The Saint of SoHo

Razing the Church of St. Alphonsus Liguori at 310 West Broadway, now the Soho Grand Hotel, Harry Pincus 1981

This amazing photo, part of a series of the razing of the Church of St. Alphonsus Liguori taken by artist Harry Pincus in 1981, tells many stories. It tells us that there used to be a church where the SoHo Grand Hotel is today. It reminds us that the twin towers once stood downtown until they didn’t. It is proof that West Broadway was once home to a community of German Catholics and then at some point became a victim of urban decay and that it is now an affluent street with a high-end hotel.

I asked Harry what he remembers about the church’s demolition:

I don’t remember much about the church, other than that the demolition was a terrible thing to see, and it went on for a while that summer. They also demolished a beautiful red brick rectory…. At the time, I assumed that the supposed structural deficiencies were a ruse for someone’s blatant real estate grab.

St. Alphonus photographed from 22 Wooster Street, Gene Epstein, 1979

I probably would have assumed the same thing. Yet the 1872 church was in fact slowly sinking into a streambed and had to be taken down for safety reasons. Artist Susan Fortgang tells me:

The church was torn down because it was sinking and there was no relevant congregation. No one could raise the money required to restore the foundation of the church an so the entire property was sold to Hartz Mountain (in 1988), who eventually built the hotel.  During that time we tried to stop the hotel, but we were not successful.  Sadly, religious institutions, many of which are a part of New York history, are not automatically landmarked.

Rene Moncada pays homage to the statue from the Church of St. Alphonsus, Harry Pincus 1981

In another photo from the series, artist Rene Moncada pays homage to the salvaged statue. I asked Harry if he remembers anything about taking this photo:

As I recall, I just happened along, probably on my way to Pearl Paint on the day that the statue was being carted away. Rene was there with his hard hat, and was probably aware that I was taking pictures with my little pocket Olympus XA. It was a surreal scene.

Moncada, best known for his infamous “I Am The Best Artist” murals painted on walls all over downtown Manhattan remarked, “What is amazing is that the church was demolished without any protection structure surrounding it.  Anyone could go inside and take what they wanted, and many did!”

If you look in the background of the photo, you can see someone sifting through the rubble, and Moncada himself is wearing a hart hat, so one must wonder what he was doing there!

Rick Parker circles the cross he “saved” from the church in a photo taken when the elevated train ran down West Broadway

I recently spoke to someone else who more than sifted through that very same rubble. Artist and cartoonist Rick Parker risked life and limb to salvage the cross from the roof on the Thompson Street side of the building.

Parker writes on his blog, Autobiography of a Former Zygote:

There was a large wrought iron cross at the apex of the roof on the building’s west end. No doubt, it, too, would have been removed had Thompson Street not been too narrow for the wrecker and crane. The cross had probably been made by a German craftsman on a forge one cold Winter’s day during the Franco Prussian War and transported across the ocean in the hold of a merchant vessel. For the last hundred and ten years it had perched atop the upper story of the nave wall rising above the aisle roof, probably one hundred and fifty feet above the street. Only brave birds dared rest on its outstretched arms. I was determined to save it.

After climbing to the roof of the gutted church, Parker was able to lasso the five-foot-tall cross and somehow get it down to the street and into his studio on Grand Street.

A map of the park proposed by the Grand Canal Park Group

Once the wreckage of the church was removed, the lot remained vacant for close to fifteen years. In the early 1990’s, the Grand/Canal Park Group proposed making the land into a park. SoHo did not and still does not have any green space, and because the water table was just below its surface, a park, they argued, would be the best use of this site. The Group’s brochure includes a star-studded list of supporters, including Laurie Anderson, Eric Bogosian, Leo Castelli, Spalding Grey, Agnes Gund, Isaac Mizrahi, Meredith Monk, to name only a few.

A poster from the SOS: Save Our SoHo Exhibition

The Group also co-sponsored an art show called SOS: Save Our SoHo that also included a bunch of A-list supporters to raise money to fight development on the St. Alphonsus site as well as others.

Kay Powell, founding member of the SoHo Alliance, and friends protesting the proposed hotel, Gene Epstein 1990

In the end, the Grand Canal Park Group did not succeed in its mission. Hartz Mountain Industries, the company that purchased the lot from the archdiocese put forward plans to build a hotel, and hotels are as of right in the M1-5 zoning district that this part of SoHo is in. Community groups tried in vain to amend zoning regulations and to have the Landmarks Preservation Commission include the west side of West Broadway in the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District. It was the scale of the building, 15 stories amid the surrounding five-story buildings, that people most objected to, but also the additional traffic the hotel would create and the stress on the sewer system in an area not originally built for habitation.

The Soho Grand Hotel at 310 West Broadway, via Wikimedia Commons

The SoHo Grand Hotel, opened in 1996, was the first hotel to be built in the area now called SoHo in over 100 years, and only after 7 previous proposals had failed. Its scale was indeed out of proportion to its neighbors, but over the past 22 years, the SoHo Grand has been integrated into the landscape of the “new” SoHo as new construction has gone up in surrounding lots, including the SoHo Mews, just across the street at 311 West Broadway and The Dominick (formerly Trump SoHo) on Spring Street.

The statue rescued from the Church of St. Alphonsus, now located on Houston Street between Thompson and Sullivan, in St. Anthony’s church yard

If anyone is wondering what ever happened to the displaced statue of St. Alphonsus, it now resides on Houston Street between Thompson and Sullivan in the church yard of St. Anthony of Padua, safe and sound.

Tags: , , , ,

16 Responses to “The Saint of SoHo”

  1. SoHo Alliance Says:

    Hi,

    I never knew of a German community on W Bdwy. Are you sure?

    I have read that in the 19th c. it was home to blacks and trashy Irish, with lots of miscegenation going on. It was called Rotten Row.

    Today’s South Village, Thompson and Sullivan, near Spring also had a large African American community, and at least one Black and Tan bar on Soring St, where white women would consort with black men. I once saw a great lithograph of inside of one. Looked like fun, the dive bar to end all dive bars.

    But those shanties were torn down in the late 19th c to make way for today’s tenement bldgs, which Italians moved into as the blacks were displaced.

    Sean ps. found that lithograph http://gvshp.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/st-aa-1870-census.png

    Sean Sweeney Executive Director SoHo Alliance sohoalliance.org 212-353-8466 info@sohoalliance.org

    >

  2. Nim Macfadyen Says:

    One of my earliest memories of my post-youth period in Soho / Tribeca. Wandering home after closing Fanelli’s and passing the Saint, lit by a lone street lamp, rising from the rubble, a lone cop standing a few paces away, his silent guardian.

  3. richardlowellparker Says:

    I think it’s worth mentioning that were it not for the concern of a life-long resident of the Italian-American neighborhood and a senior citizen by the name of Johnny Pepe, that the statue would have probably been sold off to a private collector. When he realized the statue was gone and had been transported to Urban Archeology on Spring street, he rallied neighborhood residents (“They stole my Saint!”)… and we stormed the place and demanded the statue’s return. In the face of such an impromptu mob, the business owner had little choice but to accede to Johnny’s wishes. I will always refer to it as “Johnny’s Saint.”

  4. SoHo Memory Project Says:

    Yes, thank you Johnny Pepe! And thank you Rick!

  5. Zoé Says:

    I worked in TriBeCa in the summer of 1981 when I lived on East First Street. Since it took longer to walk to & wait for & walk from the trains; I would walk back & forth via W.Broadway everyday.

    When I first saw the Church the front portion had been demolished; so that a beautiful painted mural remained visible from the street. I was really really sad that this exquisitely painted sacred work that some artist had toiled away at was to be lost forever.

    I could not understand why something so beautiful & historic was being destroyed. I too also suspected that it was only being torn down because of real estate acquisition & gentrification.

    It was only recently that I read about the sinking foundation. I recall reading that the ground underneath had been landfill; like so much of NY – especially that far downtown.

    So I’m glad that Harry Pincus took these historically valuable photos in 1981. I wonder if he has any of the exposed mural from toward the end of the demolition?

    I remember Rene’s graffiti & Joe Pupello was a friend of mine about ten years prior to this S.O.S action & poster his name is listed in. (He was really young when I knew him; long before he became involved w/ his community gardens/green spaces projects).

    I hadn’t known that there was a German Catholic community down that far; but it’s not surprising given the sheer numbers of German Americans – especially in NYC (& other large cities such as Chicago).

    My mum came here via the Red Cross as a DP; from Berlin after the Allied bombings. As others who have PTSD from war – she told a set of stories over & over. One of them was about the large statue of Christ that remained standing in the rubble of the completely pulverised Church in the center of Berlin. A Church that had been a special choice for beautiful weddings of Berliners. Many Berliners thought it was a miracle. (And my mum was raised Lutheran in the 20th c. – so not given to thinking many things were miracles).

    There is that German bank building (?) in Soho which is still there (forget it’s name & address) & the tiny Byzantine Catholic Russian Church which is still there w/ a small active parish. (Both of these are of course farther north in Soho). I imagine the latter had German Russians within its parish as well.

    Thank you so much for posting about this Church; as my greatest sadness everyday that I passed it was that it was being completely forgotten! xx

    • Nim Macfadyen Says:

      Thanks for mentioning that, Zoe. I also remember the apse and frescoes or paintings after the facade had been torn down, now that you mention it. And who could forget Renee I Am The Best Artist? ( he made it almost impossible to forget him!)

  6. SoHo Memory Project Says:

    Gone,…. but not forgotten!

  7. JamieTJensen Says:

    Reblogged this on HowCitiesWork.

  8. Elizabeth Shelley Says:

    I have very fond memories of West Broadway. My grandparents emigrated from Italy in the early 1900’s and eventually bought two buildings: 422 and 424 West Broadway. My grandfather had a machine shop at 424 West Broadway. They raised 6 children in a one bedroom apartment at 422. We went every Sunday for a big Italian dinner. They belonged to St. Anthony of Padua’s RC Church – my parents were married there, and my grandparents funerals were there when then passed in 1969 and 1972. I don’t ever remember hearing about St. Alphonsus Ligouri Church. Thank you for these lovely posts.

  9. SoHo Memory Project Says:

    And thank you for sharing your amazing story!

  10. Wayne Conti Says:

    I remember the church being torn down brick by brick, or, rather, chunk by chunk. The bricks just spread apart from each other in the air as another section of wall went down.
    As I recall, though, the reason the church was sinking was that it was standing on the landfill from the old canal that had been dug to drain the swamps further east; Canal Street itself was actually south of the canal. You could actually trace its course as there were parking lots and the old lumber yard spanning Soho at that same distance from Canal Street. Buildings didn’t fare well. Jim Dee, art photographer and Vietnam vet, bought a building that had managed to remain standing in it on Wooster, but he had to do a lot of shoring up because the middle of the building was sinking into the landfill.
    For a long time the statue was inside the old one story garage just to the north of the church. The statue was positioned by the windows on the most downtown part of the building and was turned to look slightly up the block. When people noticed at night the huge human form looking out towards them, they were startled.
    I didn’t know Harry carried a camera with him. I wonder what else he has.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: