Thursday, April 26, 2012

The 1889 Gustavus Adolphus Swedish Lutheran Church -- No. 153 East 22nd Street

photo by Alice Lum
Along with the waves of German and Polish immigrants who were flooding the Lower East Side in the mid-19th century were the Swedes.   Unlike the former groups, the Swedish immigrants tended to be pioneers, pushing westward in search of prairie land that could be cultivated into prosperous farms.

But for those who remained in Manhattan and established the Swedish community, a native-language church was needed.   In September 1865 the Reverend A. Andreen organized the Gustavus Adolphus Swedish Lutheran Church.   The small group worshiped for a time in St. James’ Evangelical Lutheran Church on 16th Street before purchasing the Bethesda Baptist Church at Nos. 151 and 153 East 22nd Street for $17,000 on July 29, 1866.

In the mid-1880s Swedish immigration was at its peak and the once-small congregation continued to grow.  In 1887, with membership at around 800 and attendance topping 1,500 at some services, a new church structure was planned. 

The 22nd Street building was razed in May of that year and architects J. C. Cady & Co. were commissioned to design the new structure.  J. Cleaveland Cady had recently distinguished himself by designing the Metropolitan Opera House and the hulking Romanesque-revival wing of the American Museum of Natural History.  For the new church, Cady would again turn to Romanesque-revival; but his design would have a decidedly Gothic touch.

Cady clad the entire structure in rough-cut stone -- photo by Alice Lum
Five hundred people attended the laying of the cornerstone on December 11.  Within the cornerstone were placed a copy of Nordsijernan (the city’s Swedish language newspaper), The New York Times, and other newspapers from around the country.  Swedish and American coins were included as well.

On the left side of the cornerstone was the founding date, 1865, on the left a reference to 1st Peter 2:6 (See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame)-- photo by Alice Lum
The New York Times promised that “The new building will be a handsome structure” costing around $60,000.    Dedicted two years later on May 12, 1889, it was just that.

Called a “solid-looking structure of gray stone” by The Times, it was clad in rough-cut Amherst Ohio stone.  The entrance doors sat within a dramatic and deep arched portico over which the rose window was centered.  It was the copper-clad steeple, however, that stole the show.

One hundred and fifty-five feet above the sidewalk, the tall, gaunt spire was visible for blocks away.   The steeple and the angular copper-trimmed dormer that pierced the pyramidal roof were evocative of the churches in the congregation’s homeland.

Inside, the church stretched 94 feet from the door to the altar, capable of accommodating 1,000 worshipers.   The New York Times commented that “The furnishings are all substantial and comfortable, and the decorations in good taste.”  Behind the pulpit was a painting of the Ascension.

photo by Alice Lum
By 1905 Gustavus Adolphhus Lutheran was among the leading Swedish churches in New York.   There were now 1,200 members and the two Sunday schools had an average attendance of 300.  A new organ had been recently installed and historian William Smith Pelletreau complimented the church that year saying “The mixed choir furnishes excellent music.”

The church offered social gatherings and help to the congregants with two Sewing Societies, a Young People’s Society, the Sick and Benefit Society and an Aid Society.  Once monthly a service was performed in English.

On September 1, 1907 the pastor of the church, Reverend Dr. Mauritz Stolpe, had the honor of conducting worship services aboard the Swedish warship Fylgia for Prince Wilhelm.  The arrival of the prince had already caused quite a stir among the Swedish-American population.  Over 6,000 crowded the pier at 86th Street when the ship steamed in.  It was, after all, a rare opportunity said The New York Tribune for “these descendants of the Vikings to greet their ‘sailor prince.’”

photo by Alice Lum
Only three months later Reverend Stolpe announced to his congregation that King Oscar had died.  The entire Swedish community was plunged into mourning.  Although they were now Americans, the love and respect the Swedish-Americans held for the deceased monarch was deep.   Although there would be an official memorial by the Swedish Consul, Reverend Stolpe announced that “whatever was decided on later by prominent Swedish people, there would be a special service at his church.”

Stolpe would head the congregation of Gustavus Adolphus for 47 years, until 1937.  During this time the church experienced its grandest moment.  On May 27, 1926 the Crown Prince Gustav Adolf and Crown Princess Louise arrived in New York for a three-month visit of the United States.  While in Manhattan the royal couple attended services here on June 6.   They presented the church with a signed Bible and a chasuble—the outermost vestment worn by the clergy.

As the 20th century progressed, the area changed from one of German, Polish and Swedish immigrants to a culturally and ethnically-mixed neighborhood.  In the 1970s the basement of the church became the Basement Coffee House where young locals could enjoy amateur performances.  New York Magazine remarked in 1972 “The Basement Coffee House at Gustavus Adophus Lutheran Church is usually jammed on Saturday nights.  Young folk singers trying to get a start in New York are the most frequent performers, and the shows are often excellent.  It’s mostly a student audience from all over the city.”

Today the sturdy stone church is notably unaltered; although services are no longer solely in German.  It is a striking remnant of an immigrant group that is often forgotten or overlooked.

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