“We’re here for the youth service,” I insist, leaning close to the intercom and watching my breath escape in ghostly puffs into the frigid air. I scan the building from my perch on the back stoop; its white marble exterior and mansard roof shines in the rain and the soft glow of passing headlights.
“The sign out front said 7:30 p.m…” I try again, holding down the “Talk” button with resolute firmness, “For the Ukrainian Evangelical Church service?”
“E-van-gel-ical?” A voice within finally repeats, slowly, in a thick Ukrainian accent. I’m about to launch into a speech about my affection for the building and my desire to look inside, when the heavy oak doors open and a lean, middle-aged man welcomes my companion and me into a dimly lit foyer. He utters a fragmented sentence to apologize for his limited English then leads us up a wide, ornate staircase in the dark. It’s the only staircase I’ve ever seen that’s completely made of iron — iron steps, iron floral inlay, iron railing, iron banister — and it has an imperial firmness under the feet.
The stairs open into a long, shadowy hallway that reminds me of a castle scene from Walt Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. And for good reason — the building in which we stand was designed by architect Carl Pfeiffer in the neo-baroque style reminiscent of the Second French Empire. “Wait here,” says our host before disappearing up another curved, metal staircase, leaving us to explore the second floor alone. The thick marble walls muffle the evening traffic in Cooper Square to a distant murmur and the wood floors creak beneath my shoes with wincing clarity.
The building’s interior is just as I imagined it — sort of. The old-world splendor is definitely there: in the baroque pillars with gold trim, the tall, wood-paneled windows, the lofty ceilings and the extensive crown molding. But the grandiose splendor that I imagine was once 61 Cooper Square (or rather, 59-61 Third Avenue, as it was once called) has long since departed. In the warm flush emanating from the streetlights below, I can see that the paint on the walls is flaking and a few windows have been sealed off with sheets of heavy plastic. Yet the low lighting and the dated feel also lend the hall a venerable atmosphere conducive to reflection; so for a moment I erase the blemishes from my mind and let myself imagine it’s 1867.
That was the year this building was born, as a Metropolitan Savings Bank. Records at the New York Historical Society library indicate that the bank gained 3,878 accounts in its opening year, with investors hailing from across the United States, Eastern and Western Europe, the West Indies, Asia Minor, China, Canada and the South Sandwich Islands. “Our duty to others and to ourselves, our pride and self-respect,” professed the original board of trustees, “make a Savings Bank account almost indispensable to the success in life of every workingman.”
The bank officers held true to their commitment to the working-class individual; annual trustees reports from the New York Historical Society Library reveal that accounts were opened by lamplighters, millers, ship-jointers, sugar-refiners, undertakers, tobacconists, plumbers, telegraphists, junk dealers and midwives, among others. 497 of their original clientele were either women or minors. An annual report from January 1, 1872 progressively advertises. “Deposits can be made by married women or minors, of their own money, in their own names, which can be controlled by themselves only, and which are not liable for the debts of their husbands or guardians.” The stately figure of the Metropolitan Savings Bank building graced the inside cover of every annual trustees report ever printed, thus becoming a symbol for a forward-looking notion of American independence, prosperity and integrity — unrestricted by class, gender, age or ethnicity. “A beginning made, one soon becomes saving and thrifty and has, to a certain extent, the conscious independence of a capitalist,” insists the 1872 report.
In its early years, the structure was immaculately maintained and outfitted. A New York Times article dating from the bank’s inauguration pronounced it “authoritatively, to be one of the finest structures, from garret to basement, in the city,” in which “all modern improvements in heating, lighting and ventilation have been taken advantage of.”
But in 1935 the prospering Metropolitan Savings Bank vacated its marble headquarters to merge with the Manhattan Savings Institution and the Citizens Savings Bank — two fellow lower-Manhattan banks with similar affinities for the working-class individual. The three banks aligned under the title of the Manhattan Savings Bank (which survives today under the ubiquitous name, HSBC) and moved into a more spacious office on Broadway, leaving 61 Cooper Square empty for nearly two years. In 1937, the building was purchased by the First Ukrainian Evangelical Pentecostal Church and its splendor was repurposed as a place of worship, as it remains to this day.
Tonight, however, the dark corridor gives off a subtle chill and a distinctively dusty smell usually reserved for old books with yellowing pages. Just as I reach the parlor at the end of the second floor hallway, our host returns with a smiling woman in tow. She, too, has an accent, but her English is much easier to understand. As it turns out, there’s no service tonight, but she pleasantly agrees to give us the grand tour. The light from the windows falls languidly at her feet and I notice that she’s wearing bedroom slippers.
She’s one of the fourth floor tenants, an older member of the congregation residing in the small apartment rented for a decade in the 1870s by the Eastern Star Lodge of Freemasons (the fraternal organization, founded in the late 14th century, was drawn to this building for its optimal location and completely fireproof construction). As she leads us back downstairs, she keeps her arms tight to her sides and her hands in her pockets to ward off the cold. “Can you imagine paying to heat a building this large in New York City!” she laughs.
We begin the tour back downstairs in the grand foyer — a room where tellers once sat behind polished black walnut desks in handsomely upholstered wooden chairs, waiting to greet incoming clients. Two more iron staircases unravel in ribbon-like curls from the front entryway, though they are now hidden from view of the main hall by a solid, wooden wall with two small doors at either corner. The wall makes the space feel more private and recluse, blocking the front, street-facing windows and transforming the room, quite literally, into a sanctuary.
When we enter, a choir is practicing on a crimson-carpeted alter, singing a Ukrainian hymn to an audience of empty pews. Their voices are crisp and seem to hover in the air a moment after the singers fall quiet. Although the entire room is only about as long as a single New York City subway car, the 17-foot-4-inch-tall ceilings (compared to your standard eight-foot-tall residential ceiling), stone walls and thick carpet lend the space exceptional acoustic properties — something the New York Times noted almost a century and a half ago in its initial review of the building.
“The architecture is beautiful,” I say to the woman, who smiles and nods before adding, “but it needs a lot of work that we can’t afford.” The church’s once flourishing congregation has dwindled significantly since its establishment in 1937, as the New York City Ukrainian population has dispersed beyond the East Village.
I recall the surprise on the man’s face earlier this evening when my friend and I buzzed the intercom — it’s evident that they do not often receive visitors wandering in off the street, despite the invitation posted out front. The heavy doors of the building are kept locked except on Sundays, for morning and evening worship. Furthermore, even in this digital age, the First Ukrainian Evangelical Pentecostal church has no website and no listed telephone number; when I ask our host for a number to contact, she gives me the head Pastor Ivan’s personal cell number.
Despite, or perhaps because of, its sequestered nature, the church endures, harboring a sense of intimacy and community that is anomalous in a metropolitan city like New York. A spacious second floor room once leased by the United States Assessor of Internal Revenue now contains four bunk beds and a closet full of fresh linens, where youth visiting from Eastern Europe can find refuge for a mere $20 per night — a sum that is negotiable to each person’s means. The upper floor apartments, as well, are rented by various members of the church’s congregation for a fraction of the price asked by other smaller and less centrally located apartments on the Lower East Side.
Back in the chapel, our guide shuffles down the aisle away from the altar, leading us through a small door at the opposite end of the room. When it clicks shut behind us, we pause for a moment in silence, marooned between the stairways flanking the entranceway and the supplemental wall of the Ukrainian chapel. I get the strange sense that we’re traversing between two eras and two aesthetically polar manifestations of majesty. But before I can dwell on the feeling, we’re escorted down another stairwell into a windowless basement.
“This is where we come after services, to sit and have some tea and coffee,” she explains. Sure enough, the basement has been remodeled into a little dining room, complete with a small kitchen, a few tables, chairs and a youth meeting room — peculiar contents for a vault 42 feet 9 inches by 74 feet. This entire lower level — from floor to ceiling — is a solid coffer of granite and iron beams, originally “built of the best description, and burglar proof…designed for durability, effectual safety against fire and burglary, and fitness for the purposes required” (The New York Tribune, May 18, 1867).
Still, it manages to feel both spacious and welcoming. Recessed lighting has been installed over the café-style tables, and the walls have been painted over in a warm, mustard brown color. Behind the kitchen, the basement continues back into another large, but unfinished, area — once a separate room of the vault reserved for exceedingly valuable items. The paint has been scraped off the walls, revealing small sections of glittering, textured granite beneath.
The church’s current construction project is focused on a ceiling-high, multi-ton iron door, clamped into a freestanding wall near the back of the room. The door has a large, turning wheel at its center, as one might expect of a vault in an old James Bond movie. The renovation project, the woman explains, involves removing the wall and the door to make way for clerical offices. “But it’s slow going,” she says, patting the wall with an outstretched hand, “very heavy and costly.”
I’m disappointed for a moment that this small piece of history is on its way out, but then I catch myself. The building has been a church for close to 75 years, eclipsing its 68-year lifespan as a bank by almost a decade. I’m reminded of a Frank Lloyd Wright quote, that, “All fine architectural values are human values, else not valuable.” Aren’t deconstruction and reconstruction equally vital and authentic parts of this building’s sentimental transformation?
Back upstairs on the second floor, we’re offered another peek at the parlor — this time with the lights on, revealing details I’d previously overlooked. The room has a marble fireplace and two Corinthian-style fluted pillars, complete with the traditional Greek acanthus leaf top. By far, the most intriguing historical detail of the room, however, is sitting in the corner by the door. It’s a 140-year-old solid iron safe. The front hinge door is outlined in gold paint and the letters across the top spell New York Safe Co., Moser & Wacker. There’s a circular combination lock in the middle, but all the numbers have been worn off with age, making it impossible to even guess at a code. When I ask our guide what’s inside, she chuckles, “Who knows, maybe a fortune — as long as I’ve been here, which is about 30 years now, it’s never been opened.” I immediately drop my backpack and kneel down next to the large iron box, turning the dial a few times optimistically and yanking at the handle a little — just in case — but the door doesn’t budge.
Later, consumed with various theories and what if scenarios, I’ll comb the Internet and the yellow pages for a lead relating to the 19th century New York Safe Company, without result. I’ll even call a few locksmiths and ask what it would take to open a 19th century safe without any code or numbers, and I’ll get a few laughs, one long whistle and a vague estimate involving a couple hundred dollars more than I possess. I’ll come up with a lot of If onlys and imagine a plethora of miraculous endings for this story.
But right now all I can do is look sidewise at the safe and back at the woman. She flashes a content smile and gives a quick shrug before switching off the lights and moving back to the hallway. I stand up and hesitate for a few seconds longer before following; from this new, distant angle, I notice that the safe is being used — as a side table of sorts. A red and gold stitched cloth lies neatly upon its black surface.
Atop the cloth sits a single, threadbare Holy Bible.