Monday, July 9, 2018

The Lost Central M. E. Church - 48-58 Seventh Avenue


The 1890s finery of the woman passing the parish house contrasts with the omnipresent horse dung in the foreground--a reminder that not everything in the good old days was pleasant.   photograph from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

On June 16,1856 The New York Times announced that "The Central M. E. Church, Seventh-street (late Vestry-street [Church]) was dedicated by Bishop Janes yesterday."  The newspaper got the location grossly wrong.  The impressive new structure was on the west side of Seventh Avenue, not Seventh Street, between 13th and 14th Streets.

The Methodist Episcopal congregation, organized as the Vestry-Street Chapel in 1833, purchased the Seventh Avenue lots around 1855.  The neighborhood was upscale, with 14th Street lined with the brick and brownstone homes of wealthy families.  The new church structure reflected its surroundings.

The architect took inspiration from the Rundbogenstil style only recently imported from Germany.  A melding of Byzantine, Romanesque and Renaissance styles, it became popular among synagogue designers in America and its appearance as a Christian church is somewhat surprising.

The vast auditorium space of the new Central Methodist Episcopal Church quickly made it a favored venue for meetings.  On October 21, 1861, for instance, local Methodist ministers convened here.  Among the agenda points was "finding the grave of Strawbridge and Williams--founders of Methodism in New-Jersey--and erecting suitable monuments to their memory," according to the New-York Daily Tribune.

The focus of meetings quickly turned to war.  On September 17, 1862 The New York Times announced "There will be a grand demonstration on Thursday evening...at 7 1/2 o'clock, at the Central Methodist Episcopal Church...for the purpose of recruiting for Capt. Woodward's Company, of the Ironsides Regiment.  A number of eloquent clergymen and laymen will add fire to the occasion."

The Rev. Dr. Burchard, pastor of the nearby Thirteenth Street Presbyterian Church, was guest preacher on Thanksgiving that year.   Like his Southern counterparts, he assured the congregation that Providence was on their side in the war.  But he went further, declaring that God would exact reckoning on the enemy.  He said in part:

God had heard the groanings of his enslaved people, and seen the fruitless efforts of patriots and philanthropists to inaugurate any peaceful and feasible method of their exodus from bondage to freedom, and hence he has suffered all the evils of the rebellion to come, that he may shake and slit this nation of the last vestige of this ancient and hereditary curse.  Slavery will find its grave--a terrible retribution will be the heritage of the South."

Many of the congregants of the Central M. E. Church were well known business, military and political figures.  Among them were Hector C. Havemeyer; real estate and banking mogul John Castree; General Joseph C. Pinckney; Francis Hall, editor and publisher of the Commercial Adviser; and, most prominently, former President Ulysses S. Grant following his term of office.

Grant was most likely among the congregation on Sunday July 3, 1881 when the Rev. Dr. J. P. Newman preached following the assassination of President James A. Garfield.  Newman's sermons were always direct and often fiery.  He said Garfield's murder might have been understood had he "been a Sultan Abdul Aziz, or an Alexander II, spending the people's wealth in riotous living."  Instead, he said. "gentle as a woman, kind as a father, trustful as a brother, his would be the death of kindness itself."

Newman edged close to blasphemy when he compared the martyred President to a god.  "His murder is not merely regicide; it is deicide."

Twenty-seven years after the building was completed, its debt was paid off.  On April 1, 1883 Central Church held a "jubilee service" to celebrate.

Following Ulysses S. Grant's death in 1885 a brass plaque was affixed to his former pew.  It was the first in what would be a tradition of memorializing U.S. Presidents in the church.

Churches of the well-to-do most often closed during the summer months when the majority of their congregants were off at fashionable resorts.  The Central Methodist Episcopal Church took advantage of the closure in 1891 by making substantial renovations "inside and out," according to The Times on October 12.  The article noted "The interior decorations and fittings of the church have been completely changed, at the expense of $6,000, and the towers in front of the edifice have been rebuilt."

The auditorium was redecorated in "beautiful tints in shades of terra-cotta and tan."  The dome over the space was repainted in light tan and gold and jeweled stained glass skylights were installed.

The architect's updating of the exterior resulted in a splashing of Beaux Arts elements which rather aggressively elbowed their way onto the original Germanic design.  The facade now sprouted frothy cartouches and above the roofline gigantic urn-like finials appeared.

Not long after this tinted postcard was published, the center ground floor window would be replaced by the "Grant Window."  To the right is the rectory, to the left the parish house.
In 1892 Rev. Newman initiated a new policy that would become known as the Forward Movement.  The Greenwich Village neighborhood immediately surrounding the church had changed as millionaires moved north and their mansions were demolished for tenements or converted to rooming or boarding houses.  To best cater to the changing demographics (and to attract new members) Newman opened the church every night of the week, with a set schedule of weekly events.  At the same time he changed the church's name to the Metropolitan Temple.  The new policy also earned it a nickname: The Church of the Open Door.

The New-York Tribune explained 14 years later, "On Monday night the famous open parliament of Metropolitan Temple holds its weekly session.  Tuesday the illustrated lecture course, one of the finest in the country.  Prayer meeting on Wednesday night.  The pastor has conducted a series of services on Friday night known as the Question Box; all attending are permitted to bring written questions upon any subject whatever.  The gospel meeting has been a feature of Friday night, and on Saturday night the great Temple concert has continued year after year, summer and winter, as indeed have all the other services, with the finest talent."

On May 2, 1897 the first of an annual memorial service for U. S. Grant was held in the church.  The New York Times reported "In the evening the building was crowded to overflowing, and hundreds were obliged to remain outside during the services."

In 1908 Andrew Carnegie donated a new pipe $8,000 organ to the church, in memory President William McKinley, assassinated on September 14, 1901.  The ceremonies lasted an entire week and the dedication speech was delivered by President William H. Taft.  Among the other speakers were Vice President James S. Sherman and Governor Charles E. Hughes,

The church was packed for the new organ's dedication service.  The National Magazine, July 1909 (copyright expired)

The same year on Easter morning a large stained glass window between the entrances was dedicated as a memorial to U. S. Grant.  The Christian Advocated described it saying "The subject is 'Peace,' based on the General's words "Let us have Peace."

The Grant Window depicted Peace holding an olive branch above a broken shield. To the right a soldier sheaths his sword and to the left, a mother reads to her child.  The Christian Advocate April 27, 1922 (copyright expired)

The Presidential memorials kept coming.  On April 23, 1909 The New York Times reported that "As a tribute to the Administration of Theodore Roosevelt as President of the United State there is to be placed in the Metropolitan Temple a stained glass window representing the subject 'Equal Justice to All.'"   The round window, dedicated the following month, was executed by Tiffany Studios under the direct supervision of Louis C. Tiffany.  The article noted "It is known as a Favrile glass window and the materials used were made especially for it."

Tiffany was simultaneously working on a companion window which would be a memorial to Abraham Lincoln.  That window was dedicated in June.

The Lincoln (above) and Roosevelt windows were installed above the entrances.  The National Magazine, July 1909 (copyright expired)

The Rev. John Wesley Hill was the force behind the memorials.  Even more than Rev. Newman he changed the direction and personality of the Metropolitan Church.  An ardent pacifist, he staunchly supported freedom of expression and forward-thinking ideas.  The auditorium was frequently used for meeting of Suffragist groups, and the subjects of the lecture nights often had to do with the labor movement.

On Sunday evening, April 17, 1910, for example, Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federal of Labor stood at the pulpit and spoke on the "Social Uplift by Trade Unionism."  The question and answer period afterward proved more interesting that the speech.

A member of the typographical union stood up and asked "Do you expect to make any converts here?  Passing by here I was surprised to see the name of the great 'Sam' Gompers announced as a speaker.  Why, you could not get a union man into this church.  The organ behind you there was paid for you by Carnegie."

Gompers retaliated with humor.  "The man who has just spoken has said that he has tried to be courteous.  The language he uses shows that this is a great difficulty for him."

Rev. Hill was apparently less able to take heckling.  On Sunday evening March 27 he spoke on "Socialism as a Peril to the State."  A man who had been sitting in the rear walked down the aisle to the pulpit and with his hand in the air said loudly, "I rise to a point of order.  Are we worshiping in the house of the Lord, or is this a political meeting?"

Hill reacted with a Trump-like order:  "Put that man out.  Arrest him.  I'll sign the complaint against him in the morning."

It was the fifth in a series of anti-Socialist speeches by Hill and while he couched them as "allowing his hearers an opportunity for discussion at the close of his talk," it seems that he was decidedly more amiable to comments supportive of his stance.

John Wesley Hill resigned in 1912 to become president of the International Peace Forum.  Badgered to return by the congregants, he gave an ultimatum in April 1913.  He would return on the condition that he continue his work with the International Peace Forum.  Additionally, he said "I would like to see the Metropolitan Temple a rallying center of the peace movement for the country."  The trustees agreed and Hill returned.

Rev. John Wesley Hill struck a rather self-assured pose in 1909. The National Magazine, July 1909 (copyright expired)
Three years later Hill was thrust into scandal when 30-year old poet and author Louise Covington filed a $100,000 suit against him.  Newspapers retold her shocking story that in 1910 they met in Chicago and "it was love at first sight."  The Evening World recounted "In July of that year...Dr. Hill proposed, and Miss Covington accepted him.  The following December she came here to work for him.  She did not discover until 1911 that Dr. Hill had a wife, and also two children by a first wife."

Crushed and humiliated, she returned to Chicago.  One of the minister's sons, John Warren Hill, called it a "shakedown" and said Louise had been attempting to get money from his father for "a long time."  Mrs. Hill dismissed the accusations.  "Perhaps it is better to have the truth known to everybody and have the whole disgusting affair over, unpleasant as it seems," she said.  After intense media coverage, the he-said-she-said episode eventually fizzled out.

On November 26, 1922 the New-York Tribune reminisced about the church's past and lamented its present.  "In spite of being so hospitable and in spite of having so many new members, the former glory of the old Metropolitan Temple is a bit dimmed."

The National Magazine, July 1909 (copyright expired)
The article spoke of the 1890's when "From Monday till Sunday its light shone out, and every night in the week found its doors flung wide for some meeting--a prayer meeting, a concert, a lecture--and crowds thronged through the hospitable doors."  Then came Rev. Hill, "mixing politics with his preaching and prayers and jamming the pews Sundays and week nights with an eager congregation which was never quite decided whether to be pleased or shocked at the ultra-modern policy of their shepherd."

The present, however, was less kind.  "But the march of events is closing in on the church now, and it stands, a bit tarnished, a little forlorn, but still brave and undaunted, amid the office buildings and commercial house which are crowding it out."  The membership had declined from about 1,000 at the turn of the century to 822.

It all came to an end on May 1, 1928.  Around midnight an overheated flue on the third story of the parish house sparked a fire which spread into the church building.  Before the inferno could be extinguished the Metropolitan Temple was destroyed--its rear wall collapsed, the roof gone and the auditorium gutted.

Following the fire only the front wall stood.  Daylight can be seen through the hole where one of the Tiffany memorial windows had been.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

On the site a new Metropolitan Temple Church was erected, completed in 1932 by designs of architect Louise E. Jallade.  The building survives as the Metropolitan-Duane United Methodist Church, fondly called by locals The Church of the Village.

photo by Beyond My Ken

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