Monday, October 24, 2016

The Lost St. George's Chapel -- Beekman and Cliff Streets



A wealthy New Yorker is carried past the Chapel in a litter in a later, romantic depiction.  Valentine's Manual for 1859, from the collection of the New York Public Library
As New York City expanded in the mid-18th century the parishioners moved further away from Trinity Church, making travel to services long and inconvenient.  On April 15, 1748 the Vestry reported "That it's become absolutely Necessary to build a Chappell of Ease to Trinity Church, and being Desirous to Build the same where it will be most Commodious and Convenient to the Congregation in Generall--ordered, that the Church Wardens...be a Committee to Consider where will be the most proper place for Building the said Chappell."

The committee purchased "the Land near the Swamp" from Colonel Beekman, at the corner of "Beekman's and Van Cliff's Sts."  Trinity Church paid Beekman 645 pounds for the plot, and later added the adjoining lot, purchased from John Killmaster for 125 pounds.  A Trinity vestryman, Robert Crommelin, was chosen as the architect.

Construction took nearly four years to complete.  As late as January 14, 1751 a notice appeared in The New York Gazette announcing "That a Committee of Vestry of Trinity Church, will meet every Friday at 2 o'clock in the afternoon, at the house of William Cook, near the City Hall, to treat with such Workmen, Carpenters and Masons, as will undertake the building and finishing the Galleries and Pews, and other inside work of St. George's Chappel."

The chapel was ready for services on July 1, 1752.  The Archbishop of Canterbury had contributed 100 pounds to the construction, and Sir Peter Warren had provided another 100 pounds, with the request "that a pew might be appointed for Sir Peter and his family in case they should come to this country."

The handsome Georgian-style edifice boasted a complex steeple which rose 172 feet.  The chancel was 92 feet long and 72 feet wide--capable of "seating about two thousand comfortably," according to The New York Times years later.  The woodwork inside was mahogany--some of which (the pulpit, desk and chancel rail) came from the mainmasts of a ship.

Church historian Frank Moss remarked in 1897, "None of the early churches of the City was supported by any more representative body of citizens than this old church, whose members included the Schuylers, the Livingstons, the Beekmans, the Van Rensselaers, the Cortlandts."

On July 6, 1752, five days after the first services, the Post-Boy reported briefly on the event, saying that the "Divine Service was perform'd, with the utmost Decency and Propriety."

Worshipers need not have worried about their devotions being disturbed by outside noises.  The Rev. Hugh Birckhead later recalled "If on any Sunday the movement of vehicles along quiet Beekman Street disturbed those engaged at divine services, the sexton calmly stretched a chain across the traffic and summarily shut off all movement."

St. George's Chapel, along with its mother church Trinity, remained steadfastly loyal to England as rumbles of revolution spread throughout New York.  The New York Times years later explained "Trinity, which had enjoyed a long life of happiness under the full sunshine of the royal favor, could not but be disturbed by the portentious mutterings which filled the air."  St. George's minister, the Rev. Dr. Charles Inglis, refused to allow "the Rebels" to "pollute the sacred precincts with their seditious and rebellious effusions."

Unexpectedly to the ministers, those rebels won the war.  On November 25, 1783 the British troops left New York, accompanied or preceded by city loyalists.  Decades later the New-York Daily Tribune recalled that Inglis, "having rendered himself greatly obnoxious to the patriots, determined to follow the loyalists of his flock to Nova Scotia, and accordingly resigned his rectorship Nov. 1st, 1783."  The first sermon in St. George's Chapel following the Evacuation, was not preached by an Episcopalian minister, but by the Rev. John Rogers, senior pastor of the Collegiate Presbyterian Church.  On December 1, 1783 he preached "to a thronged and deeply-affected assembly."

Eventually, of course, normalcy returned to St. George's Chapel.  On November 11, 1789 the Gazette of the United-States announced "On Sunday next the 15th inst. a Charity Sermon, will be preached, and a Collection made in the forenoon, at St. George's Chapel, for the benefit of the Charity School in this city--An Anthem, adapted to the occasion will be sung by the Scholars."

By 1811 St. George's had a congregation of 185 families and earned its separation from Trinity Church, becoming St. George's Church.   Three years later disaster happened.  At 1:00 on the morning of Wednesday January 5, 1814, fire broke out in a stable about 50 yards from the church.  The brisk winter winds carried sparks that landed on roofs, spreading the blaze.  Around 2:00 St. George's Church caught fire. Stanford's Concise Description of New York, which described the building as "splendid" and "very little inferior to St. Paul's in the grandeur and beauty of its architecture," reported "The immense columns of flame curling around its tall steeple and ascending to the very clouds, and the general conflagration which was visible in every direction, was calculated to inspire the mind with the highest feelings of reverence and sublimity."

One fireman, John W. Degrauw, described how "women turned out with buckets" to help fill the fire engines.  He said that the steeple clock rang three times at 3:00 "just before the steeple fell."  Oddly enough he told a reporter "I thought that it was a wonderful sight."

The morning after the fire St. George's Chapel was a burned out shell.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Later that morning the Commercial Advertiser's article, headlined "Melancholy Fire," noted "Very providentially the steeple of the Church fell within the building.  Had it fallen into the street, most probably many lives would have been lost."  The newspaper estimated the loss of the church at $100,000--in the neighborhood of $1.4 million in 2016.  The article also suggested arson as the cause.  "It was supposed that the fire originated by design."

The congregation rebuilt the gutted shell, stopping short at reconstructing the towering steeple.  The parish worshiped in its renovated structure for three decades before laying plans to follow the northward migration of its moneyed congregants.  In June 1845 the cornerstone was laid for the new St. George's Church on Stuyvesant Square.

Six years later, on September 6, 1851 the New-York Daily Tribune reported "Rev. Benjamin Evans, Rector of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the Holy Evangelist, will preach his farewell Sermon in the Church in Vandewater st., on Sunday Afternoon...The Congregation worshiping here will on the following Sunday take possession of St. George's Chapel, Beekman st."

The restored church had a stump of a steeple.  The Plumbers' Trade Journal, 1905 (copyright expired)

Trinity Church took back the Beekman Street building before passing it on to the Church of the Holy Evangelist, prompting Trinity's rector, Rev. Dr. William Berrian to say the chapel was "saved from destruction."  Berrian recorded "For the purchase of St. George's Chapel in Beekman street, and ground, made over to the Church of the Holy Evangelists--assessments, repairs, alterations, and other expenses, $55,660.33"

In 1857 Cliff Street was widened, cutting into the century-old graveyard surrounding St. George's.  On June 30 The New York Times reported "About one-half of the ancient burying ground of St. George's Chapel in Beekman-street, has to be removed in widening Cliff-street.  The exhuming of the remains of seven old family vaults, in good preservation, was concluded yesterday."

The family remains involved were of William Post, John Post, Samuel Gifford, John Thompson, William Doughty, John H. Gover and James H. Titus.  The following day The Times remarked that the exhumation "brings to light the remains of many old citizens whose dust has reposed in silence and in peace for half a century."  The article noted "The vault of John Post contained seven bodies...The coffins, which were mostly of white wood, were in a good state of preservation.  They have been mostly transferred to Trinity Cemetery, a small part only having been sent to Mount Olivet Cemetery."

At the time the Church of the Holy Evangelist had a congregation of only about 150.  The small number of worshipers combined with what The Times called "the growing expansion of the City" eliminated the viability of the church within the decade.  The report of the Protestant Episcopal Church Missionary Society, released on May 17, 1868 included "The arrangements for the sale of St. George's chapel, having been perfected and completed the Board look forward to the early addition of $45,000 to its revenue from this source."

The $45,000 was a fraction of the sale price.  The building was purchased by the firm of Phelps, Dodge & Company for $145,000; that amount parceled out to Trinity, St. George's, and the Church of the Holy Evangelist, according to church historian Henry Anstice.  Another $5,000 was set aside "against possible claims of vault-owners," since the remainder of the graveyard would, obviously, be dug up.

The organ and the bell were removed to St. George's Church on Stuyvesant Square.  Henry Anstice remarked flatly "and the passing of the venerable structure, which had nobly served its purpose, but outlived its usefulness, was an accomplished fact."

Today there is no longer a corner of Beekman and Cliff Streets.  In 1971 the four 27-story apartment buildings making up the Southbridge Towers cooperative complex replaced blocks of vintage buildings and the streets where they stood; including the former site of Robert Crommelin's Georgian-style masterpiece.
photo via Cityrealty.com

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