On April 19, 1912, surviving crew members of the RMS Titanic gathered in the small assembly hall of the American Seaman’s Friend on Jane Street. They held a memorial service for those lost just four days before, swallowed up by the freezing Atlantic. They cried and prayed and Miss Josephine Upham played the piano while they sang “Nearer My God to Thee.” The next day the New York Times noted the song’s “mighty, roaring chorus” that filled the hall.
The building, the American Seamen’s Friend Society Sailors’ Home and Institute, was built in 1908 to accommodate the society’s growing membership. Ostensibly, the mission was to provide aid to sailors though the Christian reform organization apparently also attempted to civilize them. Rooms were only a quarter a night (double for captains), and within the first year, over 16,000 men had taken advantage of what an annual report in 1911 called, “a bright, airy, comfortable place to sit without being annoyed by the fumes of liquor or soul-rasping profanity.”
In April 1912, in the days following the tragedy, the Institute took in the 100 surviving crew members while they waited on an American inquiry into the Titanic’s fate.
By the ‘50s the neo-Classical building had become the Jane West hotel. It garnered a rough reputation for housing drug addicts and prostitutes. The building was neglected over the next several decades until Sean MacPherson and Eric Goode bought it in 2007.
The tenants, who were paying about $200 a month, fought the renovations, but in the following years the Jane became an affordable way to stay in the same cabin-sized rooms the sailors did a century ago. Most of the building’s outside remains unchanged, although they removed the light beacon from the corner tower, a landmark of its earlier days. The assembly hall is now the Jane Ballroom, which spent some time as a theater in the ‘80s and ‘90s, hosting off-Broadway performances of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and other raucous events. It was during this bohemian period that the budding star RuPaul lived there.
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