Friday, July 3, 2015

The Young Men's Benevolent Assn. --No. 311 East Broadway





The oddly-shaped plot of land at the point where East Broadway melded into Grand Street saw immense change in the 19th century.  The four-story house at No. 311 East Broadway was home to broker James E. Betts in 1842 whose office was at No. 14 Wall Street.  But already changes in the neighborhood were underway.

The commercial district of Manhattan pushed forever northward, forcing residential neighborhoods out.  The Lower East Side’s old residents were replaced by the waves of immigrants that arrived throughout the next decades.  As the century drew to a close, Jews from Germany, Poland and neighboring countries had filled the area.  By the turn of the century about 50,000 Jewish immigrants arrived in New York Harbor every year.  While poor, most were respectable and hard working.  Some were not.

In February 1894 police barged into the house that had been home to James Betts half a century earlier.   The New York Times reported they “raided a gambling house kept at 311 East Broadway by Herman Rosenthal, Saturday night, and captured twenty-eight men, but not the proprietor.  They were engaged in a game of chance.”  The men were fined $1 each.

Soon, however, the Young Men’s Benevolent Association would take over Herman Rosental’s gambling house.  Organized in 1889 by a group of six young Jewish men seeking to provide a respectable place of social activity and learning for locals, it took as its motto “Education and Benevolence.”  Funded by wealthy philathropists, the Settlement Movement spurred the construction of settlement houses throughout the impoverished neighborhoods of Manhattan.  But The Young Men’s Benevolent Association was determined to make it on its own, without help from rich donors.

The group, understandably, started small.  And yet by 1899 they had the resources to rent No. 311 East Broadway and convert it to the Association’s headquarters. It boasted between 200 and 300 members.   The Times pointed out that “a library and reading rooms are maintained.”

The lofty goals of the Association sought to better the minds of its members and to educate them on current events in their new country, on history, and on the arts.  To this end lectures were given once a week by “men of prominence” invited by the group.  On January 13, 1899, for instance, Mayor Seth Low addressed “about 200 men and a few of their young women friends.”  He spoke that night on “The Greater New York Charter”—the important legislation enacted in January 1898 that consolidated Manhattan and the outer boroughs into one city.

The men of the Association worked tirelessly to raise funds for its own clubhouse.  They came one step closer when, in May 1902, they obtained title to No. 311 East Broadway.  The Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide noted “The buyers now occupy the building.”

It would be nearly a year before the men commissioned architects Sass & Smallheiser to design their new building.   The Record and Guide reported that the plans called for a five-story clubhouse with an estimated cost of $35,000.

Largely overlooked today, Sass & Smallheiser were prolific in the Lower East Side at the time, producing for the most part tenement structures.  But their design for the Young Men’s Benevolent Association would dazzle.

For more than a decade the Flemish Revival style had been popular in Manhattan, most evidently on the Upper West Side.  But Sass & Smallheiser brought it downtown to East Broadway; adding touches of the equally-popular Beaux Arts style for good measure.   An exuberant concoction of red brick and granite, it featured all the decorative elements of Flemish Revival—the stepped side gables, playful dormers poking through the steep tile-covered mansard, and bold stone voussoirs that fanned out over the openings—all on a rusticated Beaux Arts base supporting a Beaux Art stone balcony.  If the two styles were by definition conflicting; they managed to happily coexist at No. 311 East Broadway.

No. 311 East Broadway as it appeared at its dedication.  The house it replaced would have been similar to the one seen partially to the right.  New-York Tribune, June 18, 1905 (copyright expired)

High above the sidewalk a panel announced the expected date of completion:  1904.  It was off by only a few months.  The dedication was held at 2:30 on the afternoon of April 30, 1905.  The press was as impressed by the building as by the fact that it came to be solely through the work of the humble members.

The date of completion was off by a few months.

The Evening World reported on the club’s many amenities. “But the fine equipments of the house are not the things that commend it most conspicuously to the public interest,” it said.  “The new building is the occupying association’s very own in every way.  It is the fruit of sixteen years of joint planning and harmonious effort.  The $50,000 which the establishment cost came in contributions from four hundred very earnest and hard-working young men; not in gifts from any great and rich friends.”

The New York Times called it “one of the handsomest buildings in that section of the city.”  The New-York Tribune said it “is now one of the show places of the East Side.  Like The World, The Times was impressed that the necessary $50,000 (in the neighborhood of $1.4 million today) came from the members, “mostly in the humbler walks of life.”

Members pose in the new gymnasium -- New-York Tribune, June 18, 1905 (copyright expired)
Mayor George McClellan chimed in during his remarks at the dedication.  “It was no small nor easy task for you to erect this splendid edifice.  It was a task from the carrying out of which older and wiser heads might have discouraged you.  Bu you have succeeded splendidly and are to be congratulated.”

Dr. David Blaustein, President of the Education Alliance, pointed out the group’s origins.  “You, or your parents, have come from countries of oppression where there were no opportunities for our race.  In this country we can proclaim aloud and without fear that we are good Jews in order to be better citizens.”

The Tribune reported that the “internal appointments are in keeping with its external appearance.”  The newspaper said “Throughout the greater part of the building the interior is finished in dark wood, with antique furniture, and presets an especially attractive appearance.”

The first floor contained the circulating library and reading room, and a billiard room.  In the basement were bowling alleys.  On the entire second floor was an auditorium, capable of seating 500; and the offices.  On the third floor were classrooms and “the cosey social rooms and ladies’ parlor,” said the Tribune.

In the classrooms interested members could receive schooling on a variety of areas.  Teachers were volunteers, some of them coming directly from the membership.  The New-York Tribune pointed out on June 18, 1905, “That it is productive of results is shown by the fact that two young men who received their early training in the club school are this year members of the graduating class at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University.  Another will be graduated from the New-York College of Dentistry and till another form Cooper Union.”

The gymnasium was on the fourth floor and the janitor’s apartment was tucked into the gable above it.

Seven months later the building was used as a rallying point in reaction to the October massacre of 800 Jews in Russia.  On November 14, 1905 The Jewish Defense Association met here “to call Jews to help their countrymen in Russia arm themselves in defense of their rights and lives,” reported The New York Times.  The group pleaded for funds to arm Jewish Russians.  “New massacres are preparing.  Our people must be possessed of arms to defend themselves and their honor.”

Within ten days the fund-raising had netted nearly $1 million.  The members of the Young Men’s Benevolent Association did their part.   The Times on November 24 reported that they were “arranging a big open-air demonstration…to be held in one of the large public parks not yet determined upon.”

Other Jewish groups used the auditorium at No. 311 East Broadway as well.  The Federation of Jewish Organizations took advantage of the large hall for meetings.  The group addressed and acted on issues of political and social importance.  In December 1908, for instance, it was decided to ask Congress to appoint rabbis as military chaplains.  At the time the Army and Navy had only Christian priests and ministers. 

At the same meeting Nathan Wise brought up the possibility of religious prejudice on the part of immigration agents.  “There seems to be an underground prejudice against the naturalization of Jews and I believe that the new law which compels them to speak English is part of the plot.”

By 1909 the membership of the Young Men’s Benevolent Association had risen to 400.  But within five years it found itself in financial trouble.  In September 1914 the group lost its building in a foreclosure auction.

No. 311 East Broadway became home to the Arnold Toynbee House in 1918.   Founded by Rose Gruening, it was named for the English social reformer who started the settlement house movement in London.   Neighborhood children were welcomed here as a refuge from the streets.  Various activities and classes were held here, like those of the Working Girls’ Recreation Committee which gave classes in “dancing, chorus singing, elocution and music appreciation.”  The Annual Report of the Jewish Protectory and Aid Society noted that in 1914 “A dancing class of special interest is being held at the Arnold Toynbee House to which the boys of the neighborhood are invited and a small sum is charged for each dance.”

ATH was carved into the granite cartouche on the balcony.

Like the Young Men’s Benevolent Association, the Arnold Toynbee House offered free lectures.  And in July 1918 the building opened as a summer “play school” for the needy children between the ages of 6 and 12. The New-York Tribune reported “Special attention will be given to looking after the health of the children…A standard luncheon at five cents will be served.”

In 1929 the New York Charities Directory encapsulated the work of Rose Gruening and her Arnold Toynbee House. “A neighborhood house affording the usual club activities, a roof garden, which last summer accommodated a play school for anaemic children, kindergarten, gymnasium, auditorium for lectures, concerts and dances, bowling alleys and pool tables for adult recreation.”  The Directory noted that the House was “supported by voluntary contributions;” but neglected to say that Rose Gruening was its greatest sponsor.

Called by the neighborhood “the angel of Grand Street,” she had funded the settlement with her own money and worked tirelessly with no compensation.  The daughter of a prominent eye and ear specialist, she grew up in privileged surroundings and graduated from Vassar College. 

The New York Times would later say of her “A calm, efficient, sympathetic and motherly person, she was known and loved by thousands of the East Side’s poor many of whom grew up to become well off financially after she had started them on their careers with her own money and returned to aid her work. She often helped to finance the college education of the youths she had aided as children.”

Around 1931 the Arnold Toynbee House was renamed the Grand Street Settlement House.   In 1936 it moved to No. 283 Rivington Street, not far away.   In reporting on the new location on November 18 that year, The New York Times noted “The old building which stood at 311 East Broadway was inadequate and was condemned last Spring by the Fire Department.”

Happily, the condemnation resulted in repairs rather than demolition.   In 1941 No. 311 East Broadway was converted to the Agudath Taharath Mishpacha of the East Side, Inc., “the Association of Family Purity.”   The renovations resulted in a mikvah, the ritual cleansing baths required for all Orthodox Jewish women.  Also in the building was the Hebrew Teachers Training School for Girls.

In 1994 a $200,000 renovation was initiated that modernized the 700-gallon roof-top cisterns that collected rainwater.  The pure water is processed through filters before filling the bathing tubs.

Today Sass & Smallheiser’s delightful 1905 structure continues to be used as the mikvah.  A bit grimy, it houses several chapters in the fascinating history of Jewish culture on the Lower East Side.

photographs by the author

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Ashbel P. Fitch House -- No. 1388 Lexington Avenue





In 1879 Ashbel and Elizabeth Cross Fitch moved into the new house at No. 1376 Lexington Avenue with their three children.  Little Bessie was four, Ashbel Jr. was two, and Ella was just a year old.  The couple had been married five years.

The impressive brownstone-fronted house was three stories high above an especially deep English basement.  The regulated symmetry of the design was upset by the unusual dormers that punched through the steep mansard—one being twice the width of the other.  A high stoop led to the centered entrance on the parlor floor.

The brackets of the unusual dormers match those of the cornice directly below.

Ashbel Fitch leased the impressive home from wealthy brewer George Ehret.  Lexington Avenue had been extended this far north only nine years earlier and other impressive residences were still appearing along the thoroughfare.

The 30-year old Ashbel Parmelee Fitch had received “his rudimentary education…in the common schools here,” said The New York Times in 1899.  But he then studied in Europe, at the Universities of Berlin and Jena.  Five years after moving into the Lexington Avenue home he essentially gave up his legal career to turn to politics.  (In the meantime two more children were born in the house—Morton in 1881 and Littleton two years later.)

In 1883 Fitch purchased the house from Ehret for $23,000.  The brewer had not only been Fitch’s landlord, but one of his most important legal clients.  Fitch paid him $5,000 in cash, and then essentially traded legal work over a period of four years to pay off the debt.

from the collection of the New York Public Library
Highly ethical and adamant about the human rights of the working class, Fitch declined the Republican nomination for Congress in 1884 “on the ground the he was not in sympathy with the high protection doctrines of the Republican Party,” according to The Times.   In 1886 he was elected to the House of Representatives.

On February 8, 1887 Fitch’s father, Edward, died suddenly at the age of 66.  He had been one of the founders of the New York State Republican Party and the first New York Republican in the Legislature.  Since 1869 he had been a partner in son’s law firm.    His funeral was held in the Lexington Avenue house on February 10.

That same year another child was born in the Fitch house—daughter Doris.  Elizabeth, called Lizzie by her friends, had a staff of servants.  None was as important as Lizzie Petrie, the children’s nurse.  She was hired in 1876 and lived with the Fitches for years, becoming a de facto family member.

In 1888 the address of the home was changed to 1388 Lexington Avenue.  According to David F. Remington in his Ashbel P. Fitch: Champion of Old New York, “Fitch was not please when the address changed because 1376 held two ‘13’s,’ his lucky number.”

Fitch’s popularity among the people was evidenced on September 30, 1889.  As the family prepared to leave for abroad, citizens bid an impressive farewell.  The following day The New York Times reported “The Old Homestead Club and about three thousand citizens of Yorkville and Harlem assembled in front of the residence of Congressman Ashbel P. Fitch, 1,388 Lexington-avenue, last evening, headed by Leibold’s Band and gave him a serenade on the eve of his departure for Europe.”

Fitch was called back to New York from Washington in September 1893 on reports that his 72-year old mother was ill.  Fanny Fitch, like her husband and son, had led an impressive life.   During the Civil War she had been active in the formation of the Sanitary Commission which, according to The Times, “did so much good work for soldiers.”  She remained active in the Commission throughout the war.  Afterward she turned her focus to charitable organizations like the Orphan Home and the Magdalen Asylum.

By the time Fitch returned, Fanny’s condition had deteriorated.  She had contracted pneumonia and two weeks later on September 22, she died.  Her funeral, like that of her husband, took place in the Lexington Avenue house.

By 1895 the Fitches’ two eldest children, “Miss Bessie C. and Mr. Ashbel P. Jr.” were old enough to appear in The Social Register along with their parents.  But the following year the publication would have to update the addresses.  In the fall of 1895 Fitch sold the house to Josephine Schmidt, who had inherited about $1 million when her beer brewer husband, August Schmid, died. 

If Josephine, disparagingly called “the brewer’s wife,” by New York society, intended to live in the house, she changed her mind.  On March 14, 1896 the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide reported that “Under-Sheriff Henry H. Sherman has bought of Josephine Schmid the four-story stone front dwelling.”  In reporting the sale, the newspaper noted that Fitch had sold it “for a consideration of $27,000 in a trade for a larger residence in East 80th Street.”

Henry H. Sherman was making $5,000 in his city job at the time.   A comfortable salary equal to about $145,000 today, it afforded his wife to enjoy the life of a Manhattan socialite.  She was a strong supporter of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and donated several important works over the years.

By 1908 No. 1388 Lexington Avenue had become home to Dr Frederick Charles Heckel.   Aside from his medical practice, Heckel was Vice President and Director of the Crystal Chemical Company.  Although the well-established physician would remain in the house at least through 1922, by 1921 he was renting rooms.  On May 3, 1921 an advertisement appeared in the New-York Tribune offering “Large front room; also one with two beds; running water.”

In 1918 Lexington Avenue was widened for the Lexington Avenue subway line and it was most likely at this time that the stoop was replaced by a less impressive staircase.  A business entrance in the English basement was most likely installed for Dr. Heckel’s medical office.

Despite the changes, when the Willis Gemmell Mitchell family moved in by 1931, life in the house became upscale once again.  The Mitchell’s summer house was in Ossining, New York and they owned a “summer camp” on Lake George.

On August 13, 1937 George D. Chinn photographed the house with its commercial street level entrance and odd staircase to the first floor. from the collection of the New York Public Library.
The society pages routinely reported on the entertainments given by Mrs. Mitchell: a “small dinner” at the house in March 1931; another dinner “for her daughters, the Misses Helen Annette and Betsy Mitchell” in July that year; and a luncheon at the Pierre “for Dame Rachel Crowdy of England, Chief of the Social Section of the League of Nations,” for instance.

On September 20, 1931 The New York Times updated its readers on Mrs. Mitchell’s movements, saying she “has left her summer camp on Lake George and is at 1,388 Lexington Avenue for the Autumn and Winter.”

In 2015 some of the original interior shutters survive.

Eventually dinner parties and receptions in the old house would come to an end.  Before the middle of the century it had been converted to apartments—two per floor--with a store on the ground level.   From at least 1958 through 1972 poet Marie B. Jaffe lived here.

Despite the abuse at street level, Ashbel Fitch’s brownstone home is still recognizable.  Inside a remarkable amount of original elements survive.  But few passersby notice one of the first residences in the developing neighborhood and the home of a popular Congressman.

non-credited photographs by the author

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Cathedral Free Circulating Library -- No. 203 West 82nd Street






Many New Yorkers could not afford the luxury of buying books in the 19th century; and prior to 1880 the few libraries that existed were not open to the public.  But that year the Free Circulating Library was incorporated.   The response was so great that the sidewalks around the first library—a single room in a building on 13th Street near Fourth Avenue—were blocked.  At closing time on one occasion, of the 500 books only two were left on the shelves.

The movement caught on and circulating libraries began appearing throughout the city, including the Cathedral Free Circulating Library, established in 1892.   Five years later acting president John Hayes noted “That in the year ended June 30, 1897, said Cathedral Free Circulating Library loaned to the individuals in the City of New York more than ninety-four thousand volumes to be read by them at their homes.”  He also pointed out that “additional facilities must be procured.”

David W. Bishop owned a four-story brick apartment and store building at the northwest corner of Amsterdam Avenue and 82nd Street.  In 1899 he constructed a one-story structure directly behind it, designed by architect A. E. Westover.  The unlikely building pretended to be quite grand, despite its minimal proportions. Its cast iron pilasters supported a pressed metal bracketed cornice.  Above this was a Roman-style parapet with a miniature temple.  Within its pediment was the date of construction.  It was topped by an antefix which added to the classical grandeur of the diminutive building.



No doubt the blank space below the pediment held a plaque announcing the Cathedral Free Circulating Library.  John Hayes had gotten his wish and No. 203 West 82nd Street was now one of three Cathedral Free Circulating Library locations.   

 By 1901 the number of volumes lent to Manhattan residents had risen to 342,980. That same year Andrew Carnegie offered $5.2 million to the City of New York to establish the largest free circulating library system in the world.  Carnegie’s generous gift may have spelled the end of the Cathedral Free Circulating Library on 82nd Street; but for whatever reason, by the end of 1902 it was gone.

In its place came a less lofty, but no less necessary, concern—a plumbing shop.  J. J. Falihee converted the library for his plumbing business.  His was no small operation and by 1910 he had joined forces with Thomas F. McCaul to form Falihee & McCaul.  That year The Plumbers’ Trade Journal reported “Faliee & McCaul, of 203 West 82d street, Manhattan, are over their heads in new plumbing contracts. We haven’t the space to enumerate them all, so we will mention the most important, as follows: An apartment of 10 stories on Claremont avenue and 177th street, an eight-story apartment on 113th street and Broadway, a six-story apartment on 153d street and Broadway, a six-story on 109th street and Amsterdam avenue and a few others.”

Falihee and McCaul were members of the Master Plumbers’ Association; a situation that placed them in hot water with the Government in 1921.  Investigators discovered that the union plumbers submitted their bids for jobs to John T. Hettrick before sending then to the contractors.  According to court papers “Hettrick revised the bids so that the plumber who was ‘entitled’ to the contract had the lowest bid.”

Falihee and McCaul were investigated, along with scores of other plumbers for violating the Donnelly Anti-Trust law.  The pair escaped jail time; but they were fined a significant $2,500 on March 22 1921—more in the neighborhood of $33,000 today.

The highly-successful plumbers soon branched out, acting as general contractors and operators.  Within a year of the court’s decision, they had formed F. M. Construction Co. and filed plans for a $130,000 apartment building on Shakespeare Avenue in the Bronx, designed by John P. Boyland.

It was possibly their expanded business that prompted their need to relocate; but by the mid-1930s Faliee & McCaul had moved on.   No. 203 West 82nd Street was converted to a neighborhood grocery store.

Out of the Great Depression came desperation; and it may have been that which impelled three teen-aged boys to attempt a hold-up of the little grocery store on the night after Christmas in 1938.  Their attempt at robbing the store failed and the boys fled in various directions—one of them running across rooftops to escape.  It ended badly.

Fifteen-year old David Holmes fell five stories from a tenement building, seriously injuring himself.  He and another 15-year old accomplice were arrested and charged with juvenile delinquency.  The third boy was older, 17, and was charged with burglary.  David’s charges were made in Roosevelt Hospital.

Throughout the rest of the century, up until today, the little building has suffered much disrespect.  Today, separated into two shops, it is home to a cleaners and a second hand store.  And yet No. 203 West 82nd Street refuses to be ordinary, maintaining its rather haughty air.

photographs by the author

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The 1826 Willletts Street Methodist Episcopal Church -- 7 Bialystoker Place





With the end of the Revolutionary War and a renewed sense of normalcy, New York City again looked northward for expansion.  James de Lancey Jr. had been banished from New York as a Loyalist and his expansive country estate was confiscated and later sold as building lots.   By the 1810s and ‘20s, Grand Street, once a wide drive through de Lancey’s property, was becoming lined with Federal-style homes.

The residents of this new neighborhood required schools, shops and churches.  In 1826 the handsome Willett Street Methodist Episcopal Church was completed just steps from Grand Street.  The undressed schist of the fa├žade had been quarried nearby on Pitt Street.   Simple and refined, its perfectly-symmetrical temple-inspired front featured three doors and corresponding openings, each trimmed in contrasting stone.  A striking lunette window enhanced the low-pitched pediment.

Religion for the congregants of the Willett Street Methodist Episcopal Church was not taken lightly.  Four years after the building was completed a 19-year old man entered its doors.  According to his obituary in 1874, William F. Gould’s life would forever change.  The Minutes of the Annual Conferences of the Methodist Episcopal Church noted that when he found the Willett Street church “he had become deeply convicted of sin, and was led to embrace the Saviour by faith in the Willett-street Methodist Episcopal Church, New York city.  His conversion was clear and powerful, giving indubitable evidence of a thorough and radical change of heart.”

The Willett Street church had a burying ground in the adjoining yard.  The 1881 pamphlet The Cemeteries of New York and How To Reach Them explained that “In early days every church in New York had a graveyard connected with the church building.  In 1822 there were 23 graveyards below the City Hall.” 

But the city’s desperate need for land and the threat of disease led to the 1851 city ordinance that prohibited any burials south of 86th Street.  The trustees of the church, therefore, agreed to move their dead to Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn.  The transfers began in 1854 and continued for two years.  What the families of deceased loved ones were unaware of was that the final resting spot was more ornamental than respectful.

A reporter from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle interviewed a watchman at the plot who admitted that the “bones and coffins” were buried in long trenches.  Above, the headstones were nicely arranged--“put up to look good.”

No doubt highly involved in the removals and re-burying of the graveyard denizens were undertakers G. W. Relyea and his son, Peter Relyea.  The men lived steps away from the church, at No. 3 Willett Street, and Peter was one of its sextons.

The 49-year old Peter Relyea was contacted on April 21, 1865 by the Board of Aldermen and given a nerve-wracking commission.  He was put in charge of President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession through the streets of Manhattan.  He had three days to build the elaborate catafalque that would carry the assassinated President’s remains.  Peter Relyea’s hearse for the occasion was so large and so elaborate that it required 16 horses.


Twelve pallbearers carry Lincoln's coffin to Relyea's elaborate creation -- Harper's Weekly May 13, 1865 (copyright expired)
The immense pressure and the sleepless nights (he told reporters he and 60 employees worked day and night without sleep to design and construct the catafalque) would be worth it.  Not only did he receive the staggering sum of $9,000, he would use the honor as a marketing tool for the rest of his career.


Peter Relyea's business card would forever note "Undertaker for President Lincoln"
Peter Relyea’s life could continue to be far more colorful than that of the average undertaker.  He was sued by Margaret E. Bonifice three years later following the elaborate funeral of her father.   While he supplied “a certain number of carriages and horses” to transport family and guests from Manhattan to the cemetery and back; a problem ensued on the return.

The driver of the carriage in which Margaret Bonifice rode made an unscheduled stop.  Her complaint read in part “the driver of the carriage wherein was the plaintiff, stopped at a hotel, and left his horses unhitched; and while he was absent they ran away and throwed the plaintiff out of the carriage and injured her.”

Relyea was back in the news in 1878 when he walked into Police Headquarters and told Inspector Dilks that he knew the identity of one of the grave robbers of millionaire Alexander T. Stewart.  The investigator chided Relyea for waiting so long to inform on the criminal.  Not intimidated, “Mr. Relyea replied that he had a business to attend to, and that he could not afford to neglect it for the purpose of going about the country playing detective,” reported The New York Times.

In the meantime, the Willett Street church ministered to the neighborhood and offered occasional lectures and musical programs.  In September 1868 Rev. Antonio A. Arrighi delivered an address on “Late In Italy.”  The Times said “The church was thronged by an attentive audience.”   The lecture apparently poked some fun at the Italians.  “He gave a graphic description of the process of eating macaroni by the lazzaroni, which excited much mirth.”

In 1877 the 50-year old building received a make-over.  On November 5 The New York Times reported that “Large congregations attended yesterday at the exercises in the Willett-Street Methodist Episcopal Church, which has been recently remodeled and improved, and which has just been reopened for divine worship.”  Special appeals were made to the congregation “to aid in defraying the expenses of the recent improvements, and was liberally responded to.”

In December 1883 Rev. John E. Searles returned to the Willett Street church as its pastor.  He commented on the changes since he first took the pulpit in 1843.  “Since I came here first both the church and those who meet within its walls are changed.  Those who formed the congregation 40 years ago have since then passed away.  The building itself has been enlarged.  I used to stand in a pulpit made like a box, so that when I sat down no one could see me.”

The minister noted “In the old times the population hereabout was quite different” and he blamed the dwindling membership on a “growing indifference to Christian duty.”  In realty, the Grand Street area was changing rapidly.  What had been a quiet residential neighborhood was now bustling with commerce.  Already a large immigrant population had pushed the former residents northward and tenement buildings were replacing private homes.

Peter Relyea was one of the old congregants to surrender to the changes.  In 1894 he sold No. 3 Willett Street for $16,000 and moved to Brooklyn.  With its congregation dwindling, by the turn of the century, the Willett Street Methodist Episcopal church was in financial trouble.   What had been a solely Christian neighborhood was rapidly filling with those of the Jewish faith.

On May 19, 1902 The New York Times noted “Once the church had a large congregation, but to-day it has a hard struggle to maintain itself amid the encroaching foreign population.”  Pastor J. L. Smith tried a desperate scheme.   For the church’s 83rd anniversary, he sent messages to all the old members who had moved away to attend the ceremony.

Former congregants responded—some from the Bronx and Brooklyn and others as far away as Philadelphia.  At the end of the day “it was resolved that each member of the organization should provide himself with a toy savings bank shaped like a jug.”  The members were to deposit a coin into the bank now and then throughout the year.   Then, “at the end of the year the church is to hold a grand jug smashing contest, and turn over the funds to the pastor,” reported a newspaper.   The somewhat far-fetched idea was hoped to “help keep up the church.”

The jug smashing fund-raiser was not enough.  On May 20, 1905 The Christian Work and Evangelist reported “After an existence of eighty-one years, during the early part of which it was the place of worship of many of New York’s wealthiest families, the old Willett Street Methodist Episcopal Church was sold late week to the Congregation Anshai Chesed Ballystok, and soon will be used as a synagogue.”

The journal got the spelling wrong, but was otherwise accurate in its reporting.  The congregation Chevra Anshei Chesed of Bialystok had been organized in 1865 by a group of Polish immigrants from the town of Bialystok.   With their merging with the Congregation Adas Yeshurun (whose members also came from Bialystok), they needed a larger place of worship.

Alterations were completed within three months and the new synagogue was dedicated on August 20, 1905.  But it was not without incident.  The Sun reported that “The new synagogue itself is small, but nearly 3,000 packed themselves inside of it, while others filled the adjacent streets and he fire escapes and windows.  The interior of the building was hung with flags and banners, while ribbons of bunting festooned the gallery.”

The celebration had started at 3:00 when the congregation marched from its former synagogue at No. 84 Orchard Street, led by a band of 75 boys from the Hebrew Orphan Asylum.  Behind them 300 girls dressed in white bore flags.  “A string of carriages, many blocks in length, bore the aged and infirm members of the congregation, while the rest marched on foot.”

But once they were in the new building, near tragedy happened.

The following day the New-York Tribune reported “A piece of bunting caught fire from an unprotected gas burner at the dedication festival of the congregation of Beth Hakneseth Anshei Bialystok, at No. 7 Willett-st., yesterday afternoon, and instantly the entire audience, which numbered about three thousand, was in an uproar.”

Captain Joseph McGlynn, in charge of the police reserves that day, ordered the choir to start singing as he headed for the burning drapery.  But six-year old Gertrude Rosenblum got there first.  The plucky little girl climbed onto a chair and pulled the flaming cloth down, burning her hand in the process.  A grown-up stomped out the fire.

But panic had already set in.  “Those in the gallery came piling down the stairs upon those on the floor below,” reported The Sun, “and in an instant the house was filled with a fighting, frightened mob.  Outside, the crowd took up the cry ‘Fire!’ and there was a rush to the scene.  The police, fifty of whom surrounded the place, were swept aside, unable to check the rush.”
Little Gertrude Rosenblum tried her best to calm the hysterical mob.  “The crowd looked back, saw the little girl swinging the blackened stick in her hand and sat down.”  It took 200 additional police to restore order and Captain McGlynn cleared the street each way for a block.

The Sun said “Those who wanted to leave the church were allowed to do so and in ten minutes the meeting was in full swing again.”

What started out in chaos and terror ended with joy.   Immediately after the service, Ida Gottlieb and Benjamin Goldberg drove up in a closed carriage.  The couple insisted on being the first to be married in the new synagogue.  They were greeted with cheers “that took the nerve of the bride, while her husband-to-be turned the color of a Chinese laundry check,” said The Sun.

The newspaper added “To be the first married in a new synagogue is accounted a high honor and the privilege is usually well paid for.  After the ceremony was over yesterday one of the members said that the parents of the bride and bridegroom would probably contribute $500 to the synagogue.”

Eventually the stretch of Willett Street was renamed Bialystoker Place.  Throughout the 20th century the synagogue survived even as the neighborhood’s Jewish community slowly abandoned the Lower East Side.   In 1988 the congregation restored the sanctuary, which is noted for its vibrant and colorful decoration. 

According to Gerald R. Wolfe in his 2013 The Synagogues of New York’s Lower East Side, “Among the synagogue’s restored treasures is its nearly three-story-high hand-carved wooden Aron Kodesh, which is flanked by brilliantly colored stained glass windows of comparable magnitude and majesty. The Italian master restorer and decorative painter, Paolo Spano, performed the extensive restoration of the Ark.”


The nearly 200-year old fieldstone structure survives essentially unchanged since is 1905 change-of-hands--a remarkable relic from a time when the Lower East Side was a new suburb of New York City.

photographs by the author