1851–A townhouse is built on East 19th Street
1958–1W conscientious objectors move into a new Voluntary Service Center
1966–Growing Mennonite involvement in New York City
1976–The Voluntary Service Center becomes a Mennonite Student Center
1977–Prayer of dedication for the Mennonite Student Center
1997–Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship purchases Menno House
from Eastern Mennonite Missions
1851 – A townhouse is built on East 19th Street
Gleaned from public records in 2004
On a 1834 map of Manhattan farmland, much of East 19th Street is swamp. A small stream ran east along it as far as First Avenue, which at that time was the bank of the East River!
Gramercy Park–and most of the neighborhoods east of Union Square–were originally part of Petersfield Farm, a large tract of land that Rutherford Stuyvesant began selling in 1845. In 1851, Doggett’s Street Directory listed eleven adjacent properties “now building” on the south side of 19th Street. One was 168 East 19th Street, later renumbered 314. According to Perris’s 1853 map of the area, these buildings were “second-class” brick constructions, having a “slate or metal roof, not coped.”
The first three owners of present-day Menno House were wealthy widows. One Ann Gillett, widow of Horatio Gillett, purchased the house in 1853 for a sum of seven thousand dollars. She sold it in 1878 to Bridget C. Duffy, an Irish woman, who lived there–first with her daughter and a servant, then with only a servant–until after 1890. It’s impossible to say what the building may have looked like in its early years, but the adjacent photograph shows a model of the parlor in a New York townhouse around 1850.
By 1900, Mrs. Duffy was renting out the home to the Foleys, an Irish couple with seven children, ranging in age from 11 to 24. James Foley was superintendent at a printing outfit; his wife Anna and their two eldest daughters were all teachers. Ten years later, according to census records, a third daughter had turned to teaching, and their two sons were a lawyer and a broker at a bank, respectively. In addition, a 63-year-old fire inspector, Edward Foley, had joined the family.
At the time of the 1920 census, the Foleys had moved on and a Greek man, Pantiley Fortomoroff, and his brother Michael rented the house from Mrs. Duffy. They retained a Serbian cook and two borders, both Bulgarians. Mr. Fortomoroff and at least one of his boarders worked aboard a steamship.
In 1923–after 45 years of ownership–Bridget Duffy sold the would-be Menno House to another widow, Katherine McDonnell, who quickly re-sold it to a Hungarian couple, Charles and Mary Bero, in July of 1926.
In a picture of 19th Street taken in 1928 (above right) the Menno House property is a
distant sliver, perched behind a parked car. Looking east on 20th Street ten years later (below right), the view is dominated by a towering Consolidated Gas “gasometer,” which gave the neighborhood its early name: the Gas House District. Note the elevated train line on First Avenue, which stopped at 19th Street until it was dismantled in the forties.
Charles and Mary Bero converted the single-family dwelling into a boarding house, keeping as many as 16 people at a time, mostly men from eastern Europe. The men each paid four to seven dollars for room and board, working jobs ranging from surgical appliance sales to neck-tie manufacturing.
The Beros held onto the property through 1953, when it was sold to Joseph J. Sanfillippo, the landlord who John Kraybill must have met when Eastern Mennonite Board bought the building in 1958.
1958 – 1W conscientious objectors move into a new Voluntary Service Center, Contributed in 2000 by John Kraybill
Thelma and I and our one-and-a-half-year-old son Charles (left) moved into the 314 East Street property in September 1958. Thelma and I, who are currently in semi-retirement near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, had lived in New York City since 1953. During the Korean War, I served my two years as a conscientious objector at Bellevue Hospital from 1953 to 1955. Previous to that I had spent two years in a Bible institute in Canada. In 1954 I was asked to become pastor of the Harlem Mennonite Church (now Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church) uptown, which was started that year. I served in this role from 1954 to 1966.
Following the Korean War, the military draft continued at a strong pace. Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions (now Eastern Mennonite Missions), located in Salunga, Pennsylvania, had a Voluntary Service (VS) program. However, they did not have enough VS locations for the number of volunteers they were getting, many of whom needed to serve their two years as a conscientious objector in an approved location away from their home area. (Some draft boards required them to go at least 150 miles from home.)
In 1957 Eastern Board decided to establish a new Voluntary Service Center in New York City’s Lower East Side. In addition to my work as pastor of the Seventh Avenue Church uptown, I was asked to serve as the start-up director of this proposed VS Center.
For almost a year we searched for a location. A Wall Street attorney, Irvin Husin, who had done some work for our churches previously, gave us some assistance. A real estate friend of his told us about the 314 East 19th Street property which was then listed for sale. With the real estate agent, we went through the property. We agreed that it had good possibilities for our needs. However, soon after that the attorney or the real estate man told us that it was no longer available. We assumed that either some other buyer got there ahead of us or the owner took it off the market.
We continued looking for another property. We found nothing that promised to meet our needs as well as the 19th Street property. After several months passed by, I decided to go back to 314 East 19th Street along with Paul G. Landis, Eastern Board VS Director at the time, just to see what had developed with that property. The owner met us at the door. We reminded him of our previous visit and told him that we were just curious to find out what the present situation was with that property. He was surprised to hear that we were informed that the property was no longer available. He had not sold it. He had not withdrawn it from the market, and he informed us that it was still available if we were interested. The contract with the real estate man was now expired.
We then promptly got a different attorney and entered into a contract to purchase the property from the owner for the sum of $34,000. At this time this was the most expensive building Eastern Board had ever owned. As part of the contract, we agreed to reimburse the owner for any lost rents between the time of signing the contract and the closing of title, if he could empty out as many of the seventeen rooms as possible so that we could have immediate access to the property. I don’t know how he did this, but to our amazement, he got every one of the tenants out and handed us a totally empty building several months later when we closed title and took possession.
I have never quite figured out why that real estate man gave us the false information about the property. Here is what I suspect may have happened. The attorney had told us that the real estate man had a contractor friend who renovated houses like Menno House. Most of the other similar properties on the block had already been renovated and converted from single room occupancy to apartment houses which produced much higher rents. My guess is that on our first visit the real estate man discovered that this building appeared to be a good possibility for his contractor friend to renovate. But it may be that when the contractor went through the building and saw that the building leans somewhat and the door frames and window frames are crooked, he was scared away. I do not know. This is only speculation.
I have often wondered when those buildings shifted and went crooked. I do not know that either, but possibly it happened when the excavation took place for Stuyvesant Town (a large housing complex one block east). At any rate, the crooked doors and windows didn’t scare us! We assumed that as long as there was a four-story building on the east side of it and an apartment house on the west side of it, the building would not readily fall down.
As I said previously, Thelma and I and our son Charles moved into this empty building in
September of 1958. At the time Thelma was six months pregnant with our second son Fred who was born on December 31. This building had been what New York City calls an SRO (Single Room Occupancy) building. The owner and his wife had their own private four rooms and bath and backyard apartment on the first floor. The upper three floors had 17 single rooms, some small and some large. There were washbowls in some of the rooms and in the hallway, but would you believe there was only one full bathroom with a toilet for the use of the single room occupants?
Shortly after we moved in the 1W men started arriving with their wives (right). When the house was full we had seven couples, plus our two boys. That means that we had 16 people at the supper table each evening on the first floor. I helped these young men, and some of their wives, get jobs, mostly at the New York University Medical Center. We could no longer place 1W men at Bellevue Hospital where I had worked. Bellevue is a city hospital and made a new rule that all new employees must pass a Civil Service test. To pass that test you had to already be a resident of the city for a year, and therefore 1W men could not qualify.
As I recall, we began most of the alterations on Menno House in January 1959, after our son Fred was born. For the next several months we lived through the dust and dirt of tearing out partitions, ripping up old floor coverings, painting, plumbing, etc. Eastern Board had a retired carpenter, Henry Stauffer, from Salunga, Pennsylvania, who regularly did this kind of work on Mission Board properties. He moved in with us for several months and managed the alterations.
The following were the alterations as I remember them almost 40 years later. On the top floor, we installed a new bathroom in the end room which previously was a bedroom. There had been no bathroom on the floor. Also on the top floor, we took out partitions and thereby made what were small single rooms into larger double rooms so that they could accommodate couples. We may also have done the same thing with some rooms on the third floor, I can’t quite recall.
On the first floor, we removed the partition in the dining room and made what was previously two rooms into one room. (Can you believe that? It seems small even now.) The city required us to install new double-hung fireproof windows (with wire netting in the glass) on each floor on the west side of the property because that wall is on the property lot line. In the cellar, we took out the rotted wooden middle support posts and installed new steel support columns, filled with concrete.
In addition to this, we painted the whole house inside from top to bottom and tore up and replaced old floor coverings. A little later on the sprinkler system was installed, and the outside front and back of the building (which was painted red) was repainted gray as it is today. We placed a sign out front which read “Mennonite Voluntary Service Center.” It was later changed to “Menno House.”
Thelma and I lived in the larger front room on the second floor (now known as Room 1). It had a washbowl in it. That room was our living room, bedroom, and my office. Our boys Charles and Fred had the next middle room on the second floor (Room 2). There was a door from our room into their room. The other six couples had the additional rooms on the second, third, and fourth floors. In addition to that, we kept two or three rooms available as guest rooms.
1966 – Growing Mennonite involvement in New York City
Excerpted from a November 1966 Missionary Messenger article by Paul G. Landis
New York City– the center of world trade, skyscrapers, riots, United Nations and eight million people–was virtually unknown to Mennonites in the past. It was a huge city that was far enough away from our Mennonite communities that it did not pose a great threat to us. It was a place where we occasionally went to see missionaries off to some foreign land, a place we passed through en route to the New England States, or a place where a few daring tourists “saw the town.”
To the Mennonite Church, New York City is more than that now. It can also be called a “Mennonite community” since there are emerging congregations of our brethren and sisters who are seeking to follow Jesus Christ and to build His church in the inner city. At the present time, there are three organized congregations and two other active witness groups emerging that are related to the Lancaster Conference.
There is also the House of Friendship, associated with the Ohio and Eastern Conference and the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities, a congregation in Brooklyn and one in the Bronx associated with the Puerto Rican Mennonite Conference, and two Brethren in Christ congregations. In addition, there are presently 17 Voluntary Service workers and 32 Mennonite 1W men in the New York City area.
* * *
Since the establishment of the Voluntary Service unit in New York City, 84 persons have served a total of 108 years in Voluntary Service. The funds which they have earned above the expenses of the program in New York City total $51,434, which helps to support the total VS program.
VS’rs have made a positive contribution in each of the congregations through assisting in youth work, teaching, etc. They have also witnessed in a meaningful way to the community in the 19th Street area where the center is located. A very significant witness and contribution have been given in the New York University Medical Center (above left), World Relief Commission, and in youth programs through the service of our youth. I believe that before too long there will also be a congregation emerging in this community. We will need to seek very carefully the Lord’s leading and will in this.
1976 – The Voluntary Service Center becomes a Mennonite Student Center, Contributed in 2004 by Myrna Burkholder
In 1976, I (pictured on the far right) moved into what is now called Menno House. At that time, the Eastern Mennonite Board of Lancaster Conference had decided to sell this building since it was no longer needed to house voluntary service workers. The few of us living in the house planned to be there only until the house was sold. Soon after moving in, however, I began to visualize the house as a kind of headquarters for a New York City Mennonite student and young adult outreach ministry. Through a process of rather uncomplicated negotiations with Eastern Mennonite Board, they agreed to postpone the selling of the house to give the proposed ministry time to develop.
By March of 1977, David and Ruth Wenger, who still live in NYC, moved into Menno House to be co-managers of the house with me. In the meantime, the house gradually filled to capacity with students and young adults. With the help of the residents and other volunteers, it was slowly prepared for expanded usage.
One memory I have of helping to “fix up” the house was going to a hotel liquidation sale and purchasing a variety of pieces of furniture as well as carpeting for many of the rooms. After the delivery of the carpets, the second-floor hallway was piled high with these dark brown pieces of carpet until one of the residents and I worked late into the night placing each of them in a room.
Early on, we also began to rent out two guest rooms. I remember once when we had a scorching July heat wave, a group of Russian Baptist/Mennonite men stayed with us, and rumor had it that they were very shocked (and most likely offended) to be sharing space with so-called Mennonite women (residents) wearing shorts!
Coinciding with the early days of Menno House was the beginning of the publication of a bimonthly newsletter called Menno News, which I edited and which was sent to other Mennonite students and young adults living in New York City. The first issue was published in the fall of 1977 and reported on the dedication service for Menno House. This service was a happy event, as I remember, for those involved in helping to organize Menno House. A copy of the prayer of dedication given by Nate Showalter, a representative of Eastern Mennonite Board, is still hanging in a hallway at the house.
Information about Menno House was occasionally included in subsequent issues of Menno News. For example, in the February 1977 issue, it was reported that the guest room fee was $5 a night per person, but only $4 per night with a sleeping bag!
Several years before the opening of Menno House, Mennonite church leaders in NewYork City were being nudged by the Mennonite Board of Missions from Elkhart, Indiana, to take the initiative to work more intentionally at bringing together the growing number of Mennonite students and young adults in New York City.
Thus, Mel Lehman (pictured at right; then an at-large Mennonite young adult and is now active with Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship) volunteered to help organize the first student and young adult fellowship activity. It was held at Burnside Mennonite Church in the Bronx in October of 1975.
This effort developed into a two-track series of activities. One track consisted of primarily social gatherings which were eventually sponsored by a Student and Young Adult Services with myself as a staff person. The position was funded and supported by the Mennonite Board of Missions in Elkhart.
The other track consisted of worship and study group meetings which were held at Menno House after its opening. In time, the group outgrew Menno House and began to meet at other locations, including a Presbyterian church in upper Manhattan. By January of 1983, the group had named itself Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship. And at some point, the Fellowship began to meet downtown again, this time at the 15th Street Quaker Meetinghouse where it still gathers.
Another kind of church-related activity also began about a year after the opening of Menno House. Dan Hood, who is currently with Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship, and Ardis Grosjean, now living in Stockholm, Sweden, collaborated to organize the Manhattan Association of Anabaptist Mennonites or MAAMS for short. For several years this organization sponsored a series of special events and seminars that were meaningful for those with a scholarly interest in Mennonite church history.
To make a long story short, in 1981 I became a regional director for Student and Young Adult Services and turned over the editing of Menno News to Susan Ebersole. She and several others continued as editors until it was finally discontinued in April of 1988. At the same time, I also moved out of Menno House, so a couple by the name of Jewell (pictured, far right) and Marty Van Ord became the house managers. Since then, Menno House has seen many house managers and has almost always been filled to capacity.
1977 – Prayer of dedication for the Mennonite Student Center, Given by Nathan Showalter
O God of Abraham, Moses, and of Ruth; of Mary, the Mother of our Lord; of Peter and of Paul; of Augustine and St. Francis; of Martin Luther, and of Menno Simons; we acknowledge that you are our God,
our Father, and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. We gather tonight to celebrate the creation of a house of residence and of gathering, and we have set this moment apart to dedicate this house to you, and to the service of your people.
Give, we pray, to the residents of this house the gifts of hospitality and warmth, of acceptance and community, of principle and of discipline. We ask that these walls be honored by your presence, by the prayers and worship of your people, and that the euphony of Good News about Jesus reverberate within the plaster of these East Side walls, and find sympathetic vibration beyond these bricks and mortar, among the homes and peoples of this neighborhood.
May the music of laughter echo within these walls, and beyond laughter may there be joy. May there be affection among Menno House residents; and beyond affection, love. May courtesy characterize the demeanor of this house, and beyond courtesy, compassion. May there be found here peace, and beyond peace, peacemaking. May there be faith among these brothers and sisters and beyond faith, worship.
To this and other visions, for this and other dreams, we dedicate this house. We pray that Menno House be set apart, most especially, by the continuing presence of the spirit of Jesus, and it is in His name that we dedicate this place to you.
1997 – Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship purchases Menno House from Eastern Mennonite Missions, Contributed by Kathy Meulen
Our own Fellowship originally began with students living at Menno House. As these students remained in the New York City area, the church grew and coalesced into a group that was eventually able to hire a pastor–John Rempel (left) came to New York City from Ontario in 1989. Thus, the Fellowship had been intimately connected with Menno House since its own beginning, and Menno House was a treasure that we could not bear to lose.
By the time Eastern Mennonite Missions expressed their desire to divest themselves of the property, MMF members had been lending their support to the house in a number of ways–by serving as live-in house managers or as house board members, supporting a small Voluntary Service unit, and using Room 1 as a church office. Over the ten years since our covenant was signed, our relationship with Menno House has remained close.
After a great deal of prayer and community discernment, MMF chose to take Eastern Mennonite Missions up on their offer and purchased Menno House for $300,000 on November 20, 1997 (left). It was a big decision for a small congregation without even a worship space to call its own–worshiping Sunday evenings at the nearby Friends Meetinghouse (15th Street between Second and Third Avenues).
Once the decision to purchase the House had been made, a fund-raising effort was started so that the church would be able to come up with a down payment and cover all of the closing costs. Members of the fellowship and friends of the congregation gave very generously, as did Menno House residents and guests. The Fellowship will be forever grateful to those people who showed such faith in our ability to take care of this house and will be forever grateful to the congregants who worked through the details of the closing (especially Virgil Wiebe, Steve Troyer, Robert Bristow-Johnson and Michael Yoder who made up the Menno House Transition Committee).
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