To think that I saw it on 56th Street: a farewell to America House

America's former editorial office on 106 West 56 Street in Manhattan (photo: James Martin, S.J.)

They’re tearing down America House! The Jesuits who lived there for more than a half century are leaving, and the magazine that gave the house its name is on the move, too, having sold the venerable structure for an ungodly sum and departed for new digs elsewhere in midtown Manhattan.

It is a bittersweet day for all who lived and worked at 106 West 56th Street, a place I called home in 2004 and again from 2007 to 2009. I was a Jesuit novice and an intern during my first stay, and a Jesuit scholastic and associate editor for the second, and write now as a married layman. This makes me the Teiresias of America House residents. I’m not going to explain who Teiresias was, because if you don’t know, you’re not fun enough to be part of the America House rec room.

What on earth is the America House rec room? Let me explain by means of an anecdote, the preferred means of communication in said locale. Father John Donohue, a resident of America House for a thousand years, once offered a retort in an editorial meeting for America magazine that is worth repeating here: “A gentleman need offer no reason for his resentment of change.” I wasn’t there for that comment, but I heard it repeated a thousand times in the “recreation room,” a modest but well-appointed room on the sixth floor of America House where the 20-odd Jesuit residents and their guests gathered every night after Mass for drinks and conversation. (There was always a lot of conversation, and always a lot of drinks.)

A spread from a folio promoting America House when it opened in the early 1960s.
A spread from a folio promoting America House when it opened in the early 1960s.

Father Donohue never joined the rec room crowd unless it was a “First-Class Feast” (a major Jesuit feast day), as he was more or less generally disapproving of our revelry, but it didn’t stop us from telling stories about him. And his comment was spot-on, because I do resent the loss of the rec room, even if it means I can extract a more remunerative fee from the penny-pinching rascal priests who run the place now. The rec room was like one never-ending hilarious dinner party where every guest was Truman Capote or Don Rickles. I’m not gonna explain who Truman Capote or Don Rickles are, because if you don’t know, you’re not fun enough to be part of the America House rec room.

Another anecdote: In early May of 2005, my father flew in from California, when I was living at Fordham University, and he and I were supposed to go down the shore for a family gathering in Sea Girt, N.J. We missed our bus at the Port Authority, and were told the next one would be hours away. I suggested to my father we head up to America House and say hello to the guys before catching the next bus. He was agreeable, and curious to hear their reactions to the election of the new pope, Benedict XVI, and so we made the trek up to 56th Street and rode the elevator to the sixth floor. The decibel level coming from the recreation room when the elevator opened was deafening. It sounded as if 25 professors were all lecturing at each other at once, which is almost exactly what was happening. I gave my father a moment to get his bearings, and then we entered the room. I am not lying when I say every single person in the room was shouting.

America House was nothing less than a slice of heaven. The erudition, the holiness, the cold beer.

All of the America men were of course charming, ebullient and delighted to meet my father. He was their type of fellow, an overeducated Mick who liked a drink and a story, and they were full of questions for him. They were full, too, of bon mots and clever asides, most of which hit their mark and one of which was an extended and scabrously filthy pun on how residents of the U.K. should be called “UKers.” When we left for the Port Authority an hour later, my amazed father told me that America House was nothing less than a slice of heaven. The high tone of conversation, the erudition, the clever ripostes, the holiness, the cold beer.

Forty-eight hours later, while we were still down the shore, The New York Times ran a front-page story entitled “Vatican Is Said to Force Jesuit Off Magazine,” announcing that Thomas J. Reese, S.J., my boss and friend, had been removed on Vatican orders as editor in chief. It was an ominous beginning to the reign of the new pope. That story and others in various other papers told the story of several decades of conflict between leading men of the Society of Jesus and the Vatican. My father looked through every story, then looked at me. “Vinnie O'Keefe…Roger Haight…Thomas Reese…Leo O’Donovan….Drew Christiansen…weren’t all five of those men chatting with me in that rec room on Saturday?”  

Yes, Dad, I replied, indeed they were. They are there every night. 

“What a thing,” he muttered, “What a house.”

And what a house it was. Any comedian worth his or her salt can tell you that there are certain tropes in the world of comedy that are always funny. Fish out of water. Mistaken identity. Unexpected profanity. Put all of them together at once, you’ve got the funniest comedy routine imaginable. You also have the America House rec room.

The mighty Joe O’Hare, storyteller nonpareil and also former president of Fordham University and former editor in chief of America, used to entertain that rec room with the story of one Sunday night when he was editor. It was a different time in New York City, and prostitutes were a common sight on Sixth Avenue. 

One Sunday night before dinner, one resident came barreling into the rec room and exclaimed, “Brothers, you won’t believe what just happened to me! One of those ladies of the night just touched me on Sixth Avenue!” The men were aghast.

“Father,” one of the men asked, “Where exactly did she touch you?” 

“ON SIXTH AVENUE,” he replied.

Another story: There was a time when a number of the men in the house were suffering from various physical infirmities, with the result that the coat closet in the lobby of the building was full of crutches and wheelchairs, all tossed in with a minimum of care for housekeeping. Did we clean it out? Of course not. We renamed it “The Lourdes Grotto.”

Another joke that only a Jesuit of a certain age will even understand was the nickname some of the fellows had for the (late-lamented) community on 98th Street, long known as the home of Jesuit radicals like Dan Berrigan: “Dezza House.”

Another story told at America House (of uncertain provenance, to say the least) concerned a college president named Bob and an acknowledged expert on liturgy (also named Bob), who became embroiled in a loud argument over breakfast over some liturgical dispute. Everyone in the room watched with glee: This could end well or badly, and both outcomes would be awesome. Finally, the liturgical expert leaned over. “Bob,” he asked the other Bob, “are you under the impression we were speaking as equals?” The room was delighted by it—but even more delighted by the other Bob’s response, which is unprintable here.

America House had its share of celebrity Jesuits, but it also had its share of real celebrity visitors.

America House had its share of celebrity Jesuits (the California Jesuits always called the place “The Hall of Ex-Presidents,” others the “House of First Violins”), but it also had its share of real celebrity visitors; authors and actors did make their appearances in America House. “Please meet my friend Phil,” Jim Martin would say, and Philip Seymour Hoffman would begin peppering the room with questions about poverty and celibacy. “Please welcome my guest for dinner, Senator ____,” the bulletin board would occasionally read. Karl Rahner once watched a basketball game in the TV room at America House. I’m told that Andrew Garfield and Mary Karr have been seen now and again in recent times, and of course bishops and cardinals liked to show up on occasion. I remember one night I and Matt Malone, now editor-in-chief of America, practiced in front of some of the other Jesuits a comedy routine we planned to perform on St. Patrick’s Day.

“That wasn’t bad,” grumped one father, “but I saw Lena Horne sing in here and she was better.”  

There were of course also incredibly edifying moments. When I was a novice I suffered from horrible insomnia, and I used to go to the chapel and pray the rosary in the dark. One morning at 4:30 the lights suddenly all came on; one of the fathers had come in to say Mass, three hours before the sun rose. Several years later, when I was a regent and a close friend lost her son in a tragic accident, and how amazed and edified I was at how many Masses and prayers and books and bits of advice the men of America House offered. The day I moved out of the house in 2009 to move to Berkeley for theology studies, I turned around at the last moment and caught one of the fathers openly sobbing, inconsolable that I had to leave.

Even when I departed the Society of Jesus in 2012, one of the residents wrote me an email that consisted of a single line: “Remember that you are always welcome here.”

There will be a new residence for the Jesuit editors, of course, and no doubt that place, too, will be merry and witty. But it’ll never be the same. It’ll never be America House.

Timothy Williams
4 months 3 weeks ago

"America House was nothing less than a slice of heaven. The erudition, the holiness, the cold beer." Good grief! The arrogance, the smugness, the affluence... no wonder America is so out of touch with the Faith.

Bruce Snowden
4 months 3 weeks ago

Without having been there ever, I understand well the Jesuit nostalgia of now gone, yet everlastingly alive America House! And more than that, the body, blood, soul and humanity that is its Community rec room memories every wall pulsating with the vitality of human essences, lovingly combative, giddy with laughter, present too not only the freely roaming Spirit of God, but also “other spirits” in bottled confinement finding deliverance in waiting glasses, styofoam will do!

Yes, similar memories securely retained in cranial indelible lines recalled from the distant past, five decades plus in Community, not at America House of reverent memory, but from other places with a different Community, scattered in four quadrants of red, white, and blue, star spangled!

The human element ever present. Once in a rec room talking to an insomniac priest, an old man then, a good friend, confided with a gentle laugh as I sipped a Manhattan, that he discovered the way to get to sleep. I asked, “How, Father?” He proudly admitted that a big cigar and a tumbler of wine does it! Good, getting a bit tipsy, intoxicated with wine and cigar smoke , a pretty good remedy!” Interestingly this priest was one of three in his family, all brothers and one became a Bishop in a mission land, all now deceased. Of course he doesn’t need it now, but just for the fun of it I hope once in awhile part of Father’s heavenly joy is a tumbler of wine and a big cigar!

My other rec room story has to do with a holy priest, ordained in the Simplex Mode, now a Servant of God, hopefully to be Beatified not too far down the road. Once he came to the rec room with his fiddle and spontaneously began to musically “fiddle around” with it. The Community put down reading material, turned down the radio, no TV then, and fraternally listened to Father fiddling. When he finished all clapped approval politely.

Father thought he must be good and appreciated, so he returned a few days later to fiddle again. This time, however, none of his confreres stopped reading, no one turned down the radio, a total lack of interest was obvious. Father got the message, left the rec room and did what a saint would do – he went to the Chapel and before the Blessed Sacrament played his fiddle! There he was sure to have Jesus’ complete attention. I guess that’ll do it for me. God bless America House! God bless all Jesuits!

More: Jesuits / History

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