In the winter of 1852-53 the congregations of the Pearl Street Church, at the corner of Elm and Pearl Street, and the Central Presbyterian Church on Broome Street faced a problem. As described by the Rev. Dr. Charles Henry Parkhurst half a century later, because of "the large exodus of the people up-town...the down-town churches became greatly weakened."
Meetings were held and "after mature deliberation," according to Parkhurst, the two congregations agreed to merge and find a new site uptown in an upscale neighborhood. That site was secured in February 1853 and could not have been more fashionable--a large plot on the southeast corner of Madison Avenue and 24th Street overlooking Madison Square. Miller's Stranger's Guide to New York would mentioned in 1866 "The houses surrounding this park include some of the most elegant of this city."
|The eastern edge of Madison Square at around the time the church purchased property. Booth's History of New York, from the collection of the New York Public Library|
The Rev. Dr. William Adams, the pastor, explained "The site which had been selected must strike all as peculiarly pleasant and favorable. It was at once conspicuous and retired; it was accessible, central, and yet removed from general disturbance."
On March 3, 1853 the new congregation's trustees met and resolved, among other things, "that the said church be designated as the Madison Square Presbyterian Church of the City of New York."
Adams leased Hope Chapel on Broadway for twelve months while construction of the church was underway. On May 2, 1853 he oversaw the sale of pews for the next year. The New York Herald noted "there was a large number of persons present, anxious to procure seats in this commodious place of worship." Pews were offered at a fixed price, and then congregants bid up the cost on "choice" pews.
Names in the group bidding that evening included Sheppard, Stebbings, Livingston, Hudson, and Blanchford; among the most prominent families in New York. The sale that night brought in about a quarter of a million in today's dollars.
The cornerstone was laid two months later, on July 12. The New York Times described what would be a substantial structure. "The entire length outside, including tower and lecture-room, will be 146 feet; breadth, 74 feet 4 inches; space inside, 62 by 85, with a pulpit recess of 5 feet, making the entire length 90 feet." The soaring tower would rise 208 feet, and the stone walls would be three feet thick with buttresses of matching width.
"The edifice will be entirely built of Jersey free-stone, similar to that of Trinity Church," said the article. Interestingly, the architect of that church, Richard Upjohn, was the father of Richard M. Upjohn, hired to design Madison Square Presbyterian.
And in his remarks, Rev. Adams made it clear that he had aggressively steered Upjohn toward Gothic Revival. The Times reported "Dr. Adams said that he confessed a long cherished attachment to the spire of a Christian church. This, though sometimes added to the Grecian style of architecture, belong altogether to the Gothic style. He would never have this form superseded, which made the churches distinct throughout a metropolis."
The completed edifice cost $175,000--more than $4.8 million today and the first service was held in the church on Christmas Eve, 1854. The black walnut pews could seat 1,200 worshipers.
Before beginning, he effectively warned his audience of what was to come. The New York Times reported "He said that he was not ignorant of the difficulties which pertained to an ample and public discussion of the topic," and noted "He entered upon the discussion with the fullest sense of the sensitiveness with which a pure mind shrank from its announcement."
Adams said that in talking about "the fallen and friendless of a particular class, he thought the best way would be to lay the ax at the root of the tree." The root, he insisted, was marital infidelity. The rector drove his point home in terms no man in the audience could have mistaken.
He then went on to other sinful problems which might induce a man to stray. The Times wrote "Dr. Adams then spoke of the evil effects of light reading, immoral plays, &c., on the imagination."
|Rev. William Adams, from Encyclopaedia of the Presbyterian Church, 1884 (copyright expired)|
The Madison Square Presbyterian Church was, of course, the scene of marriages and funerals of some of Manhattan's wealthiest and most distinguished citizens. Theodore and Martha Roosevelt attended with their four children, including Theodore, Jr. who would become U.S. President, for instance.
Another prominent family was that of Horace Francis Clark. Clark had married Maria Louisa Vanderbilt, daughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1848. That resulted in his becoming a director of the New York and Harlem Railroad and eventually president of the Union Pacific Railroad, the Michigan Southern Railroad and others. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1857.
Horace Clark died on June 19, 1873 and his funeral in Madison Square Presbyterian Church was a notable affair. Following the 4:30 service on June 21, a line of black carriages followed the hearse to Grand Central Depot. There a special train carried the casket to Woodlawn Cemetery, followed by another private train for the mourners.
After a pastorate of more than 20 years, Rev. Adams tendered his resignation on November 19, 1873. He was convinced to remain five more months, but on Sunday, April 19, 1874 he gave his farewell sermon. The following day The Times reported that the church "was crowded to its utmost capacity yesterday morning, and many were obliged to stand in the aisles and passages of the floor and gallery."
Adams was back on May 12 the following year to install the new pastor, Rev. William J. Tucker. Tucker would address social problems through his coming pastorate, like the miserable conditions of tenement houses; but he never achieved the prominence of his predecessor. And he would most definitely be overshadowed by his successor.
Tucker was offered the position of chairing the Sacred Rhetoric in Andover Theological Seminary in the summer of 1879. In reporting on his acceptance, The New York Times hinted at the difficulties he had dealt with in filling the shoes of Rev. Adams. "It was not an easy matter to follow one so beloved and respected, and who had for so may years been over the church."
Tucker's leaving meant a significant cut in pay. He had been earning $10,000 a year at Madison Square Presbyterian--a comfortable $275,000 by today's standards. He would now be grossing $3,000.
But if Adams had been a force within the church, perhaps no minister in the history of New York City would be more colorful and impactful than Tucker's successor, the Rev. Charles Henry Parkhurst.
Parkhurst was installed on March 9, 1880. Among his first socially-notable functions was marrying Norman W. Dodge, the son of millionaire William E. Dodge, and Emma Hartley on May 6. He officiated at the funerals of the celebrated Dr. J. Marion Sims in November 1883 and that of Civil War General George B. McClellan two years later, on November 2, 1885. The services for McClellan required more than 250 policemen to control the crowds, 10 carriages just for the family member, and streets being shut down for the funeral procession afterward.
But it was not society weddings or the funerals of war heroes and titans of industry for which Parkhurst would be most remembered. As the 1890s dawned, Parkhurst became obsessed with social reform.
After being elected president of the New York Society for the Prevention of Crime, he turned his attention to the police department, challenging its methods and targeting corrupt officers like Capt. Alexander "Clubber" Williams of the 29th Precinct in the Tenderloin district. Williams had become a millionaire from payoffs and bribes.
In 1892 Parkhurst openly attacked the Tammany regime from the pulpit, and then personally set off to collect evidence of government corruption and graft. Not only did he hire a private detective, he and a friend went into the streets in disguise to collect proof. His sermon on March 13, 1892, peppered with documented instances of government crimes, led to the formation of the Senate's famous Lexow Committee in 1894 to investigate police corruption.
|from the collection of the New York Public Library|
But it was his personal interest in prostitution that raised some eyebrows. On April 11, 1892 The New York Times reported on "many rumors, among which was one that certain members of the Board of Trustees of the church had made objections to Dr. Parkhurst's preaching any more sermons on municipal affairs." The article added that some members of the Board of Trustees were reported to be dissatisfied "with the doctor's choice of subjects for sermons and with his recent personal investigations as to the breaking of the excise law and the existence of disorderly houses."
By now the New York Society for the Prevention of Crime was best known as the "Parkhurst Society" the goal of which had broadened to the shutting down of places of vice like gambling dens, "houses of disrepute," and illegal saloons. The Society had a staff of agents who not only supplemented official police investigators, but superseded them in many cases.
It was the reverend's personal visitations to brothels that most likely concerned many of his conservative congregants. Parkhurst routinely put aside his clerical attire and went undercover to these "vile dens."
On March 11, 1892, for instance, two of Parkhurst's agents, John L. Erving and a man named Gardner, went to the brothel run by Hattie Adams. Convinced of what was taking place there, they arranged to come back with a "friend who was seeing the town."
That alleged friend was Rev. Parkhurst. The three returned and according to Erving's testimony recounted in The Times, "They drank beer supplied by Mrs. Adams, staid in the house from a half to three-quarters of an hour, and witnessed dances and other disorderly performances. Gardner held up his hat as high as he could and the girls, who were disrobed, kicked at it. The played 'leap frog' with Gardner, and the witness waltzed around the parlor with one of the women."
Hattie Adams's attorney tried his best to fluster the minister or discredit him.
Did you tell Mrs. Adams that you were a minister of the Gospel?
No. I did not.
Did you remind those poor creatures that they were misbehaving?
Did you tell them to put on their clothes?
Did you see them undress?
I did not. I turned my gaze away.
Did you play 'leap-frog'?
But you drank beer?
And you are a minister?
Despite the attack, The Times was impressed on Parkhurst's ability to remain calm and unwavering in his testimony against Adams.
Parkhurst's general views on women were traditional, Bible-based and most today would say backwards and offensive. In his sermon on the suffrage movement entitled "The Biblical Definition of Women" on May 13, 1894, he said in part, "If you women want to preserve your individuality you will do so by remaining womanly and not in trying to become mannish."
He went on to say that some women believed "If a man undertakes a certain business, why should not a woman? If a man votes, why should not a woman?" He called that tendency "manhoodmania" and instructed that women needed to "choose to fully understand what is the peculiar mission they have before them." There was to be no arguing with his logic. He concluded saying "if the congregation did not understand him it was their fault."
|A turn of the century postcard labeled the structure "Dr. Parkhurst's Church." (copyright expired)|
At the turn of the century Madison Square was no longer the quiet and exclusive neighborhood it had been have a century earlier. The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company had begun construction of its new headquarters next to the church in the spring of 1890 and one by one the residences around the park were either demolished or converted for business purposes.
According to Rev. Parkhurst in his A Brief History of the Madison Square Presbyterian Church in 1906, "As early as 1896, the question began to be considered whether...it would not be to our interest as a church to build elsewhere if a suitable site could be found on Madison Square or in its neighborhood." A meeting was held on May 14, 1894 during which it was unanimously agreed that the church would not move uptown.
Nevertheless, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company coveted the church's property as it anticipated enlarging its headquarters. Finally, on January 6, 1903 The Evening World reported "The congregation of the Madison Square Presbyterian Church that since 1865 has worshipped in Dr. Parkhurst's Church at Madison avenue and Twenty-fourth street, will soon move across the street, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company having finally purchased the present site to complete the great building planned for the entire block."
The insurance firm had paid Catharine Lorillard Wolfe $700,000 for her mansion, one of the last private homes on the Square. It gave the church that plot and additional $300,000. The Evening World reported that the church had raised another $200,000 "to insure the imposing new structure for the church home."
|The two Madison Square Presbyterian Churches sat briefly side-by-side as construction continued on the new structure. (copyright expired)|
The venerable brownstone Upjohn-designed church was demolished that year to be replaced by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company's "tower building," designed by Napoleon Le Brun & Sons which survives.
|A circa 1907 postcard pictured the new tower. (copyright expired)|