When the Dutch Rutgers family first arrived in America, they settled first in Albany. But by the 18th century they had established themselves in Manhattan, with a large estate north of the city and a fine mansion. Both Henry Rutgers and his brother served in the Revolutionary War; Henry rising to rank of Colonel. His brother died in the Battle of Long Island; but Henry went on to a life of public service and generous philanthropies. One of these would result in the change of the name of Queens College to Rutgers College.
Devoutly religious, in 1798 he donated a parcel of his land for the erection of a Presbyterian church at the corner of what would become Henry and Rutgers Streets. It was known simply as the Rutgers Street Church."
As with all the sprawling farms and estates, the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, which plotted out the grid of streets and avenues north of the city, signaled the coming end to the Rutgers Farm. Resigned to see his family estate divided, Henry Rutgers nevertheless left his mark on the map. He named the wide street on which his mansion stood Rutgers Street. Intersecting it was Henry Street, named for himself, and nearby was Catherine Street, named for Catherine Rutgers, and Bancker Street, named for his son-in-law.
In 1816 Henry Rutgers offered plots along Henry Street for churches. Three denominations accepted the generous offer, among them the Dutch Reformed Church. The five lots donated to the congregation sat at the corner of Henry Street and Market Street. Rutgers also gave the congregation “a large sum” to erect a church. Construction began on the church building in 1817 and was completed two years later.
|photo from the collection of the New Yo|
The architect, whose name has been lost, produced a remarkable and unique structure. Constructed of field stones, mostly schist, the Georgian edifice unexpectedly featured Gothic openings. It would be nearly two decades before Richard Upjohn and Minard Lafever began introducing New York to the Gothic Revival style for religious structures. And yet here the architect of the Northeast Dutch Reformed Church looked ahead, or back as the case may be, with the innovative arched openings.
The artistry of the architect is evident in the handsome brownstone quoins at the corners, the brownstone bandcourse that gives the structure a tripartite effect and the exquisitely delicate handling of the interlaced panes in the points of the Gothic openings. Despite its country church status and rough stone façade; the Northeast Dutch Reformed Church had graceful proportions and elegant elements.
|Superb Georgian detailing is evident in the elegant wooden reredos -- photograph Historic American Buildings Survey, 1936, Library of Congress|
The church was dedicated on June 27, 1819 with Dr. Milledoler preaching the first service. Colonel Henry Rutgers was, understandably, elected to the consistory. The third minister, Theodore Ledyard Cuyler, who served the church from 1853 to 1860, was among the most celebrated of American clergymen. A staunch temperance supporter, Cuyler’s popularity and oratory skills were reflected in his surprising salary—starting at $1,500 and raised eventually to $2,500—more than $72,000 today for a minister’s pay in pre-Civil War days.
The minister was not content with fighting sin from the safety of the pulpit. In 1919 historian Frederick Bruckbauer described “The most hideous sink of iniquity and loathsome degradation was in the then famous Five Points, Baxter, Worth, Mulberry, Park streets, not far from the church.” He continued “Dr. Cuyler tells how he used to make nocturnal expeditions to some of those satanic quarters to keep public interest awake in the mission work of the Old Brewery Mission at the Five Points.”
|Although essentially a country church, its detailing was sophisticated. photograph Historic American Buildings Survey, 1936, Library of Congress|
Another improvement came in 1841 when a church organ was ordered. It took renowned organ builder Henry Erben three years to construct the instrument. The hand-pumped organ was installed in 1844.
In 1843 a consistory building adjoining the church on the Henry Street side was constructed. Years later it would become the home of the Henry Street Social Settlement. The wooden steeple got its first bell in 1847. Cast in Troy, New York, it cost the church $365.14 and the congregation “thought too much of it in 1848 to allow its use by Engine Company 42 for fire alarms,” according to Bruckbauer.
By the time of the Civil War the upscale residential neighborhood around the church had changed. Dr. Cuyler left the church in 1860 to take a pulpit in Brooklyn. At the same time, according to Bruckbauer, “the depletion of the flock was going on [and] the deficits were increasing. The Dutch Reformed Churches of downtown one-by-one moved northward.
In the meantime the Presbyterian Church had begun services in the parlor of a sailor’s boarding house at No. 52 Market Street on June 7, 1864. Its purpose was “to minister to the mariners who now swarmed on the East River wharves and the waterfront streets,” according to The Sun later.
A year and a half later, in December 1865, a formal congregation was established. According to The New York Times, “the Presbytery of New-York organized a church for the benefit of seamen and their friends, called the Sea and Land Church." The May 7, 1866 article explained "The organization originally embraced 32 members composed of sailors and those who had been sailors.” But “so rapidly did their numbers increase that in a very short time it was found that a new and larger place of worship must be found.”
The Sun reported that “Hanson K. Corning, a shipping merchant of a religious and philanthropic turn, felt the need of a sailors’ church properly housed, and observing the decline of the Market Street Church in a good location for the purpose he began negotiations to buy it.” The newspaper later wrote “the stately households of the Dutch Reformed flock, having moved away uptown, the building was sold.”
Corning paid $36,500 for the building on May 1, 1866 and although the title was not formally transferred until 1868, the Church of the Sea and Land moved in. The Dutch Reformed Consistory donated the organ to the new church and “the bell was loaned on condition that it was to revert to the Collegiate Church ‘in case it ever ceases to ring for a Protestant church.’”
The Times reported “After singing and prayer, the inauguration sermon was preached by Rev. J. M. Krebs, D. D., a clergyman who has long been devoted to the interests of seamen. His discourse was appropriate to the occasion and was listened to with interest by his hearers.”
Immediately the Sea and Land Church sent young men as missionaries into the community. “They frequent sailors’ boarding-houses and endeavor to interest the inmates in religious matters,” reported The Times. “Thousands of seamen have thus been induced to enter the sanctuary, who would otherwise have spent their time in a less profitable manner.” There was also a Sunday School for over “a hundred little children, nearly every one of whom has a seafaring father, connected with the church, and is in a flourishing and growing condition.”
|In 1936 the wooden shutters, while damaged, still survived. Directly behind is the Church House. photograph Historic American Buildings Survey, 1936, Library of Congress|
When title to the property was in hand, Corning transferred it to the Presbytery of New York in October 1868, accepting $10,000 less than he had paid. In doing so, Corning insisted that all pews in the church be free and a sign was installed over the doorway “Seats Free.”
Seamen and their families lived in less-than-luxurious accommodations. Like the immigrant families crammed into tenement houses, they suffered in the heat of New York summers. And like most all churches that ministered to the less fortunate, Sea and Land Church hosted day excursions to provide relief and recreation to its congregants. On July 21, 1870 and advertisement appeared in The Sun announcing “Excursion of the Sunday School connected with the Church of Sea and Land will take place at Dudley’s Grove, on Friday July 22, 1870. The steamboat ARNOLD, and barge WM. J. HASKETT will leave foot of Market st. at 8 o’clock A.M.”
As engaging a character as Dr. Cuyler was Dr. Edward Hopper, who took the pulpit in 1869. Unlike Cuyler, Hopper was reserved and unassuming. He spent his private time writing poetry and composing hymns.
One of his hymns, written specifically for sailors, was “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me.” The text included references sailors would find familiar: charts, compasses and the need for a capable pilot to get through stormy seas. As with all his works, Hopper wrote the hymn anonymously and it first appeared in The Sailor’s Magazine in 1871.
When the Seamen’s Friend Society planned an anniversary celebration in 1880, a committee requested that Edward Hopper write a new hymn. When, instead, he arrived and read “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me,” now a popular and widely-known song, the identity of the composer was revealed.
Never a wealthy congregation, signs of its financial trouble appeared in 1883. On November 21 that year The Sun reported on the troubling news from the meeting of the New York Presbytery. “A committee was appointed to confer with Dr. Hooper, [sic] pastor of the Church of Sea and Land at Market and Henry streets, upon means to make that church self-supporting. The Presbytery will try to raise $250,000 to improve its general condition.”
|Handsome cast iron fencing with interesting filagree panels along the bottom survives mostly intact.|
Money issues were briefly put aside when the congregation grieved for Edward Hopper, who died in April 1888. The funeral was held in the church on April 25.
In 1893 the financial plight of the Church of Sea and Land was dire. The Missionary Review of the World wrote in March that year “The people who formerly were the main financial support of the Sea and Land Church are either dead or have moved away. There are four times as many people in the neighborhood as when the church was built, but they are mostly Jews and Roman Catholic.”
The Presbytery voted to sell the church. Newspapers and other church officials protested; so the Presbytery cut off the salary of Pastor Rev. Alexander W. Sproull. He was forced to resign. The property as put on the market and newspapers ran illustrated articles on its venerable history. Letters to the editors poured in and, as reported in The Sun, “everybody talked about the church.”
The newspaper reported “The ash barrels and the church doors had bills posted on them announcing that the Church of the Land and Sea would be sold at auction on April 19, 1893.” The Presbytery was disappointed, however, when the highest bid fell $15,000 short of what it needed. The Church of Sea and Land got a reprieve.
In 1895 the Presbytery voted once again to sell the building—an act that infuriated the powerful Rev. Dr. Charles H. Parkhurst of the Madison Square Presbyterian Church. Although Parkhurst was pastor of one of the wealthiest Presbyterian congregations in New York; he often stressed the importance of church work in the deprived areas. The minutes of a Presbytery’s meeting of March 11, 1895 reflected his rage. He said of the decision “It was a deliberate, cold-blooded violation of a solemn contract, which, though it may seem to be a pretty hard thing to say, is as true as the everlasting gospel. It was an act which, had it been committed in Wall street, would have furnished the clerical members of the Presbytery with what they would have considered juicy material for homiletical exploitation.”
Later, in November, Parkhurst was still ranting. “I do not believe in fighting the presbytery, but it is the duty of Christ’s Church to plunge into the work, not to move away from it, as was done in the Church of the Sea and Land—moving the churches up town to as to avoid the necessity of working.”
But the Church of Sea and Land was saved single-handedly by John Hopkins Denison, grandson of Mark Hopkins. He established a church house at No. 52 Henry Street, involved wealthy socialites in the plight of the poor, purchased houses on Long Island as Fresh Air retreats for children, and established a boys camp in Vermont. By the summer of 1895, according to Bruckbauer, “9,546 persons were brought together in the old church in five weeks.” The sale of the church was dropped.
Hopkins may have saved the church, but he incensed others through his dedication to converting Jews and Catholics. In August 1895 Aaron Drucker was irate when he discovered what The Sun described as “meetings held every Saturday afternoon at the Sea and Land Church at Henry and Market street for the purpose of converting his co-religionists.”
Drucker attended one of the meetings and suddenly stood up shouting, “Such meetings as this should not be held. It is an outrage to humanity. If a man is born a Jew, of true Jewish parents, he is always a Jew, and nothing can change him.” The Sun said “This caused a sensation, and the meeting broke up in excitement.” Drucker was arrested and charged $5.
The meetings, held by the American Mission to the Jews, continued; although on September 29, 1895 The Sun noted “It requires the constant care of three policemen, detailed from the Madison street station, to keep the sidewalk in front of the edifice clear, and the agitators, when compelled to disperse, met on the opposite side of the street and on the corners for the purpose of boycotting the church.” The newspaper said “The Jews of the immediate neighborhood classed the service as an outrage and direct insult, and ominous mutterings and expressions of dissatisfaction were constantly heard on all sides.”
The Church of Sea and Land did not focus only on Jews for conversion. In June 1896 Eugene Marion blamed the church and its pastor, the Rev. Mr. Dennison for his divorce from Arabella Marion. In court on June 23, he told the magistrate “that he is a Catholic and his wife is a Presbyterian. Their children, he says were baptized in the Catholic faith, but his wife became a member of the Church of Sea and Land, and he alleges that Mr. Dennison has brought such influence to bear upon her that the children were sent to the church Sunday school against his opposition and objection.”
Because of his objections, he told the judge that his wife “has made his life miserable. She has so far neglected him that he had to get up in the morning and cook his own breakfast before going to work.” When Marion went to Rev. Dennison and asked what part he intended to take in the dispute, he was told that the minister “had employed the best lawyer in New York for Mrs. Marion and was going to push the matter for her.”
In 1905 the elderly Thomas L. Cuyler returned to the church as a guest preacher. “Dr. Cuyler has recently been to see the redecorated church, and was so much pleased with it that he has consented to preach there next Sunday evening,” reported The New-York Observer on October 12.
Cuyler’s visit was a momentary reprieve from the church’s controversial mission to convert. On Sunday August 5, 1906 Rev. James B. Curry, pastor of St. James’s Roman Catholic Church on James Street railed from his pulpit against the “poaching” of parishioners. According to Curry, the Church of the Sea and Land owned an apartment house on Hamilton Street, and leased apartments there to the Board of Education as a kindergarten annex to the public school on Monroe Street.
"Harmless as the scheme may be at first sight, it is not so innocent in reality, for that very house serves to attract the Catholics of my parish to sectarian clubs managed by the Presbyterian Church,” he accused.
In 1919 The Church of Sea and Land (also called by now the Henry Street Presbyterian Church) anticipated its centennial. Rev. A. D. Moore searched the cellar for artifacts for the celebration. According to the Annual Report of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society that year, he discovered the records of the Dutch Reformed Church “packed away in an old trunk in the cellar.”
When the Church of Sea and Land observed its 120th anniversary in 1937, the changes in the neighborhood were marked. Rev. Dr. Theodore F. Savage, executive secretary of the Presbytery of New York noted “Denominational differences are truly forgotten in this neighborhood.” The pastor, Rev. J. A. Villelli, pointed out at the spaghetti dinner on December 9, that services were given in English, Italian, Greek and Spanish. “We have opened our doors to more than one nationality,” he said.
|As the church approached its 120th anniversary, panes of glass in the windows and entrance lantern were broken. - photograph Historic American Buildings Survey, 1936, Library of Congress|
Before the end of the century another language would be added to the list. On November 22, 1954 syndicated columnist Meyer Berger wrote of the church’s once-again dire financial predicament and its much-changed congregation.
“Its interior…is dusty. Ancient paint scales from its towering walls. The red altar carpet is threadbare. White altar enamel is cracked and seamy. Relics—old gas lamps, torn hymnals, old timbers, broken furniture—lie in untidy gloom in the old slaves’ gallery…There is no fund for plumbing or for roof leaks, no money for calling in a crew to at least reduce thick powdery accumulations in the ancient organ loft, in the old tower, even in the magnificent old pews.”
Berger noted “the old edifice is still a storehouse for chests left behind by men who went on sea journeys from which they never returned. The minister lifts one or two chest lids and, even now, faint spice odors arise. You get a glimpse of dusty sailor relics.”
|photograph Historic American Buildings Survey, 1936, Library of Congress|
When Berger wrote his article, the congregation had diminished to around 30. The old Ergan organ “with its quaint pump handle projecting like a bucket sweep” still survived. He wrote “If it were not for the First Chinese Presbyterian Church, run by the Rev. K. C. Yeung in the same building…the brave fight for survival might have ended by now. The Chinese congregation, with different service hours, meets part of the expenses.”
The two vastly different Presbyterian congregations continued to share the beleaguered building until June 1972 when the Sea and Land Church was finally dissolved. In 1974 the Presbytery donated the august building to the First Chinese Presbyterian Church.
Lost to most in the confusing streets of what is now part of Chinatown, the unique Georgian edifice is wonderfully preserved. The interiors which Meyer Berger bemoaned have been restored and even the rare Erben organ survives inside.
non-credited photographs taken by the author
non-credited photographs taken by the author