By Brian J. Pape, AIA
American Trappist monk, writer, theologian, mystic, poet, social activist and scholar of comparative religion, Thomas Merton wrote more than 70 books, mostly on spirituality, social justice and a quiet pacifism. Merton developed his faith while living in New York City, not often thought to be conducive to spirituality.
Merton was born on January 31st, 1915, in Prades, France, to Owen, his New Zealand-born father, and Ruth Jenkins, his American-born mother, both artists who met at a Paris painting school. It was an artistic family one might call “cultural Christians.” His father was seldom at home, his mother died of cancer when he was six, and he spent years alone at boarding schools except for a few years when he stayed with his maternal grandparents in Douglaston, Queens, New York. When Merton’s father died in 1931, his father’s physician became his legal guardian and provided for his education.
From 1933, classmates at Cambridge University in England recalled that Merton was adrift, became isolated there, drank to excess, frequented pubs instead of studying and indulged in sexual license, some calling him a womanizer. He transferred to Columbia University in New York, and graduated in 1938. While he studied for his doctorate in English at Columbia, he moved to a second-floor room in the boarding house at 35 Perry Street, where he lived a Bohemian lifestyle and attended Mass at nearby St. Joseph’s Church on Sixth Avenue at Waverly Place, the oldest Catholic church edifice in Manhattan.
Soon after graduation, Merton asked to be accepted into the Corpus Christi Catholic Church at 529 West 121st Street, and was baptized there. Merton approached the Franciscan priests about becoming one of them, but once he confided that he had fathered a child out of wedlock (while at Cambridge), they rejected him. Heartbroken, Merton applied for a job teaching English at St. Bonaventure University, the Franciscan school established in 1858 in the Allegheny foothills. It was at St. Bonaventure that he determined to become a Trappist monk, the most ascetic Roman Catholic monastic order, and on May 26th, 1949, he was ordained to the priesthood, was given the name Father Louis, and started his ministry from the Trappist monastery in Kentucky. He died in Bangkok, Thailand, on December 10th, 1968, the victim of an accidental electrocution.
Thirty-five Perry Street is a narrow Italianate row house that today seems very different from its two neighbors to the west, #37 and #39. Those buildings were remodeled by their owners, but #35 was actually the prototype of all three, which had identical roof cornices forming a continuous roofline, built in 1855 for Henry Cogghill, who was in the wool business. Its entrance stoop is just three steps up from sidewalk level, but a pair of tall parlor doors for the floor above, behind a full-width cast-iron balcony, makes a classical statement, little changed from the original facade.
In 2015, ownership of the four-story, seven-unit rental changed in a $6m sale, and permits were filed for alteration work. Early on, the new owner, Joseph Ienco, discovered that the building’s unstable condition required complete gutting and correction. The staircases were unsafe and violated city codes, the building facade was detached from the side walls, and the beams were so severely rotted that only the plaster walls supported the ceilings and upper floors. Work progressed slowly as each new obstacle was addressed, and the entire interior, except for the fireplace mantles, received an industrial-chic treatment that surprises and intrigues the observer. With up to 12-foot ceilings, the new construction added steel framing, fireproofing, a fire-sprinkler system and a roof deck. Steel railings, beams and framing are exposed or protected by glass ceiling panels; stair separation walls are made of corrugated sea glass. Recovered old-growth wood has been used for the stair walls and treads. Ceramic pavers cover not only apartment floors, but blend seamlessly out to the rear patio, which now includes a hideaway room. Contemporary fixtures complete the modern design.
According to a September 2016 New York Daily News, the homeowner was tagged by city Department of Buildings officials trying to hide an excavation in his backyard, potentially weakening the foundations according to Buildings Commissioner Rick Chandler. Later, work continued under the Charles Perry LLC name, and continues to today. The front door and balcony were replaced and window flower boxes added; the brownstone stoop will be restored. Although located in the Greenwich Village Historic District, a search of Landmarks Preservation Commission and Community Board 2 historic websites found no work applications. While some units are occupied, Ienco stated that he is working with city officials to clear any and all violations before he finishes the project.
Ienco intends to have a historic plaque affixed to the building to commemorate Merton’s residency there.
Brian J. Pape is a LEED-AP “Green” Architect consulting in private practice, serves on the Manhattan District 2 Community Board, and is Co-chair of the American Institute of Architects NY Design for Aging Committee.