The Newtown Pentacle

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A visit to Manhattan, in today’s post.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

For reasons that I’d rather not go into, one had several hours to kill recently while immersed in an elevated and overtly emotional state of mind. Wandering around First Avenue and its side streets, between 14th and 23rd street, happenstance carried me to 415 14th street where one may notice that the Church of the Immaculate Conception stands. The address once belonged to a Presbyrterian outfit that called itself “Grace Chapel” but after the construction of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village annihilated the Roman Catholic original “Immaculate Conception” across the street, the Catholics purchased the building and moved in. They’ve been here since 1946, I’m told.

from immaculateconception-nyc.org

In 1914, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company embarked on one of the most successful urban renewal projects in the history of New York City. It created Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town to address a projected housing shortage among returning World War II veterans. The Met, as it was known in those days, bought up block after block of the area between 14th and 23rd Streets, from First Avenue to Avenue C. Included in the purchases were Immaculate Conception Church, its rectory, convent and school buildings.

The Archdiocese of New York then purchased an Episcopal mission settlement, Grace Chapel, on the south side of 14th Street, East of First Avenue. It was renamed “Immaculate Conception.”

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Lower East Side, along with Harlem, barely resembles the neighborhood I remember from the 1980’s. This particular corner used to be a good place to die, or at least catch a scorching case of death, and there was a bit of a fortress mentality to the area back “in the day.” Junkies, addicts, and the whole crew of loathsome indigents who called the L line Subway station on 14th “HQ” used to pollute the sidewalks hereabouts. It was odd to see the gates to the church open, and a sign promised that there was a cloister back here, so I scuttled onto the property to take a look.

from wikipedia

A cloister (from Latin claustrum, “enclosure”) is an open space surrounded by covered walks or open galleries, with open arcades on the inner side, running along the walls of buildings and forming a quadrangle or garth. The attachment of a cloister to a cathedral or church, commonly against a warm southern flank, usually indicates that it is (or once was) part of a monastic foundation, “forming a continuous and solid architectural barrier… that effectively separates the world of the monks from that of the serfs and workmen, whose lives and works went on outside and around the cloister.”

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Unfortunately, the so called cloister seems to have converted over to a parking lot, so there wasn’t too much to see. There’s also a parochial school back here, and for some reason – unaccompanied middle aged men with cameras seem to set off alarm bells when the subject of school children comes up so I headed back out to 14th street. I did stop into the chapel, but there were bunches of adherents praying in there and I didn’t want to disturb their reverie or violate their privacy by taking photos.

It’s quite lovely in there, however.

from wikipedia

Stranger danger is the danger to children presented by strangers. The phrase stranger danger is intended to sum up the danger associated with adults whom children do not know. The phrase has found widespread usage and many children will hear it (or similar advice) during their childhood lives. Many books, films and public service announcements have been devoted to helping children remember this advice. The concept has been criticized for ignoring the fact that most child abductions and harm result not from strangers, but rather from someone the child knows.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

On the front of the church, there’s a public fountain. There aren’t many of these 19th century artifacts left in Manhattan – I can think of one in the west village and a couple down near the City Hall/Canal Street area that was once known as the Five Points, but it’s a rare thing to spot them anymore. I’m far more surprised that it survived the urban renewal period of the 40’s and 50’s than our current era of gentrification, actually. It’s more than likely that there used to be a common cup chained to the fountain, not unlike the one displayed in a period photo at ephemeralnewyork in the link below.

from ephemeralnewyork

This 1913 photo shows a boy at a public water fountain in Madison Square Park; he’s drinking from a common cup attached to a chain. Of course, no one today would ever drink from the same cup thousands of strangers also put their lips on. But back then, in pre-germ-awareness times, not everyone realized how unsanitary it was.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

I’m no metallurgist, but to me the fountain seems to be bronze. There’s a basin and two ornamental fishes, the latter were where the water was dispensed into the former. If you think its difficult finding a place to sit down or use a toilet in 21st century Manhattan, you couldn’t imagine how rough it would have been back in the late 19th century.

Back then, this part of the Shining City was a thriving immigrant neighborhood of tenements and small factories that extended to the East River. The other side of the street, where Stuyvesant Town currently squats, was once a slum called “The Gaslight district.” Amenities like this drinking fountain were acts of charity offered to the affected masses by the well off. On the masonry above it is the legend “Ho, everyone that thirsteth.”

from wikipedia

In 1842, one gas storage tank at East 23rd Street and the river was erected, quickly followed by the construction of other gas tanks, and by the late 19th century, the site of the complex had become known as the Gashouse District because of the many tanks that dominated the streetscapes. The tanks, which sometimes leaked, made the area undesirable, as did the Gas House Gang and other predators who operated in the area. With the construction of the FDR Drive, the area began to improve. By the 1930s, all but four tanks were gone and, while shabby, the area was no more blighted than many parts of the city after the years of the Great Depression; crime in the district had been endemic, however. When Alexander S. Williams was promoted to police captain and assigned to the area, he met the gangs’ violence with equal force of his own, putting together a brute squad that beat up gangsters with clubs. He commented: “There is more law at the end of a policeman’s nightstick than in a decision of the Supreme Court.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

At the base of the bronze fountain is a legend offering the birth and death dates for a person named “Fanny Garretson Russell.” I looked around the web for information on this inscription, which you’d think would be well documented due to its presence in Manhattan, but found nothing.

“OK” thought I, and utilizing some of my “find the hidden history of Queens” skills, I got to work-

Fanny was the grand daughter of Charles Handy Russell, of Providence Rhode Island. Russell’s father was a Major in the continental army during the American Revolution, and the family history goes all the way back to the Mayflower on one side and the founding of Woburn, Massachusetts in 1640 on the other.

Charles Handy Russell came to New York in the 1820’s, rising to a position of financial and political prominence. Russell was a railroad man, the President of the Bank of Commerce, dabbled in maritime insurance, was part of the original board of directors in charge of Central Park, and a husband to Caroline Howland. The couple had children: Charles Howland Russell – who was the Private Secretary of the United States Secretary of State during the administration of President Hayes, and Samuel Howland Russell were amongst them.

Samuel, a mining engineer who graduated from Columbia University, married Elizabeth Watts Garretson in June of 1884. Their first daughter was named Fanny, who died on the 23rd of August in 1894. This fountain’s dedication is to her.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

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  1. […] while enduring an excruciating interval in Manhattan’s Gas Light district, a neat relic of tenement New York at a Church on 14th and 1st was […]


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