The eternal orphanage


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A Yorkville priest and the head of an elite private school thrash out a plan to memorialize a beloved vestige of a 19th-century chapel — even as its inevitable disappearance looms


Photos



  • A seven-story vestige of an old Yorkville chapel, embedded into a neighboring building, stands sentinel over an empty lot where the Spence School is constructing a new field house. The facade will vanish from view when the work is completed, but the chapel will be memorialized both inside and outside the new Spence building. Photo: Sarah Greig Photography / FRIENDS of the Upper East Side Historic Districts




  • A 1908 photo of the soaring neo-Classical chapel of St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum that stood on East 90th Street. Photo: Architect and Builders Magazine Vol. X, 1908-1909




  • A rendering of a new athletic-and-educational facility that the Spence School for girls is building on East 90th Street. Rendering: Courtesy of the Spence School




  • Father Boniface Ramsey, the pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Yorkville, hammered out an agreement with the Spence School that will permanently commemorate the remnant of an old chapel on the site of a Catholic orphanage that was the predecessor of his church. Photo: Courtesy of St. Joseph’s Church



“I do not doubt that one day, this relic of the past will reemerge to astonish future generations.”

City Council Member Ben Kallos



The clock is quickly ticking on the future of the Ghostly Remnant of East 90th Street.

But there’s good news, too: Due to a breakthrough deal hammered out in a Feb. 15 meeting, the majestic ruin will be commemorated forever.

Construction of a new field house for the Spence School on the block between First and York Avenues is already underway.

And as it advances, the beloved fragment that survived from the chapel of the old St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum will vanish from view.

Built in 1898 to serve the orphanage, which was founded in 1857, the neo-Classical, brick-and-stone church has endured, in truncated form, ever since.

That won’t change. But late this year or in 2020, the vestige is expected to be obscured, perhaps indefinitely, behind the six-story, 93-foot tall athletic complex that Spence is now building directly to the east.

It won’t go quietly: Its fans have been fighting to save it ever since Our Town chronicled its history, status and uncertain future in two articles in January, “The Ghostly Remnant” and “Rallying for a Remnant.”

In response, East Side City Council Member Ben Kallos — who once lived in the condo at 402 East 90th St. in which the remnant is spectacularly embedded — convened a meeting on Friday with Alida Camp, the chair of Community Board 8, and the leaders of both Spence and St. Joseph’s Church, which was affiliated with the orphanage of the same name.

The scene was Kallos’ district office, at 244 East 93rd St., and the principals included Father Boniface Ramsey, the pastor of St. Joseph’s on East 87th Street, with roughly 750 congregants, and Ellanor (Bodie) Brizendine, the head of school at Spence on East 91st Street, with about 750 students.

Both institutions are woven into the fabric of the East Side. St. Joseph’s was built in 1894 for a German-speaking parish founded in 1873, while Spence was established in 1892 and moved to 91st Street in 1929.

That’s pretty much where the similarities end.

Ramsey conducts five weekend masses, as well as a monthly mass in German, and in his spare time, he’s the general editor of “The Works of Saint Augustine,” a planned 49-volume translation from the Latin of all of the Christian theologian’s 132 written works.

Brizendine helms an all-girls, K-12, college-prep academy that, along with Brearley and Chapin, is considered one of the most prestigious in the city and the nation — and it’s got the budget to match: Tuition is pegged at $52,050 a year, and she draws an annual salary of $810,366.

Despite the obvious contrasts, participants in the discussion describe an unlikely meetings of the minds.

Ramsey brought with him the baptismal records from the 1860s that were maintained by the orphanage, which was the predecessor institution to his church. He also produced an 1888 document in which St. Joseph’s Church requested a $2,400 loan from the orphan asylum.

The disposition was unclear.

Moved by the orphans’ plight

There was a point to this show-and-tell. Ramsey was presenting recorded evidence attesting to the long historic connectivity between the church on 87th Street and the orphanage on 90th Street that abuts the Spence project.

Brizendine pored over the documents with Ramsey, clearly intrigued, observers say. She appeared particularly moved that the baptismal records of the orphans, almost all of whom had German names, included girls as well as boys.

The bottom line was that the priest and the head of school, with some mediation from Kallos, came to terms on a unique agreement that will honor the orphanage’s monumental chapel in both the interior and exterior of the new field house.

“I wanted the orphanage and its history to be recognized — and that’s just what I got,” Ramsey said in an interview.

The new collaboration, which was announced by Kallos’ office, with an accompanying statement from Spence, covers a range of projects:

• “The installation of a permanent commemorative plaque on the exterior of the new building in proximity to the location of the former chapel,” a summary of the partnership agreement released on Feb. 18 says.

The plaque will include text and possibly an image of the old chapel.

• “The joint curation of an educational display to be located in the new lobby that will celebrate the rich history of St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum,” according to the understanding.

• “In addition, the school will work with Father Ramsey on incorporating the role of St. Joseph’s into its rich curriculum on New York City history,” it said.

Ramsey praised Brizendine for being “amenable to compromise.”

“I came to the meeting with the desire that the sacred space, not just of the chapel, but of the grounds of the orphanage itself, be respected, and indeed it was,” he said.

Ramsey, and preservationist groups like Friends of the Upper East Side, had held out hope that Spence could somehow incorporate the chapel façade into the new structure, perhaps by means of a glass curtain wall.

But the school made clear that was not in the cards for both legal and engineering reasons. A fireproofing agent has to be placed in the void between the two buildings, which would rule out a viewing window.

Still, Spence will insert a mineral-wool cocoon between the two structures, which will preserve, protect and insulate the remnant as it recedes from public view.

“The fact that the site will once again serve children, after a hiatus of over a century of connection with St. Joseph’s, should rightfully be honored,” Spence said in its statement.

“This partnership also echoes the school’s history, given our founder Clara Spence’s pioneering work in advocacy for orphans and for adoption services in the city,” the school added.

“While we will never know whether any young girl’s path passed through both our institutions, the inspiring possibility cannot be excluded and should be considered by all,” Spence said.

So will the old chapel remnant disappear forever? Not so fast.

“It is very possible that this wall that has survived for all these years will be preserved for centuries to come,” Kallos said.

“I do not doubt that one day, this relic of the past will reemerge to astonish future generations,” he added.

invreporter@strausnews.com





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