The “Ghostly Remnant” of St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum on East 90th Street

The “Ghostly Remnant” of St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum on East 90th Street
 
A monumental vestige of the Chapel of St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum at 402 East 90th Street, viewed from the lot where the Spence School is set to construct a new athletic facility. Once completed, this facade will permanently be obscured. Photo: Sarah Greig Photography/FRIENDS of the Upper East Side
In “The Ghostly Remnant,” published yesterday in Our Town, journalist Douglas Feiden explores the curious development history of an apartment building on East 90th Street that bears the uniquely preserved facade of the Chapel of St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum. The asylum’s campus occupied the land once owned by 19th Century stock broker and banker Nathaniel Prime, whose mansion remained on the block until roughly 1918. The chapel, constructed in the early 20th century, was later repurposed as an auto garage before its conversion to an apartment in the 1980’s. This remnant is set to be covered by the construction of the Spence School’s new athletic facility, to be completed in 2020.
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FRIENDS of the Upper East Side has been thoroughly documenting the cultural and architectural history of this block, and of this fascinating relic at 402 East 90th Street. As part of a former waterfront estate turned religious institution that served the civic, social, and religious needs of the German immigrant community, this site closely tracks the history of Yorkville that FRIENDS has long been dedicated to uncovering. This exquisite facade is one of the last surviving — and indeed the most striking — fragments of this particular strain of Yorkville’s history and it deserves to be remembered and celebrated. To learn more about the neighborhood, click HERE to view FRIENDS’ recent documentary or purchase our book, both called Shaped by Immigrants: A History of Yorkville.
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Scroll down to read the text of the article or click HERE to find the full article in Our Town.
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The Nathanial Prime Mansion during the Asylum years in 1907.
Photo: New York Historical Society

The Ghostly Remnant

“It’s a fascinating piece of history. It’s curious and stunning that it survived. And it should not be covered up.” Father Boniface Ramsey, pastor of St. Joseph’s Church. Photo: Sarah Greig Photography/FRIENDS of the Upper East Side.
Or how a 19th-century UES church popped up in all its majesty when a private school razed an old parking garage – and why its resurrection could prove fleeting
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A monumental and long-forgotten Yorkville treasure has resurfaced from out of the past on a quiet crosstown block on East 90th Street – but it is quickly expected to disappear from sight.
Upper East Siders wishing to glory in its grandeur and other-worldliness must not tarry: At an unspecified date, later this year or in 2020, it is set to vanish – perhaps for generations, perhaps indefinitely.
If and when that happens, the last vestige of an historic superblock that once offered meals and housing and schooling and Catholic discipline to impoverished orphans of German origin will be gone forever.
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This is a story about relics, religion and real estate. It’s about parking garages, preservation and a passion for lost causes.
Ultimately, it’s about the consequences of a property deal in 2011 between Hertz Rent-a-Car and the elite Spence School: At first, it fully restored a piece of the past to the Manhattan streetscape. But now, it is threatening to sever it for good.
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The object in question is an architectural remnant, a surviving fragment from an imposing neo-Classical, brick-and-stone church. Only a single element of the original superstructure still stands – its facade. But what a facade.
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It boasts exquisite ornamentation, detailed pediments, a circular rose window, decorative keystones that crown arched window openings and large Romanesque arches that once provided entry for prayer services.
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Hauntingly beautiful, those architectural remains are all that’s left of St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum, which was founded in 1857, ministered to thousands of abandoned children and owned and occupied the entire city block bounded by 89th and 90th Streets and First and York Avenues.
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It was on that sprawling campus that the orphanage in 1898 built a hall, or gathering place, for its young charges, an elaborate facility located at 402 East 90th St. that was apparently converted in 1907 to serve both orphans and local parishioners as St. Joseph’s main chapel.
As a sacred site, its reign would be brief. By 1918 – with the end of World War I in sight, and UES land values soaring in anticipation of waves of returning doughboys – the orphanage began to sell off its multiple institutional buildings to developers.
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Before long, one of Yorkville’s earliest munificent organizations had moved to Peekskill in Westchester County. But even though its chapel went out of business, it never left the block.
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“It would have been deconsecrated,” said Father Boniface Ramsey, the pastor of St. Joseph’s Church on East 87th Street, which was built in 1894 for a German-speaking parish founded in 1873 and still holds Civil War-era baptismal records from its affiliated orphanage.
The purchaser would have been chosen with great care, the priest said. “The Archdiocese wouldn’t sell it to someone who would turn it into a bordello,” he added.
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Indeed, the buyer, and then a second buyer 65 years after that, turned out to be deeply respectful of the structure’s ecclesiastical legacy.
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THE AUTO AND THE CONDO ENTER THE CHAPEL

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The first Model-T had rolled off Henry Ford’s assembly line in 1908, and a decade later, as the auto played an increasingly outsized role on city streets, plans were drawn up to remodel the church as a parking garage for 250 cars, a 1918 New York Times story reported.
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Opting to retain its facades, the new owner essentially inserted a two-story garage within the church’s nave and clerestory. Meanwhile, over the next 10-plus years, three other two-floor parking garages popped up on 90th Street between First and York.
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Flash forward to 1983: A new owner buys the chapel-cum-garage, adds several stories, converts it into a 12-story condominium. Once again, the entry facade survives and is embedded into the newly constructed building.
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“A curious decision was made to retain the east facade and incorporate it into the larger residential building, creating a flattened, almost trompe l’oeil effect when viewed from the street,” said Rachel Levy, the executive director of the Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, which is researching and documenting the site.
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Several church arches along 90th Street that once contained leaded windows became structural elements of the “boxy, simple 1980s facade of the building, creating a postmodern combination of old and new,” she said.
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For years, the view of the church’s primary facade, which rises about 65 to 70 feet in height, was truncated. Directly to its east, at 412 East 90th St., a neighboring garage, eventually purchased by Hertz, stood roughly 35- or 40-feet high, effectively masking the structure’s bottom half.
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Enter the prestigious Spence School. An all-girls, K-12, college-prep school with 751 students and tuition pegged at $52,050, its own history in the neighborhood runs deep: Founded in 1892, it moved to 91st Street in 1929.
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In Sept. 2011, Spence trustees paid $26 million to purchase the garage adjoining the church from Hertz Corp., property records show. Then last year, it demolished the structure – and lo and behold, for the first time in nearly a century, the full majesty of the church came into view.
Not for long. Spence late last year began excavation and foundation work for a 54,000-square-foot athletic complex on the site that will include a regulation-sized basketball court, nine squash courts, study centers, performing arts space and a greenhouse.
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The problem is that the six-story building will rise 85 feet and totally obscure the remnant wall of the old St. Joseph’s chapel.
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“The new Spence building at 412 East 90th St. will abut the brick-and-stone wall, but all primary structure is set back from the protruding elements of the remnant wall,” Spence said in a statement.
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“When the new building is finished, the masonry wall will not be visible,” the school confirmed.
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Father Ramsey thinks it should be saved, maintained and remain on view. “It’s a fascinating piece of history,” he said. “It’s curious and stunning that it survived. And it should not be covered up.”
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Community leaders are hoping for a creative solution:
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“I’m not one to force my interest in preservation on others,” said East Side City Council Member Ben Kallos, who represents the block and once lived in the condo building.
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“But I think it would be really cool if Spence chooses to put up a glass curtain wall so that students and others who use the facility can actually see this architectural feature on the side of the building,” he added.
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It’s a beautiful artifact of the past that can and should be saved, said Joan Geismar, an urban archeologist who once dug up a 92-foot, 18th-century merchant ship in lower Manhattan.
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“An institution of learning should have the sensitivity to preserve something that’s irreplaceable,” she added.
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Indeed, the object that will be “effectively erased” is “perhaps the last extant piece of this particular strain of Yorkville’s history,” Levy said.
“The neighborhood is changing left and right, and if the façade remnant could be retained in some way, it could be a great opportunity to illuminate some of our collective history,” she added.
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That history, encapsulated in the facade, speaks to all the children who survived the orphanage, said Kathy Jolowicz, who runs the Yorkville-Kleindeutschland Historical Society.
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“Their mothers tearfully gave them up as babies, and they became the ancestors of so many of the German-Americans who lived in the neighborhood,” she said.
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Rendering of the Spence School’s new athletic facility on East 90th Street. Rendering courtesy of the Spence School.

Extra! Extra! FRIENDS’ Fall 2018 Newsletter

Read all about it!

Click the image below to read all the latest news from FRIENDS
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INSIDE THIS ISSUE:
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FRIENDS on the
Front Lines Contesting Overdevelopment… pg. 2
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Shaped by Immigrants in Print and On Film!… pg. 3
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FRIENDS’ Thirty-Fifth Annual Meeting & Awards… pg. 5
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First Avenue Estate Update –
Is the Battle Finally Over?… pg. 7

There’s Still Time to Order Your Holiday Copy!

A book that celebrates the soul of our community.

“FRIENDS is delving into the boundless historical, cultural, architectural, mercantile and ecclesiastical treasures of Yorkville – at a time that heritage seems most in jeopardy.”

– Douglas Feiden, Our Town
 
Shaped by Immigrants is a richly illustrated and engaging history of one of New York City’s most fascinating immigrant communities. Since the book’s release last month, we’ve been thrilled by its reception, including  this glowing review by Douglas Feiden in Our Town.
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FRIENDS wants you to know that there is still time to place an order and have it delivered for the holidays.
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Proceeds from book sales directly support FRIENDS’ mission to preserve the architectural legacy, livability, and sense of place of the Upper East Side and be the leading voice for common sense development.
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Regular Price: $30
Current FRIENDS Member Price: $20
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2019 ANNUAL AWARDS Call for Entries

2019 ANNUAL AWARDS  
Call for Entries
– Deadline Monday, January 7th –  
2018 Distinctive Achievement Award: MTA Arts & Design: Second Avenue Subway Art 
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This spring, FRIENDS of the Upper East Side Historic Districts will celebrate outstanding achievement in preservation, architecture, and advocacy on the Upper East Side during our  36th Annual Meeting and Awards Ceremony.
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The award categories are flexible and can vary each year. Among other areas of accomplishment, previous winners  have demonstrated excellence in Restoration, Rehabilitation, Design, and Stewardship.  Individuals and advocacy groups who have displayed extraordinary achievement in the field of preservation are also eligible.
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FRIENDS seeks nominations for both architecture and advocacy. The awards committee will consider all submissions, large and small, that have furthered the cause of maintaining the special sense of place of the Upper East Side.

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 Please read our eligibility requirements below and submit nominations by  Monday January 7, 2019 .

Eligibility
  1. Projects must be located between 59th and 110th Streets, and between 5th Avenue and the East River, including Central Park.
  2. Projects must have been substantially completed between December 1, 2017 and December 1, 2018.
  3. Only the exteriors of architectural projects and/or historically significant interiors will be considered.
  4. Preservation projects should be for restoration, rehabilitation, or adaptive re-use of historic buildings (including Post World War II architecture). The buildings may be located either in or out of the historic districts.
  5. New construction is also eligible.
  6. Individuals or advocacy groups must have contributed to the preservation of the Upper East Side’s built environment.
Contact skamillatos@friends-ues.org for more information, 

or click here to download the nomination form.

The Perfect Gift For The Upper East Sider in Your Life

Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend.
Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”-Groucho Marx

With the holidays rapidly approaching, we think it is safe to say that Groucho Marx would have loved receiving this beautiful new book about the Yorkville Neighborhood.
 
You probably already know that FRIENDS of the Upper East Side is currently waging an urgent fight to save the beloved Marx Brothers Playground in Yorkville.
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Here is your chance to support FRIENDS by purchasing this perfect holiday gift for your personal Groucho… or for anyone who loves the Upper East Side!
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Shaped by Immigrants: A History of Yorkville is the richly illustrated story of the neighborhood’s development and its immigrant roots, featuring breathtaking archival images and dazzling contemporary photographs specially commissioned for the project.
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It describes the fascinating evolution of Yorkville in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a home to Czechoslovakian, German, Hungarian, Irish, and other immigrant groups. The lasting imprint of these groups is still visible in Yorkville’s historic architecture, and the buildings where they lived, worked, shopped, and prayed continue to define the neighborhood’s unique character.
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Regular Price: $30
Current FRIENDS Member Price: $20