Tuesday, October 6, 2015

No. 121 East 17th Street

As the 1890s approached, the glory days of Union Square as an elegant residential neighborhood were gone.   Its mansions had been converted for business or razed and replaced by modern commercial structures.  But on the streets branching off the square some relics remained—once-fashionable homes, now operated as boarding houses, and an occasional carriage house.

One such survivor was the two-story brick stable at No. 121 East 17th Street.  The building once housed the horses and vehicles of one of the Square’s wealthy residents.  It was close enough for convenience; yet just far enough away that the smells and noises would not offend.

Unlike most private stables which lined up shoulder-to-shoulder, a service alley ran along the east side of No. 121—providing the unusual luxury of sunlight-providing openings on the side wall.   A vast two-story arch enveloped both the double bay doors and the upper window.  Following the traditional stable arrangement, it was flanked by a doorway to the upper story and an window of the same size.  Below the generous, bracketed cornice, a row of brick-framed oculi wrapped the building, each sitting directly above an arched window.

But in the 1880s the millionaires around Union Square were largely gone and their carriage houses had been converted or demolished.  By 1888 No. 121 East 17th Street had been remodeled by Philip Martiny for his studio.  The sculptor was not the first to realize the potential of the utilitarian structures.  The high ceilings and wide bays were perfect for working on large pieces.

Born in Alsace on May 19 1858, he once told a reporter “People have called me Swiss, and Italian, and German—everything but what I am—a Frenchman.”  He studied under Eugene Dock, and then left home at the age of 20 to come to New York.   Years later he said “I was lucky from the first.  I was taken into the studio of a great sculptor—the greatest sculptor in America to-day—St. Gaudens.”

Martiny executed the magnificent sanctuary lamp for St. Paul the Apostle Church here.  photo http://www.stpaultheapostle.org/viewgallery.php?id=2&secid=#
It would appear that the 17th Street studio was Martiny’s first after venturing out on his own.  It was here that Martiny created the massive sanctuary lamp for St. Paul the Apostle Church in 1888.  Stanford White had given him the designs for the lamp.   White would work with Martiny several times; having him execute the south doors of St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, for instance, and a bronze figure of Aphrodite for Oliver Hazard Payne’s luxurious yacht decorated by White.

Before the turn of the century Martiny moved his studio to another converted stable—this one in Macdougal Alley near Washington Square.  The 17th Street studio was taken over by another sculptor, George T. Brewster.

Brewster would become best known for his sculptural portraits and figures for war memorials.  Working from the former carriage house, he produced commissions that included the figure of Victory for the Indiana Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument in Indianapolis; the statue of Stephen Decatur on New York City’s Dewey Triumphal Arch; and a bas-relief portrait of Augustus Saint-Gaudens for the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C.

Brewster was one of 28 sculptors chosen to work on the Dewey Memorial Arch.  It was demolished a year after its completion.  photograph from the collection of the Library of Congress.
In the years preceding World War I Pepe & Brother was busy transforming vintage houses in Greenwich Village into modern studio buildings for artists.  Vincent Pepe was the leading force in the partnership.  In an article written for the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide on August 5, 1916, he explained his concept. “Owners of real estate have realized that in order to obtain the desirable class of tenants, old buildings must be remodeled artistically and efficiently in order to meet the requirements of the ‘artist colony’ which has been firmly established in the district.”

By 1918 the Pepe & Brother had ventured to the east side of Fifth Avenue.  They remodeled No. 121 East 17th Street to artists’ studios, and on November 30, 1918 The Sun reported that the brothers had leased a studio to playwright and poet Percy MacKaye.

MacKaye was already well-established in American theater when he took the studio; having already written the plays The Canterbury Pilgrims in 1903; Sappho and Phaon and Jeanne D’Arc, in 1907; perhaps his most famous work, The Scarecrow, in 1908; and Anti-Matrimony in 1910.

When the editor of Books and The Book World compared British literary artists with Americans, The Sun’s editorial team answered bluntly.  Asked to name “Recent American dramatists fairly comparable with Shaw, Barker, Yeats, Synge, Gregory, Dunsany, Irvine, Galsworthy,” they replied on August 18, 1918:

“The correct highbrow thing to do would be to answer: ‘We name Percy MacKaye, Percy MacKaye, Percy MacKaye, Percy MacKaye, Percy MacKaye, Percy MacKaye, Percy MacKaye, Percy MacKaye.”

While living and working at No. 121 East 17th Street MacKaye collaborated with Reginald De Koven on the three-act folk opera Rip Van Winkle, which was produced in 1919.

The quaint little building was briefly leased by the German Masonic Temple Association in 1933; but was converted in 1935 by architect Alfred A. Tearle into a two-story restaurant.  It was home in the first years of the 21st century to publishing firm Fletcher & Parry “The Carriage House.”

Renovated once again to a two-story restaurant, the charming brick building survives; a relic of the days when Union Square was girded with fashionable mansions and the horses and carriages of Manhattan’s wealthy were housed in style.

photographs by the author

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Elizabeth Home for Girls -- No. 307 East 12th Street

The unmarried Elizabeth Davenport Wheeler had dedicated her relatively-short life to the betterment of the poor.  When she died on May 3, 1890, she was the manager of the Society for the Relief of Half-Orphan and Destitute Children.

In her memory, her widowed mother and two sisters purchased the former home of the recently deceased William Bigley, at No. 307 East 12th Street.  The women donated it to the Children’s Aid Society, with the stipulation that it be used as the site of a girl’s shelter—the Elizabeth Home for Girls—which they would also pay for.

The Children’s Aid Society had been founded by Charles Loring Brace along with a few other concerned men in 1853.  Brace had been, according to King’s Handbook of New York City, “engaged in teaching some of the little arabs of the streets.”  The Society was incorporated in 1856 “for the education of the poor by gathering children who attend no schools into its industrial schools, caring and providing for children in lodging houses, and procuring houses for them in the rural districts and in the West.”

The lofty goals of the Society were clearly laid out in an address in 1857 by the group’s secretary:

 “How many idle hands will be made useful, how many petty thieves become industrious laborers, how many vagabonds turned into steady householders; how many vagrants, how many robbers, how many housebreakers, how many despairing girls and vile women, how much laziness, how much vice, how much crime, how much poverty and hunger will be saved to society in this number!  What friends to temperance there will be among these; what haters of vice, what lovers of good order and virtue, what virtuous women and strong men, who will remember the ‘pit’ in our cities from which ‘they were dug!’"

 As the Society had done for its eleven earlier structures--lodging houses and industrial schools—it commissioned the architectural firm of Vaux & Radford to design the Elizabeth Home.  It seems that Calvert Vaux, best known for his co-designing of Central Park, was the leading hand in the designs.

Construction began in 1891 and was completed in December the following year.  Like Vaux’s other Children’s Aid Society buildings, it was a blend of Victorian Gothic and Flemish Revival.  Its asymmetrical red brick fa├žade featured a multi-paned arched opening nestled deeply with the hefty stone balcony that sprouted over the entrance, a prominent stepped gable and two charming dormers with copper hoods.

Upon the formal opening of the home on December 13, 1892, The New York Times noted “The handsome structure was designed as a home and training school for destitute girls, and is well adapted to the needs of the inmates.”  In the basement were two dining rooms, the kitchen, the girl’s laundry and drying room, “together with a large ironing, washing, and drying room for custom work, two bathrooms and closets.”

The goals of the home were evidenced not only in the laundry rooms downstairs, but in the “typewriting and sewing-machine” classrooms on the first floor.  On this level were also the office, a reading room, a waiting room for applicants and “fitting room for the dressmaking department.”

Even on the upper floors where the dormitories and bedrooms were located, the girls were not far from instructional areas.  On the third floor was the dressmaking workroom.   The roof space was not overlooked, either.   The Times said it was “so arranged as to be available for gardening purposes or as a lounging place on Summer evenings.”
The girls who would take up residence in the Elizabeth Home for Girls were under the close scrutiny of the matrons and Superintendent Elizabeth S. Hurley.  Mrs. Hurley, whose physician husband was killed in the Civil War, had worked for the Society since 1855 on East 40th Street in the “shanty district” then known as Dutch Hill.  The Times noted that she was given the supervision of the Elizabeth Home because of “her skill in training unruly girls and her sympathy with and affection for her charges.”

The often street-wise and difficult girls received no free rides.  In the year prior to the Home’s opening 22 girls had been training in dressmaking, 99 learned to use sewing machines, two dozen were trained in the laundry and 35 “in housework.  The New York Times reported that “108 had been sent to situations, 28 to employment, 44 returned to friends, and 4 to various institutions.”   The distinction between “situations” and “employment” was not explained, nor was the meaning of “various institutions.”

During the dedication ceremonies two society women spoke on the areas they felt were most important in molding the girls.  Mrs. Bainbridge “made a plea for spiritual training;” while Grace Dodge argued that the “geometry and physiology of dressmaking” and the “methods and management of the housewife” were prime essentials.

Residency in the Elizabeth Home for Girls was not intended to be anything but temporary.  A few years later, in 1902, Children’s Aid Society agent R. L. Neill commented that the Home was “used only until a child is fitted to become a member of a private family and until a suitable home for it presents itself.”  Becoming a “member of a private family,” of course, meant finding a job as a servant.

Wealthy New Yorkers paid for Thanksgivings and Christmases at the Society homes.  In most cases a single family chose its favorite location and annually donated the funds.  In the case of the Elizabeth Home, it was millionaire W. Bayard Cutting who year after year provided Thanksgiving feasts.

For girls who rarely received small gifts or tasted gravy, Christmas was a special day.   The day after Christmas in 1897 The Times described the holiday in the Home.   The girls, it said, “assembled early in the evening, and until supper was served they spent the time in singing Christmas carols, and when they marched into the dining hall and saw the long rows of tables covered with snow white cloths, and smelled the aroma from the well-prepared dishes, giggles and exclamations of ‘Oh, isn’t this just too lovely for anything,’ were heard all along the line.  Then after grace had been said, the clatter of knives and forks and merry conversation began.  After supper there was more singing.”

In 1901 the success of the Elizabeth Home was praised by the New-York Tribune.  “The present commodious building on Twelfth-st. has accommodations for fifty inmates, and is usually well filled.  It is well equipped with rooms for sewing and cooking lessons, a flourishing laundry, where girls may receive thorough and practical training, and pleasant rooms for evening classes in the rudimentary English subjects.”  The newspaper added “Intended from the first for the purpose of affording shelter to girls under eighteen years whose means of livelihood are precarious, it is always open to respectable girls.”

On August 14, 1901, the Tribune reported that the building next door had been purchased as an annex.  The newspaper explained that more space was needed to house “a larger number of homeless and orphan children.”

The girls in the laundry did their work in the Home; while as the other girls became proficient they were sent out into the city to work in, for instance, dressmaker shops where “meager wages are paid.”

Girls still under training lived in the Home at no charge.  Once they earned wages, they paid $1.50 per week for their “comfortable bed in the dormitory,” as described by the New-York Tribune.  The annex allowed the Elizabeth Home to accept temporary residents who were not rescued off the streets.   Young women looking for work in the city could rent a bed at 10 cents a night and receive meals for six cents.   A few lucky working girls were housed here as well.  The newspaper noted “Six small rooms, daintily furnished, are rented to those obtaining fairly good wages for $1.50 a week.”

By 1906 even the girls receiving training were asked to pay for their board.   The Department of Social Welfare’s annual report that year noted “Homeless girls are received and are expected to pay five cents each for meals and lodgings; but no one is refused shelter or food because of inability to pay.”  There had been 324 girls cared for that year, and the Home was just breaking even.  The report said the receipts were $10,942.05 and the expenses were, to the penny, the same.

After serving the Children’s Aid Society for 55 years, the 84-year old Elizabeth S. Hurley died of a heart attack in the Elizabeth Home in November 1909.  She had cared for as many as 20,000 girls and it was estimated that every year she had sent about 300 of them to various positions.  Officers of the Society announced that her influence and training were responsible “for the fact that 12,000 women have led useful lives who might otherwise have gone to evil ways.”

Elizabeth’s funeral was held in the Home on the night of November 17, 1909.  Coincidentally, above her obituary in the New-York Tribune was that of Charles N. Crittenton, “widely known as the millionaire founder of the Florence Crittenton Rescue Home for Girls.”  The two institutions would cross paths on East 12th Street within a few decades.

One of the working girls who found lodging in the Elizabeth Home for Girls in 1911 was Gertrude Williams.  She had come from Birmingham, Alabama and found work in New York as a cashier in an uptown restaurant.  She was keen to the evils of the city facing a single working girl and had no intentions of being accosted by a wolf.

She was on her way to work on the evening of April 25.  When she exited the subway at Times Square and headed down Broadway, she was aware that a man had followed her.  As she reached 39th Street she was uncomfortable enough to turn back.

Charles Stewart, described by The Times as “a dapper-looking Englishman,” said “hello!”  That was the last straw for Gertrude Williams and she slapped his face, causing his hat to fall off.  As he bent over to pick it up, a policeman nearby arrested him.

Stewart explained to the court that he had mistaken Gertrude for someone else.  “You know, Judge, it is very easy to be mistaken for some one else in this country.  Why, a woman stopped me in Fifth Avenue the other day and said she thought I was a friend.  I didn’t have her arrested.”

The judge replied “I should think not.”  Nevertheless, he did not accept Stewart’s excuse for assaulting Gertrude with a too-familiar “hello.”  “I’ll fine you $10.”

The ordeal was all too much for Gertrude.  “As Miss Williams left the court room she fainted,” reported The Times.  “She was taken to an ante room and revived.”

The Children’s Aid Society operated the Elizabeth Home for Girls until 1930.  The building was sold to Benedict (who also went by Benjamin and Benard) Lust who opened his American School of Naturopathy and Chiropractic here. Lust had purchased the word “naturopathy” from Dr. John Scheel to promote his approach to healing by the power of nature. 

His sometimes quackish medical practices included his “water cures,” one of which included standing under a running shower for eight hours without eating.  Ardently against the use of drugs, he had written the Universal Naturopathic Encyclopedia and published Nature’s Path magazine.  He also espoused the Indian concepts of Ayurveda and Yoga.

Lust’s practices did not always sit well with the law.  In 1935 he and the school’s dean, Sinai Gershanek, and its secretary, Mark B. Thompson, were led out of No. 307 East 12th Street by police.  They were charged with “unlawful granting of degrees in chiropractic.”

On November 1, 1946 the building once again became a home for homeless or troubled girls.  Two hundred persons attended the opening of the Florence Crittenton League’s Barrett House.  The shelter would house girls between 16 and 21 years old, “some of them runaways, some under the jurisdiction of the Juvenile Aid Bureau of the courts, others detained as witnesses” while trained workers “arrange for their future,” said The Times.   The newspaper described it as “designed and equipped essentially as a home, with colorful, comfortably furnished rooms.”

The Florence Crittenton League’s Barrett House remained here for decades; but the troubled girls proved more unruly those supervised by Elizabeth Hurley at the turn of the century.  On July 12, 1980 The Times reported that neighbors “say they have lost patience with the noise, violent behavior and sexual activity inside and outside.”   Even the residents and “house parents” had to admit there was a problem with some uncontrollable girls.  The newspaper said “the house parents and girls said many of the residents were lesbians” and “there were many complaints among the girls of cursing, stealing by their housemates” and even “hitting staff members.”

House parent Mary Bradley assured “But there is something good here, and there are plenty opportunities for the girls.  They just have to want it.”  Nevertheless, she admitted “A girl comes in here confused and leaves worse off in terms of respect for herself.”

Frustrated neighbors would not have to contend with the problem much longer.  In 1983 the building was converted to co-operative apartments.  While the original interiors were essentially gutted; the exterior of Vaux & Radford’s Elizabeth Home for Girls is largely untouched.

photographs by the author

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Lost Church of the Messiah - Park Avenue and 34th Street

The church sat sideways on Park Avenue, opening on to 34th Street.  A trolley car emerges from the Park Avenue tunnel around 1890 below a neighborhood still lined with mansions.  photograph by Langill & Bodfish, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&VBID=24UAYW4KOQ2P&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=623

When a meeting of the vestrymen of the first Society of the Unitarian Church on March 19, 1825 resulted in a decision to build at new church, the $6,000 needed to buy three building lots was only one of the congregation’s problems.   Manhattan’s social and political leaders were mostly Episcopalian and their religious tolerance was slim.

Decades later, on March 15, 1875, The New York Times would remember “The disfavor in which Unitarianism was held at the commencement of the century, a disfavor which did not desert it until the last generation, and traces of which are not wanting even at the present day, was a heavy obstacle in the path of the early Unitarian societies.”

The Second Congregational Church in New York, which would become better known as the Church of the Messiah, endured; moving twice before finding a permanent home.  The first church, a Greek Revival structure at Mercer and Prince Streets, was completed in 1825 and burned a few years later.  The congregation moved to 728-730 Broadway in 1839; but as the neighborhood changed from an upscale residential area to one of entertainment and commerce, the church relocated once more.

In 1866 the trustees commissioned German-born architect Carl Pfeiffer to design a new structure on Park Avenue at the northwest corner of 34th Street.  The 30-year old Pfeiffer had been in New York only two years, having lived in the West for several years.   His Church of the Messiah would draw attention.

On November 3, 1866 the cornerstone was laid “with appropriate ceremonies,” according to The New York Times.  Within the stone were a copy of the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, a piece of the Trans-Atlantic cable, coins, medals and photographs, copies of New York newspapers and a brass plate inscribed with a brief history of the church.

The Times announced that “The architecture will be of the style known as the German Round Gothic or Rhenish, which was much in vogue during the eleventh and twelfth centuries.”  The newspaper noted “The English Cathedrals of Peterboro, Norwich, Chichester and Durham assimilate to this style.”

The Times also commented on the site, disagreeing with some who considered it to be rather far uptown.  “The location for the new church is one of the finest in the City, and if the plans are fully carried out the edifice will be one of the ornaments of the metropolis.”

The Murray Hill area was seeing the continued construction of lavish mansions as the city’s wealthy inched uptown.  The building was completed in April 1868 at a cost of $100,000—in the neighborhood of $2.5 million in 2015.  As Pfeiffer had promised reporters, it was generally Romanesque with splashes of Gothic Revival in the buttresses and spiky finials, along with modern touches like mansard roofs.   The blend of styles prompt some modern historians to tag it Victorian Romanesque.

The sanctuary could seat 1,294 worshipers.  Three hundred, sixty-six of those were in the galleries which were supported on brackets which did away with sight-blocking columns.  The entrance, which faced 34th Street, was entered through a complex stone porch, over which was a 14-foot rose window.

sketch from Munsey's Magazine, March 1893 (copyright expired)

In reporting on the consecration services, which took place during a rainstorm on April 2, The Times noted “The church, for the first time lighted up, was very imposing in appearance.  Long rows of gas jets extended underneath the arched roof the entire length of the church on either side, flooding the whole interior with light mellowed by its distance.”

Critics, at first, praised the brick and stone structure.  Appleton’s Hand-book of American Travel called it “a little gem as a piece of architecture,” and the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide deemed it a “handsome Byzantine edifice.”  As tastes and architectural fashions changed, so would opinions on Pfeiffer’s design.

But in the meantime the Rev. George H. Hepworth took the pulpit as permanent pastor on the first Sunday in October 1869.  The views of the Unitarian Church had caused unease among traditional New York worshipers for decades; and Hepworth would contribute with his unexpected opinions.

While other priests and ministers railed against the theater, card playing, and non-industrious frivolity; Hepworth preached about “Amusements” in his sermon on March 19, 1871.  Citing Proverbs, he started out “A merry heart doeth good as a medicine.”  Before getting into the subject, however, he cautioned his congregation that “he might say some things which would not entirely accord with the preconceived notions of many, or the teachings of the pulpit during the twenty years.”

The pastor lamented the American devotion to work.  “The life of a merchant is as near like a horse in a treadmill as can be, and the result is that he is prematurely old…Americans are the most serious-looking and serious-acting people in the world…What Americans need is more amusement, innocent, healthful amusement.”

While Hepworth condemned some pursuits—like billiard parlors and gambling—he scoffed at other clergy’s obsession with harmless fun.  Regarding the theater, he said he “would say if their consciences told them it did them harm, then let none go, but if they felt otherwise, let them enjoy it, and seek to elevate its tone.”  He said he would never prevent his own children from playing a game of cards at home, or from dancing.  “To do either with respectable people could not injure them.”

Hepworth suggested that if he could convince some of the old men in the congregation to play a game of baseball with him, “he would add ten years to their life.”

The Rev. George H. Hepworth’s unorthodox and somewhat shocking views would set the standard for preachers at the Church of the Messiah for decades to come.  But they would also result in his removal from the church.

Hepworth eventually came to the realization that his personal views on religion did not align well with the concepts of the Unitarian Church.  On Friday, December 29, 1871 he sent a letter of resignation to John Babcock, President of the Trustees, explaining that he had become “irreconciled to many of the methods and tenets of Unitarianism.”

Instead of an acceptance of his resignation, Hepworth received a letter the following day telling him he was summarily fired.  Babcock added that since a replacement preacher could not be found in one day, that he would appreciate Hepworth's officiating at services for which he would be paid for his trouble.

The New York Times reported “This letter Mr. Hepworth declined undignified, and considered himself aggrieved at the treatment he received.”

A maelstrom of gossip, scandal and upheaval swept through the congregation and on Sunday the church was packed with members who expected a scene.  And they got what they came for.  The Times summed it up saying “A scene of an unusual character was expected, and the anticipation was fully realized.”

As women wept in their pews, Rev. Hepworth did not deliver a sermon as such, but told the congregation why he had decided to resign and about the letter from Babcock.  When he got to the part about being paid for his services that day, the members were shocked.  It “was censured as an unmerited insult,” said the newspaper.

At one point John Babcock rose from his seat and declared his personal friendship for Hepworth.  “He had loved and visited and served him, and did all in his power to gain his sympathy, love and affection,” the newspaper related.  He suggested that the minister “wanted possession of the church for the purpose of introducing orthodoxies into it.”  The congregation replied with loud hisses.

It would be seven years before the church had another long-term pastor in the form of Rev. Robert Collyer.  The minister was located in Chicago, where he had rebuilt his Unity Church after it burned in the 1871 Chicago Fire.  Rumors in June 1879 hinted that he may consider coming to New York despite his ties to Chicago, due of his wife’s delicate health.

The personable minster was familiarly called the Blacksmith Preacher.  Munsey’s Magazine, in March 1893, explained.  “Mr. Collyer’s career has been as striking as is his personality.  He was the son of a country blacksmith in the north of England, whose death forced him to go to work for a living when he was only eight years old.  First six years he toiled in a Yorkshire linen mill; then he was apprenticed at his father’s trade, and grew to manhood as a journeyman blacksmith.”

He came to the United States at the age of 27, working as a blacksmith at Shoemakerstown, near Philadelphia.  But the call to the ministry led him to preach as the local Methodist minister.  Munsey’s wrote “Then in 1859 he was charged with heresy, and the Conference refused to renew his license.  He had abandoned the doctrine of the Trinity.”  Perhaps even without knowing it, he had embraced Unitarianism, which holds that God exists in one person and not three.

The joy of the congregation of the Church of the Messiah over Collyer’s acceptance of the position was doubled by its emergence from debt that same year.  Donations finally erased the $125,000 the church had owed since the building’s completion more than ten years earlier. 

Rev. Robert Collyer -- Munsey's Magazine, March 1893 (copyright expired)

Somewhat surprisingly, when Robert Collyer preached his first sermon in October 1879 a writer from the Record and Guide was in the congregation.  He approved of the sermon and of the minister; but panned the structure.

The journalist said Collyer “is a man of fine presence, and has a charming manner, and will doubtless prove popular and useful in the sect to which he belongs.  As a trade journal, we have nothing to do with religion or sects, and only refer to the commencement of Mr. Collier’s [sic] ministry in this city, to point out some grave defects in our prevailing church architecture.”

The structure that the Record and Guide had earlier deemed “handsome” was now a “mistake.”  The anonymous writer used the Church of the Messiah as an example of American ecclesiastical architecture based on “religions conceptions which have come down to us from an idolatrous age.”

He said the spires were relics of “phallic worship” and that the configuration of churches were based on Greek antecedents—“not designed for speaking.  The great oblong temples were intended for sacrifice.”  His scathing critique continued saying that the Church of the Messiah “is a feeble imitation of an old heathen temple, and Mr. Collier’s [sic] genial, kindly, humbleness and pathetic utterances seems strangely out of place in a temple designed originally for the worship of Jupiter or Venus.”

The likable Rev. Collyer was still in the pulpit in 1893 when he celebrated his 70th birthday.  Like his predecessor, he scoffed at the strait-laced and overly-serious Victorian clergy; one journalist noting that he, “enjoys a joke, even in the pulpit.”

When Robert Collyer had arrived at the Church of the Messiah, it contained some stunning stained glass windows.  One, by Tiffany, represented the Spirit of Light Descending on the World of Darkness.  He added to them by donating two windows, one costing $2,000 and the other $8,000.  Following his death, a memorial window to Collyer was installed, executed by Frederic S. Lamb and representing John Wesley preaching to the miners.

He would be followed by another free-thinking minister, the Harvard-educated John Haynes Holmes.  In 1909 Holmes was a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and vigorously promoted social reform.  In 1912 he wrote The Revolutionary Function of the Modern Church.  His fervent interest in reform nearly caused a riot in the church when it hosted a meeting of unemployed workers in 1915.  A speech by a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, and rantings by an out-of-work man who declared unemployment caused him to “hate God, and hate you people and hate the churches and hate the Government” nearly ended in what The New York Times deemed “a row.”

In 1914, with the outbreak of war in Europe, Holmes made his opinions clear from the pulpit of the Church of the Messiah.  His sermons, starting in December that year, would have titles like “The Fallacies of Force,” “Is War Ever Justifiable,” and “Exemplars of Non-Resistance.”

On the Sunday before Christmas in 1914 he started his sermon by saying “Never before, perhaps, in the world’s history has humanity received so great a shock as that which came to it last summer on the sudden outbreak of the War of the Nations…Confident that he was at last civilized, man was all at once awakened to the discovery that he was still a barbarian.”

The minister’s pacifist ideology emanated from the pulpit as he decried military recruitment.  But his views eventually directly clashed with the rising patriotism after a German submarine sank the Cunard ocean liner RMS Lusitania, killing nearly 1,200 innocent civilians, including Americans.

In the spring of 1917 John Haynes Holmes was on the brink of dismissal from his position.  The United States was poised to enter the war and Holmes derided military service in his sermon on April 1.  His words touched off a firestorm of indignation and calls for his dismissal.

A special meeting of the board of trustees was held the following afternoon, during which he and the board came to an understanding.  The Sun reported “it was announced that while every member of the board differed with Dr. Holmes in the views he had expressed on Sunday, there is not the slightest intention of asking for his resignation.”

Holmes expressed a tempered viewpoint.  “If war comes no individual or group of individuals has the right to interfere with recruiting.  I withdrew from the anti-enlistment league after the sinking of the Lusitania and any one who goes to the front from my church will have my blessing.”

In 1918 the 34th Street facade of the church received at $17,000 remodeling, including the removal of the porch.  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library

Holmes drastic changes were most noticeable when he changed the name of the church in April 1919 to the Community Church of New York.   He announced “The church will be open to men of any color, creed, race or religion.  The Socialist and the capitalist will be equally welcome; the Catholic and the Confucian, too.”

He explained to the New-York Tribune a month later, “I have left Unitarianism—cut myself off from all denominational connection of every kind, that I may preach a universal humanistic religion which knows no bounds, not even Christianity.”

On the afternoon of September 11, 1919 the funeral of Horace Traubel, biographer of Walt Whitman, was scheduled to be held in the chapel.  About 50 mourners were assembled in the chapel, just behind the main church, at 3:30.  As pall bearers prepared to remove the body from the hearse, an usher shouted that the church was on fire.

Within minutes the blaze, which started in the organ loft, spread throughout the sanctuary.  A second, then a third, alarm was sent in.   The crowd gathering on Park Avenue was certain that the entire edifice would be destroyed.  A sexton, Charles Jackson, was able to rescue two oil paintings, records, books and Bibles.  John Haynes Holmes also tried to save valuable relics from the church, but the thick smoke and the danger of a roof collapse forced him back.

Firemen broke through the rose window to spray streams of water into the building.  Others smashed through the stained glass windows on the Park Avenue side.  The $20,000 organ crashed through the organ loft to the floor below.   Many of the stained glass windows were destroyed, including the Tiffany window and the two donated by Rev. Collyer.   Newspapers later reported that the ceiling and pews were totally destroyed.

Following the commotion, the funeral was moved to the Rand School of Social Science on East 15th Street.

The Sun took advantage of the reporting of the fire to air its feelings about the Rev. John Haynes Holmes, saying he “is noted for his radical tendencies.  In January of this year he threatened to quit unless it ceased to continue along the conventional lines of a Unitarian parish church.  Shortly after that he changed the name of the church to that which it now bears, ‘Community Church,’ and made it a non-sectarian organization.  Before the war, too, Dr. Holmes was the subject of much comment because of his pacifist tendencies.”

Holmes would retain his position until 1949—seeing another World War and the Great Depression.  On December 28, 1930, with the nation reeling, he preached “Everybody will be glad to get rid of 1930—the most dreadful year we have known since the close of the great war.  The one thing perfectly manifest in this past year is collapse—the progressive collapse of our political systems, our economic methods or international endeavors after peace.”

Shortly after this shot was taken in 1931 the church would be demolished -- from the collection of the New York Public Library
Six months later it was announced that the Community Church had leased the site of its building to the Roed Holding Corporation “where a twenty-six-story combination community house, church and hotel is being erected.”  Carl Pfeiffer’s stately church was replaced by an Art Deco high rise designed by Helmle, Corbett & Harrison which survives.

photograph by Beyond My Ken