The First United Presbyterian Church was organized in 1889, an offshoot of the Charles Street United Presbyterian Church. The congregation worshiped in the former Westminster Presbyterian Church building on West 22nd Street near Sixth Avenue before erecting a new church on West 34th Street in 1899. But within only a few years the plans for the massive Pennsylvania Station forced the trustees to look once again for another location. The substantial compensation the congregation received from the railroad for the 34th Street property was more than sufficient to erect an impressive new home.
The Pennsylvania Station plans exemplified the significant changes taking place in the district that the church had served. Therefore, as the New-York Tribune explained "As the majority of the congregation had moved north and it was felt that possibilities for growth in the lower West Side were limited," three building plots on West 108th Street, between Central Park West and Eighth (later Manhattan) Avenue were purchased in 1903.
Architect Frank E. Wallis was commissioned to design the building. He projected the construction cost of the two-story "brick and stone church" at $100,000--just under $3 million today. Construction began early in 1904 and Wallis's design quickly drew the attention of architectural critics.
On March 20, 1904 The New York Times pointed out that the design would "combine several unusual features of construction, not the least of which will be three great windows with a combined open space of more than 2,500 square feet. As in the case of the new Madison Square Presbyterian Church, no attempt at the usual lofty steeple will be made in this structure, the extreme height of the front elevation being only sixty-three feet above the sidewalk."
The site was a bit problematic for the writer, who called it "anything but favorable to this type of building." Sitting at mid-block, "it is bounded on either side by lofty apartment houses, which necessarily prevent any view being had of its side elevations. Because of this the two side walls will be plain brick, with a four-foot alley running along either side to give the maximum amount of light and air to the interior of the auditorium."
An element he did not have a problem with was the massive dome that would dominate the auditorium. The article said it was made possible by a "comparatively new system...invented by a Spaniard and named for him." Raphael Guastavino's patented "Tile Arch System" was based on the ancient Catalan vault. Interlocking tiles enabled incredibly strong arches and domes which needed few (or no) columns for support.
"This dome covering the auditorium, which is sixty-four feet square, will be broken by eight penetrations, doing away with all possibility of an echo. One hundred and twenty electric lights in the 'eye' of the dome will be bunched in six enormous holophane globes, the light from which is said to be similar to moonlight, due to a peculiar quality of the glass."
Wallis's exterior design was a blend of Tudor and Gothic. A Tudor-style porch with three arches sat below the massive Gothic stained glass window. Flat-headed Gothic lintels capped the understated windows on either side, and the roofline took the form of crenelated ramparts, ready to fight off attack. The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide was impressed, promising in June 1904 that "The church, when completed, will be one of the finest in the city."
|Frank E. Wallis released this rendering in the spring of 1904. Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, June 11, 1904 (copyright expired)|
As construction proceeded, the congregation numbered about 300; a fact that prompted The Christian Nation to take a veiled swipe at the project on March 30, 1904:
The First United Presbyterian church, formerly in West 34th street, New York City, and now worshipping in a hall, has bought lots in 108th street near Eighth avenue, and is beginning the erection of a church which will seat ten or eleven hundred. They sold their property to the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, at a very high figure--$258,000--and were able to put up a fine structure. But it requires great faith to erect a church so large that you could put your audience in it six times, and still there would be room.
|The Architectural Review, 1905 (copyright expired)|
On May 27, 1905 the New-York Tribune reported on the progress of construction, noting that the building's "white front is conspicuous among the surrounding apartment houses. The little building is fitted with every modern improvement without a stick of inflammable material." The article made note of the still-developing neighborhood. "This also is another step in the solution of the problem of the big 'neglected' district of the Harlem West Side...The opportunities for growth in the new field are unlimited. It is the only church of its denomination between 44th-st. and Washington Heights. In fact it is the only completed church between the Hudson and Lenox-ave. from 105th-st. to 115th-st."
The dedication took place on September 24, 1905. Several ministers from other congregations assisted in the ceremony and one of them, Rev. Madison C. Peters, was taken with one modern element. The New-York Tribune reported "Dr. Peters also said in walking about the new church he had observed a kitchen. That was a good thing, he thought, as it promoted good fellowship, and he for one did not believe in Christianity being served on ice."
|The Architectural Review, 1905 (copyright expired)|
The youth was 17-years old and a choir boy in January 1913 when he fell victim to temptation. He stole $125 from his employer, but quickly regretted his transgression. On January 28 The Evening Telegram reported that he had walked into the Central Police Station and announced "The better man in me has possession of my conscience and I want to be punished." He was.
Rather surprisingly, the church was in financial troubles at the time. The mortgage was held by real estate mogul William A. Martin and the following year, in October 1914, he lost patience. The Record & Guide listed the church property among those being sold at foreclosure auction on October 30.
Martin regained full ownership and it appears the building sat vacant until after his death five years later. His estate offered it at auction in October 1919, the announcement describing the property as a "limestone building formerly occupied as a church."
The Roman Catholic Church of the Ascension, located nearby at 221 West 107th Street, paid the Martin estate $20,576.78 for the building. The bargain price would translate to just over half a million today. The trustees did not intend to worship in the structure, but to convert it to a parish house and recreation space.
The congregation paid architect W. E. Anthony more than twice as much to convert the building as it had spent on acquiring it. The Record & Guide reported on July 24 that the alterations would cost "about $50,000."
The conversion included at least one apartment for staff. The manager of the youth basketball team, called the Ascension Five, lived here, for instance. On October 31, 1921 The Evening World reported that the "Harlem Five suffered a defeat at the hands of Ascension Five last Thursday evening at Ascension Parish House." The article said the Ascension boys "proved too much for them" and that "Manager Degenhardt of the Ascension club is anxious to book some more games with leading teams."
Sports were a major tool used by churches to detract neighborhood youth from the lures of idleness and evil. The parish house not only had a basketball court but a boxing ring. On October 25, 1922 The Daily Star announced that "Ascension Parish House will run its first amateur boxing tournament at the Ascension Parish House 12-16 West 108th street, Manhattan, on November 1, with the finals on Saturday November 4." The article added "Valuable prizes are to be offered in each event."
And the activities were not solely for the boys. The girls took over the basketball court every spring the girls' Free Throwing Contest. 1924 was not an especially good year for the Ascension Lassies, the Brooklyn Standard Union reporting on April 3 that "The Xavier Girls, of Brooklyn, carried most of the prizes away in the free throwing contest held at the Ascension Parish House, 12 West 108th street." It was the second year in a row that the Xavier girls had taken the team prize, a silver cup.
By 1924 the boxing tournaments were held once a month. One newspaper that year said "Many of the leading amateurs are entered in the various classes to compete for the valuable prizes to be awarded the winners of the semi-finals and final event."
In 1932 the first of a far different annual event would take place here. The Irish-American newspaper The Advocate announced "This Friday night, Dec. 16, will be an eventful one for the Irish residences and friends in Ascension parish. On this occasion we are going to present one of our greatest Irish radio shows." The event was preceded by a parade of the Armagh Pipers through "the local thoroughfares."
The article noted "The auditorium of the Parish Clubhouse is a large one and can easily seat nine hundred people...There will be Irish and American dancing after the performance." The two-and-a-half hour program featured well-known Irish singers, dancers and musicians.
Mayor John P. O'Brien was not only Irish-American, but a congregant of Ascension. The following year The Advocate announced that he would be attending the "grand Irish radio performance" in the Ascension Parish Club House.
In 1953 the 108th Street building was returned to a house of worship. The Southern Baptist Church had been organized by the Rev. Macon Osborne in 1922. It moved here from its former home at No. 103 Morningside Avenue.
The church was the annual venue for the commencement exercises of the Apex Beauty College. Sarah Spencer had founded the Apex News and Hair Company in 1919, having developed and received patents for a system of straightening the hair of Black women. Spencer became one of the first African American millionaires and by now there were 11 beauty schools in the United States. The graduation exercises were large events, its dozens of graduates wearing the same caps and gowns of academic colleges.
On June 21 1969 the N. Y. Amsterdam News reported on that year's exercises, noting that attorney Cora T. Walker, "prominent professional, civic and community worker and only woman president of the Harlem Lawyers Association," gave the commencement address. The article added "The audience was thrilled by the voice of Samuel R. Canady, a rising young baritone who sang at former President Lyndon B. Johnson's inaugural dinner."
Neighborhood youth were occupied during the summer months by camp-like activities within the church. In an article entitled "Teaching Independence," the N. Y. Amsterdam News reported on August 25, 1973 that the children had created items like decorative waste baskets, knitted belts and floor mats.
Southern Baptist Church continued to focus attention on the needs of its youth. The youth chorus performed an annual concert, for instance. It remains in the 108th Street building after more than half a decade, still a vibrant presence in the neighborhood.