Lost Saints of the Village
The Village is hallowed ground, and much like any sacred space, its landscape is marked by holy figures. For our neighborhoods, these figures are the architecture, and we even have our own “saints.” Yet, while these saints are often canonized in our memory, some of them have unfortunately left our temporal plane. With our fighting to save some of those like the former St. Denis Hotel right now, today we look back at some of the “lost” saints of the Village, as well as discuss a few more that are currently under threat.
Probably the most well-known of the Village Saints, St. Vincent’s Catholic Medical Center, was a Village fixture for 161 years before its closing in 2010. The hospital was founded in 1849 and was the third oldest hospital in New York City. One of the first institutions to address and treat HIV/AIDS, it became the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic in New York City. It was also the primary admitting hospital for those injured in the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center. Additionally, poet and notable Village resident Edna St. Vincent Millay received her middle name in honor of the hospital, which had saved the life of her uncle. Since the building’s closure, it was sold in 2011 and many of its newer buildings demolished by 2013 (GVSHP was able to at least successfully fight to preserve several of the older buildings and have them adaptively re-used, and reduce the size of the proposed condo development). In its place, multi-million dollar condominiums now stand.
On 12th Street, between 4th and 3rd Aves., sits the site of the former St. Ann’s Church. In late 2005, NYU announced plans to build this 26-story mega-dorm on the site of St. Ann’s Church, which they demolished that same year. Sadly, all that remains of the beautiful church is a freestanding shell of the 1848 church tower. The building that once stood behind it was built in 1870 to the designs of Napoleon LeBrun. You can read more about the loss of this beautiful house of worship, and other spaces lost to NYU (with even more shady preservation promises), here.
Though neither are yet demolished or altered, these two Saints are nevertheless at the center of specific development pressures in the neighborhood:
Completed in 1853 by architect James Renwick, the St. Denis Hotel stood at the corner of East 11th Street and Broadway. The property, which was owned by the Renwick family, had been given to them by their relative, Henry Brevoort, a successful farmer and prominent landowner during the late eighteenth century. The hotel was named after its first proprietor, Denis Julian, and its style was derived from Elizabethan and Renaissance models. It was said to be “one of the handsomest buildings on Broadway, occupying seventy-six feet on that thoroughfare and one hundred and twenty on Eleventh Street” by Miller’s New York as it Is, Or Stranger’s Guide-book to the Cities of New York, Brooklyn and Adjacent Places. Besides the Trinity building, which was demolished in 1853, the St. Denis was the first building in New York to utilize terra cotta as exterior architectural ornament. However, in the 20th Century, the hotel was converted into a modern store and office building and, during renovations, was stripped of its previous decorative front.
During its heyday, the St. Denis was located in what was considered an upscale shopping district or “the most fashionable part of Broadway.” It was patronized by many notable individuals, wealthy businessmen, theatrical superstars and Presidents. Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln often stayed there on their trips to New York. In May of 1877, the St. Denis was the site of Alexander Graham Bell’s first public demonstration of the telephone in New York. In 1917, after 64 years of operation, it was announced that the St. Denis would be closing its doors to make way for a loft building.
Recently, the St. Denis building has been in the center of our recent battles over the tech hub and neighborhood rezoning. You can read more about it here.
St. Veronica’s was built to accommodate the growing congregation of St. Joseph’s, as the Irish population of longshoreman who worked along the docks of the Hudson River grew. The parish was formed in 1887 by the Reverend John Fitzharris of St. Joseph’s Church with a collection by local parishes. Services began in a warehouse at the corner of Washington and Barrow Streets. The Irish congregation laid the cornerstone in 1890, but the final dedication would not be until 1903, owing to the limited financial means of the congregation’s working class parishioners. The church is named for named for Veronica, the woman who is credited with wiping the face of Jesus and is depicted on the 6th Station of the Cross.
The historic, Victorian-Gothic structure has long been a vital presence in the West Village; however as of last year the church has been slated to be closed. By the late 20th century St. Veronica’s had a significantly diverse makeup; many of its parishioners succumbed to the AIDS epidemic which devastated Greenwich Village in the 1980s and 1990s, and the church housed one of New York’s earliest AIDS memorials. In 2006, the parish of St. Veronica’s was officially closed, and St. Veronica’s became a chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe/St. Bernard’s on West 14th Street. Fortunately in 2006 GVSHP was also able to get St. Veronica’s Church and rectory and much of its surroundings in the Far West Village landmarked, as part of the first-ever extension of the Greenwich Village Historic District (map). This means these buildings are protected from demolition or even alteration without the approval of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.