Bibles Off Broadway
With the recent news that things are finally beginning to move with the city’s redevelopment of Astor Place, including pedestrianizing sections of Astor Place between Lafayette Street and Cooper Square and surrounding Tony Rosenthal’s Alamo cube sculpture with a plaza, we thought we’d take a look at the site of other big recent change to the landscape of the area. 51 Astor Place is the newly completed 13-story, 430,000-square-foot building designed by Fumihiko Maki that takes up the entire block between Third and Fourth Avenues, Astor Place and East 9th Street.
For many years the entire block on which the 51 Astor Place office building is located was occupied by a 1950s institutional building built and used by Cooper Union. But before 1957, the site housed one of the oldest commercial buildings in the city. It’s product? Bibles.
The additional information below is from a “Then & Now” post written by former GVSHP staffer Dana Schulz: Constructed in 1853, the Bible House was the office and printery of the American Bible Society. The Society was formed in 1816 by reform Christians. Their mission was to make the sacred text available to people of all backgrounds and they often accomplished this by undertaking huge canvasses across the nation. The first hotel bibles came from the Society, as did the first pocket bibles for soldiers during the Civil War. As early as 1818 the ABS had begun undertaking translations when they converted it into a Native American language. Their first permanent home came in 1822 at 72 Nassau Street, where they remained until relocating to Astor Place.
The erection of their stately Astor Place headquarters was financed by some of the city’s wealthiest residents. It was the first cast-iron framed structure in New York City. According to a 2003 New York Times article by Christopher Gray, the printing technology here allowed the ABS to produce three bibles a minute, 24 hours a day. By the end of their stay on Astor Place they printed 77,000,000 bibles in 200 languages. Thousands of Christian tourists visited the building each year and even Mark Twain explored it. In Christopher Gray’s article he credits the Bible House with being the catalyst that brought countless publishers into the Astor Place corridor, turning it into what was known as “Book Row.”
A 1956 New York Times article marking the demolition of the Bible House stated, “In World War II the Bible House was used as an induction center. It is estimated that more men went into the military service from that building that from any other in this city except Grand Central Palace.” After 1953 the building was vacant except for a few ground level stores. Cooper Union purchased the land, demolished the Bible House in 1956, and in 1957, finished construction of their new engineering building. The American Bible Society is still headquartered in New York City, but now resides at Broadway and West 61st Street.