Yorkville, NY – A new athletics and academic facility currently under construction at 412 East 90th Street by The Spence School will honor the former chapel of the St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum, in response to a request by Father Boniface Ramsey on behalf of St. Joseph’s Church of Yorkville and in partnership with Community Board 8 Manhattan and Council Member Ben Kallos.
The collaboration between Spence and St. Joseph’s will cover a range of projects, including the installation of a permanent commemorative plaque on the exterior of the new building in proximity to the location of the former chapel and 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. 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.
The partnership was formed in a meeting on Friday, February 15, 2019, convened and moderated by Council Member Ben Kallos, with Father Boniface Ramsey of St. Joseph’s Church Yorkville representatives of the School and Community Board 8 Manhattan Chair Alida Camp to discuss appropriate measures to preserve an important aspect of Yorkville neighborhood history.
“My greatest hope, ultimately, was that St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum’s place in Yorkville’s history (and the history of St. Joseph’s Church) would not be forgotten but that it would be honored and commemorated. I believe that an appropriate acknowledgment of that history, which so many of us hoped for, has been achieved within the limits of what was possible. I am grateful to all who contributed to the outcome which resulted from our meeting on February 15th, especially to Council Member Ben Kallos for mediating that meeting and the representatives of The Spence School, who were generous in their response to our advocacy on behalf of the orphanage,” said Father Boniface Ramsey of St. Joseph’s Church Yorkville.
“Community Board 8’s role is to work with all residents and businesses to strengthen our community. Friday meeting’s positive results, as described by Council Member Kallos, allow for a recognition of the continuous intertwining of New York City history and education and the importance of collaboration among organizations whose strength carries beyond our area. I am glad the orphanage is being recognized and honored,” said Alida Camp, Chair of Community Board 8 Manhattan.
The School has issued the following written statement:
“We are grateful to Council Member Kallos for bringing Father Ramsey’s requests to our attention and look forward to a joint collaboration to honor the site of the former chapel and commemorate its importance to the early history of Yorkville. 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. 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. 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.”
The unique condition that gave rise to Father Ramsey’s concern was that the new school building would block the view of remnants of the former Chapel, which was sold in 1918 when the orphanage re-located to Pleasantville, New York. These building remnants, a portion of which have long been visible and protrude slightly over the Spence property line, are deeply embedded into the side and front walls of the neighboring apartment building, which is not part of the Spence site. The existence of these remnants was discussed by the School during the course of its 2017 variance application to the Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA) to better accommodate the School’s athletics and academic programs. The public materials included a City Environmental Quality Review (CEQR) Environmental Assessment Statement (EAS), which provided in its “Historic and Cultural Resources” chapter a listing of the “Potential Architectural Resources” surrounding the project site, which included the photographs used here. In addressing the former Chapel, the EAS stated:
Adjacent to the project site to the west, the residential building at 402 East 90th Street incorporates elements of the former chapel of the St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum, constructed in 1898. These include the remnants of a Baroque style chapel façade on the east façade of the building, as well as arches on the East 90th Street façade at the fifth story … The St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum occupied much of the block bounded by East 89th and East 90th Streets and First and York Avenues until 1916, when the St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum moved out of New York City and sold off its property. Shortly thereafter, the chapel at 402 East 90th Street was converted to a parking garage and remained in this use for many years. In 1982-83, the building was altered yet again for residential use, with approximately 1/3 of the southern portion of the building removed and additional stories added, resulting in the present 12-story condominium building called River East Plaza. The retention of portions of the original façade is of historic interest, but these are only fragments of what was once a substantial and architecturally imposing structure. As fragments, they would not qualify for New York City landmark designation or for listing on the State/National Registers of Historic Places.
This information was included in the BSA application that was made available to the public, reviewed internally by the Landmarks Preservation Commission and distributed to the Community Board, which following a public hearing recommended approval of the BSA application. Prior to appearing before the BSA, Council Member Kallos notified managers for buildings to the immediate west and south at 402 East 90th Street and 417 East 89th Street who both supported the project. In addition, Council Member Kallos asked the Friends of the Upper East Side Historic District, a local preservationist group to evaluate the site for potential landmark status.
This is the second time that Spence and Council Member Kallos have engaged in fruitful discussions to bring Spence’s commitment to community service to the residents of the fifth district. During the course of the BSA application, Council Member Kallos called upon Spence to meet with the heads of two nearby local public elementary schools in his district, P.S 151 and P.S. 257, with a chronic shortage of physical education space, to explore those schools, utilization of the new building’s gymnasium when not in Spence use. On November 15, 2017, Head of School Bodie Brizendine confirmed that it was prepared to enter into an access agreement and license with the Department of Education enabling both schools’ access to the gymnasium in support of their physical education curricula. On November 19, 2017, Council Member Kallos delivered testimony to the Board of Standards and Appeals in support of the Spence application. The public-private partnership was even featured in Our Town on November 29, 2017 “Schools could find rec relief from Spence.”
In reflecting upon the encouraging meeting between Father Ramsey and Spence, Council Member Kallos said, “I’ve always wondered what relic of history was protruding above the garage and it is fascinating to learn what was once here. It is amazing that any of this chapel for St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum survived these 120 years. I was also pleased to learn that the original cornerstone for the Chapel still exists on the adjoined property and will not be disturbed or obstructed by the new building, other than to be protected during construction. With this memorial and preservation, I do not doubt that one day this relic of the past will reemerge to astonish future generations,” said Council Member Ben Kallos who once rented an apartment at 402 East 90th Street. “Thank you to Father Boniface Ramsey of St. Joseph’s Church of Yorkville for his advocacy, Our Town for brining this story to light, Community Board 8 Manhattan for their leadership, and The Spence School for their commitment to physical education for their students and students in the community as well as taking this opportunity to educate our neighborhood as to its past.”
St. Joseph’s Church Yorkville
Father Boniface Ramsey
Community Board 8 Manhattan