Monday, October 28, 2013

The Lost Reformed Dutch Church -- Washington Square and Washington Place

A stereopticon view captured the church along with tiny commercial buildings to the south -- from the collection of the New York Public Library
When George Rogers began construction of the first house on Washington Square in 1828, there were seven Reformed Dutch churches in Manhattan; all still far south of the Rogers mansion.  The oldest organization of Christians in the city, the Garden Street church was among its three principal congregations.

The South Dutch Church on Garden Street had been erected in 1807; only to be razed and replaced by a new structure later.   On December 16, 1835 members watched in dismay as their church burned to the ground.  The proposal to build along Washington Square may have seemed, to some, ill advised.  However by now the Square—a potter’s field only a dozen years earlier—was rapidly developing into one of the city’s three most exclusive residential neighborhoods.

New York University had alread decided on the square and in 1833, two years after its founding, it commissioned Alexander Jackson Davis and Ithiel Town to design its first major building.  The pair were among the preeminent architects of the day and were renowned for their historic-based designs.  The resulting structure, completed in 1836, was an impressive Gothic hall; considered the first example of “Collegiate Gothic” in the country.

Three years after the New York University hall was completed, on March 17, 1839, an equally celebrated architect would receive the commission for the New Reformed Dutch Church.    Ground was purchased at the southeast corner of Washington Square East and Washington Place, directly across the street from the university building, for $44,000—a hefty $825,000 today.

Like Davis and Town, Minard Lafever turned to Gothic Revival—yet his building would be more “archaeological” than academic.   The Gothic style was unheard of for religious structures at the time—churches tended to be Greek or Roman temples with classic porticoes and fluted columns.

History may have cheated Lafever out of bragging rights.  Richard Upjohn is conventionally credited with sparking the Gothic Revival movement in church architecture with his magnificent Trinity Church on lower Broadway.  Yet his plans were submitted on September 9, 1839—fully half a year later than Lafever’s.

The church, completed in 1840, was clad in rough-cut dark granite.  At 62-feet wide, it was an imposing presence on Washington Square.   Two massive 24-foot square towers flanked the entrance above which was an expansive Gothic window.  Lafever added hefty crenelation along the roofline and tops of the towers. 

Inside four large columns marched down either side of the aisle, supporting the 63-foot ceiling and forming part of the gallery in doing so.   The ten unusual windows were composed of ground glass.

As the structure neared completion, the church leaders applied for a name change.  On May 13, 1840 an act was passed in the State Senate and Assembly changing the corporation name from “The New Reformed Dutch Church on Washington square” to “The Dutch Church on Washington square.”

Five months later, on October 1, the $80,000 structure was dedicated.   The Rev. Dr. Mathews, the pastor at the time of the fire, and the Rev. Dr. Mancius S. Hutton served as co-pastors—a rather unlikely situation.   

The church's location among the prim Greek Revival mansions coupled with the prevalent, often narrow, Victorian views did not intimidate its open-minded leaders.  On February 21, 1846 the New-York Daily Tribune noted that the subject of a lecture to be held here the following evening would be “The Bible is so constructed that the Christian reader must kindly remember, and deeply sympathize with the Jews.”

Within a few years Rev. Mathews took a portion of the congregation and established the South Dutch Reformed Church at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 21st Street.  Thereafter the church on Washington Square was most often referred to as “Dr. Hutton’s Church.”   By now the square was fully developed with the elegant homes of wealthy families.  On July 18, 1853 The New York Times described “Washington-square, all glory in.”

The newspaper said “It is a noble reservation in one of the best parts of the City.  Flanked on the east by the marble University buildings and Dr. Hutton’s Church, and on all other sides by the residences of that comfortable class who can keep their carriages without being charged with extravagance, it is the favorite walking-ground of our wearied people; and on all pleasant days clean children trundle their hoops, fly their kits, or play ‘high spy” there, from early morning till late moonlight.”

The writer went on to mention the square’s history with ghoulish humor.  “It was once a Potter’s Field—the prowling ground of the medical men who were rollicking students many years ago—the scene of hundreds of body-snatching tales,--reason enough why the trees should grow with such rapidity there, and so early form a pleasant shade.”

A watercolor of the New York University Hall shows the towers of the Dutch Reformed Church next door.  To the left a fluted column of a Washington Square North mansion can be seen.  artist unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

On May 6, 1856 a convention of sorts was held throughout the city of Sunday School children who were subjected to a full day of oratory and preaching.  Fourteen Sunday School groups gathered at the Dutch Reformed Church—around 2,000 children in total.  The Times noted that “One of the largest contingents was the children of the Protestant Orphan Asylum.”   Even 19th century ministers apparently recognized that children would find the speeches boring.  “The speeches were varied by singing, and the young folks seemed to think it was a good time generally.”

The qualification “generally” was most likely significant.  

In 1861 the focus of the church turned to Civil War.   Early in September 1861 The Central Army Committee of the Alliance held a meeting “for the promotion of morals and religion in the camps” here.  Among the speakers was the Rev. Charles C. Goss who gave “the results of his observations among the camps in Virginia, and in the hospitals and rebel prisons,” reported The Times.

Thanksgiving that year was an understandably sober one.  Dr. Hutton’s Thanksgiving sermon addressed the torment being felt.  “How many families have been broken up by death and suffering; and, even if death has entered the household, there are hopes of a better world, and thanks to be felt therefore.”  A reporter noted that “From hence he drew the assurance that, notwithstanding our present troubles, there is to be a hopeful, joyful termination of them.”

While the Dutch Reformed congregation was still worshiping on Garden Street in 1831, the Greene Street Methodist Episcopal Church was constructed.  The structure was deemed by The Times “the most commodious place of worship belonging to the denomination in New York.”
from the collection of the New York Public Library

In 1876 Dr. Hutton retired from the Dutch Reformed Church, receiving a pension of $5,000 a year—the equivalent of a comfortable income of $95,000 today.  The church building was sold to the Greene Street Methodist Episcopal Church for $80,000—to the dollar what the structure had cost to erect over three decades earlier.

The New York Times explained on June 5, 1876 that “Owing to a great loss of membership, on account of the changed character of the neighborhood, stores having entirely superseded residences, the [Greene Street} church property was sold for $100,000, and the Presbyterian Church, corner of Washington place and Washington square—Rev. Dr. Hutton’s—was purchased…repainted, frescoed, and upholstered at an expense of $10,000, leaving the congregation fr4ee of debt and with a balance in the treasury.”

The church re-christened itself the Asbury M. E. Church, in honor of the first Methodist Episcopal bishop ordained in America.  The Times said that “The interior is handsomely fitted up, and presents a very cheerful aspect.”   For the opening service the pulpit was “beautifully decorated with trailing vines, in which flowers were entwined.  In front of the pulpit was a bed of white flowers, bearing the words in violets, 'Greene Street, 1831,' 'Asbury, 1876.'"

While the church had been on Greene Street, one of the old practices of the Methodist worshipers was to shout responses.  As times changed, the Methodist services became more reserved, in keeping with other sects.  John Forbes, however, disliked change.

The retired 62-year old lived nearby in the mansion at No. 23 Washington Square.   “Mr. Forbes, despite his advanced age, is of powerful constitution, and is particularly vigorous of lung,” noted The Times on May 67, 1884.  While the rest of the congregation remained silent, in rapt attention to the minister, Forbes erupted with “Amen,” “Hallelujah,” and “That’s so!”

Proper, refined worshipers were annoyed by Forbes’ outbursts—especially considering that his poor hearing sometimes resulted in inappropriate and awkward responses.  When and elderly and highly respected church member was near death in 1882, the pastor Dr. Ferris spoke from the pulpit of the man’s virtues and untarnished reputation.  “And now,” he concluded, “there is a sad prospect that he will pass away from us soon.”

Mr. Forbes shouted out “Thank the Lord!”

Members tried hinting that the lowering of his enthusiasm would be greatly appreciated; however Forbes forged on.   Then late in April 1884 he once again shouted out an inappropriate response that could be taken as an offense to the minister.  On his way home across the park he was intercepted by Henry Roden, Abram Belmont and James Seaman, “who took him to task for his vociferousness,” said a newspaper.

Another member, Mr. Lynn, took him aside and said “See here, Mr. Forbes, you’re an unmitigated nuisance in this church, and everybody would be obliged to you if you’d keep still hereafter.”

This time an embarrassed and hurt Forges took the hint.  He visited the pastor, Mr. Hawxhurst, saying “I shall cause no more trouble in this church.  I am going where I feel at home.”  Forbes had decided to join the fashionable St. George’s Episcopal Church on Stuyvesant Square.

The minister tried to dissuade him from leaving.  “You can’t say ‘Amen’ there,” he pointed out.  Forbes countered that he could say amen at the close of prayers and that was good enough for him.   When the pastor noted that Mrs. Forbes did not want to leave Asbury, her husband responded that she would have to.

Suddenly the congregation missed the odd, noisy man.  James Seaman admitted that “he had a very friendly feeling for Mr. Forbes, and admired his character very much.”   Rev. Hawxhurst said “he did not himself object to Mr. Forbes’s practice of responding to the service.”

Whether the wealthy and proper members of St. George’s appreciated its new member is unknown.
The large church building was used annually for the graduation exercises of New York University in the 1880s.   By now the neighborhood south of Washington Square had declined to one of the worst slums in New York; overcrowded criminals, thugs and destitute immigrants.  Asbury M. E. Church sought to relieve the suffering with innovative programs.

On April 28, 1890 The Times reported that Dr. Stone, the pastor of the Asbury Church, will open a free dispensary in the church edifice this morning as the first step toward general missionary work in the slums which bound Washington Square on the south.  The establishment of a dispensary is regarded as a practical effort to assist the extremely poor and the sick.” 

The following year the church established an employment agency to help locals find jobs.  Not long after, it announced that “curiously, the laborers desiring work both before and after securing it come to the services.”  A kindergarten was also set up that year—giving mothers the flexibility to secure additional income.

A confusing set of circumstances came to a somewhat tragic end here on May 15, 1892.  The church was filled at 3:00 as Sergeant A J. T. Ray of the Salvation Army arrived to deliver an address.  Ray was well-known as a pulpit orator and The Times noted that “Besides the regular attendants of the church the congregation was liberally besprinkled with maidens in Salvation Army bonnets and numerous Captains, Sergeants, and high privates in full regalia.”

In the meantime a brown Scotch terrier had made his way into the park.  “He was taking the air and enjoying the balmy Spring day in a doggish style,” said The Times.  “He probably thought that everybody else was having a good, quiet time in the shade of the old park trees.  So he had joined them.”

“When he got into the park he chased a lonesome cat and one or two birds for a little while, and then laid down to rest.”

The terrier’s decision to enter the park that day was a fateful one.  A few little boys were roller skating on the walkways.  “They were common, everyday boys.  They were dressed nicely and did not look more wicked than boys a dozen years old ought to look.”

But the boys noticed the dozing dog and decided to stone him.  The terrier tried to run away, but the boys pursued him, pelting him with rocks.  Men on the park benches laughed and cheered the boys on.  By the time the dog ran frantically toward the Asbury Church, his mouth was foaming and he was bloodied from the onslaught.

“He saw the open church door.  It looked like a haven of refuse to him.  The people inside were quiet.  They did not look cruel like the boys with the sticks and stones.  So the terrier darted into the front door and up the centre aisle.”

The huge crowd inside the church saw the foaming mouth on the disheveled dog and assumed he was mad.  They panicked and Rev. Stone dismissed the congregation.  When the church was empty, the sexton and a few members drove the dog out; where the crowd was waiting.

“When the startled dog appeared, they all chased him.  All the loungers in the park joined in.  About a thousand people raced back and forth across the park after that dog,” reported the newspaper.

“The man in the crowd who was nearest the dog was a negro with a big white stovepipe hat.”  The dog was tired and the man was not.  With only a few steps, he grabbed the dog by the tail.  “He swung the helpless brute around in the air and then grabbed him by the throat.  The dog did not resist; he only yelped.”

The dog was tossed into a garbage box near the Washington Arch and the cover slammed shut.  “Then a policeman came up and fired two shots from his big revolver into the box…The yelping had ceased.  He opened the box and lifted out a dead dog.”

The Times concluded “The populace broke into a torrent of admiring cheers.”

Nearby was the Washington Square M. E. Church.  The movement of congregants further north had resulted in both churches suffering loss of members.  On June 7, 1893 a vote was passed in favor of the proposed consolidation of the two churches.  “The united churches will be known as the Washington Square Methodist Episcopal Church,” said the New-York Tribune the following day, “and will worship in the church edifice on Fourth-st.” 

A few weeks later The New York Times explained that “The Asbury Church has an average attendance of less than 150.  The church has property valued at $216,000.”   The last service was held in the old church on October 8, 1893.  Although the property was held for awhile—it was used as a women’s shelter in 1894—the valuable land was worth more than the remarkable structure that sat upon it.

On May 16, 1895 the sale of the church property to Boehm & Coon was announced.  The developers paid $300,000 for the structure, well over its assessed value.  “The purchasers will at once remove the church building and erect a seven-story warehouse,” reported The Times.
The replacement structure survives on the site of the grand Lafever edifice -- photo by the author

The handsome loft structure that replaced Minard Lafever’s masterful Gothic church still stands; now occupied by New York University. 


  1. The dog episode is a heart breaker. I'll take animals over people any day.


  2. Just read this post today when looking through your blog on Washington Square. I have to agree, in almost every single instance, I would take the selfless loyalty devotion and affection of a dog or a pet than 99.9% of people in this world. Horrible news story that should have shamed the park and church goers that day but apparently it did not.