The Wayside Chapel stood as a picturesque postcard scene, capturing the hearts of all who laid eyes upon it. In the autumn, the chapel’s ivy transformed into a deep shade of red, adding a touch of natural beauty. Its bell’s enchanting echo resonated across the Tappan Zee, leaving a sense of tranquility.
Nestled along the charming River Road, which meandered alongside Nyack Bight, this quaint hammered-stone Flemish-Revival chapel boasted a prime location. With the majestic Palisades to the west and the expansive Tappan Zee to the east, it’s no wonder that this architectural gem, built in 1869 at #24 River Road, inspired a serene and romantic piano composition by Nyack’s renowned composer, G. D. Wilson.
However, the advent of the automobile marked a turning point for the chapel, as its utility slowly faded. Today it stands as a private residence, hemmed in by neighboring houses. The imposing blue girders of the Tappan Zee Bridge dominate the river view, creating a striking juxtaposition. Let us delve into the captivating history of the Wayside Chapel – a structure that could have sprung from the pages of Jane Austin’s countryside novels.
“Like a quaint and dreary picture
In some olden land of song,
Stands the little “Wayside Chapel,”
Where the river flows along.” Sarah Keables Hunt, The Wayside Chapel ,1887
Nyack’s Bight, a concave bay nestled on the Hudson River in the former village of South Nyack was photographed many times, and for good reason. Old River Road gracefully winds its way next to a sandy beach. The area holds significant historical value as an indigenous people’s site, with stone tools and shell middens discovered in the vicinity. It is believed that the native people engaged in springtime shad fishing, a practice that has only disappeared recently due to a decline in the shad population. The Bight’s strategic location provided easy access for trading by boat with ample freshwater nearby. Today the Tappan Zee Bridge crosses the middle of the Bight.
During the early 19th century, boatbuilding, and quarries thrived as Nyack’s primary industries. The narrow riverfront from Piermont to the Hook boasted easily accessible sandstone. The Onderdonk family quarry, located just south of the Bight, served as the earliest and largest quarry in the region. Initially catering to local construction needs, these quarries soon became suppliers of brownstone for building in New York City, and the construction of various forts, including Fort Lafayette.
At its peak in the 1830s, approximately 30 quarries operated along the river. Stone loaded onto nearby docks swiftly reached New York City. The laborious work in the quarries must have left workers parched, for a shanty at the southern edge of the Bight became a local haunt for inexpensive liquor.
John Onderdonk, a member of the Onderdonk quarry family and later a prominent Nyack real estate developer, grew up in the neighborhood. Tasked with procuring liquor for his father at the local shanty, he became a lifelong crusading advocate of the Temperance Movement. The shanty became a blemish on the area by 1860.
The Sunday School
As the nearest church was over a mile away from area south of the Bight, several good-hearted local businessmen formed a group to buy the rum shop and turn it into a Sunday school for children. John L. Salisbury, whose Revolutionary War era house sat atop the hill on the north end of the Bight, provided the land. Captain D. D. Smith of the steamboat business, David Blauvelt, president of the Rockland County Bank, and Charles Hunter of Trapenhagen & Hunter provided a push for fundraising. Children who attended the school helped in the fundraising for a church effort. They earned a “share” in the future church by donating ten cents.
The Sabbath School known to locals as the “Branch” flourished after it first met in Hester Onderdonk’s house nearby. Each week from 10 to 60 teachers and students met in the old rum shop. (About the same time, #25 River Road became the Halfway House, an inn with an extensive wine cellar.)
Laying of the Cornerstone
On a chilly, wet day in November 1867 a cornerstone laying ceremony took place with these words inscribed on it – “SABBATH SCHOOL, Organized July 22, 1860, WAYSIDE CHAPEL, Erected 1867.”
A time capsule in the cornerstone contained a copy of the Rockland Evening Journal, a bible, a catalog from the Rockland Female Institute (a neighbor ¼ mile north), various religious tracts, and a copy of the Sunday School Times.
Some 300 people filled the chapel to bursting at its formal opening on a Sunday afternoon in February 1869. A reporter commented that the stained-glass windows, chairs, and student desks made an attractive environment for the children of the neighborhood.
Wayside Chapel was designed by Daniel Topping Atwood, a noted Gothic-revival home and cottage designer of the mid-19th century from Tenafly. He authored several books including Atwood’s Modern Homesteads in 1876. The book included a description and architectural drawings of the Wayside Chapel.
The 26’ by 40’ chapel seated 200 in a main large room under a vaulted ceiling. Scriptures covered the crossbeams. A stained glass rose window donated by John L. Salisbury graced the north gable. Built of locally quarried, hammered stone, the Flemish-Revival style sports a stepped gable pattern. The building cost $5000. A portion of the ivy that covered much of the building came from the old New York Hospital when it occupied a site on Broadway near Duane Street.
Atwood also designed a belfry built in 1873. The stones for the belfry came from a ledge on the Dean property in Nyack. The belfry featured a bell made in Holland and donated by the family of Mrs. Thomas Dean weighing 526 pounds. The word “Come” is inscribed in large letters on the front. On the reverse is inscribed the words, “Presented to the Wayside Chapel, A Memorial of Mrs. Thomas Dean, St. Marks New York, by her children, 1873.”
Services at the first bell ringing included Rev. Voorhees from the Dutch Reformed Church, Rev. Little of the Methodist Church, and Rev. Stephen Merritt. From its inception the chapel was interdenominational.
Moved after renovation, the bell became a centerpiece in front of the Grand View Village Hall. Damaged by Hurricane Sandy, the village demolished old city hall. The bell remains.
A sabbath school ran in the afternoons until 1930. For a time, Miss Anna Burgh ran a boarding and day school just south of the chapel. The chapel was busy on Sunday evenings too. Sunday services, lectures, wedding ceremonies, readings, and community meetings created a busy public space in the early days. For example, soon after the chapel opened a fundraiser featured moonlight readings from Robert Burns and Charles Dickens.
Wayside Chapel by Grenville Dean Wilson
G.D. Wilson wrote over 150 compositions mostly for the piano while living in Nyack. He founded the Nyack Philharmonic, the Nyack Choral Society, and the Nyack Library. He came to Nyack in 1860 to teach at the Rockland Female Institute. The Wayside Chapel written in 1873 is one of his most endearing and serene piano compositions.
Conversion to a Private Residence
With more accessible roads and the advent of the car, there was less need for a “local” chapel. In 1939, Miss Rose Keane, a Greenwich village artist and teacher, purchased the chapel from the Salisbury family heirs for a private residence.
She renovated the interior and left the exterior intact. She donated the rose window to the Christ Episcopal Church in Sparkill, itself a historic Gothic Revival structure. Keane donated the chapel bell to the Village of Grand View. The entrance was altered to mimic the rest of the building. She custom-built glass doors etched with Hudson Valley scenes to create a separate space for a living room.
A new stairway led to a new second-floor minstrel’s gallery. Dormers were punched in the roof to provide light for this level, one in the front and two in the back. Kean’s renovation exuded lots of charm. From 1973 to 1980 Vryling Corscaden owned the house. He stored and sold antiques there.
Placed on the State & National Register of Historic Places
In 1980, the Zoeberlin family bought and renovated the chapel. They added a fireplace and a rear deck overlooking the river. Through their efforts the Wayside Chapel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000. The home was listed for sale again in 2019.
Small But Significant Monument
While it might be argued that the chapel should have remained in public hands 100 years ago, the transition to a residence has saved the building for posterity. The tiny chapel remains an ornamental, historical, and poetical monument to a time when the Civil War raged, children attended Sunday school, and refined Victorian sensibilities caried the day. “Come.”
Michael Hays is a 35-year resident of the Nyacks. Hays grew up the son of a professor and nurse in Champaign, Illinois. He has retired from a long career in educational publishing with Prentice-Hall and McGraw-Hill. Hays is an avid cyclist, amateur historian and photographer, gardener, and dog walker. He has enjoyed more years than he cares to count with his beautiful companion, Bernie Richey. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike.