Wednesday, December 2, 2015

St. George's Episcopal Church -- Stuyvesant Square

St. George’s Church was founded in 1749, at a time when the vast majority of Manhattan’s residents were Episcopalian.   Three years later the congregation’s impressive stone church was completed on the corner of Chapel (later renamed Beekman) and Cliff Streets. 

More than a century later a historian would remember “Beekman street at that time was the bon-ton promenade for society people.  The leading church was St. George’s on the northwest corner of Beekman and Cliff street.” 

The church burned in 1814 and was rebuilt a year later.  The wealth of the congregation was reflected in the steeple clock.  It was created by master Roxbury, Massachusetts clockmaker Simeon Willard. 

The restored building in 1815 had lost its tall steeple.  The Plumbers' Trade Journal, 1905 (copyright expired)
The precise workings of the clock made it the instrument by which all New Yorkers set their watches.  In 1868 the Annual Report of the American Institute of the City of New York recalled “There is no attempt at compensation, and yet no clock in the city more than ten years built has gained such a reputation for time-keeping.  Twenty years since a person who had not St. George’s time was supposed to have no time at all.”

The New York Times reminded its readers on November 30, 1902, “Its hands are not as artistic and gorgeous as those that point the time in many of the tower clocks today.  They were made by Simeon Willard, who hammered them out of rough iron at a little blacksmith’s forge in the woods near Boston…So regular was it that as late as half a century ago it regulated the city’s movements, and clocks and watches were practically set by it…It was then known as the ‘Old Town Clock’ and many New Yorkers are alive to-day who remember setting their watches by it.”

As the “bon-ton” neighborhood moved northward, so did St. George’s.   Peter G. Stuyvesant donated land on his estate on what would become Stuyvesant Square.  The New York Times was not impressed with his motives, saying the gift was “made by no means more to improve the value of his surrounding estate than to manifest his deep interest in the evangelical principles on which this parish was well known to stand.”

Although one New Yorker described the location in his diary in 1848 “a howling wilderness;” the northern migration of Manhattan’s wealthy into the area was well under way.  Nearby, Samuel B. Ruggles’ Gramercy Square was quickly being ringed with grand mansions.

The New York Times reported that the cornerstone of the new church was laid in June 1845.  The church elders had chosen architect Leopold Eidlitz; but later added Charles Otto Blesch.  The newspaper later mentioned “The architect is Mr. Eidlitz…Though his original plans were not strictly adhered to, he yet gave to the vestry of St. George’s perhaps the most symmetrical and imposing specimen of church architecture in New-York.”

Three years later, in November 1848, the first service was held while construction continued.

As the structure neared completion in 1855 The Times made note of the cost of the striking complex.  “Another portion of ground was purchased from [Stuyvesant’s] heirs for $10,000 and upon this site, covered by the church, the chapel, and the Rectory, the Vestry have expended and paid about $260,000.  The additional cost of the spires, which are now erecting, with the bells and clock, will make the entire amount $325,000.”  The outlay would amount to more than $9 million in 2015.

Included in the spires “now erecting” was the Simeon Willard clock, salvaged from the old church downtown which suffered the humiliation of being converted to a stable by Phelps, Dodge & Co.  The New York Times, half a century later, remarked “Thanks, however, to the founders of the St. George’s Episcopal Church, it escaped the junk pile, and is now looking out upon the city from the steeple of that church at Second Avenue and Sixteenth Street.”

The magnificent spires soared above Stuyvesant Square -- photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The new church was finally completed in 1856.  Blesch and Eidlitz had produced a monumental brownstone-clad Romanesque Revival structure 94 feet wide and 170 feet deep with stately buttresses, a handsome rose window, and two stunning lacy openwork stone spires.  The Times said they were “the finest spires in the city, with the solitary exception of Trinity Church.  They are open work, and effective yet simple in design.”

Miller’s Stranger’s Guide to The City of New York described it as a “spacious and elegant structure, the most capacious ecclesiastical edifice in this city.”   The guide said “for architectural beauty [it] is entitled to the first rank among the religious edifices of New York.  Its imposing exterior, and vast interior, unsupported by any visible columns, either to roof or gallery, impart to it a fine effect.”

Tragically, just nine years after construction was completed, fire broke out on November 15, 1865.  The New York Times reported “Strenuous efforts were immediately made to save the furniture and fixtures of the church, with very little success.”  Although two “fine gothic chairs” and the prayer books, hymnals and Bibles were removed, everything else in the interior was lost.

The devastation was captured on a stereoscope slid -- from the collection of the New York Public Library

“When the roof fell in the scene for many blocks around was one of great magnificence,” wrote The Times.  “The flames, which for a few moments, seemed to have been subdued, burst forth soon after with greater fury, and all that vast pile of combustible material, including the fine-toned and costly organ, was speedily reduced to ruins.”

The following day only the shell of St. George’s remained.  The Times said the four bare walls, the two towers and spires were “as impressive as any of the monastic ruins of the old world.”   The wealthy congregation wasted no time in rebuilding and just two years later the church was reopened.

The rebuilt interior as it appeared in 1909 -- photo from the collection of the Library of Congress
At the time the church’s rector was the Rev. Dr. Stephen H. Tyng, considered to be among the most notable preachers of the period.   On April 7, 1878 he shocked his parishioners when he announced his retirement at the age of 78 after 33 years with St. George’s Church.  

The Stuyvesant Square neighborhood was changing by the time Tyng resigned.  Waves of German immigrants flooded the area.  But unlike many upscale churches faced with the changing demographics, St. George’s parish did not abandon its church.  Its congregation continued to include some of the wealthiest and most respected names in the city, including Senior Warden J. P. Morgan.

St. George’s Episcopal Church was the scene of fashionable weddings and funerals throughout the decades.  So when the funeral of William H. Borst—a theater  and “sporting” man—was held here on November 2, 1882, it was a noticeably curious.  The New York Times remarked “Such a congregation as gathered in St. George’s was probably never seen within the four walls of a church edifice before.”

The newspaper listed many of the mourners, including politicians, gamblers, theater owners, fighters and others.  Included was “Jake” Somerindyke, “an old and well-known turf gambler;” “Old Bill” Tovee, a veteran sporting man; “Michael Boyle, the oysterman,” pugilist George Rooke; and a host of others who were better known by their nicknames than their given names.

Through the influence of J. P. Morgan, the respected Rev. W. S. Rainsford took the pulpit as rector in 1883.  He gave his first sermon on January 14 that year, after which The New York Times gave its approval.

“He is a young man, about 32 years of age tall, straight as a reed, and of prepossessing features.  His manner is frank and earnest, and his sentences were emphasized by frequent gestures.”  Born in Dublin, he would hold the position for two decades, espousing sometimes shocking views from his pulpit.

Before he made headlines with his sometimes unorthodox social views, he would have to address a disturbing problem within his staff.   In May 1885 50-year old W. H. Pudney was made a sexton of the church.  It did not take him long to bring scandal to St. George’s.

In June a German immigrant, Emil Michel, who lived above his small shoe store nearby at No. 197 Third Avenue, noticed that his 9-year old daughter Eva, was acting strangely.  When he questioned the girl, her answers were initially evasive; but she finally admitted to being abused twice in the church by Pudney.  A doctor’s examination proved the crime.

Eva then revealed that 10-year old Lizzie Speerschneider had also been abused at the same times.   Emil Michel rushed to the home of that girl’s father, Edmund, who ran a crockery store.  The New York Times said “Both are respectable, hard-working Germans.”  A physician’s examination of Lizzie supported the accusation, as well.

Pudney appeared before Justice Patterson in a private examination.  He wore his clerical garb.  Also in the room were Rev. Rainsford and three assistant ministers.  Pudney, who was married and had a family, pleaded innocent and, in fact, said that the little girls “came around the church and I ordered them out.”  Their mothers, however, told reporters that “for the last 10 days the children had frequently come home with bunches of flowers and pennies which they said had been given them by the ‘nice gentleman’ at the church.”

Pudney was held at $2,500 bail on each charge.  The Times reported “He said that his son-in-law would furnish the bail, but the latter failed to do so yesterday.”

Wealthy New Yorkers fled the heat of summer by retreating to fashionable resorts and summer estates.   An early heat wave in April 1881 gave good reason.  The Sun reported on a sermon by guest-preacher Rev. Phillips Brooks of Boston on April 25 in St. George’s, noting “The temperature of the church was oppressively high while Mr. Brooks was speaking, and several ladies, unable to obtain seats or to get to the open air, fainted.”

Rev. Rainsford came up with a startling idea for his wealthy members in 1888.  “St. George’s has a very large membership, among which the rich and poor are about equal in number,” noted The Times.  On May 26, 1888 the newspaper reported that Rainsford had pointed out that the poor “would be compelled during the Summer months to live in unhealthy tenement houses, for which they would pay heavy rents.  On the other hand…his wealthy parishioners were already preparing to leave the city for the heated term to enjoy fresh air, cooling breezes, and the various comforts and delights of the mountains seaside, and lakes.”

The millionaire congregants were given a Christian challenge.  Rainsford suggested that they allow poor families to live in their mansions during their summer absence.  A committee of ladies was put in charge of selecting reliable, needy families who would not only enjoy the luxury of the lavish surroundings, but would act as caretakers.

“When the family is placed in possession of the house the woman is instructed in her duties.  They are usually to keep the premises in order, have a sharp eye for burglars and sneak thieves, and keep the sleeping apartments in constant readiness for occupancy against the sudden return of any of the family to town.”

Although the Rev. Dr. Rainsford did not support gambling and drinking, he realized that strict laws against them were impractical and actually fostered criminal behavior.  A single sentence in the New-York Tribune on December 11, 1889 was merely a hint of things to come.  “The Rev. W. S. Rainsford, rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church, was fined $25 for violating the game laws.”

In the meantime, he worked steadfastly to extend the work of St. George’s within the impoverished tenement district nearby.  On November 11, 1892 The Times remarked “The growth of St. George’s Protestant Episcopal Parish has been extraordinary in recent years.  Under the vigorous activity of the Rev. W. S. Rainsford’s rectorship the scope of the church work has been steadily extended, until now it embraces a score or more of important missionary, educational, and relief features.”

The church ran a trade school for boys; a Men’s Club that included a gymnasium, bathing rooms, smoking and reading rooms; a Girl’s Friendly Library; a Deaconesses’ House, where the sick and poor were administered to; and a Cottage-by-the Sea at Rockaway Park, Long Island where indigent parishioners were “given a breath of sea air.”

Sadly, the masterful, lacy stone spires were deemed unsafe in 1888 and taken down in 1889; leaving the towers blunted.

photograph from the collection of the Library of Congress
The first real issue regarding Rainsford’s unusual stance on liquor came about in 1893 when he approved Moore & Tucker’s saloon “right in the immediate neighborhood of his church,” as described by the New-York Tribune on December 11.  The newspaper said “Much talk has been caused lately” by the move.

“The condition which Dr. Rainsford exacted was that no women should be admitted into the liquor store, and that no children should be served with drink.  Dr. Rainsford exacted as a guarantee of good faith a bond of $1,000 from the proprietors, to be forfeited in case they failed to comply with the provisions of the contract.”

The debate would simmer for years, causing Senator John Raines to say in 1901 that “Rainsford is a type, who in the livery of Heaven serve only the devil.”  The minister explained his stance saying, “I am opposed to the saloons; I wish we could shut them all up.  But it’s simply the worst sort of nonsense to believe that in a city which, next to Berlin, is the greatest German city in the world, we can shut up the saloons on Sunday.  You can’t shut up the saloons and give the people nothing for it.”

Rainsford said that Sunday liquor laws simply led to illegal operations and “under the present system children are taught to violate the law.  That’s a very bad example to set.  It also opens the door to blackmail; that’s another very bad side of the subject.”

That same year Rainsford took to the pulpit to decry the Tammany Ring.   The New-York Tribune, on October 18, 1901, reported “With the utmost courtesy, but with an eloquence that carried conviction to the hearts and the vast congregation that filled every available space in the church, Dr. Rainsford bitterly arraigned the present administration, and characterized its rule as one of blackmail and tyranny.”

A view towards the organ gallery on May 23, 1927.  photo by Wurtz Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
With Grace Church and Trinity Chapel, St. George’s continued to be the scene of New York’s most fashionable weddings.  Along with J. P. Morgan (the press routinely referred to St. George’s as “Mr. Morgan’s Church”) millionaire Robert Fulton Cutting served as an elder.   The wedding of his daughter, Helen, to Lucius K. Wilmerding on March 27, 1905 was one of the social events of the year.   The elite status of the bride was reflected in the names of her wedding party.  The New-York Tribune noted “She was attended by eight bridesmaids, Miss Alice Roosevelt, Miss Gwendolyn Burden, Miss Violet Cruger, Miss Caroline Wilmerding, Miss Jessie Sloane, Miss Caroline Drayton, Miss Muriel Robbins and Miss Elizabeth Cutting.”

When Dr. W. S. Rainsford resigned the following year, The Sun took the opportunity to point out that St. George’s and Grace Church had survived the drastic changes in their neighborhoods.  “Both of these churches are of the ‘downtown’ class, and as such seemed destined to decadence.  The fashionable congregations whose dwellings were once in their neighborhoods have moved away in very great part.  Since that withdrawal, too, the population of the East Side has changed from German and Irish into Jew and Italian  Instead of falling back, however, these two parishes have greatly increased their strength and mainly by the means of the parochial institutions through which they have sought to bring social improvement of their neighborhoods.”

Perhaps no funeral in St. George’s Church was more prominent than that of J. Pierpont Morgan on April 14, 1913.  Morgan had written out his own funeral instructions, which were followed to the letter and marked by “extreme simplicity,” as reported by The Times.   Approximately 1,500 were in the church, while the park outside was packed with onlookers.  The floral arrangements included tributes from the German Emperor, the King of Italian and the Governments of France and Italy.

The most shocking event to take place in St. George’s Church occurred on Sunday morning, April 18, 1920.  After Dr. Karl Reiland’s sermon, the vestrymen moved down the tile-floored aisles with the silver collection plates.  Among them were Herbert Satterlee, the son-in-law of J. P. Morgan, and Dr. James Wright Markoe, Morgan’s former physician.

The following day the New-York Tribune reported “As Dr. Markoe bent to present the plate to the occupants of the red plush cushioned, oaken pew, twelfth from the rear, a shabby, round-shouldered little man who was seated there drew a revolver, instead of the expected contribution, and shot the physician in the head.”

At first few realized what had happened.  The choir continued to sing and the organ to play.  “The collection salver fall from his hand with a crash, and gold and silver coins rolled in all directions.”  As the murderer headed for the door, several congregants rose to their feet.  In the meantime, Dr. Reiland rushed to Dr. Markoe.

Satterlee blocked the man’s escape route, holding the collection plate in front of his chest as a sort of armor.  The man fired a bullet directly at him, which grazed Satterlee’s beard and embedded itself into the paneling.   He fired two more times, causing the men in the foyer to drop to the floor.

The assassin made in nearly through Stuyvesant Square before the congregants overpowered and disarmed him.  Thomas W. Simpkin was arrested and charged with three counts—murder in the first degree for the killing of Dr. Markoe, and assault in the first and second degrees for wounding Dr. George E. Brewer who wrestled the gun from Simpkin.

Simpkin confessed that he had initially meant to kill J. P. Morgan but chose Markoe when he realized Morgan had been dead for seven years.   On May 3 he was committed to the Asylum for the Criminal Insane at Matteawan, New York  A lunacy commission had reported that his “mental condition is now such that he could not defend the murder indictment against him, and that when he slew Dr. Markoe his reason was so defective that he did not know his act was wrong.”

The forward thinking tradition of St. George’s continued in the Rev. Karl Reiland, who had been rector about seven years at the time of the murder.  Among his congregants was Mrs. Margaret Sanger, pioneer birth control advocate.  On March 1931 the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in American gave “guarded approval” to birth control.  Afterward, The New York Times reported that Reiland “expressed pride in the fact that Mrs. Sanger is a member of his congregation, calling her a ‘a remarkable woman.’”  He called the committee’s decision “a very farseeing and necessary observation, and one with which I am in hearty sympathy.”

The Stuyvesant Square neighborhood continued to see change throughout the 20th century.  But the staid brownstone church remains unchanged.  It was among the first of the new Landmarks Preservations Commissions designations, in 1967.  The façade received a well-deserved restoration in 1980, and the Simeon Willard clock continues to keep time as it has for two centuries.

photographs by the author

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