Translation from English

Friday, July 26, 2013

Friends' Meeting House, now Synagogue, Gramercy Park

This is a great old architectural landmark from another era entirely..originally a Quaker meeting house and now a synagogue.

The last thing I remember reading about this place was when they made the conversion to a synagogue, which was ages ago.

Let me see if there is anything online..OOH...a really long piece from a website called " A Daytonian in Manhattan that is like a historical treatise..let me give you a good chunk of it, I don't think you would really want anything more.

The Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as the Quakers, fled to America in the 17th century seeking relief from religious persecution.  They were gravely disappointed.


New Amsterdam’s Governor Peter Stuyvestant unabashedly despised both Jews and Quakers.  In 1656 he forbade the citizens of the Village of Flushing to “admit, lodge or entertain…any one of the heretical and abominable sect called the Quakers.”  Quaker worship was outlawed and the sect was forced to meet in secret.

Tolerance slowly surfaced.  By 1681 Quakers were openly worshiping and in 1734 they were granted the same civil rights as other British subjects.  The Militia Act of 1755 exempted the pacifist group from serving in the military.

Ironically it would be dissention from within their ranks, rather than outside influences, that caused the worst problems in the first decades of the 19th century.  A religious fashion swept the nation’s cities that focused on intense study of the Bible.  Traditionally, the Quakers were more concerned with direct inspiration from God than academic Bible teachings.

A difference of religious opinion among the Religious Society of Friends rapidly grew from a crack into a gaping chasm.  One group, led by Elias Hicks of Long Island, stood fast with the traditional Quaker traditions.  Another was open to the new movement.  In 1828 the Society of Friends underwent a quiet and peaceful split, known as the Hicksite Schism.  There were now the Hicksite and Orthodox branches.

Quaker worship, both in liturgy and architecture, was notable for its simplicity and lack of show.  So the Orthodox branch's choice of location for a building lot in 1855 was, perhaps, a bit surprising.  The group purchased the plot at 28 Gramercy Square as the site of its new meeting house.

The Square was two decades old.  Ringing the landscaped park were the brick and brownstone mansions of some of New York’s wealthiest and most influential citizens.  The wide lot at the southeastern edge of the square would place the unassuming Quakers squarely amid the city’s most assuming population.

The land was purchased for $24,000—nearly half a million dollars today.   On it the Friends would erect a chaste two-story meeting house.   The congregation hired the architectural firm of King & Kellum to design the structure with the admonishment that the house have no “useless ornament so as not to wound the feelings of the most sensitive among us.”

John Kellum and Gamaliel King carefully followed that direction.   Construction began in 1857 and was completed two years later.   What resulted was an unsullied Italianate design clad in warm, yellow Ohio sandstone.   Often mistaken for Greek Revival, the meeting house rose to a dramatic peaked pediment, the end returns of which defined the slightly-projecting end bays.
photo by Alice Lum
The unpretentious but elegant structure exemplified William Wistar Comfort’s later description of a Quaker meeting house.  “The meeting house is not a consecrated edifice, and if there is anything holy about it, it must be the lives of the people who meet there.”

Here in the years just before the Civil War, slaves escaping to Canada were reportedly given shelter.

To the mostly Episcopalian population around Gramercy Park, the quiet gatherings in the meeting house—which had no formal ceremony nor designated minister—must have been alien.   Quaker services were marked by “expectant waiting.”  Friends entered in silence and sat wordlessly to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit.  Only when one was moved to speak or sing was the silence interrupted.  Intervals between were often lengthy, and it was possible that no one would speak at all.

Such was the case when The Sun described the funeral of attorney Richard H. Bowne here on May 6, 1881.

“The funeral was plain.  The hearse, followed by about a dozen carriages, arrived at the meeting house door at 4:30 P.M.  The coffin was of solid oak covered with black cloth.  On each side were three silver-bar handles.  On the lid was a floral sickle, crossing a golden sheaf of wheat.  There were no other flowers…After the coffin had been carried into the church there was an interval of silence.  Then the Rev. Mr. Donaldson of the Fort Washington Episcopal Church, where Mr. Bowne usually attended in the summer, read from one of St. Paul’s Epistles, and made some remarks in which he said that Mr. Bowne was one of the men who leave the world better for their having lived in it.  There was another prolonged interval during which no one spoke, after which Henry Dickenson, the minister of the Friends’ Society, offered prayer.  There was a pause, and Mr. Dickenson made an address.”

Thirty-five years before Bowne’s funeral another rift had occurred among the Quakers.  An annual meeting was held in the larger cities, drawing Quakers from far away.  At the time of the meetings it was customary for each city to send friendly letters to the other groups.

In 1846 the annual meeting in Philadelphia was “divided over the question of heresy,” according to The New York Times, and “through motives of policy failed to send to New York and other yearly meetings the usual epistles of brotherly love, exhortation, and admonition.”

The New York Orthodox branch felt snubbed and communication between the New York Friends and those of Philadelphia ceased.

Then during the annual meeting in May 1897, after half a century of simmering bitterness, the first letter from Philadelphia arrived.  The Gramercy Park congregation reacted with expected Quaker decorum and politeness.

Clerk James Woods explained to the assembly about the letter and “asked if the epistle should be read.”

“I feel that God will that we should hear it,” said Sister Ruth S. Murray.

Her pronouncement was met with “It is right to do so,” “I also,” and “It is well we should,” from throughout the hall.  The clerk passed the letter to Assistant Clerk David S. Tabor to read.   “It was filled with sound doctrine and exhortations to all to stand firm in the faith, and for the great cause of universal peace and good will,” reported The Times.

Now the problem was how to respond; or if to respond.  The letter had not been addressed specifically to the New York meeting, but to “all bodies and individuals known as of the Society of Friends.”

Some felt that the epistle, being general, needed no response.  Others felt it was time to heal old wounds.  “Then came a reaction,” said the newspaper.  “Pride came to the fore.  It was displayed chiefly among the older men, some of whom could remember the bitterness of fifty years ago.

“Again the apostles of peace gave voice to the spirit, but in all there was a delicate choice of words, an almost painful care not to hurt the feelings of another or even to seem antagonistic.  It was like a flutter in a dove cote, and yet at the last one elder characterized it as a ‘heated debate.’”

In a decision worthy of Solomon, the congregation agreed to note in the minutes “with what pleasure and benefit the epistle had been received,” and to send a copy to the clerk of the Philadelphia yearly meetings.  And with that small act half a century of bitterness was healed.

It would be another half century before the initial great rift among the Friends would be addressed.