comscore New York says farewell to American Bible Society, and its building

New York says farewell to American Bible Society, and its building

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NEW YORK >> “Behold, a ladder was set up on the earth, and its top reached to heaven; and there the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.”

Angels have never been especially conspicuous around Columbus Circle in Manhattan. But it is hard to look at 1865 Broadway, the former headquarters of the American Bible Society, and not think for a moment about the ladder of Jacob’s dream, as described in Genesis 28:12.

If the bold, Brutalist rungs of the main facade do not persuade you of a biblical provenance, you are also free to read symbolism into the 12 deep recesses at each floor. Might they represent the 12 tribes of Israel? Or the Twelve Apostles?

No matter, really. On the eve of its bicentennial, the society moved to Philadelphia, where it dedicated new headquarters last week. It sold its site at Broadway and 61st Street for $300 million to AvalonBay Communities, which plans a 300,000-square-foot apartment tower on the site.

Soon, 1865 Broadway will be gone, after only 49 years.

The society is gone already. It departed after the close of business on Aug. 24.

“Leaving New York was bittersweet,” Roy L. Peterson, the president and chief executive, said in an email. “The building was in need of significant updates and repairs, and the cost of living and doing business in New York City had become untenable for the organization and many of its employees.”

Peterson said proceeds from the sale paid for the move and would also be used for ministry and to ensure long-term stability. He said three-quarters of the staff remained through the transition. There are 122 employees in Philadelphia.

Founded in 1816 to ensure the widest possible circulation of the Bible, the nondenominational society was first quartered on Nassau Street in Lower Manhattan, where it had a steam-powered printing press.

In 1852, during the presidency of Theodore Frelinghuysen, the society began building the large Bible House on Astor Place, between Third and Fourth Avenues. By 1893, the society had printed 56,926,771 volumes and had aided in the translation, printing or distribution of the Scriptures in 95 languages and dialects.

On the society’s 100th anniversary, in May 1916, President Woodrow Wilson likened its agents and colporteurs — peddlers of religious books — to the “shuttles in a great loom that is weaving the spirits of men together.”

The society stopped printing Bibles in 1922. It moved in 1936 to 450 Park Ave., at 57th Street, where it remained until it opened its 12-story building at 1865 Broadway in 1966. Rep. Peter H.B. Frelinghuysen Jr., R-N.J., a descendant of Theodore Frelinghuysen, spoke at the event.

Roy O. Allen Jr. and Donald C. Smith of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill were the architects, working with engineers at Weiskopf & Pickworth. The building was the first in the city to be constructed with load-bearing exterior walls made of pre-cast concrete panels — the aesthetic opposite of office towers with heavy interior steel frames and diaphanous glass skins.

It never inspired rhapsodic appreciation. John Kriskiewicz, an architectural historian, aptly called 1865 Broadway a “very competent” and “structurally expressive” late Modernist building that “might have left the public cold.”

An incongruously delicate entrance pavilion, by Fox & Fowle Architects, was added in 1997. That year, an art gallery opened in the building that expanded in 2005 to become the Museum of Biblical Art. With the departure of the American Bible Society, however, the museum had to close this year, despite having attracted record crowds for a show of sculpture from the age of Donatello.

In 2007, a sculpture by Lincoln Fox was installed in front of 1865 Broadway. Titled “Invitation to Pray,” it depicts a life-size Jeremiah Lanphier, who founded the Fulton Street prayer meeting in 1857, seated on a bench. Passers-by frequently joined him for selfies, if not always for prayer.

Appropriately enough, the Lanphier statue stayed in New York. In fact, he was moved down to Lower Manhattan, where he now sits in the lobby of King’s College, a Christian liberal arts college that moved in 2012 to 56 Broadway.

Among Philadelphia’s draws for the society were lower operating costs and convenience for employees who already worked in nearby Chesterbrook, Pennsylvania, Peterson, the president, said.

Asked whether New York officials had tried to persuade the society to stay, he said, “We did not receive any contact from the mayor’s office.”

Benjamin Pattou, the engineer at Howard I. Shapiro & Associates who is overseeing the demolition job, said the load-bearing walls were not likely to present much trouble. But he added that the concrete girders forming the floors, which are more than 50 feet long, would be “challenging to dismantle.”

Nonetheless, he said, demolition should be finished next year. But one facet of 1865 Broadway will remain. The architects of the AvalonBay tower are to be Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, replacing their own work of a half-century ago.

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