I never miss the opportunity to gaze upward when entering a space in the hopes of discovering a chandelier (Check out our Sideways Story on the stunning chandeliers of the Side Streets). Peeking inside Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church on a Sunday afternoon, it was the dazzling, yet unlit, fixture that captured my attention first. I could still decipher its glistening in the dim shafts of light filtering through the stunning figurative stained glass "Transfiguration of Christ" by L.C. Tiffany (containing over 17,561 individual pieces of glass). When I returned to the church with members of our team and Chrissi Nicolas, the office manager, turned on a few of the lights, we were able to see the spectral beams produced by the Czechoslovakian crystal. The entire sanctuary appeared to work in tandem, with the stained glass projecting light on the chandelier, which in turn reflected it onto the artwork surrounding the altar.
For those who attend and work at Annunciation, it is considered a miraculous place. Chrissi told us that it was built in 1894 as the Fourth Presbyterian Church. The Greek Orthodox Church bought the location in 1953, after having met in various locations since its founding as the “Evangelismos” (“The Good News”) church in the late nineteenth century. At the beginning, the entire space was lit with a combination of electricity and gas lighting. They used an ingenious series of vents that allowed the gas to escape while turning on every light in the room with a single flint switch. “For its time, this building had amazing engineering,” Chrissi said. We ascended to the loft, where we received a view of the magnificent pipe organ. Annunciation's organ is one of the few tonally unaltered organs designed by E.M. Skinner that remain in existence today.
We learned a lot about the traditions and practices of the Greek Orthodox Church through Chrissi. For example, one always knows the feast day is celebrated by the church by looking to the left of the Royal Doors of the altar to see what icon appears there. Chrissi also provided us with an interpretation of the surrounding religious art imagery. For example, in the painting of the Annunciation, the angel has his feet apart to show that he is running towards the Virgin Mary. In 1957, the congregation installed an intricate iconastasis screen of linden and lime tree wood designed and executed in Greece by noted Byzantine-style woodcarver Theophanis Nomikos, with inset icons hand-painted by New York iconographer Konstantinos Youssis of the Bronx.
There are many coincidences contained within the church’s history. For example, the Greek Orthodox congregation that would become Annunciation was founded in 1892, the same year the church at 91st Street was starting to be built. Also, the congregation moved into the building on March 25th, the day of the Annunciation of Christ, hence the name. Possibly the most mysterious fact about the church, however, is that one of the priests is said to have been visited by St. Xenia, a little-known saint. After his vision, the priest was hesitant to tell anyone, since it was the twentieth century, and he was afraid that no one would believe him. But he did some research, and discovered that St. Xenia did, in fact, exist. In his vision, she asked him to paint her icon. He did, and today the icon he painted holds a special position in the sanctuary and in the history of the parish
When I sat down in the minister's office at West Park Presbyterian Church, the first thing I asked was his name. He responded, "I am going to give you the whole thing, and you decide how much you would like to include. " It is a name to be proud of - Reverend Doctor Robert Brashear. Though originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Robert has been at the church since 1995. He first came to New York for an internship from 1982-83, and enjoyed his time in the city so much that he leapt at the opportunity to return when it was presented to him years later. The church has a fascinating history. It was originally formed under the name "North Presbyterian Church" on Bleecker Street in 1829 in response to the growing population of people moving north to escape the Yellow Fever. The congregation soon split and one group became the West Presbyterian Church, moving to a building on Carmine Street. In the meantime, the Park Presbyterian Church was formed on 84th Street thanks to the efforts of A. Phelps Atterbury in 1887. In 1890, Park Presbyterian moved into the red sandstone structure on 86th Street and the two congregations, West and Park, merged in 1911. The church received landmark status in 2000. West Park Presbyterian has always been at the forefront of a lot of political and social issues. In 1978, the church was one of the first to jump into the LGBT movement - the Reverend believes that the shift towards the religious embrace of homosexuality actually started in this church. He explained that the church was the first to perform gay marriages and "acknowledge them as just that. " In terms of other social movements, the Reverend also declared that Senior Housing had its birth on 86th Street. Additionally, during Occupy Wall Street when the people were pushed out of Zuccotti Park, activists were invited to take up housing in the church. Some remained for close to a year. Robert is proud that although the church's membership only consists of a few dozen families, they are continuously written up and receive excellent reviews for the cultural events that they hold. According to the Reverend, the tightly knit community at West Park Presbyterian will always be on the "cutting edge" - where things happen.
Like many uptown churches, Central Baptist Church had its origins downtown. It was founded in 1842 on Laight Street and later moved to the Times Square area before finding its current home in 1916. Sharrata Hunt, the office manager, showed me around the main sanctuary, pointing out the stained glass windows that depict the life of Christ and the large organ that, though it has not worked in thirty years, is a grand addition to the space. Today, there are over 150 active members. In addition to the English masses, there is a Spanish mass every Sunday and Haitian services on Sunday evenings. Sharrata showed me to the chapel, which is ornamented at the front by the same style of stained glass as the sanctuary. Music is very important to Central Baptist Church. Arrayed around the altar are a piano, bass guitar, and drum set, which are used at every service. Sharrata also let me know that there are some extraordinary musicians in the congregation and that David Wallace, the music director, is a trained opera singer. One of the church’s parishioners in the early 1900s was Robert Lowry, a respected hymn-writer who is best known for “Shall We Gather at the River, ” which is still in the hymnals. On the lower level, there is a gym that was started by Pastor Bruschweiler, who was the head of Central Baptist church until the mid-1990s. I could hear children playing down there as I stood on the ground floor. The basketball court is a wonderful resource for neighborhood children and has helped expand the church community. Sharrata informed me that one Elder of the church became a Christian because he came to Central Baptist Church for basketball so often. He even married a girl who was a cheerleader for the basketball team. On the top floor of the church, there is another gym, which is used as a dance studio. “The church is a good resource for local schools, ” Sharrata said.
The Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum first opened in 1897 thanks to three of Peter Cooper’s granddaughters: Amy, Eleanor, and Sarah. Their grandfather was an industrialist who founded The Cooper Union, a renowned art school. The museum was created as part of the Cooper Union and officially became a branch of the Smithsonian Museum in 1967. As for the building that houses the exhibitions, it was originally Andrew Carnegie’s mansion. Today, it is known for being the only museum in the country devoted to educating the public about both historic and contemporary design. There is also an entrance to the museum through the garden on East 90th Street.
I have often commented on how I wish there were more places to write about for children on the side streets of Manhattan. Each business that I have discovered has been fantastic; I just always want to come upon another. That is why I was so excited to find this fascinating indoor petting zoo and activity center. The Art Farm has been on the Upper East Side since 2002. Valentina Van Hise, the director, visited the Art Farm that Mari Linnman formed in the Hamptons in 1999. She worked and trained there as a teacher before deciding to open a location in Manhattan. When the Art Farm in the City first began, it catered to Mommy and Me classes. Today, the center offers activities for children up to eight years old, although everyone must be accompanied by an adult. Everywhere I looked I saw animals: examples of children’s art projects hung on the walls, depicting different creatures; murals of underwater scenes covered the bathrooms; and illustrations from animal-centric books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar decorated the first floor. In addition to a cozy playroom with a green carpet that imitates grass, the ground floor has a full kitchen, which is used both for baking and arts and crafts. Art Farm has what it calls “Friend Fridays, ” where children can come and do projects in the kitchen each week. “There’s no craft we don’t know, ” one of the staff members said with a smile. “The Farm, ” located downstairs, was the most remarkable feature. Impossibly fuzzy chinchillas rested in cages while bunnies hopped around a large central pen across from a chicken coop. We met Fluffy (a chinchilla who is “in a kind of retirement home to herself"), Maggie the guinea pig, and Russian tortoises named Boris, Natasha, and Yeltsin. In the back of the room, we found creatures without fur, including insects, amphibians and reptiles. I gazed in awe at the large orange Halloween Moon Crab and the walking stick insect. Farther back, there is a large birdcage and a fish tank. The Manhattan Sideways team was overcome, petting everything in sight and gazing into tanks at hissing insects, bearded lizards, and salamanders. The piece de resistance for us, however, was when one of the staff members quietly brought out a few baby chicks that had recently hatched. Happily, every class and activity involves the animals in some way. Even during baking activities, as soon as the treats are in the oven, the children are escorted down the steps to play with the creatures.