Places that Matter
Place Matters Profile
The Bowery Mission is one of the earliest instances of the American institution, the "gospel rescue mission"--private protestant charities that provide food, shelter and clothing to men in need, while encouraging them to seek religious conversion. The first of these missions was erected on Water Street in 1872. The 1879 Bowery Mission was the second in New York City. It was also the first mission on the Bowery, where by the 1890s it was one of 38 in a one-mile stretch. Because of its location on "America's Skid Row," the Bowery Mission has become, perhaps, the most famous gospel rescue mission in the country. As the Bowery district rose to international notoriety as a home for the city's most destitute residents, the Bowery Mission became similarly emblematic of Christian charity and evangelism.
Reverend and Mrs. Albert G. Ruliffson founded the Bowery Mission in 1879. The organization’s first home was at 36 Bowery, a three-story building located in the Five Points neighborhood, where the Ruliffsons operated the Bowery Mission Restaurant, a clean, low cost dining alternative to Five Points’ myriad saloons and establishments of ill repute. In 1895 the Christian Herald Association took financial control of the charitable organization, and in 1897 the Mission moved to 55 Bowery, a former dance hall known as Gombossy’s Music Hall. There the new occupants installed a famous pipe organ from the Marquand Chapel of Princeton University to fill the large auditorium with a different kind of music.
The construction of the Manhattan Bridge forced the Mission to move again in 1905, and in 1909, it established its permanent home at 227 Bowery. The five-story brick building was designed by the prolific German-born tenement architect William Jose, and erected in 1876. The structure originally housed a coffin manufactory and an undertaking business. When the Mission purchased the building in 1908, architects H.L. and M.G. Emery renovated the second floor to make room for the spacious chapel, whose second-story balcony is surmounted by a ceiling of giant wood trusses. To convey the impression of a sixteenth century English inn, half-timbering was added to the second story of the building’s exterior. The second floor also received a Tudor-style bay window that spans the width of the façade.
In 2003 the Mission underwent a $3 million renovation that helped to restore the chapel’s original 1909 pews, pulpit, and Tiffany-style stained glass windows depicting the prodigal son returning to his father. The chapel has a capacity of approximately three hundred, and over the years, thousands have sought solace and new direction before its altar.
As of 2011, the Mission occupies both 227 and 229 Bowery. The first building provides offices, classrooms and living quarters on the top three floors, while the lower two form a welcoming area and auditorium used for the Mission's sermons. The basement is occupied by a communal dining hall. The three-story structure at 229 Bowery contains, among other facilities, a large kitchen and a meeting room.
While the Bowery Mission enjoys a relatively high profile among many New Yorkers, it is also a landmark to the community it serves. On average, it provides 18,000 beds of emergency shelter and serves over 136,000 meals annually while simultaneously operating a career center and a nine-month residency program. Most homeless service providers seek to create a stable point in their clients' transitory lives. The Bowery Mission, due to its emphasis on religious conversion, not only seeks to mark a turning point in its clients' material well-being, but also becomes, in many cases, a spiritual marker as well--a point made evident by the large number of the Mission's staff who first found the Mission as clients.
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