Plans for a New York church in the 1870s
Immediately upon Fr. Nicholas Bjerring’s arrival in New York City in 1870, news spread that the Russian Church planned to construct a great temple in the city, on the corner of 51st Street and Lexington Avenue. This is from the Christian Advocate journal (6/29/1871):
A magnificent structure is about to be erected by the Russian government on Lexington Avenue for the devotions of the members of the Greek faith in this city and country. The designs will arrive here in a few days from St. Petersburg, when the work will at once be commenced. When finished the church will have cost between $500,000 and $600,000.
Half a million dollars in 1871 works out to something close to $9 million today. I’ve seen other references putting the figure at $200,000 to $300,000, but regardless, it was a pretty big chunk of change, and I have a little trouble believing that the Russian government was really going to foot that kind of bill for a representation church. In 1866, estimates out of Russia put the total cost of the proposed church at $20,000, or a little over $350,000 in modern terms, which sounds a lot more reasonable.
Already, the Russian ambassador, Konstantin Katakazi (or Catacazy), had spent $20,000 to purchase the necessary land. When Grand Duke Alexis arrived in America for his famous visit in the fall of 1871, he brought with him plans for the building.
Everything looked like it was going smoothly, until the next summer. From the New York Times (7/22/1872):
The site was purchased by him [Catacazy] for $17,000 in currency. When the deed came to be made out Catacazy desired that $20,000 should be inserted, instead of the amount actually to be paid. There was some difficulty experienced in getting this done, but the intriguing diplomat at last succeeded. By paying the increased cost of revenue-stamps, and possibly using some other inducements, the character of which are not stated. Then he drew on his Government for $20,000 in gold to pay for the site. These facts became known to or suspected by some of the Russians in New-York, who had an interest in the matter, and through them it was made known to the Russian Foreign office. When Catacazy was tried on his return, this was one of the charges which his own Government placed before the Commission for investigation, and it was fully proved.
It might just be a coincidence, but this report ran on exactly the same day that the same newspaper reported on Bjerring’s return to New York after a lengthy visit to Russia. Whether through Bjerring or some other channel, in the summer of 1872, the Russian government figured out that Ambassador Catacazy was skimming money. He had other issues as well (check out his Wikipedia entry), and he was soon exiled to a lowly post in Paris.
As you might expect, plans to build the New York church ground to a halt. But the Russian government still owned the land on Lexington Avenue, and two years later, the plans were revived. From the Baltimore Sun (9/17/1874):
The Russian chapel in New York being too small to accommodate the members of the Greek Church in that city, Russian subjects there have represented to the imperial government the need of a new church edifice for their use, and plans for a structure to cost $85,000 have been sent to St. Petersburg for approval. About $35,000 in aid of the project has already, it is understood, been obtained from various sources, Mr. Ross Winans, of Baltimore, having given $10,000. A plot of ground for such a church was purchased for the Russian government three years ago.
Who, you might be wondering, was Mr. Ross Winans? Well, from his Wikipedia entry, he was one of the first American multi-millionaires, an “inventor, mechanic, and builder of locomotives and railroad machinery.” Also, there’s this:
The Winans engine designs impressed a Russian delegation, and he was asked by the Czar to build the Imperial railroad from Moscow to St. Petersburg. Winans sent his two sons, as well as engineer George W. Whistler to Russia for several years for that project. Winans may have sold as much or more equipment in Russia as he did in the United States. Winans’ son returned to build a Russian style estate in Baltimore, named Alexandrofsky.
So Ross Winans had some serious ties to Russia and the Russian government, and also some serious capital at his disposal. The New York Orthodox, for their part, had apparently scaled back their ambitious plans, reducing the proposed cost of the church from several hundred thousand dollars down to $85K (around $1.6 million today).
Despite that encouraging report, the church was never built. I’m not sure what happened. Even on the eve of the New York chapel’s dissolution in 1882, there were still reports that the Russian government planned to construct a great edifice in the city, but of course they never materialized.
Not everyone realized this. In their 1871 Annual Cyclopaedia, D. Appleton & Company said this:
The first building in the United States designed expressly for a Greek church was erected in the city of New York, during 1871. It is on Lexington Avenue, between Fifty-first and Fifty-second Streets. The cost, about $260,000, is defrayed by the Russian Treasury in St. Petersburg. The church is attached to the Russian legation in the United States, but is directly under the supervision of the Metropolitan at St. Petersburg, and is not in anyway connected with the diocese of the resident Greek bishop at San Francisco.
They were wrong, of course; when that statement was written, the New York church was only in its earliest planning stages. What’s especially interesting about this Appleton’s reference is the assertion that the New York chapel was under the direct authority of the Metropolitan of St. Petersburg, rather than the Bishop of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska.
In any event, it’s not clear precisely why the plans for the church never came to fruition. Perhaps the money just couldn’t be raised — after all, New York’s Orthodox community was small and generally not wealthy. Perhaps the Catacazy scandal made the Russian government think twice about investing in a New York church. Perhaps the Russian Church changed its mind about the need for a great building in New York. The answer is out there somewhere, probably in some church archive back in Russia.
Also, what happened to the Lexington Avenue property? By all accounts, the Russian government had already bought the land.
As with so many of the stories we recount here at OrthodoxHistory.org, this one ultimately leaves us with more questions than answers.
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