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A Look Back at SoHo’s Broadway: St. Thomas Church

Old Tavern in Broadway Near Houston Street 1862

The corner of Broadway and Houston Street, where two of New York’s major thoroughfares intersect, has gone through many changes since it was first settled in the early 1800’s. At present, Forrest “Frosty” Myers’ The Wall, the iconic public art installation at the northwest corner, serves as “The Gateway to SoHo,” as it is sometimes called.

There was a very different kind of landmark at these crossroads in 1826. Saint Thomas Church, founded by members of three lower Manhattan Episcopal parishes stood at this corner in 1826.  St. Thomas Church was founded by some of New York’s most prominent citizens, including notably William Backhouse Astor (1792–1875), a wealthy Manhattan landowner, Charles King (1789–1867), later president of Columbia University, and jurist William Beach Lawrence (source: Wikipedia).

In the 1840’s  the church was enlarged to accommodate its growing congregation and was later rebuilt in the 1850’s after a fire destroyed the church. It was around this time that the area around St. Thomas’ began to quickly decline when the commercial center of Manhattan moved to Union Square to follow the City’s growth north up Manhattan.

One after another, the area’s high-class parlor houses were replaced by lower-class public houses and brothels, where New York’s down and out would congregate. This being New York, an enterprising publisher printed a guidebook for visitors to the area, complete with Zagat Guide-style reviews of the neighborhood’s hot-spots.

National Police Gazette A drawing titled “The Genius of Advertising” from an 1880 issue of the National Police Gazette shows men outside a brothel gazing at pictures of some of the attractions awaiting them inside. (image via The New York Times)

National Police Gazette A drawing titled “The Genius of Advertising” from an 1880 issue of the National Police Gazette shows men outside a brothel gazing at pictures of some of the attractions awaiting them inside. (image via The New York Times)

The Gentleman’s Directory, published anonymously in 1870 and sold at local newsstands, informed readers that in this area one encounters many “Nymphes de Pave” who “have furnished rooms in which they receive visitors of the other sex, and ply their vocation in the streets for a livelihood.” It describes the “Broadway Garden” as “a very large hall extending from Broadway to Mercer Street, and is conducted on the pretty waiter girl system,” adding that a “large red lamp before 25 East Houston street marks the establishment of Harry Hill” where “an hour cannot be spent more pleasantly.”

Gene Schermerhorn, for whose family Schermerhorn Street is named, once wrote in a letter to his nephew, “St. Thomas Church was at the corner of Broadway and Houston Street; opposite to it was a row of small two-storied wooden houses; many of them low grog shops—a very bad neighborhood.” He also included a lovely drawing of the church:

St. Thomas Church, at the corner of Broadway and Houston, drawing by Gene Schermerhorn (image from Letters to Phil. Memories of a New York Boyhood, 1848-1856. By Gene Schermerhorn. New York Bound Book- shop/Leslie Dwinell)

St. Thomas Church, at the corner of Broadway and Houston, drawing by Gene Schermerhorn (image from Letters to Phil. Memories of a New York Boyhood, 1848-1856. By Gene Schermerhorn. New York Bound Book- shop/Leslie Dwinell)

St. Thomas’ held on at its original location until 1870, when its parishioners, aghast at the sorry state of their surroundings, moved their congregation to its current location at Fifth Avenue at 53rd Street. By then, the neighborhood was already beginning to transform yet again. Manufacturers, taking advantage of depressed real estate prices, began building the cast iron factory buildings for which the area is now known.

 

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