Archive for the ‘Houses of worship’ Category

Floating chapels for 19th century sailor souls

May 14, 2018

New York City would never have become the financial powerhouse it is without its harbor—or the thousands of sailors who came and went on cargo ships from all over the globe.

Recognizing the sheer number of seamen in New York at any one time and concerned about their welfare, city residents in the early 19th century launched organizations that tended to their health—physical and moral, of course.

Life wasn’t cushy for a sailor. Wages weren’t great, conditions on ships were rough, and on shore, thieves waited to take advantage of them via knockout drops and worse. (At right, sailors on Pike Street in 1869)

The Seamen’s Friend Society was established in 1828 and built homes for sailors a cut above waterfront boardinghouses. And Sailors Snug Harbor opened on Staten Island five years later as a retirement complex for “aged, decrepit, and worn-out” seamen.

Remnants of these organizations still exist in the city. But one has been almost forgotten: the Seamen’s Church Institute, founded in 1834 by a group of Episcopalians to offer floating chapels to sailors coming in and out of New York Harbor.

The first floating church was moored off Pike Street. Appropriately called the Floating Church of Our Savior, this Gothic edifice burned down in 1866 and was replaced by a second chapel, where sailors worshiped until 1910.

Another chapel at sea, the Church of the Holy Comforter, was docked off Dey Street in the Hudson River.

As these illustrations show, these chapels of the sea really did look like churches; the Floating Church of Our Savior also had its own organ and a spire 70 feet tall.

The idea was that a sailor wouldn’t feel comfortable worshiping at a church on land in a strange city. “In a floating church, he knows he has a home,” stated Dwight’s American Magazine in 1845.

“On Sunday mornings, from 150 to 200 seamen…are regularly assembled, and with them are often mingled persons of both sexes, of the most respectable classes, from the city’s congregations, pleased with the opportunity of worshiping with the sons of the ocean.”

In 1910, the Floating Church of Our Savior was towed from Pike Street to dry land on Staten Island, where in 1914 it became All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Richmond Terrace.

After a fire in 1958, the former floating chapel could not be rebuilt. Amazingly, the circa-1869 organ survived—but its whereabouts are unknown, according to nycago.org.

[Top photo: Seamen’s Church Institute; second image: NYPL Digital Gallery; third image: MCNY 58.233.1; fourth image: Seamen’s Church Institute; fifth image: Dwight’s American Magazine; sixth image: LOC/Bain Collection]

A secret garden behind 12 East Side townhouses

April 16, 2018

New York has its very lovely public green spaces, playgrounds, and private parks.

But some lucky residents have their own secret interior garden—a lush sanctuary of trees, flowers, and fountains hidden from the street between rows of brownstones and accessible only through the back doors of adjacent neighbors.

One of these magnificent gardens, Jones Wood Garden, lies between Lexington and Third Avenues and 65th and 66th Streets (above) on the same block as St. Vincent Ferrer Church.

The original Jones Wood was a 150-acre tract of high forested land that roughly spanned today’s 65th to 76th Streets from Third Avenue to the East River.

Named for a 19th century tavern owner and owned by prominent families, Jones Wood became a popular picnic and amusement spot. It was even in the running in the early 1850s to be the city’s first major public park.

In the post–Civil War years after Central Park edged out Jones Wood, builders cut down the forests and put up blocks of brownstone residences in this Lenox Hill neighborhood, as thy did all over Manhattan.

Demand for these private homes soured by the turn of the century, then picked up again after World War I. That’s when Jones Wood Garden got its start.

With well-to-do tenants in mind, developers purchased 12 brownstones (six on the north side of 65th Street, and six on the south side of 66th), then remodeled them by getting rid of their tall stoops and updating the amenities. They also designed a 100 by 108 feet sunken interior garden.

“This will be paved with special paving brick and flagging, and will have a fountain with a pool,” explained a New York Times article from 1919.

“Back of each house there will be a small and more intimate garden about 20 feet deep, upon which the dining room will open.” Shutters and trellises would be added to the back of each of these homes as well.

Unless you live there or know someone who does, Jones Wood Garden is pretty much off-limits to most New Yorkers.

You can catch a glimpse of a few trees from the street, as I did below. But the garden sanctuary is very private, just as it was intended.

Occasionally recent photos appear, particularly when one of the homes is up for sale.

In 2015, the house at 160 East 66th Street hit the market for $12 million. Curbed has the photos, including one with the open dining room leading to the garden, as described in the 1919 Times piece.

But to get a sense of the beauty and lushness of Jones Wood Garden, we have to rely on old images, such as these black and white photos from The Garden Magazine in 1922.

There’s also a series of color slides from the Library of Congress, dated 1921. One shows a child playing by the fountain and a woman in white (his mom? a nurse?) enjoying the peace and serenity.

[Second, third, fifth, and sixth photos: LOC; fifth photo: The Garden Magazine. Hat tip to A for sending me the LOC photos!]

This church was once the 1905 Allen Street baths

March 19, 2018

The Church of Grace to Fujianese, at 133 Allen Street, looks like lots of other storefront churches in New York City.

The congregation is housed in a slightly grimy re-purposed building. Window guards line the ground floor, a cross is affixed above the entrance, and signs are emblazoned with the church name in two languages.

But there’s something else on the facade—they look like scallop shells.

These sea images are a reminder that from 1905 to 1975, this was the Municipal Bath House at Allen Street, blocked off by the elevated train in its first decades.

The bathhouse opened amid a wave of public baths building in the city’s slums, giving tenement dwellers a place to wash up in an era when having a bathroom in your apartment was hardly a given.

Their was another purpose for these public bathhouses: to offer moral uplift.

With this in mind, the designers of the Allen Street baths built facilities that provided access to light and air.

“With large arched windows in the waiting room and glass skylights punctuating the roof, York & Sawyer bathhouses were designed to maximize sunlight—a rare building strategy in the slums—to help uplift the bather morally and hygienically,” states the Tenement Museum website.

The baths were immensely popular in the early 20th century, as The Sun noted on a July day in 1908.

“Over in front of the Allen Street bath, which was about the busiest of all the city baths, you could see more small boys with their damp hair sticking up in breeze blown wisps than ever came out of all the ol’ swimmin’ holes in the entire state of Indiana.”

Of all the public baths, Allen Street stayed open the longest—then fell victim to the city fiscal crisis in the 1970s, according to the Tenement Museum.

[Last photo: MCNY; x2010.11.2]

An epidemic gave rise to a beloved Village church

February 19, 2018

Disease can shape a city—and that’s what drove the huge population boom in the country resort of Greenwich Village in the first half of the 19th century.

In the 1700s, Greenwich was a bucolic suburb dotted with estates. by the 1790s and early 1800s, this part of Manhattan, with its cool breezes and healthy air, was overrun with residents fleeing lethal outbreaks of yellow fever in the downtown city center.

“Those marvelously healthy qualities as to location and air, that fine, sandy soil, made it a haven, indeed, to people who were afraid of sickness,” wrote Anna Alice Chapin in her 1920 book, Greenwich Village.

How fast did Greenwich grow? “From daybreak to night one line of carts, merchandise, and effects were seen moving toward Greenwich Village and the upper parts of the city. . . . persons with anxiety strongly marked on their countenances, and with hurried gait, were hustling through the streets.”

With so many new homes going up, churches needed to be built as well. So Trinity Church decided to build a parish on Hudson Street.

In 1820, with an assist from Clement Clarke Moore (a theology professor not yet famous for his Christmas poem whose Chelsea estate was just north of Greenwich Village), a new church was born: Saint Luke in the Fields.

The evocative name was a reference to Greenwich Village as a countryside enclave. And Saint Luke? He’s the physician evangelist, patron saint of physicians and surgeons.

His name is a nod to “Greenwich’s role as a haven for the multitudes fleeing disease in the city,” wrote Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace in Gotham.

The fields aren’t totally gone—St. Luke’s has one of the prettiest secret gardens of any church in New York City.

[Top photo: MCNY; 1895; 93.1.1.17296; Second and Third Images: NYPL]

A child’s casket emerges in a Hudson Street park

October 30, 2017

The dead who dwell in New York’s burial grounds have a strange way of making themselves known.

One example of this happened in 1939. Workmen renovating James J. Walker Park (second to last photo) on Hudson and Clarkson Streets in the West Village came upon an underground vault—and found a child-size cast iron casket inside.

The casket was “made to look like a shrouded Egyptian mummy,” states the Trinity Church website.

The New York World-Telegram reported on the discovery, noting, ‘The girl’s cast iron casket…had a glass window in the top. Her white silk dress still looked fresh and dainty.'” The paper noted that she was “a pretty yellow haired child.”

What was a casket doing there—and who was the girl inside it?

Until the city seized this green space to make into a park, the land was Old St. John’s Burying Ground (above and at right), run by Trinity Church for the worshipers at nearby St. John’s Chapel, since demolished, according to the New York Cemetery Project.

“It’s estimated that 10,000 people were buried in St. John’s Burying Ground in the years before 1860, when burials stopped—and very few bodies were removed and re-interred during park construction,” states Trinity’s website.

The unusual casket itself revealed the girl’s identity.

“The silver coffin plate gave the child’s basic information: Mary Elizabeth Tisdall, 6 years and 8 months old, died April 14, 1850,” according to Trinity Church.

Church archives discovered that Mary’s cause of death was listed as “brain congestion—probably encephalemia,” and she lived at “219 East Ninth Street in Manhattan, just off of Astor Place.”

Mary’s parents had married at St. John’s. Her father (above) was a British-born coal merchant who became a Mason and wrote poetry; he died in 1878.

Her brother, Fitz Gerald Tisdall, had a long career as a professor of Greek at City College.

Yet no record exists of who Mary was—if she liked school, rolled a hoop in Washington Square Park like other children, visited Barnum’s Museum, or had a favorite type of candy.

All we know about her is that she was one of untold numbers of children who didn’t make it to adulthood in New York at the time, when little was known about sanitation and hygiene and no medicine existed to fight deadly diseases.

Her casket didn’t go back underground, of course. “She rests in peace in the catacombs under Trinity Church,” according to the church website.

The only marked grave in the entire park is an 1834 sarcophagus dedicated to three young firemen who perished in a blaze on Pearl Street.

[Top photo: NYPL; second photo: MCNY; fourth photo: NYC Parks Department; Fifth Photo: Wikipedia]

Stand here and feel the ghosts of Bowery Village

October 9, 2017

Stand at Cooper Square looking toward St. Marks Place: this honky-tonk corner in today’s East Village was once the center of a 19th century outpost known as Bowery Village.

Far from the hustle and bustle of the city, Bowery Village sprang up around Petrus Stuyvesant’s estate. (Petrus Stuyvesant was a great-grandson of Peter, the director-general of New Amsterdam in the 17th century.)

It’s hard to imagine the concrete and brick East Village of today as a struggling farming community. The illustration above gives an idea, though it depicts Union Square, where the Bowery (now Fourth Avenue) and Broadway meet.

In the late 1790s, this area was part of a “rugged belt of land, with here and there a garden and a solitary house, to diversify the bareness of the stunted pasture lots with their dilapidated fences,” states an 1864 history of the Bowery Village Methodist Church. This church was a centerpiece of the community and was located at Seventh Street between Second and Third Avenues.

Early on, Bowery Village “consisted chiefly of a long unpaved street of struggling houses . . . dreaming little, as  yet, of the Russ pavement and car track,” the church historical document recalled.

After Stuyvesant laid a street grid—while keeping diagonal Stuyvesant Street, which lead from the Bowery to St. Mark’s Church (above right in the 1820s)—people moved in, driven from the city downtown by heat and disease.

“Throughout the 18th century it remained sparsely settled—a few houses plus blacksmith, wagon shop, general store, and tavern—partly from fear of highwaymen lurking in the Bayard Woods,” wrote Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace in Gotham.

Like other villages across Manhattan, Bowery Village functioned as something of a suburb. “Because Bowery Village lay just outside the city limits, farmers could sell there without paying a market tax,” wrote Burrows and Wallace.

“Wagon stands soon flourished along Sixth and Seventh Streets, along with a weigh scale for Westchester hay merchants. Comfortable residences went up along the upper Bowery, still a country road edged with blackberry bushes. . . . “

“Artisan house-and-shops arrived too; so did groggeries, a brothel, and a post office (in truth an oyster house where the postrider left mail for the village). From 1804 the community even had its own (short-lived) newspaper, the Bowery Republican.”

The enclave also had its own graveyard between First and Second Avenues and Eleventh Street, possibly this one, noted on later 19th century maps.

Not much remains of Bowery Village. The city quickly marched northward and subsumed it by the 1850s, as it did Greenwich Village to the west.

One remnant is St. Mark’s Church itself, still on Second Avenue and Tenth Street. Built on Stuyvesant family land, it was consecrated in 1799.

Another survivor is the Stuyvesant Fish House (above left), a wedding present for Stuyvesant’s daughter and her husband, Nicolas Fish (parents of Hamilton Fish, New York governor and senator), at 21 Stuyvesant Street.

This wide Federal-style house was built in 1804, predating Robert Fulton’s invention of the steamboat.

“Bowery Village’s cohesion appeared to be short-lived,” wrote Kenneth A. Scherzer in The Unbounded Community.

“With the development of the surrounding wards it rapidly broke down, and with the settlement of “newcomers” who replaced the established residents in the late 1830s, Bowery Village ceased to exist in both reality and in name.”

That’s the East Village to this day: a constant push-pull between old timers and newcomers. Find out more about both in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Top photo: Ephemeral New York; second image: NYPL; third image: NYPL; fourth image: Evening Post 1819; fifth image: Edward Lamson Henry; fifth and sixth images: Ephemeral New York]

This alley was once an exclusive New York street

September 18, 2017

These days, it’s a dark, narrow footpath between Laight and Beach Streets in Tribeca, with Belgian block paving yet no streetlights or street signs telling you where exactly you are.

But in the 19th century, this was St. John’s Lane, a rich and fashionable residential street that faced the back of St. John’s Chapel (below) on adjacent Varick Street.

Completed in 1807, St. John’s Chapel and nearby St. John’s Park (or Hudson Square, as it was supposed to be called originally) were the centerpieces of the booming city’s new St. John’s Park neighborhood.

By the 1820s, what was once a swampy area called Lispenard’s Meadows in colonial times had become a posh, genteel English-style enclave for Knickerbocker merchants and other well-heeled professionals whose fortunes rose in the first half of the 19th century.

Trinity Church owned the land, and church officials sold lots surrounding the private park to upscale buyers. (They tried to rent them at first, but New York’s wealthy didn’t like that arrangement.)

Those buyers in turn built Georgian-style row houses surrounding the park and chapel. They also fenced in the park and planted beautiful gardens.

“Catalpas and cottonwoods, horse chestnut and silver birch trees were planted throughout, and gravel paths wound among them and the ornamental shrubs and flower beds,” wrote Charles Lockwood in Manhattan Moves Uptown.

St. John’s Park had a well-deserved reputation as a polite and refined neighborhood with a peaceful green space. But its standing changed when Cornelius Vanderbilt put down railroad tracks on one side of the park. In the late 1860s, Trinity Church sold the park to Vanderbilt, who built a railroad station where once were flowers and trees.

The rich left, and their homes became boarding houses and tenements. Commercial enterprises and poorer New Yorkers moved in.

St. John’s Lane still survives in a once-again-posh Tribeca, unmarked and unknown. A plaque at Albert Capsouto Park on Canal Street recalls St. John’s Park as well.

The gorgeous chapel itself hung on until 1918, when it was bulldozed. You can still see images of it at the Canal Street 1 train station, where it’s memorialized on the subway mosaics opposite the platform.

[Second image: unknown; third image: NYPL; fourth image: Wikipedia; fifth image: NYPL]

The 1984 murder of a Studio 54 “miss party girl”

September 18, 2017

Connie Crispell lived in New York City from 1974 to 1984.

Her life in the city hit many of the cultural touchstones of the 1970s and 1980s—nights at Studio 54, after-hours clubs downtown, panic over AIDS. Yet her name and her tragic murder have mostly been forgotten.

Born to a prominent family in Virginia, Crispell came to Manhattan at age 22. She rented a two-bedroom at 12 East 86th Street for $500 a month and tried her hand at various jobs—marketing jewelry made out of subway tokens, founding a bartender-for-hire service.

But her true place in the city seemed to be on the dance floor at Studio 54.

Crispell and her roommate, “fell into a routine that began with taking a nap after work,” stated New York magazine in a 1984 article, which quoted a friend describing her as “miss party girl of New York City.”

“They rose at about 10 p.m. and showered. They put on disco music to get themselves in the proper spirit, and Crispell often made a pitcher of vodka tonics. Then they hopped in a cab and headed for Studio 54,” arriving back on 86th Street (below left) at 4 a.m.

By the end of the 1970s, her roommate gave up the party scene and moved out; Studio 54 shut down briefly. Crispell continued to spend money she didn’t have and was evicted from her apartment.

“With some financial help from her family, Crispell moved into a studio apartment in the old FBI building, on East 69th Street,” wrote New York. “She seemed to identify with the heroine of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and she sometimes called her place ‘my Holly Golightly apartment.'”

As the 1980s began, Crispell worked in an office position with designer Carolina Herrera, then as an account executive at Ogilvy & Mather and later as a salesperson at Brooks Brothers.

Studio 54 reopened again, and Crispell returned night after night. “She became a kind of celebrity of the dance floor and was often admitted to the club without paying,” according to New York.

She dated a blue blood preppie and then moved in with a 60-something diamond tycoon. After that relationship ended, she took a $120 a week room at the all-female Martha Washington Hotel on East 30th Street.

She supported herself by signing up with an escort service that gave her a beeper and sent her to meet men at the city’s poshest hotels.

As her former roommate and other friends fell into more settled lives, Crispell continued to live on the edge. She told people she thought she might have AIDS, and she did a 10-day stint in Bellevue after threatening to jump from a 9th floor apartment.

Once she was released, she was back at Studio 54, inviting fellow club-goers home with her to her new sublet at 58 West 58th Street (above right) in the wee hours of the morning. “Soon Crispell’s home became a kind of salon,” wrote New York, attended by heiresses, designers, and Village People band member Randy Jones.

One of those after-hours party guests, however, was a 20-year-old convict named Charles Ransom. According to newspaper accounts, Ransom said that he and Crispell had sex after she hosted a Kentucky Derby party in April 1984. Afterward, Crispell told him that she thought she had AIDS.

Ransom said he blacked out and strangled Crispell, stuffed her nude body in a trunk, and put the trunk on the balcony of the apartment. He invited two prostitutes to stay at the sublet for several days before the owners returned and called police.

Ransom got a minimum of 25 years in prison. A month after the murder, Crispell’s friends held a memorial at Fifth Avenue’s St. Thomas Church to mourn “the loss of the girl who always wanted one more moment of fun,” wrote New York.

[Top photo: New York; second and third photos: Biography.com; fourth photo: Manhattan Scout; fifth photo: streeteasy.com; sixth image: Binghamton Press and Sun-Bulletin; seventh photo: New York Post via New York]

A faded memorial marks a horrific 1904 tragedy

June 5, 2017

The faded marble fountain dedicated to the 1,021 victims of the General Slocum disaster is not easy to find in Tompkins Square Park.

It’s beyond the brick comfort station that blocks off much of the park from the northernmost end, near the pool and across from the lovely brownstones on 10th Street.

This lonely statue marks the city’s second-biggest tragedy after 9/11 in terms of the number of people killed—and almost all of the dead came from the heavily German “Kleindeutschland” neighborhood of today’s East Village.

The disaster is remembered every June 15, the anniversary of the day St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on Sixth Street chartered the steamship General Slocum for a day excursion up the East River.

The ship, packed with women and children expecting to have a picnic, caught fire as it steamed past 97th Street at about 10 a.m.

As the boat  continued to burn while sailing up the river, passengers—weighed down by the heavy clothes of the era and unlikely to know how to swim—were forced to either stay on the ship and die by fire or jump into the river and risk drowning.

The huge death toll rocked the German neighborhood, and two years later, the fountain was dedicated—paid for by the Sympathy Society of German Ladies.

The inscription, “They were earth’s purest children young and fair” (from a Percy Bysshe Shelley poem) has cracks and chips in it, and a powerful sadness.

The Art Deco WWII memorial on an 1830s church

May 29, 2017

Though it’s been renovated extensively during its 183 years at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Washington Street, St. Joseph’s Church still has Georgian features and Greek Revival touches—two architectural styles that were popular when it was built.

And there’s a third design style on the Sixth Avenue facade of the church: Art Deco.

That’s in the form of a gilded World War II memorial listing the names of hundreds of men and women from the parish who served in the war.

It’s astoundingly beautiful and unusual in this low-rise neck of the Village, and worth a look next time you find yourself in the neighborhood. St. Joseph’s remains the oldest Catholic church edifice in the city.

[Bottom photo: Wikipedia]