Like a Tree With Many Rings, a Building With Many Lives
By JENNIFER BLEYER
Demolition of the old Church of All Nations on Houston Street, which is being torn down to make way for a 209-unit apartment building as part of the new Avalon Chrystie Place development, began quietly last week. After all, the church has lain nearly vacant for more than a decade.
But in fact the structure has a rich history, one that is full of sinners and saints, of jazz and rooftop baseball. It has been the subject of a doctoral dissertation by a Union Theological Seminary student and a documentary. As it dissolves into rubble, so will a century's worth of memories.
Although the church's official address was 9 Second Avenue, the hulking brick edifice with the distinctive caged roof was a creature of the Bowery, and its story is the story of that street.
At the end of the 19th century, the block the church stood on - bordered by Houston Street and First Street, Second Avenue and the Bowery - was a helter-skelter stand of buildings. Gambling parlors elbowed amusement halls, brothels and saloons. McGurk's Suicide Hall, where young prostitutes were said to have ended their misery, some with drugstore packets of carbolic acid, drew crowds on the block's western edge.
In 1904, the Methodists opened Wesley Rescue Hall on the site as a haven for hard-luck fellows who might accept a few words of Bible along with a bed. In 1922, that building was razed and replaced by the Church of All Nations chapel and neighborhood house.
The complex was a splendid place, with a gym, an assembly hall, classrooms, dorms, a swimming pool and a rooftop playing field. The church sponsored programs of wholesome entertainment to counter the vice that raged outside its walls. Local gangs like the Delmont Club, comprising mostly young Jewish and Italian taxi drivers, were allowed to use the pool and the gym as incentive to stay out of trouble. People packed the assembly hall by the hundreds to hear free talks about matters of the day, like psychic phenomena or the Ku Klux Klan.
During the Depression, government food tickets were handed out in the church's halls. On boiling summer days, boys played baseball on the roof, and neighbors climbed to the tops of their tenements to watch them. Once, a man became so excited by a game, he toppled over into the street.
As the neighborhood changed, the church fell on hard times. By the early 70's, a local gang sought to take control of the building, and in 1975, the church retreated to a smaller building on St. Marks Place, relinquishing control of 9 Second Avenue to the city, which leased it to a community group called Cuando.
Thus began the building's second life, as a raffish center for East Village artists. "People who loved it, loved it," said Patricia Nicholson Parker, a dancer who produced experimental jazz festivals there in the 80's. Plexus, an international artists' organization, put on a show using every room in the building. Flowering cherries and magnolia hugged the building's southern wall, where the Liz Christy Bowery-Houston community garden was tended. A samba band rehearsed on the roof, and the Beastie Boys frequented parties there that had become a fixture of New York's fledgling hip-hop scene.
But Cuando suffered from managerial missteps and was evicted by 1990. The only tenant that remained in a regular capacity was Sifu Jai, a kung fu master who turned the fourth-floor gym into a Taoist temple. There was no heat in the winter; he taught his students kung fu by candlelight, under veils of incense smoke. He was evicted in 2002.
When complete, the new Avalon Chrystie Place (named after Avalon Bay, the developer, and Chrystie Street) will have four buildings, including a nine-story property on the site of the Church of All Nations. But as the old church and neighborhood house are resigned to Bowery history, some are still sad to see it go.
"Architecturally, it's really nothing special," said Michael Schiller, who is making the documentary about the church. Enchanted by its ghostly presence, he started work in 1996 and hopes to be finished by the fall. But, he added, "It has the magical feel of a place that retained the energy of everything that happened there."