Visiting 1940s Oil Paintings in Gramercy

There is an old derelict building on 3rd avenue between 17th and 18th Streets named Scheffel Hall. While the majority of its history eludes me, we know that it is a funky space that has an additional entrance on 17th Street. I know this because this is the entrance to the tiny yet historic Greek Orthodox Church of St. John the Baptist. Scheffel Hall, at least its first floor, was a public house back in the 1930s-40s.

The small space to the rear of the main hall that exited on 17th Street was one that a group of Greek immigrants used occasionally to perform Sunday Liturgical rites and other religious ceremonies for lack of a proper church space in the lower Manhattan area. In 1940 they obtained that small space and raised a partition to separate it from the rest of Scheffel Hall. This was the year the community officially consecrated the space and heretofore it functioned as a proper Greek Orthodox church. The Church of Saint John the Baptist, per archival research, was a space that welcomed multitudes of immigrants who identified as Orthodox.

There are numerous historic elements in this space that are worth preserving. Among these elements is the iconography. The icons on either side of the naos (main temple area between the narthex and the sanctuary) all date from the 1940s. This includes one large oil painting under a wooden apse on the right wall, and the church’s only exposed icon. “Exposed” meaning the icon is not behind glass. Considering the circumstances and accumulation of humidity in the naos, it is hard to say whether this was for better or worse. All other icons are encapsulated behind glass framed within wood paneling on the walls. This, unfortunately, means that all water gets trapped inside the framed space, slowly eating away at the icon. While this may sound a bit dire, it actually, truly is dire.

This all being said, the large oil painting has probably never been cleaned or maintained for decades. Being open it has been at the mercy of incense, candles, humidity, and groups of people clamoring around it. In the process of assisting with grant writing for the renovation projects, we inspected the large icon alongside a smaller one that had just been removed from its casing. Both icons contain areas where the paint has chipped off the canvas leaving it bare behind. The muddy grey spots you see in the photos are exactly this phenomenon.

In some areas, paint has fallen or rubbed off of the canvas surfaces. The remaining area demonstrates a spectrum of aged varnish damage. Where it was thick, the varnish has started to turn dark grey to almost black. In turn, where humidity and atmospheric elements chipped away at it over the years one sees the original paint exposed.

Regardless of the damage, all icons are painted in the manner of that period: not quite Byzantine, but not “Western” either. These icons bridge the two styles, one could say. They are so true to the time period that upon looking at them one can immediately transport their mind to the 30s and 40s when a lot of our ancestors had just arrived in New York with the hopes of better futures for themselves and for their families. There is something particularly moving about being in the same space and revering the same religious portraiture that your ancestors did. In fact, this is one of the motivators behind seeking funding. Restoring the roof, sealing out the leakages, and addressing the humidity damage are top priorities for the new church administration.

The community that has been supporting the church for years has found renewed energy in pursuing this project. Since means are sparse, they began with the community center in the basement where they were able to seal out most of the water and perform a multitude of repairs. Most of this was volunteer work from the contractor who performed the repairs to individual community and board members. Considering the limitations posed by the pandemic, even this is admirable. Here’s to hoping they find funding in time to save the icons.

For anyone interested, alongside their efforts to obtain grants and donations, they are hosting a virtual fundraiser via GoFundMe here.

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