Architect of Mercy: Henry Martyn Congdon

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House of Mercy, designed by Henry Martyn Congdon,  in 1932 photo, NYPL.
House of Mercy, designed by Henry Martyn Congdon, in 1932 photo, NYPL.

More than a century after the House of Mercy closed its doors the former asylum for wayward girls, once located in what is now Inwood Hill Park, remains notorious in the annals of juvenile corrections.  Allegations of torture, bread and molasses diets, the shaving of heads and other unspeakable depravations led to the closing of the institution in around 1920.

So who built the dreaded house on the hill where escapes, riots and even suicides were common events?

Henry Martyn Congdon
Henry Martyn Congdon

Believe it or not, a prestigious architect named Henry Congdon, who designed beautiful gothic-style churches around the country, many of which still stand today, designed the House of Mercy.

House of Mercy shown on 1911 map.
House of Mercy shown on 1911 map.

Henry Martyn Congdon was born on May 10, 1834.  He graduated from Columbia College in 1854 where he was a member of the Psi Upsilon fraternity. His father, Charles Congdon, was a church going man with an interest in architecture.  The elder Congdon was one of the founders of the Ecclesiological Society.  According to Congdon’s obituary, “It was natural, then, that his oldest son should look with interest on architecture as a life-work.” (Journal of the American Institute of Architects, Volume 10, 1922)

Not long after graduating from Columbia Congdon took on an apprenticeship under John Priest, a friend of his fathers who was also a founding member of the Ecclesiological Society.

House of Mercy, designed by Henry Martyn Congdon.
House of Mercy, designed by Henry Martyn Congdon.

After his mentor’s death in 1859 Congdon took on a partner, John Littell, a former classmate from Columbia, and the two formed their own architectural firm in New York City.

The partnership would prove short lived, as would nearly all of his other partnerships until the architect joined forces with his son, Herbert Wheaton Congdon, in 1907.

Early in his career Congdon seemed to function well in both social and architectural settings.  At one time he was a fellow and even Secretary for the American Institute of Architects.

House of Mercy, 1890, from Linda Hall Library.
House of Mercy, 1890, from Linda Hall Library.

For reasons unclear, Congdon withdrew from society and became utterly obsessed with the business of building churches. “Of late years,” read his obituary,  “he kept very much to himself and was not known at conventions and meetings as in the earlier days.” (Journal of the American Institute of Architects, Volume 10, 1922)

Instead, Congdon let the pealing bells of his churches be his voice—and the sheer volume of his houses of worship, many still standing, made certain his voice would carry for generations to come.

St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Fifth Avenue and 127th Street, designed by Henry Congdon.
St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Fifth Avenue and 127th Street, designed by Henry Congdon.

In addition to Inwood’s House of Mercy, Congdon’s designs included: Saint Andrew’s Church in Harlem, Saint Mary’s Free Hospital for Children, Trinity Church in Torrington, CT, Christ Church in Ansonia, CT, Trinity Church in Portland, CT, Calvary Church in Summit, N.J, Saint Paul’s Church in Philipsburg, PA and many others. 

He also did a great deal of minor architecture, church plate, monuments, as well as the usual grist of dwellings, all of which, however simple, showed a sincerity and picturesque charm of composition.” (Journal of the American Institute of Architects, Volume 10, 1922)

St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Fifth Avenue and 127th Street, designed by Henry Congdon.
St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Fifth Avenue and 127th Street, designed by Henry Congdon.

Mr. Congdon never retired, but was at his office until his death,” the writer of his obituary reported. “He fell asleep, literally, while dressing to go to the office as usual, in his 88th year” on February 28, 1922.

Read more about the House of Mercy.

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