Archive for the ‘Houses of worship’ Category

Why St. Patrick’s Cathedral was ablaze with spectacular light in 1912

January 30, 2023

On a cold January night in 1912, St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue was lit up like never before.

More than 50,000 electric globes strung from the main entrances to the Cathedral’s spires illuminated the darkness, turning the Gothic house of faith into a festive blaze of light and drawing 200,000 New Yorkers to 51st Street to experience the spectacle in person.

Teams of steeple riggers holding hammers and nails attached the bulbs to the stone walls the night before, “suspended in the air in rope chairs,” as the New York Times described it, careening from one side of the Cathedral to the other every time the wind blew.

What was the occasion for this spectacular light show? It was to celebrate the return of John Murphy Farley, the popular Archbishop of New York since 1902, who was due to return from Rome on January 18, 1912 by steamship after being elevated to Cardinal.

Of course, Cardinal Farley wasn’t going to dock back in Manhattan and then cab it up to St. Patrick’s. After disembarking, he was greeted by church leaders, took part in a massive procession of carriages and cars up Broadway and Fifth Avenue. All the way he was greeted by lines of New Yorkers “whose ringing cheers gave testimony to their affection and joy,” according to the Journal of the Creggan Local History Society.

At some point before the end of January, the lights illuminating the Cathedral were turned off and removed, and Cardinal Farley resumed his regular duties at St. Patrick’s—where he’s now buried in a crypt under the altar after passing away in 1918. (Above, the Cardinal back at St. Patrick’s)

St. Patrick’s may have taken the illumination idea from the city’s huge Hudson Fulton celebration in 1909, when municipal buildings and monuments glowed in brilliant light to honor the anniversaries of Henry Hudson’s exploration of the river now named in his honor and the invention of the steamboat by Robert Fulton.

[Top image: New-York Historical Society; second image: Alamy; third image: Bain Collection/LOC]

George Washington opens his Cherry Street presidential mansion to New Year’s callers

December 26, 2022

When George Washington became the first president of the United States in 1789, he relocated to a rented four-story mansion at Cherry and Pearl Streets. There, he established his executive office and family living quarters.

New York City was the new nation’s official capital at the time, and Washington was adjusting to the city’s culture and rituals—worshipping at St. Paul’s Chapel, for example, and regularly taking the air along the Battery.

One Gotham tradition he also took part in was inviting New Year’s Day callers to his presidential mansion (below). Established by the colonial Dutch burghers of New Amsterdam more than a century earlier, the annual ritual of “calling” turned the city into one big open house, where residents hosted a succession of neighbors and friends all day with hospitality and good cheer.

It was the biggest holiday of the year. New Yorkers would spend days readying their parlors for guests, donning their finest outfits, and setting up a big table of alcohol-infused punch, cakes, and confectionaries. Callers would stop by, offer good wishes for the coming year, and then move on to the next house to repeat the ritual with full bellies and in lively spirits.

Though he was the commander-in-chief of the United States, Washington was also a New Yorker—for the time being, at least. (He departed to Philadelphia later that year after the city of brotherly love took a turn as America’s capital.)

So on January 1, 1790, he “was determined to add the power of his name as an example of the observance of this time-honored custom,” according to The Old Merchants of New York City, published in 1885.

“It was a mild, moonlit night of the first of January, 1790, when George Washington and ‘Lady’ Washington stood together in their New York house to receive the visitors who made the first New Year’s calls with which a President of the United States was honored,” recounted the Saturday Evening Post in 1899.

Who were the callers, specifically? Washington described them in his own diary as “The Vice-President, the Governor, the Senators, Members of the House of Representatives in town, foreign public characters, and all the respectable citizens.”

These callers “came between the hours of 12 and 3 o’clock, to pay the compliments of the season to me—and in the afternoon a great number of gentlemen and ladies visited Mrs. Washington on the same occasion.”

“Tea and coffee, and plum and plain cake were served by the mistress of the mansion, while her stately husband, whose fine figure was set off in the costume of the drawing room to even better advantage than in his military garb, greeted his visitors with friendly formality,” continued the Post.

By nine p.m., the Washingtons were ready to retire for the night. According to the Post, he asked his guests “if the custom of New Year visiting in New York had always been kept up there, and he was assured that it had been, from the early days of the Dutch. He paused, and then said pleasantly, but gravely:

“‘The highly favored situation of New York will, in the progress of years, attract numerous immigrants, who will gradually change its customs and manners; but whatever changes take place, never forget the cordial and cheerful observance of the New Year’s Day,'” stated the Post article.

Washington’s words that night were certainly prophetic. Though the tradition of New Year’s calling continued into the 19th century, it gradually began to die out, coming to an end during the Gilded Age. In 1888, the New York Times, lamented “the almost complete death of the ancient custom of call-making” every January 1.

[Top image: “Lady Washington’s Reception Day,” painted by Daniel Huntington, 1861, Wikipedia; second image: Washington’s Cherry Street mansion, Wikipedia; third image: Washington’s 1789 inauguration at Federal Hall on Wall Street; fourth image: plaque put up to mark the former site of Washington’s Cherry Street mansion, LOC; fifth image: Washington in 1790, painted by John Trumbull, Wikipedia]

What happened to the young couple who held an 1896 winter wedding on Washington Square

December 12, 2022

It’s a lovely wintry scene that captures excitement, romance, and the Gilded Age beauty of a snow-covered Washington Square.

As twilight descends on the Square, well-heeled men and women alighting from elegant carriages make their way along the brownstone row of Washington Square North. From the front stoop of one of the brownstones, a man in a top hat and a woman in a stylish ruffled coat watch their arrival.

The people in the image aren’t just passersby—they’re wedding reception guests. This we know from the title of the painting: “A Winter Wedding—Washington Square, 1897.”

The artist is Fernand Lungren. After the turn of the century, Lungren gained fame for his southwestern desert paintings. Early in his career, he made a living in New York by doing illustrations for popular periodicals, such as Scribner’s Monthly and McClure’s.

I’ve always been curious about the scene. Who, exactly, is getting married here? A little digging led me to the names of the bride and groom—and what happened after the vows were recited and the reception ended.

“This picture shows New York’s upper crust arriving at the Square on the afternoon of December 17, 1896, to attend the wedding reception for Fannie Tailer and Sydney Smith held by the bride’s parents in their home at 11 Washington Square North,” wrote Emily Kies Folpe, in her 2002 book, It Happened on Washington Square. (Above, the row containing Number 11 circa 1900)

Fannie Tailer and Sydney J. Smith weren’t just typical new rich New Yorkers. Both came from old and socially prominent families. The Tailers were even part of the “Astor 400″—the infamous list of the highest echelon of society in the city, at least according to Caroline Astor and her social arbiter, Ward McAllister.

The couple met at the annual horse show, one of the events that marked the opening of the social season in Gotham. Tailer was an accomplished rider, while Smith was the scion of an old New Orleans family.

Their engagement hit the papers in 1895. Tailer “is justly considered not one of the prettiest but one of the handsomest young women in the ultra-fashionable set,” wrote the New York Times. About Smith, the Times stated that he had “sufficiency of worldly goods, is popular, [and] is more than well endowed with good looks.”

The wedding itself took place at 3 p.m. at Grace Church, at Broadway and 10th Street. Though many rich families had moved to elite neighborhoods like Murray Hill and upper Fifth Avenue in the 1890s, Washington Square North was still an acceptable place for a prominent family to live. Grace Church remained the choice place for these Greenwich Village residents to worship.

“The wedding, one of the largest and most fashionable of the season, brought out New York society—Astors, Belmonts, Havemeyers, Cooper-Hewitts, and others,” wrote Folpe. “Lungren seems to have observed the scene from the doorstep of his lodgings at 3 Washington Square, a row house converted into artists’ studios in 1879.”

After the swirl and excitement of this much-anticipated wedding, the couple mostly stayed out of the newspapers. Early on, they secured their own house on Washington Square. At some point they took up residence at Four East 86th Street.

And then, in 1909, came the split. “Sydney Smith’s Wife Sues for Absolute Divorce,” one front-page headline screamed. “Mrs. Smith did not take her usual place in the fashionable life of Newport last summer, but lived quietly with her children at a boarding house, and stories of marital unhappiness were revived in August when she and her husband [were part of] different parties at the Casino tennis matches, and did not speak to each other,” the story explained.

After the divorce, Mrs. Smith married C. Whitney Carpenter, a “broker” according to the New York Daily News. Still active in society, she seemed to live out her life in privacy, though she divorced a second time. She passed away in 1954, and her estate of $80,000 was divided between her two sons.

Sydney Smith also married again, to Florence Hathorn Durant Smith. He died in 1949 at age 81. He held the distinction of being the oldest member of the Union Club, which he joined in 1881, according to his New York Times obituary.

[Top image: Wikipedia; second image: New-York Historical Society; third image: Brooklyn Citizen; fourth image: New-York Tribune; fifth image: Baltimore Sun]

Scenes of misery and charity on Gilded Age New York’s most famous breadline

October 17, 2022

The Gilded Age ushered in opulent mansions, ostentatious balls, and very conspicuous consumption. But this era synonymous with wealth also brought us the breadline—where impoverished New Yorkers stood in the shadows night after night, waiting their turn to obtain a free meal.

“Fleischmann’s Bread Line,” by Everett Shinn, about 1900

Breadlines (many of which distributed more than bread) proliferated by the turn of the century at Gotham’s missions and benevolent societies created to serve the poor. But the first breadline, where the term originates, started at a fashionable bakery on Broadway and 10th Street in 1876.

Louis Fleischmann, a prosperous Austrian immigrant, owned the Vienna Model Bakery next door to Grace Church on the edge of the Ladies Mile shopping district. One December night, Fleischmann saw a group of men huddled in front of a steam grate beside the store. He brought the men—or “hungry tramps,” as one newspaper described them—some unsold bread left in the bakery. They accepted it eagerly.

Fleischmann’s Vienna Model Bakery during the daytime, 1898

More men showed up the next night, forming a quiet line at the back door. Touched by their plight, Fleischmann decided that anyone who queued up by midnight would be given half a loaf of leftover bread, no questions asked. For the next four decades, Fleischmann distributed bread (as well as hot coffee) to sometimes hundreds of men per night on his “breadline,” as it became known.

City newspapers covered Fleischmann’s breadline heavily, some with sympathy and others with a hint of disdain. “Here are men whose lives are not running well—400 small worlds gone to shipwreck,” reported the New York Press in 1902. The New-York Tribune wrote in 1904, “The picturesque and pitiful line of men in the early hours of every morning has become one of the features of the city’s life.”

At the head of Fleischmann’s breadline, 1904, photographer unknown

While New Yorkers debated whether the breadline helped the hungry or instead contributed to “pauperism” and encouraged men to accept handouts, painters, illustrators, and photographers were drawn to Fleischmann’s, where they captured scenes of charity and misery.

Whether painted by social realists such as Everett Shinn and George Luks or shot by news photographers like George Bain, these images depict anonymous men in black hats and coats awaiting their half a loaf and cup of coffee. The humanity of the often faceless men is the focus; the argument as to whether such handouts were helpful or hurtful doesn’t factor in.

George Bain’s view of a snowy night on the breadline in 1908

The one curious breadline painting comes from George Luks. Like Everett Shinn, Luks was a member of the Ashcan School, and his work typically reflected a gritty early 20th century city.

In 1900, Luks painted children on a bakery breadline, even though there’s no documentation that young people ever came to Fleischmann’s or any other nighttime breadline. The kids in Luks’ painting have baskets to fill with stale bread, which they may be bringing home to hungry family members.

“Breadline,” by George Luks, 1900

Or perhaps putting kids on his breadline was Luks’ way of drawing attention to the thousands of homeless children who lived on the streets or in lodging houses, working in legitimate jobs or joining criminal gangs. Access to a breadline could have kept these “street arabs,” as they were dubbed, from going to bed hungry.

[Top image: Wikipedia; second image: MCNY; third image: National Gallery of Art; fourth image: Alamy; fifth image: George Bain Collection/LOC]

The little Hell’s Kitchen synagogue where old Broadway stars once worshipped

September 23, 2022

When it was founded in 1917 by local Jewish shop owners on West 47th Street in Hell’s Kitchen, the congregation was known as Ezrath Israel.

Actors who frequented the Theater District and Times Square were decidedly not welcome. In the early 20th century, they were looked down upon for their supposed loose morals and the sometimes shady venues where they plied their trade.

But in the mid-1920s, a new synagogue for this small congregation had been constructed—a beige brick building that stood out thanks to its majestic stained glass center window.

A new rabbi also took the helm, and he “realized that he could increase the membership by welcoming actors from nearby Broadway,” wrote Joseph Berger in the New York Times in 2011. That rabbi, Bernard Birstein, reversed the previous no-performer policy, according to David Dunlop’s 2014 book, From Abyssinian to Zion: A Guide to Manhattan’s Houses of Worship.

Drawing from all the theaters, cabarets, and nightclubs in this hopping part of Jazz Age Manhattan, the congregation attracted showbiz hopefuls as well as the already famous. Performers like Sophie Tucker, Milton Berle, and Jack Benny came to services, and Ezrath Israel became known as the Actors’ Temple.

“Some members and congregants, many of whom were born into poor, hardworking immigrant families, included Al Jolson, Edward G. Robinson, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Henny Youngman, Eddie Cantor, Burt Lahr, George Jessel, and countless other lesser-known actors, comedians, singers, playwrights, composers, musicians, writers, dancers and theatrical agents, along with sports figures like Sandy Koufax, Barney Ross, and Jake Pitler,” states the temple’s website.

Rabbi Bernard Birstein, center

Two of the Three Stooges were congregation members (Mo and Curly Howard, to be precise), and “Academy Award–winner Shelley Winters kept the High Holy Days in our sanctuary,” the website says.

One of the highlights of the congregation was an annual benefit to raise funds for the synagogue’s upkeep. On December 9, 1945, the Brooklyn Eagle wrote about the “stars of stage, screen, and radio” who were scheduled to perform, including Danny Kaye, Jack Durant, and Joe E. Louis.

By the time of his death in 1959, Rabbi Birstein had boosted membership to 1,000, according to a 2002 New York Daily News article. But the number of congregants began to dwindle steadily through the decade—a trend experienced by other small synagogues in Manhattan’s unglamorous business districts, like the Garment District Synagogue and the Millinery Center Synagogue.

Today, the Actors’ Temple is still holding fundraisers and offers services for the high holidays. I’m not sure if any A-listers belong to the congregation, but members “take great pride in carrying on our Jewish show business tradition by being a place of acceptance, spirituality, creativity, and love,” per the website.

[Third image:]

The seafaring symbols on a Turtle Bay church’s stained glass window

May 30, 2022

Walk down East 52nd Street between Second and Third Avenues on a bright day, and you’ll probably miss it.

But some nights when the interior lights are on, the spectacular stained glass window in the middle of this five-story church on East 52nd Street illuminates the street below with startling color and beauty.

The window is the visual centerpiece of the Norwegian Seamen’s Church—two former brownstones joined together on a mostly residential block offering Norwegian sailors, students, ex-pats, and visitors from all backgrounds a place of worship as well as a cultural center and coffee spot.

The church has been at the site since 1992, hidden amid a row of low-rise walkups. But its roots go back to the 1870s, when the first Norwegian Seamen’s Church opened on Pioneer Street in Red Hook. Fifty years later, the church moved to Clinton Street and First Place in Carroll Gardens, closer to the Norwegian community in Bay Ridge.

As the community dispersed later in the 20th century, the church made another move, this time to Manhattan.

The details painted on the compass-like window are a visual delight, and I’ll try my hand at interpreting these symbols. In the center is a seagull, flying high over the earth’s horizon approaching the heavens, which are marked by a cross.

In 2018, a church pastor told the Turtle Bay Association website that the seagull, “follows ships at sea, so this is appropriate because Norwegians love to travel and wander around cities like New York.”

On the left is a lamb with a staff and halo—the lamb of God. A Viking ship is painted on the bottom, and on the right, it looks like another bird, perhaps signifying the Holy Spirit. The image at the top is hard to make out, but it looks like it symbolizes the power of God.

Quiet glimpses of the turn of the century city through an amateur’s camera

January 31, 2022

On the surface, Robert Bracklow probably appeared to his customers and neighbors to be a typical New Yorker.

Canal Street Between Laight and Varick Streets, 1897

Born in 1849, he immigrated to Gotham with his family when he was a child. He grew up during the Civil War and early Gilded Age, then made his living as a stationer and printer—owning his own legal stationary shop in Lower Manhattan, according to the New-York Historical Society.

He lived in Brooklyn, and though he never married, he seemed devoted to his lady friend of many years, a schoolteacher.

14th Street West of Fifth Avenue

But beneath the ordinariness of his life, Bracklow had a special passion for photography, which he discovered in his early 30s.

During early morning outings around Manhattan and sometimes to outer boroughs like Brooklyn, Bracklow, nicknamed “Daylight Bob” because he was afraid of the dark (and darkrooms too), “created a picture history of New York’s growth at the turn of the century,” according to a 1984 article in Photography.

Brighton Beach, 1895

Contemporaries like Alfred Stieglitz (a fellow member of the Camera Club of New York in the 1890s) were pushing the boundaries of photography as a fine art form.

Yet Bracklow “never embraced Stieglitz’s more abstract artistic vision, nor did he use his photography to expose social ills or make a clear political statement, like his contemporary Jacob Riis,” wrote the New-York Historical Society.

Corner saloon, 163rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue

Instead, most of the thousands of photos Bracklow took were documentary-style, unsentimental glimpses of New York.

His camera captured horse-pulled wagons meandering along rundown streets, new skyscrapers reaching toward the heavens, shantytowns and shacks, corner saloons, beachgoers at Coney Island, and other scenes in a changing city.

Dutch Street

The fascinating part about Bracklow’s photography is how all the images he took of a 19th century city shifting into the modern era made it into the hands of museum curators.

It didn’t happen until decades after he passed away. Bracklow died in 1920, and his possessions went to his lady friend, including “3,000 glass plates and 715 platinum prints in 28 scrapbooks,” states Photography.

Church of the Messiah, 34th Street and Park Avenue

“After the house she lived in was sold 30 years later, the collection came to the attention of Alexander Alland, Sr., who bought the negatives from a second-hand furniture dealer and made silver prints from them,” per Photography.

“In 1982, the scrapbooks were given to the New-York Historical Society by a descendant of the photographer’s sweetheart.”

Boy using a water pump on Edgar Street

In 2015, the New-York Historical Society and Metropolitan New York Library Council digitized the entire collection.

Here are some of Bracklow’s images: They aren’t romantic or necessarily artistic, but they perfectly document with composition and clarity the New York he lived in, which was in flux.

Robert Bracklow’s last known photograph of himself

[All photos New-York Historical Society Robert L. Bracklow Photograph Collection]

The crossroads of Gilded Age life, as seen by a little-known New York painter

January 24, 2022

By 1895, just about all of Manhattan was urbanized. Central Park, completed only 30 years earlier far north of the main city, was now centrally located. In three years, the consolidation of Greater New York would be complete, and the city would take the shape we know today.

But the heart of the Gilded Age city was still Madison Square, a crossroads of business, shopping, nightlife, and culture. Above, artist Theodore Robinson painted the corner of Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street with all the action and activity to be expected in the mid-1890s.

Missing from Robinson’s painting is the Flatiron Building, of course; the iconic skyscraper didn’t open until 1902. But to the left in the foreground is the Fifth Avenue Hotel, the meeting place of business and political movers and shakers. Farther up is Marble Collegiate Church, built in the 1850s and one of the city’s oldest most elite congregations.

Horses power carriages along the paved avenue. Skirt hems skim the sidewalks. You can practically hear the conversation between the smartly dressed young man and the driver. Streetcars travel up and down 23rd Street, ferrying daytime shoppers to grand department stores like Stern Brothers and nighttime theatergoers.

Robinson is a new name for me. Born in Vermont, he came to New York in the 1870s and returned again after stints in Europe, according to the National Gallery of Art. His depiction of Union Square (above), also an important Gilded Age location, seems closer to his pioneering Impressionist style.

Robinson died in New York in 1896 at age 43 after a lifelong fight with severe asthma, per a New York Times review of an exhibit held in 2005. His name isn’t well known, but his work capturing the street life of the Gilded Age lets us feel the energy and excitement of the city on the cusp of the 20th century.

5 Remnants of the 19th century West Side village of Manhattanville

January 17, 2022

Think of Manhattan in the early 1800s as an urban center at the tip of the island surrounded by a collection of small countryside villages.

The city itself, with a population under 100,000, was concentrated below Canal Street. But a few miles up the Hudson River was sparsely populated Greenwich Village. Parts of today’s Upper West Side once formed the farming village of Bloomingdale. Harlem started off as a rural area in the 17th century as well.

Then there’s Manhattanville (below, at the top of the map). Founded in 1806 in a valley known as Harlem Cove, this former outpost 10 miles from the city was centered on today’s 125th Street and Broadway.

It’s not an accident that Manhattanville was founded here. In the early 19th century, this was the crossroads of Bloomingdale Road and Manhattan Street—two crucial arteries that connected residents to Harlem and the lower city. (Manhattan Street likely gave the village its name.)

“Building lots were being advertised for sale ‘principally to tradesmen’ in this enclave that already boasted a ‘handsome wharf,’ ‘convenient academy,’ and an ‘excellent school,'” according to a Historic Landmarks Commission (HLC) report.

The village’s early population included mostly poor residents of British and Dutch descent, plus a small number of African Americans, per the HLC report. Decades later, Manhattanville would be better known as an industrial center and also an early transit hub.

“By the mid-1800s, this picturesque locale was the convergence of river, rail, and stage lines,” wrote Eric K. Washington in his book, Manhattanville: Old Heart of West Harlem. The first northbound passenger stop on the Hudson River Railroad was at Manhattanville, Washington wrote. (Below, the little white Manhattanville train depot, in front of an early building for Manhattan College.)

Manhattanville remains on the map and as a neighborhood name. But like other villages, it became part of the larger city in the early 20th century.

Still, bits and pieces of the old village exist. For starters, the streets are a little askew; they don’t always align with the official street grid laid out in 1811. Before crossing Amsterdam Avenue, 125th and 126th Streets (the former Lawrence Street) make hard turns and slant northwest toward the Hudson.

This charming nonconformity makes it possible to stand at the corner of 126th and 127th Streets or find yourself at the intersection of 125th and 129th Streets. It’s a little puzzling, but it reminds you of the life and activity in New York that predates the Commissioners Plan.

What else still exists of the former village? Probably the loveliest remnant is the yellow clapboard parish house for St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. An outgrowth of St. Michael’s church in Bloomingdale, St. Mary’s was founded in 1823 for Manhattanville residents. (St. Mary’s was the first church in the city to do away with pew rentals, which was a common practice at the time.)

The original church was a simple white wood structure consecrated in 1826, replaced in 1908 by the current English Gothic-style church building. The yellow parish house, however, was built in 1851 and feels more country village than urban city.

St. Mary’s Church is the site of a more eerie piece of Old Manhattanville: a burial vault under the church porch containing the remains of one of the village’s founders, a man named Jacob Schieffelin (along with the remains of his wife and brother). Schieffelin donated the land on which St. Mary’s was built.

Schieffelin, a Loyalist during the Revolutionary War, amassed his post-independence fortune as a wholesale druggist and mercantile owner. He was one of a handful of prominent New Yorkers who made up the founding families of Manhattanville.

Among them were the widow and sons of Alexander Hamilton, as well as Daniel F. Tiemann—who served as mayor of the city from 1858 to 1860 and owned D.F. Tiemann & Company Paint & Color Works, which moved to the village in 1832. The arrival of the paint factory helped turn Manhattanville into an industrial center powered by an influx of German and Irish immigrants in the mid-19th century.

On the same block of 126th Street is another hint of old Manhattanville: the Sheltering Arms Playground and Pool. The name comes from the Sheltering Arms, which took in children who were “rejected due to incurable illnesses, some were abandoned, and others were so-called ‘half-orphans,’ whose parents required temporary assistance while striving to overcome abject poverty or other adversities,” according to NYC Parks.

Finally, there’s the mysterious street known as Old Broadway, a slender unassuming strip that spans 125th to 129th Streets and then picks up again from 131st to 133rd Streets east of regular Broadway. It’s the last piece of Bloomingdale Road.

In the late 19th century, as urbanization arrived in Manhattanville, Bloomingdale Road was straightened and made part of regular Broadway, which became the main north-south thoroughfare. This leftover strip of Bloomingdale Road no longer served a purpose. Rather than de-mapping it entirely, it was renamed Old Broadway—a remnant of a village that’s now often referred to as West Harlem.

[Top image: NYPL; second image: Wikipedia; third image: MCNY, MNY29573; fourth image: NYPL; eighth image: Wikipedia]

A bronze statue that survived Hiroshima has a message for Riverside Drive

January 2, 2022

What cements Riverside Drive as one of Manhattan’s most beautiful streets is its architecture. The avenue is a winding line of elegant 1920s and 1930s apartment houses, with some surviving rowhouses and a few stand-alone mansions that reflect the beaux-arts design trend of the Gilded Age—lots of limestone, light brick, and marble.

But every so often, the Upper West Side portion of Riverside has a surprise. Case in point is the 15-foot, 22-ton bronze statue that has stood outside 332 Riverside Drive, between 105th and 106th Streets, since 1955, according to Japan Culture NYC.

The statue is of Shinran Shonin, a Buddhist monk in Japan who founded a sect of Buddhism called Jodo-Shinshu in the 13th century. The monk is depicted in missionary robes, his face mostly obscured by his hat. (Originally he carried a cane, presumed stolen in the early 1980s, per Japan Culture NYC.)

Riverside Drive has always been an avenue of grand statues. But how did the statue of a Japanese monk end up here?

The story begins in Japan in 1937, when a businessman in the metal industry commissioned his factories to make six identical bronze statues of Shinran Shonin, according to fascinating research by Sam Neubauer at I Love the Upper West Side. “The statues were spread across Japan, with one standing on top of a hill overlooking Hiroshima,” Neubauer wrote.

Once war broke out, the Japanese military turned three of the statues into scrap metal for ammunition. “A similar attempt was made in Hiroshima but after significant protests over the importance of the statue, the government allowed Shinran Shonin to remain on his hilltop,” stated Neubauer. 

Riverside Drive between 105th and 106th Street, about 1903

“It was from the hilltop that, on August 6, 1945, the statue witnessed the destruction of Hiroshima when the first atomic bomb exploded over the city,” he continued. “Although the epicenter of the blast was just 1.5 miles away, the statue somehow survived.” An estimated 80,000 people perished in immediate aftermath of the atomic blast.

In 1955, after the New York Buddhist Church moved to Riverside Drive from its original home in a brownstone on 94th Street, the church’s minister and the businessman who commissioned the statue decided to bring it to New York.

“The statue of Shinran Shonin was unveiled in the front garden of the New York Buddhist Church, where it remains today,” wrote Neubauer. “A carved stone plaque along the sidewalk describes the statue as ‘a testimonial to the to the atomic bomb devastation and a symbol of lasting hope for world peace.'”

Apparently radiation was a concern when the statue was unveiled. According to Atlas Obscura, the statue “has been free from radiation since it began its stay in the United States and has never posed a danger to visitors.”

Japan Culture NYC has a slightly different take. “The statue still bears red burn marks on its robes and a trace of radioactivity as a result of the blast from the atomic bomb,” the site stated.

[Third photo: MCNY, MN122632]