Thursday, April 29, 2010

St. John's Lutheran Church - Greenwich Village

Standing before the white Federal-style church at 81 Christopher Street, it does not take much imagination to envision it as a country church surrounded by grass and trees.  And when it was built between 1821 and 1822, it was exactly that.  What was then the 8th Presbyterian Church faced mostly undeveloped land punctuated with an occasional home.  It would be almost a decade before the grand home of Samuel Whittemore would be built on Grove Street one block to the south, with his stables and carriage house almost directly across the street from the church. 

There seems to be no record of the architect, however he was no beginner.  The symmetrical facade is separated into two main horizonal sections by a protruding stone course.  Above, a pediment sits on a beautiful frieze with delicate Federal decoration.  Three arched windows surmount three arched doorways.  A set of three stone stairs run the length of the structure, giving the Village church a very old-world feel.

A superb belfry with eight louvred, arched openings between eight slender ionic columns sits on an octagonal base, surmounded by a domed cap and diminuative steeple.

The Presbyterians worshipped here for only two decades before selling the building to St. Matthew's Episopal Church in 1842.  From the pulpit here in February 1847 St. Matthew's priest delivered an impassioned plea to his congregation to assist in the relief drive for the Irish Catholics devasted by the potato famine. 

During this period, the German Lutheran population in New York was quickly expanding.  The first Lutherans arrived in America around 1620, settling along the Hudson River.  By the middle of the 18th Century for reasons both logistical and financial, they allied themselves with the Episcopalians.  But by the 1850s the German Lutheran population had quadrupled and, rather than share buildings with the Episopalians as some congregations had been doing, they needed their own churches.

It was probably this Episcopal-Lutheran friendship that initiated the sale of the Christopher Street church to the congregation of St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church in 1858 for $13,000.  The church that had changed hands three times in only 36 years had finally found a lasting owner.

The congregation almost immediately began improvements on the church, spending $1250 on a new German-built pipe organ and then, in 1866. enlarging it.  In 1886 the church commissioned architects Charles Berg and Edward H. Clark, who would soon become more well-known for designing skyscrapers, to modernize the building.  During this surprisingly sympathetic renovation the cartouche on the facade below the pediment was inscribed "Deutsche Evangelish-Lutherische St. Johannes Kirche" and the exquisite Eastlake-style stained glass windows with hand-painted medallions were installed.

Photograph St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church

Today the exterior of St. John's is relatively unchanged since its completion in 1822.  Inside, the simple Federal design remains, albeit with the Victorian updating and some 20th Century additions (like the unfortunate choice in ceiling lighting).

photograph St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
There is little written about the architecture of St. John's and it is widely overlooked by architectural historians, yet it is a graceful and splendid example of Federal church architecture in New York.


  1. Looking at a birth certificate mailed to our family a very long time ago - note 5 cent stamp - This is an accurate engraving of the church during the time of my ancestor April 1866. You can see the renovation was done later. Original architect unknown, this is interesting to me not only because it was an ancestor, but I would like to visit the current church next time we are in NYC. Also I am an architect - registered with the State of California click link to see scan of birth certificate -->

  2. My sister and I visited St. John's in 2006 as part of my genealogy research. My grandparents were married here in 1900, my aunt and uncle were married here in 1940 and my sister was married here in 1959. After my aunt and uncle moved to California, my aunt continued to correspond (mostly through Christmas cards) with Rev. Fred Eckhardt and his wife Nancy. Rev. Eckhardt was the pastor of St. John's in the 1950's and 1960's. In one of the cards Mrs. Eckhardt wrote that the interior of the church was being renovated and that there had been a dedication service. She wrote that the renovation was "plain and simple". The cover of the card showed a pen and ink drawing of the exterior of St. John's from "The Villager" dated 12/19/64.

  3. My g grandparents, Julius John Bohning and Dorothea ( Rohling ) Bohning were married here June 13 1897. I lived in NYC for years and never knew this!