The Church Missions House — from charity to photography

Even in the diverse landscape of Manhattan’s architecture, the intricate limestone building facing Park Ave at 22nd street is striking. It’s striking because it’s unusual, it’s unusual because of its distinctive architectural style. If it looks like it was inspired by the medieval guildhalls of Amsterdam and Haarlem, it’s because it was! Influenced by the 17th-century architecture of Northern Europe, especially Belgium, the style is described as Flemish, which stands for Flemish Renaissance Revival or Northern Renaissance Revival

The Flemish style was one of many revival styles used by 19th-century architects and gained popularity in the United States in the 1890s. It’s almost surprising that there are only a few Flemish Revival buildings in New York, given the city’s early history as a Dutch colony. The main identifiable feature of the Flemish Revival is its stepped gabled roof. 

The Church Missions House was designed for the Episcopal Church’s Missionary Society headquarters by Robert W. Gibson and Edward J. Neville Stent. With Cornelius Vanderbilt and J. Pierpont Morgan as major Missionary Society’s benefactors, the building’s cornerstone was laid in 1892 and completed in 1894.

The Missions House looks like a secular structure; sculptural groups in a frieze over the main entrance are the only detail that betrays its religious function. St. Augustine is preaching on the left, while Bishop Samuel Seabury, the first American Episcopal bishop, gives a sermon on the right. Both are delivering the word of God to the respective “barbarians” — English on the left, American on the right. 

St. Augustine and Bishop Samuel Seabury preaching

After the popular Netflix series Inventing Anna, the Church Missions House came into the national spotlight. Anna Sorokin/Delvey, a fake German heiress, selected it as the only building worthy of housing her exclusive social club. She failed, and the building now is a New York home for Fotografiska — a museum dedicated to the art of photography.

One of the exquisitely designed museum interior spaces belonged to its restaurant—a victim of the pandemic that survived for just a couple of months in 2021. It was called Veronica after the 1st-century woman from Jerusalem. According to the legend, when Veronica witnessed Jesus carrying the cross to Calvary, she gave him her veil to wipe his forehead. When he returned the veil, the image of his face was miraculously captured on it. The Veil of Veronica became a relic, and Veronica — a patron saint of photography.

Another notable interior space, the museum’s secret Chapel Bar, is still there but is not accessible by the general public. One would have to acquire the top tier level of the museum membership, becoming the museum patron, to gain entrance. The 19th-century missionaries would most likely be disappointed with such a display of privilege; Anna Delvey, on the other hand, would undoubtedly feel proud.

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