A rendering of a new athletic-and-educational facility that the Spence School is building on East 90th Street. A remnant of a 1898 church that is part of the adjoining wall of the building at right (not visible here) will vanish from sight when the project is completed. Rendering courtesy of the Spence School
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
Indeed, the buyer, and then a second buyer 65 years after that, turned out to be deeply respectful of the structure’s ecclesiastical legacy.THE AUTO AND THE CONDO ENTER THE CHAPEL
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“When the new building is finished, the masonry wall will not be visible,” the school confirmed.
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.”
Community leaders are hoping for a creative solution:
“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.
“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.
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.
“An institution of learning should have the sensitivity to preserve something that’s irreplaceable,” she added.
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.
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.
“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.