Archive for the ‘Houses of worship’ Category

A Village church’s secret presidential wedding

April 18, 2016

ChurchoftheascentionwikiThe beautiful Church of the Ascension, on Fifth Avenue and 10th Street, has a long history in New York. It started in 1829 in a Canal Street building, where the city’s growing Evangelical population gathered.

After the original church was destroyed by fire a decade later, the parish moved to a Gothic Revival cathedral designed by Richard Upjohn in 1841 in what was then the outskirts of town.

In 1844, it earned fame as the site of a small wedding for a very prominent groom: United States President John Tyler.

And amazingly, the entire ceremony was pulled off without the press or public finding out until after the couple said their vows.

ChurchoftheasensionjuliaTyler (of “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” fame) had ascended to the White House when his Whig party running mate, William Henry Harrison, died one month after taking office.

After meeting her at a Washington reception, Tyler fell hard for Julia Gardiner, a beautiful 24-year-old from a wealthy New York family.

Following the death of Tyler’s first wife in 1842, the president was determined to win Julia’s hand.

The independent-minded Julia (who shocked society when she posed on the arm of a man who was not related to her in a store ad) eventually accepted.

The wedding was set for June 26, and the goal was to keep the press from finding out—and making a big to-do about the short time between Tyler’s first wife’s death and his second marriage, as well as the couple’s 30-year age difference.

Churchoftheascensionjohntyler“Tyler was so concerned about secrecy that he did not discuss his plans with his other children until after the wedding,” stated one source.

Tyler, 54, did tell his son John Tyler, Jr., who arrived in New York for the wedding with his father. They stayed at Howard’s Hotel on Lower Broadway, where the staff were kept on lockdown so no one would find about about the famous guest.

The secret ceremony was pulled off successfully, with only one newspaper reporting the nuptials. “The bride is a very beautiful and elegantly formed woman of apparently 20 years of age,” wrote The New York Morning Express.

Churchoftheascension1840“She was robed simply in white, with a gauze veil depending from a circlet of white flowers wreathed in her hair.” Less than 10 people attended, and afterward “the party departed for the residence of the bride in Lafayette Place (below)…the wedding cortege consisted of five carriages.”

After a wedding dinner, the couple boarded a steamer. Apparently Tyler was recognized, because people on passing ships “cheered most heartily” and presidential salutes were fired from “various ships of war.”

Julia was only First Lady for a short time. After Tyler’s term ended, he moved back to his Virginia plantation.

Churchoftheascensionlagrangeterrace1886There, the couple had seven kids—in addition to the seven Tyler fathered with his first wife.

On another note, incredibly, two of Tyler’s grandchildren—children born of a son Tyler had with Julia—are still alive today.

[Top photo: Wikipedia; fourth image: Church of the Ascension; fifth image: NYPL Digital Gallery]

New York inspires “The Night Before Christmas”

December 14, 2015

Nightbeforechristmas1901‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse”

It’s the Christmas classic that helped create the image of the modern Santa Claus, a “jolly old elf” who arrives on a reindeer-driven sleigh, sneaking down chimneys on Christmas Eve to fill stockings with toys.

First published anonymously in a Troy, New York newspaper in 1823, “A Visit From St. Nicholas” became an instant hit. In the 1830s, it was revealed to have been written by Clement Clarke Moore.

Moore, the descendant of a colonial English family, lived with his wife and children on a vast inherited estate called Chelsea in what was then the hinterlands of Manhattan.

Nightbeforechristmas1886As a theology professor, Moore wrote dry volumes inspired by ancient cultures.

But the whimsical and imaginative “A Visit From St. Nicholas” is surely influenced by life in early 19th century New York City.

The poem “he is said to have composed in 1822, at his father’s imposing tree-shaded country house in old Chelsea Village, at the corner of what is now 23rd Street and Ninth Avenue,” explained a New York Times piece from 1926.

He wrote it, “simply as a Christmas present for his two daughters, making St. Nicholas the hero at the suggestion of a ‘portly, rubicund Dutchman living in the neighborhood.”

ClementclarkemoorehouseLegend has it that Moore wrote the poem on a snowy day while riding in Chelsea in a sleigh.

“His Santa Claus was supposedly based on the family’s plump and jovial Dutch handyman, and it was while being driven home one night that the jingling bells on the horse inspired the poem,” according to When Christmas Comes, by Anne Harvey.

That sleigh ride may have been taken for a last-minute shopping trip to get a holiday turkey for charity. (Above, a drawing of Moore’s Chelsea home, before he subdivided the property and helped develop the residential neighborhood.)

Nightbeforechristmas1900A document that was part of a Santa Claus exhibit at the New-York Historical Society two decades ago showed that “Moore was a slave owner, and some historians have recounted a journey to the market to buy a Christmas turkey, the event said to have inspired the poem, in a sleigh driven by a slave,” reported the New York Times in 1995.

“A Visit From St. Nicholas” borrows the image of an airborne, tobacco-smoking Santa Claus from Moore’s literary contemporary, writer Washington Irving.

“In 1809’s Knickerbocker’s History of New York, Washington Irving described St. Nick flying over the treetops, bringing presents, smoking a pipe, and ‘laying his finger beside his nose,’ stated the Museum of Play.

The red suit was added later, but otherwise, This version of St. Nicholas/Santa Claus is the one we know today—though I think the pipe has been axed in these smoking-averse times.

Nightbeforechristmas18982Every December for more than a century, the beloved “A Visit From St. Nicholas” is read aloud at the Church of the Intercession on 155th Street.

A candlelight procession then heads up the street to Trinity Cemetery, where Moore and his family members are buried.

If you can’t make it to the reading at the church, give “A Visit From St. Nicholas” a read this season.

[Images of rare 19th-20th century volumes of the poem courtesy of thenightbeforechristmas.com]

A New Yorker in “Little Syria” tells his story

December 7, 2015

LittlesyriashopkeeperThe late 19th century city was home to a massive tide of new immigrants: Russian, Italian, Hungarian, Chinese.

Amid the lower Manhattan neighborhoods these newcomers settled in was Little Syria.

Also known as the Syrian Quarter, it was a vibrant enclave along Washington Street near the Battery where thousands of Syrian Christians, Armenians, Greeks, and others from Middle Eastern and Mediterranean communities lived.

Here, they resided in tenements and operated dry goods stores, textile factories, and cafes selling pastries and coffee.

The following account of arriving in Little Syria and making a home in the neighborhood comes from a 1906 book about the immigrant experience.

Syrianquarterdrinks1916bain

The account is based on a composite of “three young Syrians of Washington Street, New York.” The composite grew up in Lebanon, but the political situation there at the time made life difficult.

SyrianquarterwomenHe and his family decided to take a steamship to New York with just $60 in their pockets. “We knew that that was in the United States, and we heard that poor people were not oppressed there,” he stated.

“My uncle had a friend who met us at Ellis Island and helped to get us quickly out of the vessel, and ten hours after we had come into the bay we were established in two rooms in the third story of a brick house in Washington Street, only three blocks away from Battery Park.”

“Two minutes’ walk from us was roaring Broadway, seven minutes’ walking brought us to the Bridge entrance. . . . [T]here was so much that was strange and new and suggestive of life and power that I never got tired of looking at the buildings on the land and the vessels of all sorts that shot about through the waters.”

Syrianquarterkids

Because he knew English, “I had no difficulty securing work as a clerk at an Oriental goods store, where some other Syrians were employed.” His uncle and mother, who kept house for them, also found work.

Syrianquartershoemaker“Between us we earned $22 a week, and as our rent was only $10 a month and food did not cost any more than $6 a week, we saved money.”

“I remained a clerk for three years and then became a reporter for a Syrian newspaper, as I thought that my education entitled me to aspire,” he continued. A year later, he started a printing business “in Washington Street, which is the center of our quarter. Soon I had a newspaper of my own.”

“The little Syrian city which we have established within the big city of New York has its distinctive life and its distinctive institutions.”

“It has six newspapers printed in Arabic, one of them a daily; it has six churches conducted by Syrian priests, and many stores, whose signs, wares, and owners are all Syrian.”

Syrianquarterpastrycounter

“There are two Syrian drug stores and many dry goods, notions, jewelry, antiques, and French novelties, and manufacturers of brooches, kimonas, wrappers, suspenders, tobacco, cigarettes, silk embroidery, silk shawls, Oriental goods, rugs, arms, etc.”

“A Syrian restaurant recently established in Cortlandt Street is the best in the city. Our people are active and doing well in business here, as any one may know by looking at the number of advertisements in the newspapers.”

Syrianquarterkidsstroller

“When we first came we expected to return to Syria, but this country is very attractive and we have stayed until we have put out roots. Two-thirds of our men now are American citizens, and the others are fast progressing along the same lines.”

 “Still we feel friendship for the old country and a desire to secure her welfare and especially her freedom.”

SyrianquarterpeddlersLittle Syria thrived for a few more decades. But by the 1940s, when the construction of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel demolished much of the neighborhood, it mostly disappeared, with many residents decamping for Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue.

St. George’s Church on Washington Street appears to be the last remnant.

[Photos: LOC]

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.

Leakeandwattsorphanage

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.

Leakeandwatts19thcentury

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).

Plymouthrockbrooklynnycgo.com

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: nycgo.com/Myrna 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.

 Cherubgateplaque

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.

Edithevansmemorial

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?

Churchoftheholycommunionnypl

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.

Trinitybuildingpostcard

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.

Mcauleymission

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 pilot-projects.org]


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