Monday, April 16, 2012

My Visit to Ethical Culture

I had the opportunity this last weekend to tour an amazing Art Nouveau building in New York City on Central Park West, the Ethical Culture Hall.

Ethical Culture was founded in 1877 by Felix Adler, a young rabbi who wanted to establish a religion that was decidedly non-theistic, a kind of religious humanism. Ethical Culture was a tremendous success in its time, and within a few years societies were springing up all across the country. Wikipedia outlines six principles that under gird Ethical Culture:
  • The belief that morality is independent of theology;
  • The affirmation that new moral problems have arisen in modern industrial society which have not been adequately dealt with by the world's religions;
  • The duty to engage in philanthropy in the advancement of morality;
  • The belief that self-reform should go in lock step with social reform;
  • The establishment of republican rather than monarchical governance of Ethical societies
  • The agreement that educating the young is the most important aim.
Adler's emphasis became "Deed Above Creed" because he felt that disputes over doctrine and philosophy prevent religious people from the real work of simply doing good.

Inside the Hall, on the way to the stairs and elevators.
The building is roughly five stories high, the first three floors being a theater/meeting space that can accommodate over eight hundred people. Stained glass and statues give a vaguely religious aura to the space, which is appropriate, I think. But so far has Ethical Culture fallen from it's gilded age heights that they don't even use their wonderful meeting space for their weekly meetings anymore. Instead that space is rented by a Korean Christian church on Sundays and Jewish observances on Saturday. It looks like Creed is battling it's way back to the top of Deed.

Floors four and five are the offices, some rented to other groups, some maintained by Ethical. The building is attached to Adler's ethical culture school, but no longer so closely associated. the two institutions run separately.

On my tour, I was informed that the staircase was where parts of the movie Ghostbusters was filmed, which is just awesome. A site call The City Review has a nice section on the building. The site quotes the book New York Streetscapes,Tales of Significant Buildings and Landmarks by Christopher Gray
In 1909, Ethical Culture began work on a meeting hall on the 64th Street corner. The building was designed by Robert D. Kohn, who had been a member of the society since childhood and who had become a principal practitioner of the Art Nouveau style in New York. Like Christian Science, the Ethical Culture movement was searching for its own form - it had no historic precedents from which to draw. Kohn's exterior, all Bedford limestone, took its cornice and base course lines from the adjacent school, but nothing else. Instead of the school's broad window facing Central Park, the meeting house has wide, limestone expanses, like a mausoleum, and simply, blocky detailing. When the building opened in 1910, the Times wrote: 'The severe plain wall is eloquent in its protest against the breathless rush and hustle of the modern city; it beckons to the hastening, sordid throng, Tarry a while; there is in life more than stocks and shekels and vain show.'"
An older Adler
Startled by the photographer

Inside the building there are photos and painting of Felix Adler on the walls, and they are quite stunning to see. As Adler grew older he became bald, and though it is difficult to get an idea of his size, he was apparently quite diminutive. He has piercing eyes even in photos, but he also looks to me like he is eternally surprised, as if the photographer caught him off guard with his camera.

Perhaps the most startling thing I saw on my tour was one of two sculptures made from Adler's death mask, a plaster cast of the deceased face. I could not help myself, I had to touch it.

Adler's death mask
The picture gives no sense of scale, but Adler's head isn't much bigger than a Nerf football.

the last impressive detail of the building, at least to my untrained architectural eyes was the roof, an amazing space that has been turned into a playground for the school next door. Why the school needs a playground on the roof when there is Central Park right across the street is beyond me. What a grand meeting space the roof would be during certain times of the year and under proper weather conditions.

The people I met at Ethical Culture were all kind and generous with their time and answers to my questions. I am very thankful for their hospitality and look forward to the day when Ethical Culture can revitalize themselves and reverse the downward trend of their shrinking enrollment.

On Sunday morning I was glad to sit in on one of their weekly meeting, called Platforms. It has the basic contours of a church service, but is non-theistic, and instead of a sermon you get a lecture, and today's was from Anthony B. Pinn, who is a great speaker and a vocal proponent of African-American humanism. He spoke eloquently and pointedly about the Trayvon Martin case. Happily, the lecture has been made available on YouTube:

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