiece for the Czech community in New York, offering dinners, theatrical events, concerts, bazaars and a comfortable social club.” Sokol Hall still operates as a gym, though the restaurant (see the sign above in a photo from 1940) seem to have vanished.

All of New York’s former ethnic neighborhoods had their own funeral parlors, and Little Czech is no exception. John Krtil got its start in 1885, and it’s the only one that remains, on First Avenue at East 70th Street.

Immigrant enclaves always built churches. St. John Nepomucene Church is one that survives; it’s a stunningly beautiful Catholic church at First Avenue and East 66th Street. The parish was founded by Slovak immigrants in the East Village before relocating here in 1925, according to Slavs of New York.

Inside St. John’s recently, I met a parishioner who’d been going to this church since he was a child and recalled the huge congregation and holiday parties in the basement.

I’d passed the Jan Hus Presbyterian Church many times over the years and was eager to include it here. Completed in 1888, this Gothic Revival church on East 74th Street off First Avenue was one of the earliest houses of worship to serve the Bohemian community.

What a surprise to find it impossible to view behind heavy scaffolding! The church building was sold to the Church of the Epiphany, which is doing a heavy renovation. Jan Hus Church will be moving to 90th Street and First Avenue. (The photo above was shot before the building went into hiding; it’s from the Historic Districts Council.)

“The [Jan Hus] Church design evokes the streetscape of Prague with its distinctive Romanesque and Gothic Revival details, including a tower said to recall the entrance to Charles Bridge, which was added in 1915 as part of the expansion,” wrote Majda Kallab Whitaker, in a thoughtful farewell on the website for the Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association.

Luckily Bohemia National Hall is still with us. Completed in 1896, this stunning five-story building on East 73rd Street could be described as the heart of the neighborhood. “Since its beginning it has served as a focal point for its community, offering ethnic food, Czech language and history classes as well as space for its large community to meet and hold various events,” the Hall’s website states.

With its lion heads on the facade and beautiful arched upper windows, the Hall serves a new purpose these days. Owned by the Czech Republic since 2001, it’s the headquarters of the Czech consulate, according to the New York Times. It’s also the site of a restaurant, Bohemian Spirit, that serves the kind of Czech and Slovak food once dished out in the small cafes and eateries in the neighborhood,

[Third photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services; seventh photo: Six to Celebrate/Historic Districts Council]

The country chapel still standing on 42nd Street

March 29, 2021

On the eastern end of 42nd Street between First and Second Avenues stands a delightful little brick church.

Hemmed in on all three sides by tall apartment towers, it’s an eclectic dollhouse-like structure—with Gothic windows and arches as well as a facade that looks like a nod to its Tudor City neighbors.

But this church predates Tudor City and the modern hustle of East 42nd Street by at least 50 years.

So how did a country-style chapel end up on one of New York’s busiest thoroughfares?

The story begins with another church, the Church of the Covenant (above in 1890)—a Presbyterian church completed in 1865 at Fourth Avenue (now Park Avenue) and 35th Street. After the Civil war, this area was on its way to becoming one of the poshest enclaves in Manhattan.

“Dedicated in 1865, the graceful stone building was designed in the Romanesque style by James Renwick, Jr., the noted architect of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, All Saints Catholic Church and Grace Church in New York City, and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC,” wrote nycago.com.

In the 1870s and 1880s, the Church of the Covenant began running a mission school out of a stable on East 40th Street. One of the Church’s well-heeled congregants was architect J. Cleveland Cady, the designer behind the original Metropolitan Opera House, part of the American Museum of Natural History, and dozens of churches and synagogues in and around New York City.

Cady ran the mission school, and in 1871 he designed a country-style chapel known as Covenant Chapel that served as kind of a satellite branch of the church down on 35th Street.

By the 1890s, East 42nd Street was a developing residential area. But it still didn’t have the population and cache of Murray Hill.

That would soon change. As New York’s population marched northward, Covenant Chapel’s congregation became larger than that of the main church.

In 1893, the country chapel on 42nd Street became the main church. “A Fellowship Hall was added to the 42nd Street site in 1927, with a half-timbered facade to complement neighboring Tudor City,” wrote David Dunlap in From Abyssinian to Zion: A Guide to Manhattan’s Houses of Worship.

The original Church of the Covenant outlived its use and was bulldozed—and the little country chapel continues to serve the neighborhood.

[Second image: CUNY Graduate Center Collection]

A lovely view of Trinity Church from Wall Street

November 9, 2020

In the shadowy canyons of the Financial District are two New York City icons. Most recognizable is Trinity Church, whose 281-foot spire was the tallest structure in the city until 1890.

There’s also Federal Hall, built in 1842 on Wall Street, which has had this George Washington statue out front since 1882.

View of Trinity Church From Wall Street, undated

This view was painted by Elizabeth Weber-Fulop. Born in Budapest in 1886, she lived in Europe before moving to Charleston, South Carolina and then Tennessee.

To my knowledge, she never lived in New York. But it’s hard not to see why she was struck by what she saw one sunny, early 20th century day in Lower Manhattan.

Tenements go down, and a church reemerges

August 24, 2020

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]

In 1886, this East 77th Street house was a church

August 10, 2020

The lovely little house caught my eye while I was walking a few blocks south of Yorkville toward First Avenue.

The enchanting Romanesque style, the peaked chapel-like roof, the two tall arched windows that looked like they were designed to hold stained glass—in this tiny dwelling’s earliest years, it had to have been a church.

Turns out, 429 East 77th Street was originally a church, built in 1886.

And up until it was sold and made into a private residence a decade ago, this simple sanctuary appears to have housed up to four different congregations, reflecting the changing demographics of the surrounding neighborhood through the 20th century.

Dingeldein Memorial Church of the Evangelical Association of North America was its earliest incarnation.

Dingeldein Memorial’s congregation drew from the German immigrants who had moved to this working- class tenement part of the Upper East Side in the late 19th century.

After the General Slocum disaster in 1904, much of New York’s Little Germany neighborhood (today’s East Village) dispersed to Yorkville, which became the city’s new Kleindeutschland. The church likely remained heavily German.

Change came in 1920. The Dingeldein Memorial Church congregation sold the little building to the New York City Baptist Mission, an organization with the goal of promoting “churches, missions, Sunday-schools, vacation schools, settlements, and other missionary and charitable work.”

It may have been the New York City Baptist Mission that renamed the church the Czechoslovak Baptist Church.

A Czech church on East 77th Street? It made perfect sense at the time.

In the early 1900s, the blocks in the far East 70s were ground zero for New York’s Czech population, with thousands of immigrants patronizing Czech businesses, entertainment spaces, and churches—only a few of which exist today. (Bohemian National Hall, on East 73rd Street since 1896, is a remnant of the neighborhood.)

In 1961, with the Czech population receding, the church decamped. The next occupant was the First Russian Baptist Church; this congregation may have been the one to paint the little house cream with brown trim (above, in a 2010 photo).

By that year, the First Russian Baptist Church’s days were over. A listing hit the market that included the church itself and a small building behind it, according to Curbed.com, which had already been renovated into a residence.

Together, both buildings sold for 2.1 million. The church-turned-house has a roof deck now, and the dwelling is stripped of any religious symbols or icons (like the cross on the roof, at left, and the wooden pews, top).

But this charming house still resembles a chapel, and its spiritual past can’t be entirely erased.

[Third image: New-York Tribune, 1920; fourth, fifth, and sixth images: Streeteasy.com]

The painter who captured the soul of New York

May 4, 2020

New York right now feels like it’s at a crossroads. People are fearful of walking the streets with the threat of a virus literally in the air. Subway problems, homelessness…the city doesn’t always seem to be working.

To restore your faith in Gotham, take a look at these paintings by Alfred S. Mira, whose vivid street scenes of the 1930s and 1940s city capture the life, passion, and activity inherent in New York’s soul.

Mira wasn’t a native New Yorker. Born in Italy in 1900, he came to New York as a boy with an “insatiable desire to draw,” as he put it.

Despite his parents’ misgivings, he embarked on a long career as an artist, painting cityscapes (many of his own neighborhood, Greenwich Village) depicting the day-to-day street life New Yorkers relate to and thrive on.

His style is sometimes Impressionist, but his vision of New York was one of realism. He painted the city “the way busy people see it…None of those breathtaking shots cameramen contrive of towers and infinity, which no New Yorker sees in actuality,” he said.

Mira’s paintings capture something real and remarkable about city life—the stunning palette of colors from buildings and roads, the hidden views from el trains and windows, the ordinary exchanges New Yorkers have on sidewalks with one another.

“The lure of the outdoors always attracted me, especially the city streets with their movements, color and depth—they were the things that inspired me and which I painted as they looked and as I felt them,” he said.

This site has featured Mira’s work before, and it’s the right time to present him again. Let his work remind you of what makes New York great and why you don’t ever want to leave.

A yellow fever outbreak made Greenwich Village

April 6, 2020

Epidemics can shape the way a city develops. And it was an outbreak of a lethal disease that helped create the Greenwich Village that’s been part of the larger city since the 1820s.

In the 17th century, the village of Greenwich was a mostly rural suburb of farms and estates (below, Aaron Burr’s home, Richmond Hill) along the Hudson River a few miles from the city center. (Seen here in a 1766 map, use link to zoom in.)

Periodic outbreaks of yellow fever (among other deadly illnesses) in the lower city—in many spots a filthy place of sewage, stagnant water, and garbage-eating hogs—would cause residents with means to leave, at least for the summer.

“Successive waves of yellow fever drove many New Yorkers to summertime residences in the countryside,” wrote John Strausbaugh in The Village: A History of Greenwich Village. (Another fine home, above, and the oldest house in the Village, at left, from 1799.) Many decamped to Greenwich, “a refuge from pestilence with its former swampland drained and its air fresh.”

But it was the especially pernicious yellow fever epidemic of 1822 that forced thousands to flee the city center for good and recreate their lives in Greenwich permanently, which only five years earlier had installed water mains and sewers.

“Many New Yorkers who had not evacuated during the previous epidemics did so during this final rampant pandemic, states a writer at creatingdigitalhistory.

“As residents moved to Greenwich Village, they built homes and businesses in attempt to replicate their downtown lifestyles. In essence, they created a makeshift city center that has since evolved into the Greenwich Village of today.”

The hurry to leave the main city was noted by Greenwich residents. “Our city presented the appearance of a town besieged,” wrote the former secretary of the city’s Board of Health in 1822, according to Anna Alice Chapin in Greenwich Village. “From daybreak till night one line of carts, containing boxes, merchandise, and effects were seen moving towards ‘Greenwich Village’ and the upper parts of the city.”

Another resident recalled the mass exodus and influx like this: “The town fairly exploded…and went flying beyond its bond as though the pestilence had been a burning mine.” (Above right, a house on Bedford Street, circa 1820s.)

Buildings went up in Greenwich fast. “Temporary stores and offices were erecting, and on the (ensuing day) Sunday, carts were in motion, and the saw and hammer busily at work,” according to Chapin.

A post office, customs house, and newspaper offices sprang up in the formerly sleepy village. “Bank Street got its name in this way, the city banks transferring their business tither literally overnight, ready to do business in the morning,” wrote Chapin.

“Stores of rough boards were constructed in a day,” recalled Charles Haynes Haswell in Reminisces of an Octogenarian of the City of New York. With the lower city all but deserted, ferries from Brooklyn, Jersey City, and Hoboken began docking up the Hudson at Greenwich, wrote Haswell.

A growing neighborhood needs a church, and St. Luke’s, still on Hudson Street, also went up at about this time. St. Luke’s was not by accident named for Saint Luke—the patron saint of physicians and surgeons. (Above left, in 1828)

In total, 388 people died in the yellow fever outbreak, according to Haswell. Many of those victims from the lower city were buried beneath Washington Square, which was the far-away potter’s field of New York in the early 1820s.

By the end of 1825, Greenwich Village now was filled with handsome wood and brick houses. (Above right, on Van Dam Street.) “Between 1825 and 1835, the population of the Village doubled,” wrote Strausburgh. By 1850, it had doubled again.

“Shrewd speculators subdivided farms, leveled hills, rerouted and buried Minetta Brook, and undertook landfill projects,” according to the Greenwich Village Society of Historical Preservation. “Blocks of neat row houses built in the prevailing Federal style soon accommodated middle-class merchants and tradesmen.

This sleepy hamlet (which thankfully kept some of its own original street grid) was no longer separate from the city—it became a part of the city. (Above in an 1831 map). Would it have been subsumed by the city if the yellow fever epidemic never happened? Almost certainly. But the outbreak rushed it into joining Gotham, going from countryside to urbanized in a hurry.

[First through third images: NYPL Digital Collection; fifth and sixth images: NYPL Digital Collection; Eighth image: NYPL Digital Collection]