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New York City, New York

New York (pop 8,5 mln., 14 mln. with suburbs) is undeniably one of the centers of the world. Between 1930 and 1950 (when the Lithuanian refugees arrived) it was the world's largest city and it has been the US top city throughout its history.

By the time it received its first 100-floor building in 1931 the tallest "skyscraper" of Lithuania stood at 8 floors. New York must have truly impressed the contemporary immigrants from agricultural Lithuania (of which there were 15 000 in New York in 1930). Unlike some other once-industrial US cities, New York continued to be important and its Lithuanian community constantly renews itself.

Among the New York Lithuanian sites are numerous memorials and memorial plaques, some of them symbolically created in key locations to mark the importance of Lithuanian-Americans. There were 5 Lithuanian churches, 2 of which survive and are very impressively decorated. Several key Lithuanian organization HQs are located in Manhattan.

Altar of the New York Transfiguration Lithuanian church

Altar of the New York Transfiguration Lithuanian church. Lithuanian symboils such as th eflag, the sun-crosses and more are well visible

New York also played an important role in lives of numerous famous Lithuanians, giving birth to sites related to them. This includes the Transatlantic pilots Darius and Girėnas (who took off from New York for their famous flight), the writer Antanas Škėma (who wrote a semi-autobiographical work about a Lithuanian emigrant in New York that is now considered among the best Lithuanian books ever) and modern artists Jonas Mekas and Jurgis Mačiūnas (who developed their Fluxus art movement in New York).

Jogaila (Jagiello) statue in the New York Central Park

Jogaila (Jagiello) statue in the New York Central Park

Queens and its modern-ethnic church

Even before World War 1, Lithuanians had their churches in New York. The most unique among the New York‘s Lithuanian churches is Transfiguration church (64-14 Clinton Avenue). Although originally constructed 1908, it was twice rebuilt (once after a fire and after WW2 due to expanded Lithuanian community). The current building dates to 1962. It is an attempt to create a modern-yet-ethnic Lithuanian style, something impossible in the Soviet-occupied Lithuania at the time and only existing in the USA. It is sometimes considered a magnum opus of architect Jonas Mulokas and interior designer V. K. Jonynas who also collaborated on multiple Lithuanian American churches in 1950s Illinois.

New York Transfiguration Lithuanian church

New York Transfiguration Lithuanian church

While the building uses modern materials (brick, metal, and glass instead of wood), as well as modern designs (e.g. the statue over the entrance), it has countless Lithuanian symbols in nearly everything. Firstly, the form of the church itself reminds the traditional Lithuanian barn and so does its rooftop „horses“. The church belfry is similar to Lithuanian traditional wooden chapel-posts in its form (one chapel-post, by the way, stands in the churchyard). It is crowned by a Lithuanian sun-cross which also incorporates a moon (a merging of Lithuanian Christian and pre-Christian beliefs). Nearly all the crosses inside the building are also such sun-crosses (including a massive one over the altar). Over the church entrance, Lithuanian words „Mano namai – maldos namai“ greets the visitors („My house – Prayer house“) and the Lithuanian flag is perennially waving together with the US one.

Pews adorned in crosses of Vytis at the Transfiguration Lithuanian church

Pews adorned in crosses of Vytis at the Transfiguration Lithuanian church

Lithuanian-carved confession rooms at the Transfiguration church

Lithuanian-carved confession rooms at the Transfiguration church. V. K. Jonynas style

Inside the church, Lithuanian ornaments are visible even on the lights, while every pew has a Cross of Vytis on its side. Of course, there are images of Lithuania-related saints and religious traditions, such as St. Casimir. There is also a Lithuanian flag. A memorial plaque to the long-term pastor Frank Bulovas is immediately beyond the entrance. By the way, a street near the church (Perry Av) has an honorary name of Monsignor Frank Bulovas Avenue.

The church is open everyday for mass.

Monsignor Frank Bulovas Avenue sign

Monsignor Frank Bulovas Avenue sign

The building near the church houses the Lithuanian-American religious charity organization Šalpa

Brooklyn‘s Williamsburg, the former Lithuanian district

Williamsburg in Brooklyn was a Lithuanian district in the early 20th century. While most Lithuanian institutions there have since closed down, two church buildings and a Lithuania square remain.

Brooklyn Annunciation Lithuanian Roman Catholic church is the hub of the district. It is a century older than the Queens church (built 1863, 259 N. 5th Street, architect Francis Himpler). It has been constructed by Germans and acquired by a Lithuanian parish in 1914. The interior has been partly redecorated the Lithuanian way: Blessed Jurgis Matulaitis and Gate of Dawn altars created (moved in from the other closed Lithuanian churches, as Annunciation remained the liveliest Lithuanian church in New York). There is also a fresco of Our Lady of Vilnius, surrounded by Lithuanian ethnic strip and coats of arms of Lithuania and Vilnius (left side of the altar, created ~1972 in place of a former nun balcony), and St. Casimir praying to its image (right side, 1929). Lithuanians have also added the top part of the altar and the stained-glass windows around the altar (1929 renovation). These meticulous details, together with the older impressive German details (stained-glass windows of 1870, 1860s nave-side frescos by the Munich court painter Esthel, etc.), attract many architecture-loving visitors to the church and it regularly participates in the „Open House New York“ events.

New York Annunciation Lithuanian church exterior

New York Annunciation Lithuanian church exterior

Annunciation Lithuanian church in Williamsburg interior

Annunciation Lithuanian church in Williamsburg interior

Our Lady of Vilnius with the coats of arms of Lithuania (left) and Vilnius (right)

Our Lady of Vilnius with the coats of arms of Lithuania (left) and Vilnius (right), as she appears at the Annunciation Lithuanian church of New York

The Lithuanian altars of Jurgis Matulaitis (left) and Our Lady of Vilnius (right) at the Annunciation Lithuanian church in Williamsburg, New York

The Lithuanian altars of Jurgis Matulaitis (left) and Our Lady of Vilnius (right) at the Annunciation Lithuanian church in Williamsburg, New York

The mass is held in Lithuanian and Spanish (as the neighborhood has large Hispanic population).

Outside of the church, a Lithuanian sun-cross and a Lithuanian chapel-post were erected. The chapel-post has a Lithuanian inscription „Šv. Marija, saugok Lietuvą ir jos vaikus“ („Holy Mary, save Lithuania and its children“) and a Rūpintojėlis (traditional Lithuanian sad Jesus) figure on top. Such Lithuanian Christian carvings (with some pagan details) are UNESCO immaterial World heritage.

Rūpintojėlis at the chapel-post near the Annunciation church

Rūpintojėlis at the chapel-post near the Annunciation church

Lithuanian sun-cross at the Annunciation church

Lithuanian sun-cross at the Annunciation church

Previously a monastery of Lithuanian nuns was located near the church (until being sold in 1975), however, it has closed, just like the Lithuanian school where the nuns taught at (1972). The number of parishioners declined from ~4000 families to ~1000 families in 1990 and ~250 families today.

Brooklyn also had a St Mary of the Angels Lithuanian church (corner of 4th S St. and Roebling St.), closed 1981, now El Puente academy devoid of any Lithuanian marks inside or outside. A simple neoclassical edifice it was famous for the stained glass windows by sculptor V. K. Jonynas it had, which were then moved to Our Lady of Vilnius church in Manhattan (see below).

St. Mary of the Angels ex-Lithuanian church

St. Mary of the Angels ex-Lithuanian church

In between of both churches is perhaps the last surviving Lithuanian sign in the area, „Bar Vasikauskas“ (the bar itself is long closed, however).

Abandoned bar Vasikauskas sign

Abandoned bar Vasikauskas sign

Another key Lithuanian feature of Williamsburg, between the 2nd street, Hewes Street, and Union Avenue, is the Lituanica square, also known as Lithuania square, a small patch of land with a monument and flagpole (1957). It is dedicated to pilots Steponas Darius and Stasys Girėnas who became the first Lithuanians to cross the Atlantic by air and the pioneers of Transatlantic air mail. Sadly their 1933 flight which departed from New York Floyd Bennett Field (in Brooklyn southwest of Williamsburg) ended up in a tragedy near their destination in Kaunas, making them martyrs of both Lithuania and Lithuanian-American community. The monument includes a plaque with Darius and Girėnas faces, their Lithuanian quote „Šį savo skridimą skiriame ir aukojame tau, jaunoji Lietuva“ („We dedicate and sacrifice this our flight to thee, young Lithuania“). The monument has been funded by New York Lithuanians.

Lithuania square main monument in Brooklyn

Lithuania square main monument in Brooklyn

Lithuania, independent by then, sought to build a symbolic wing in that airport in 2013 (70th anniversary) but the airport administration denied this. Only a memorial post reminds of Darius and Girėnas there, located in the green line of Flatbush Ave, erected by New York Lithuanian artists Laura Zaveckaitė and Julius Ludavičius in 2013. The airport itself is no longer used (as it became far too small for the New York City). However, currently, it is more like a park where everyone can walk or drive the former runways, see the crumbling hangars and the terminal building, all of which were some of the last ground-level sites seen by Darius and Girėnas.

Lituanica memorial post by Ludavičius and Zaveckaitė near the Floyd-Bennet airfield

Lituanica memorial post by Ludavičius and Zaveckaitė near the Floyd-Bennet airfield

Floyd Bennet airfield terminal

Floyd Bennet airfield terminal

The runway at Floyd-Bennet airport

The runway at Floyd-Bennet airport

Another Lithuanian location in Brooklyn outside Williamsburg was the Cultural Heart (Kultūros židinys), a building constructed in 1974 to be a heart of New York Lithuanian activities. It was constructed within the Lithuanian Franciscan monastery. There, the monks together with lay Lithuanians cooperated in furthering both religious and secular Lithuanian goals and countering the Soviet propaganda. However, after 1990 independence, Lithuanian Franciscan leadership was able to relocate back to Lithuania and it decided to raise money by selling the expensive Brooklyn monastery, including the Lithuanian Cultural Heart. This led to an expensive court battle between the monks and the Lithuanians who donated for the Cultural Heart expecting it to serve the Lithuanian cause for far longer than ~20 years it did. Eventually, an agreement was reached that the monastery and the Heart would be sold, however, a part of the proceeds would go to Lithuanian-American secular activities. In any case, nothing reminds the Lithuanian past of the former Franciscan monastery and the Cultural Heart today. It is a non-Lithuanian monastery now.

The former Lithuanian Cultural Heart in Brooklyn

The former Lithuanian Cultural Heart in Brooklyn

The demolished Lithuanian churches of New York

Unfortunately, some of the key Lithuanian locations in New York did not survive.

The most "infamous" Lithuanian church in New York is the gothic revival Our Lady of Vilnius (1910). This only Lithuanian church in Manhattan but it has been closed in 2007. The diocese plans to demolish it and sell the expensive land, triggering the largest Lithuanian community protests since independence. It included mass prayers, vigils, demonstrations attempting to save this "shard of Lithuania", among the last Our Lady of Vilnius churches of Lithuania. Even the Lithuanian president Valdas Adamkus, himself a former Lithuanian-American, protested to the Pope against the church closure. However, all these were unsuccessful and the church was demolished.

Our Lady of Vilnius church squeezed between massive skyscrapers. It no longer exists. Google Street View.

At about the same time, New York's fifth Lithuanian church, the Renaissance Revival St. George's, has been destroyed and replaced by apartment blocks without much attention, likely because of its less glamorous Brooklyn location. Google Street View of 2007 has the only online image of it.

Lithuanian institutional HQs in Manhattan

New York is also the home to a major Lithuanian secular institution. The Lithuanian Alliance of America HQ (307 W. 30th Street) is its small but well-located heart. Now surrounded by skyscrapers, the historic 19th-century four-floored building recently had its exterior renovated to its former glory.

Lithuanian Alliance of America HQ building

Lithuanian Alliance of America HQ building

The Lithuanian Alliance was the largest pre-war Lithuanian-American organization. It was founded in 1886 by the Lithuanian-American nationalists and leftists who dissented against the central role the Catholic church and its parishes played in many Lithuanian-American activities. Lithuanian Alliance has also served as a life insurance company for Lithuanians. Its membership has declined over the time since World War 2, however, as the new generations of Lithuanians were less likely to join. It went down from 11948 in 1955 to just 2446 in 2007 and merely several hundred today. The Alliance has abandoned its no-longer-lucrative insurance business to become a non-profit. The insurance business, once the major one, was severely hit by the Roosevelt's New Deal which made it mandatory for the employers to insure the employees (immigrants thus no longer needed the ethnic incurances, although these survived many decades afterwards due to people being used to them).

An image of Jonas Šliūpas at the Lithuanian Alliance HQ

An image of Jonas Šliūpas at the Lithuanian Alliance HQ

In its basement, the Alliance HQ has a massive archive documenting as the former insurance business made it collect more information on its members than usual. Possibly useful for genealogy research, the archive is not digitized so far. The second floor has offices with some authentic interwar furniture (you may be allowed to visit if asked during working hours) while the top floors have apartments that are rented out making the main profit for the Alliance today.

Lithuanian Alliance archives

Lithuanian Alliance archives

Lithuanian Alliance publishes the oldest Lithuanian newspaper ("Tėvynė", since 1896), albeit currently the publishing dates are scarce and the printing is done outside the building. Sla 307 gallery has been recently opened on the ground floor of the building, celebrating both Lithuanian and American art. It has regular working hours but you need to ring a bell.

Ground floor of the Lithuanian Alliance in America with SLA307 gallery name

Ground floor of the Lithuanian Alliance in America with SLA307 gallery name

New York is also a political center. It is the location of United Nations HQ and thus the Lithuanian representative office to the UN. It also has a consulate-general. Both of those work on rented premises, however, and have no permanent Lithuanian details.

Lithuanian consulate interior

Lithuanian consulate interior

Manhattan Lithuanian memorials

In addition to the Brooklyn memorials for pilots Darius and Girėnas, there are many Lithuanian memorials in the key places of Manhattan as well.

On the New York stock market in Broad Street (Manhattan), there is a commemorative plaque for the first famous Lithuanian-American Aleksandras Karolis Kuršius (better known in Latin as Alexander Carolus Cursius-Curtius). This nobleman established the NYC's first Latin school on the location (at the time New York was still a Dutch colony known as New Amsterdam). The plaque for him was created in 1976 for the US 200 anniversary and has been a part of a Lithuanian American struggle to widen the knowledge of the name "Lithuania" and its Soviet occupation.

New York City Stock Exchange where the Cursius plaque is located

New York City Stock Exchange where the Cursius plaque is located

Cursius memorial plaque

Cursius memorial plaque

Before the massive immigration from Eastern Europe began in the late 19th century such isolated noblemen were the only Lithuanians to set foot on New York shore. One of them - Tadeusz Kosciuszko (Lithuanian: Tadas Kosciuška) - fought for US freedom before unsuccessfully attempting to defend his homeland Poland-Lithuania (united at the time) from European great powers. A commemorative plaque for him has been jointly funded by Lithuanian and Polish Americans in 1997.

Another Lithuania-related memorial plaque is on the floor of the New York Library at 476 5th Ave. It cites Martin Radtke, an immigrant from Lithuania, who had a few opportunities for formal education and so educated himself in the library, amassing a fortune he then bequeathed to the library. There is next to none information available about him online, however, save for the plaque. "Radtke" surname was, however, somewhat common among Lithuania's Germans, so it is likely Martin Radtke hailed from that community. It is possible that "Radtke" is a Germanized version of a Lithuanian surname Ratkevičius (Germanization of Lithuanian surnames was common in the German-ruled parts of Lithuania).

The grand interior of New York libarary at the place where Radtke's plaque is

The grand interior of New York libarary at the place where Radtke's plaque is

Martin Radtke memorial plaque in the New York library

Martin Radtke memorial plaque in the New York library

The first leader of both Poland and Lithuania, ethnic Lithuanian King Jogaila lived at the time America was not even discovered by the Europeans (1348-1434). However, New York Central Park includes a massive Jogaila statue, created by S. Ostrowski. It is one of the most impressive Lithuania-related sites in New York. Symbolically it is a copy of a sculpture in Warsaw (Poland) that had been destroyed to make WW1 bullets. The Central Park sculpture was made to decorate Polish pavilion in 1939 New York Expo but while that Expo was still ongoing Poland itself was invaded and occupied by Soviet Russians and Nazi Germans. The property of Polish pavilion has then been transferred to the Polish museum but a joint request of New York mayor and Polish consul made it a gift to New York City. As the sculpture has been built by Poles the Polonized version of king's name is used (Jagiello) and the word "Poland" inscribed. However, the description of the king includes Lithuania, and the coat of Jogaila is covered in both Polish and Lithuanian coats of arms.

Close-up of Jogaila with Vytis visible

Close-up of Jogaila with Vytis visible

Anatanas Škėma and Lithuanian artists related sites

New York lacks a Lithuanian cemetery, however, the massive private Cypress Hills cemetery includes many Lithuanian graves. Arguably the most famous among them is the Grave of Antanas Škėma, one of the most famous Lithuanian writers. His semi-autobiographical existentialist magnum opus "White Shroud" described the toil and thoughts of an underemployed Lithuanian Soviet-Genocide-refugee in New York, who had to work in an elevator of a prestigious hotel despite being qualified to a white-collar work.

Antanas Škėma grave

Antanas Škėma grave

Antanas Škėma actually worked in the elevator himself at the Roosevelt Hotel in central Manhattan, which still has the opulent interior Škėma was once surrounded by.

It is often claimed that Antanas Škėma would be considered among the world's top 20th century writers had he written his work in English, as he effectively debuted existentialism. However, with his work in Lithuanian and accessible only to Lithuanian-Americans (having been effectively banned in the Soviet-held Lithuania), he had very limited readers. He was discovered in Lithuania after 1990 independence (and added to school literature programs there) but is yet-to-be-discovered in America (even many Lithuanian-Americans of today do not know him).

Roosevelt hotel interior, where Škėma worked at

Roosevelt hotel interior, where Škėma worked at. The elevators are on the left.

Other famous Lithuanian-American artists who developed their careers in New York are the FLUXUS artists Jonas Mekas and Jurgis (George) Mačiūnas. Anthology Film Archives is a cinema established by Jonas Mekas which doubles as a repository for independent films.

Anthology film archives, established by a Lithuanian Jonas Mekas

Anthology film archives, established by a Lithuanian Jonas Mekas

Ellis Island

Not just for the Lithuanians, but for most immigrant ethnicities Ellis Island is important as a point through where 12 million immigrants came to the USA in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, among them hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians. The massive halls of the facility are now the US largest museum of immigration.

Ellis Island museum of immigration

Ellis Island museum of immigration

Main hall of the Ellis Island immigration facility, passed by most Lithuanian-American pre-war migrants

Main hall of the Ellis Island immigration facility, passed by most Lithuanian-American pre-war migrants

Still, Lithuanians were among the smaller immigrant groups (compared to the Poles, Italians, Germans, Jews...), so, relatively little is available particularly on them in the Ellis Island. But the place is great for learning the experience many Lithuanian migrants had, epitomised in a local quote from an immigrant from Lithuania that basically says that emigration was similar to death in that you wouldn't ever see even your parents anymore.

A quote of a (most likely) Jewess from Lithuania at the Ellis Island museum

A quote of a (most likely) Jewess from Lithuania at the Ellis Island museum

A rather new attraction in Ellis Island is the now-abandoned Ellis Island hospital which may be visited on tours. There, those who could be cured would be allowed to immigrate but those who couldn‘t be deported. At the time, health was almost the only one criteria which decided who would be allowed to immigrate to the USA, and the experience of Ellis Island hospital was universal for immigrants of all ethnicities, Lithuanians included. As the deportation of the unhealthy met separating families, Ellis Island was also known as the Island of Tears.

Images of immigrants as an art project at the abandoned Ellis Island hospital

Images of immigrants as an art project at the abandoned Ellis Island hospital

Washing room of the Ellis Island hospital

Washing room of the Ellis Island hospital

Visiting Ellis Island is possible using the Liberty Island ferries everyday. The visit is easily combinable with the visit to Liberty Island.

New York consists of five massive boroughs. Queens has ~6000 Lithuanians, Manhattan ~5000, Brooklyn ~3000, Bronx ~500, Staten Island ~750.

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