Archive for the ‘Houses of worship’ Category

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]

A smallpox victim’s mummified body resurfaces

March 30, 2020

Construction workers operating a backhoe found her first. The workers were in Elmhurst, Queens, in an excavation pit building a new apartment complex.

They “assumed they had hit a pipe,” explained the New York Post. “But when the claws of the backhoe emerged from the ground, it was dragging a body clothed in a white gown and knee-high socks.”

Because the body, determined to be that of an African-American woman, was so well preserved, a forensic medical examiner assumed she was a recent homicide victim.

But as Scott Warnasch, a forensic archeologist from the city medical examiner’s office, investigated what was deemed a crime scene, he noticed dozens of metal fragments in the ground.

The fragments were identified as part of an iron coffin (above ad, from the Brooklyn Eagle) that had housed the woman’s remains and kept them eerily preserved in airtight conditions…until the backhoe smashed it open, according to Live Science.

Who was this woman, and how did she die? Her burial clothes held clues, appearing to be from the 19th century. The iron coffin also helped narrow things down; these were only produced in the mid-19th century, wrote LiveScience in 2018.

And there was something else: investigators found what looked like smallpox marks on her forehead and chest. Nineteenth century New York was no stranger to smallpox outbreaks. Though a vaccine had been developed, the virus killed a quarter of its victims and left survivors pockmarked or blind, wrote The New York Times in 2003.

The disease was so feared, a Smallpox Hospital was opened on Blackwell’s Island in 1856 (above).

How the woman died became clear…but still, who was she? Tests determined she was between 25 and 35 years old. She was buried in a section of Queens that had a free black community at the time, so Warnasch turned to the 1850 census.

The name Martha Peterson seemed to fit. “She would have been 26 in 1850, probably died around 1851 and lived in the household of William Raymond, a partner in the iron-coffin maker Fisk & Raymond,” Warnasch told the New York Post in 2018.

The discovery of Martha Peterson and the effort that went into identifying her was captured in a PBS show: “Secrets of the Dead: The Woman in the Iron Coffin.

She was given a new burial at Mount Olivet Cemetery by congregants of the Saint Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church in Jackson Heights in 2011—a fitting end to the story of a resurfaced body that served as a reminder of New York’s deadly disease outbreaks of the past.

[Top image: From the preview for Secrets of the Dead: The Woman in the Iron Coffin”; second image: Brooklyn Eagle; third image: NYPL; fourth image: Brooklyn Star, 1858]

The elegant remains of an 1857 church in Queens

August 5, 2019

St. Monica’s Church, a red-brick beauty opened in 1857 with an inspiring and unusual four-story bell tower, deserved better.

Abandoned by its congregation in the 1970s and beset by vandals, this Roman Catholic church in Jamaica, Queens, “endured a heavy snowfall [that] caused the main building to collapse right after money was set aside to study the possibility of a restoration,” explained Newsday in 2002.

But this hearty church, which served the Irish immigrants who came to Jamaica in the 1830s to be railroad workers and farm laborers, managed to escape the wrecking ball.

 

Purchased by the City University of New York and already on the National Register of Historic Places, this survivor on 160th Street south of Jamaica’s LIRR station was restored to something of its original glory.

The surviving Romanesque Revival facade continues to stand, along with new steel and glass walls and a roof. The new building with the remains of the old one opened in 2009 as the York College Child and Family Center. (York is part of CUNY.)

“Built in 1856-57 for $25,000, St. Monica’s is a basilica-shaped church,” according to CUNY. “It is one of the earlier surviving examples of Early Romanesque Revival architecture in New York and one of the only Roman Catholic Churches in the city executed in this style.”

It’s not the only 19th century church with a facade that’s been incorporated into a contemporary building. This is the story of St. Ann’s in the East Village, which was transformed into an NYU dorm.

[Second photo: New-York Historical Society, 1934]

Model tenements named for a forgotten bishop

August 5, 2019

Few modern-day New Yorkers recognize the name Henry Codman Potter. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Potter was a towering public figure.

Born in 1834, Potter (right) became the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York in 1883. He served as a rector at Grace Church, the city’s elite house of worship, and laid the cornerstone at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in 1892.

In such a prominent position, his name was regularly in newspapers. Yet Potter made headlines not for proselytizing but for tackling the city’s social ills and assisting the “lowest and the least cared for classes.”

“Potter not only believed that the wealthy were responsible for using their resources to meet the needs of the poor; he also believed that they should do so in a way that decreased the dependence of the poor on help from others,” wrote Michael Bourgeois in his book about Potter, All Things Human.

Potter visited midnight missions and ministered to inmates on Blackwell’s Island.

He took on temperance by recognizing that the saloon was the “poor-man’s place of resort and recreation.” Rather than shutting down bars, he advocated reforming them so they served no alcohol. (That didn’t work, as his Subway Tavern experiment proved.)

He also addressed the problem of housing, leading the fight “of providing comfortable, healthful homes to the poor of the city,” according to the New York Sun.

So it makes sense, then, that four years after Potter’s death in 1908, “his friends raised money to erect the City and Suburban Homes Company’s Bishop Potter Memorial, a pair of model tenements on East 79th Street,” wrote Andrew Dolkart.

City and Suburban Homes was a housing company with prominent backers dedicated to building livable, affordable apartments for working-class families in the early 1900s—in contrast to the airless, cramped firetraps that passed for housing at the time.

The model tenements they built along with the Bishop Potter Memorial buildings stand between York Avenue and the FDR Drive. Each 2-4 room flat has windows in every room, fireproof walls and doors. The 6-story buildings feature wide, dignified courtyards that let in light and air. (Average weekly salary for each family who rented one of these apartments: $15.73.)

Codman may be forgotten, but these model tenements, now landmarked and perhaps simple and plain by our standards today, remain.

[Second photo: Wikipedia]

The rural feel of an 1851 Harlem parish house

June 24, 2019

West 126th Street, in today’s Harlem, is an otherwise ordinary urban street of tenements and former factory buildings.

But cross Amsterdam Avenue, and you’ll find a simple wood parish house built in 1851 set back behind a lush front yard and shaded by tall trees.

Stop here for a moment, and you’ll be instantly transported back to mid-19th century Upper Manhattan.

The clapboard building is the former parsonage for St. Mary’s Protestant Episcopal Church.

Founded in 1823 when West 126th Street was called Lawrence Street, St. Mary’s served the small village of Manhattanville.

Manhattanville itself (below, a depiction of the road to Manhattanville in 1865) has a interesting history.

Laid out in 1806 with its own street grid 8 miles from the downtown city, this industrial town had about 15 houses the year the church was founded.

The congregation was an outgrowth of the more affluent St. Michael’s Church to the south in Bloomingdale, according to the 1998 Landmarks Preservation  Commission report. (St. Michael’s is still here, on West 99th Street.)

The first St. Mary’s church (at left) was a simple white structure consecrated in 1826.

“Manhattanville’s founding families, many of whom were related by marriage, were the core of St. Mary’s early congregation, which also included the widow and sons of Alexander Hamilton, and Daniel F. Tiemann, mayor of New York in 1858-1860,” states the report.

But most of Manhattanville’s early 19th century residents were poor; they were mainly British and Dutch descendants as well as some African Americans.

This might be why the church became the first in the city to abolish pew rental fees—a normal and accepted practice in New York’s churches at the time.

As Manhattanville grew, so did St. Mary’s. The clapboard parish house was completed in 1851.

In 1908, the original St. Mary’s was replaced by the current church. It was designed by Carrere and Hastings, the architects behind the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, among other buildings.

Through the 20th century, Manhattanville was subsumed by the larger city. Some vestiges of the old village remain, and the parsonage is the most enchanting example.

St. Mary’s continues to serve the community, an oasis with a rural feel harkening back to a more bucolic Upper Manhattan that’s been lost to urbanization.

[Third image: nycago.org; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: MCNY 193233.173.477]

What two 19th century church fences tell you

May 6, 2019

Two of Manhattan’s oldest houses of worship, St. Mark’s Church and Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, both have lovely fences around their churchyards. But each fence is very different.

The black cast-iron fence at St. Mark’s (above, in 1936) was added to the church in 1828, according to the Greenwich Village Society of Historical Preservation.

That’s almost 30 years after the Georgian-style church was completed, built beyond the city center on the former bouwerie, or farm, once owned by Dutch colonial governor Petrus Stuyvesant.

The fence around St. Patrick’s, on the other hand, is a red brick wall spanning Prince Street and continuing up Mulberry and Mott Streets on either side of the church grounds.

The brick wall went up in the 1830s (at left, in 1880), designed to protect Irish Catholic parishioners from the mobs of Nativist New Yorkers bent on letting them know they weren’t welcome.

Both churches are still houses of worship today. And as different as their fences seem, they do have one thing in common.

Each one has the name of the church’s street emblazoned on it: Second Avenue for St. Mark’s, and Mulberry and Prince Streets for St. Patrick’s.

These hard-to-see street names have survived on the fences for almost two centuries, letting New Yorkers know where they were in an era before Google maps and very visible street signs.

[Second image: NYPL]

The ruins of an 1848 church on East 12th Street

April 8, 2019

You can see it from Fourth Avenue as you approach East 12th Street: a weathered gray stone facade with enormous arched stained glass windows topped by a tower.

It all feels right out of the Middle Ages. But when you get closer, something’s amiss—the rest of the church is missing.

Instead, there’s a 26-story dorm built by New York University, with a couple of benches on the other side of the thin facade, where the sanctuary of the church should be.

The story of this shell of a church on a tidy East Village block begins in 1848, when the original church, the Twelfth Street Baptist Church, was constructed, according to David W. Dunlop’s 2004 book, From Abyssinian to Zion.

The church changed hands quickly. By 1854 it was Temple Emanu-El, which soon moved uptown. In the 1860s, it became the new home of St. Ann’s Roman Catholic Church.

Congregants at St. Ann’s razed the original church building except for the facade and tower. They commissioned architect Napoleon Le Brun to construct a Gothic church sanctuary stretching all the way to 11th Street, which was dedicated in 1871, wrote Dunlop.

For decades, St. Ann’s remained a Roman Catholic church and school. (At left, in 1914; Below, in 1975)

But the parish began dwindling in the second half of the 20th century. In 1983, St. Ann’s became St. Ann’s Armenian Catholic Cathedral.

Twenty years later, the Archdiocese of New York announced that St. Ann’s was closing for good. A developer then bought the building with plans to bulldoze it and put up a dorm.

Despite an outcry from preservationists and neighborhood residents who didn’t want to see the lovely church turned into a pile of rocks, St. Ann’s was torn down in 2005 (along with an 1840s rectory building next door).

In something of a victory for the city, the developer left the slender 1848 facade and tower.

They stand disembodied from their sanctuary and strangely unconnected to the dorm behind it…and the street they’ve called home for 171 years.

[Fourth photo: MCNY X2010.11.5283; Fifth Photo: MCNY 2013.3.2.1560]

A travel writer under the spell of 1820s New York

February 18, 2019

Frances Milton “Fanny” Trollope was decidedly unimpressed by America when this wife and mother visited the young nation in the late 1820s.

She arrived with her sons in 1827 from her home country of England, stepping off in New Orleans and settling for a time in Cincinnati. Her British husband had financial difficulties, and she hoped to take advantage of the opportunities she believed America offered.

When her efforts failed, she left Ohio and set out for various East Coast cities. The travel log she published back in England in 1832 was titled Domestic Manners of the Americans.

The book was a monster hit on both sides of the Atlantic, though it earned American disdain.

It’s hard not to see why. According to Trollope, American roads were primitive, manners lacking, and culture nonexistent. She also called out the hypocrisy of a nation that heralded freedom yet enslaved African Americans.

But when it came to the seven weeks she spent in New York City, Trollope was almost starstruck.

“I have never seen the Bay of Naples, I can therefore make no comparison, but my imagination is incapable of conceiving any thing of the kind more beautiful than the harbour of New-York,” she wrote of her arrival by boat from New Jersey. (Above, South Street at Maiden Lane in 1827)

“Situated on an island, which I think it will one day cover, it rises, like Venice, from the sea, and like that fairest of cities in the days of her glory, receives into its lap tribute of all the riches of the earth.”

She noted the “beautiful” public promenade along the Battery (above left, in 1861) and “splendid” Broadway, with its “handsome shops, neat awnings, excellent troittoir, and well-dressed pedestrians.”

“Hudson Square (at right) and its neighborhood is, I believe, the most fashionable part of town,” Trollope wrote about this elegant enclave renamed St. John’s Park (at left).

She also praised the city’s night life. “At night the shops, which are open till very late, are brilliantly illuminated with gas, and all the population seems as much alive as London or Paris.”

During her stay she visited the three major theaters and pronounced the Bowery Theatre (at left in 1826) “superior in its beauty” to the Park or the Chatham.

She also visited theaters and churches where black New Yorkers went and worshipped, writing about the many free African Americans in the city.

According to Trollope, stylish women in New York wore only French fashions; houses were made of a rich brown stone called “Jersey freestone,” streets were well paved, everyone had plenty of ice to cool their food, and the villas in Bloomingdale, the West Side village far from the actual city, were beautiful.

She also praised the 19th century version of taxi drivers (at left, in the 1830s), even the one who ripped her off.

“The hackney-coaches are the best in the world,” she proclaimed, though admitting that she was way overcharged by one unscrupulous driver who took her for a tourist.

That didn’t change her feeling that Manhattan was the greatest urban space in the nation, and perhaps the world.

“[I] must still declare that I think New-York one of the finest cities I ever saw, and as much superior to every other in the Union (Philadelphia not excepted) as London to Liverpool, Paris to Rouen. Its advantages of position are perhaps unequaled anywhere.”

Here’s another female travel writer’s descriptive take on the colonial city she visited in 1704.

[First image: Wikipedia; second image: View of South Street From Maiden Lane, New York City” by William James Bennett/MET Museum; third image: NYPL; fourth image: unknown; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: NYPL; seventh image: “The Bay of New York Taken from Brooklyn Heights” by William Guy Wall/MET Musuem]

This is what New York was like at Christmas 1882

December 24, 2018

During the city’s first 150 or so years, the residents of the colony that would become New York didn’t celebrate Christmas the way we celebrate it now: by buying gifts, decorating a tree, and telling stories about Santa Claus coming down chimneys.

In fact, New Yorkers weren’t celebrating Christmas at all. The Dutch holiday of St. Nicholas Day, on December 6, and then New Year’s Day, were the festive holidays of the month.

By the Gilded Age, however, Christmas as we know it was in full swing. And one writer who wrote a book about life in New York detailed the crazy consumerism, excessive eating, and general celebratory mood that constitute the modern Christmas season.

“For weeks before the great day of the feast the city is in gala attire,” wrote James McCabe, author of New York by Gaslight, from 1882.

“The stores present a brighter and more attractive appearance than at any other season of the year, the streets are filled with larger throngs, and the stages, street cars, and trains of the Elevated roads are more crowded than ever.” (Above, a painting of shoppers by Alice Barber Stephens, in 1896.)

McCabe noted the “huge piles of Christmas trees” on street corners that find “ready purchasers.”

The Christmas tree, introduced in the 1830s and 1840s, had become a staple of every home by this time. (Above left, a card from a New York business from the era.)

The cross streets in Manhattan that constituted the biggest shopping districts—Broadway, 14th Street (at right in 1899, next to the old Macy’s store), 23rd Street, and Grand Street among them—”are all driving a thriving trade.”

“It’s the money spending time of the year, and those who are out mean business,” he wrote of the crowds jostling on sidewalks. “Here is a woman with a bundle of toys in her arms, surmounted by a huge turkey for the Christmas dinner. There goes a man struggling under the weight of a Christmas tree, and sweeping his way through the mass with its thick, sharp branches.”

“Boys with penny whistles, young men with tin horns, render the streets discordant with their noise,” he notes, also describing the “half naked” kids gazing into shop windows “with wistful eyes.” They “will not be forgotten on the morrow.” (Above, a parade of expressmen with packages on their wagons to deliver.)

McCabe noted the window displays seen during the day and the electric lights ablaze inside stores once darkness fell. Inside homes, passersby could see families decorating their Christmas trees. “Something of this may be seen from the cars of the Elevated roads, as you whirl by second-story windows of the houses along the route.”

(Above, a montage by Thomas Nast of sentimental family scenes at Christmas 1863, from Harper’s Weekly.)

About the elevated trains, which were built atop several avenues in Manhattan in the 1870s: “In the cars it is almost impossible to move, because of the great bundles of merchandise. You stumble over huge turkeys and market-baskets filled to overflowing with all manner of eatables….”

Those turkeys and other feast foods could be found at the city’s great markets, like Washington Market in today’s Tribeca.

On Christmas Eve the market stays open past 11 p.m., selling “long rows of turkeys” hanging from the hooks of stalls, as well as sugar-cured hams.

After the feast was purchased, Christmas Eve turned into Christmas day. (A market scene, at left)

“When the bell of old Trinity tolls the last stroke of the hour of midnight, there is a momentary hush in the streets, and then rolling down from their lofty height, through the dark thoroughfares and over the silent waters of the bay, come the rich, glad tones of the chimes, filling the air with a burst of melody,” McCabe wrote.

McCabe wrote about the poor of the city, explaining that the “numerous charitable and benevolent institutions spread bountiful tables for their inmates….the hearts of the little ones are gladdened with toys, trinkets, and other presents suited to their needs and years.” (A dinner for the poor, below right)

“Even the prisoners in the Tombs and on Blackwell’s Island are not forgotten, and the Christmas dinner spread for them sheds a little light and hope into their otherwise gloomy existence.”

What else was similar? Matinees. “All the theaters give special performances, termed ‘matinees,’ in the afternoon. The houses are thronged, and the managers pocket large receipts. At night, balls, festivals, and entertainments of all kinds, close the day.”

[Top image: NYPL; second image: MCNY; 43.425.12; third image: NYPL; fourth image: MCNY 2010.11.8795; fifth image: Thomas Nast from Harper’s Weekly, 1863, NYPL; sixth image: NYPL; seventh image: NYPL; eighth image: MCNY 37.351.16; ninth image: MCNY]