Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The 1847 St. Mark's Lutheran Church (6th St. Community Synagogue) 323 East 6th Street

The brownstone trim has been painted white and the brickwork red; but overall the building is astonishingly well-preserved -- photo
The Lower East Side in the final decades before the Civil War saw increasing numbers of German immigrants.  Before long the district would be known as Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany.

In 1846 three lots on East 6th Street were purchased by the Corporation of the United German Lutheran Church for $6,600 from the Woodward and Gaines families.  Within a year construction of a new church, intended as a mission for the congregation of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church at Broadway and Walker Street, was begun.

The unknown architect marched to his own tune in designing the building.  At a time when Gothic Revival was catching on and Green Revival temples were still the accepted form for church architecture, the architect chose to work in the Renaissance Revival style—much more expected for commercial and residential structures.

It would be a red brick edifice sitting on a base of brownstone and accessed by a broad set of brownstone steps.  Clustered pilasters flanked the handsome double-doored entrance and two blind windows with brownstone lentils and sills sat in recesses created by plain brick columns.  A classical pediment rose over the overhanging cornice. 

The interior was a no-nonsense space of worship.  Relatively unadorned, a balcony ran along three sides supported by slim wooden columns.

While the church was being built, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. Mark was organized by a few former members of St. Matthews Church.  The congregation was formalized on December 12, 1847 and worshiped briefly in a rented hall. 

Construction on the East 6th Street building was completed in 1848 and the dedication was held on June 4.  The new St. Mark’s church, financially unable to purchase the building, rented it from St. Matthews.  As the German population in the area grew, so did the congregation of St. Mark’s and in 1857 the church was finally able to purchase the building from St. Matthew’s for $8,000.

The congregants established themselves as merchants and skilled laborers, becoming an integral part of New York’s varied populace.  St. Mark’s Lutheran Church was central to the lives of many of the families.  In 1887 an addition was added to the back as a study or “director’s room,” and two years later the house behind the church at 64 East 7th Street was purchased as a parsonage.  As the congregation prospered, renovations including stained glass windows and new altar furniture were installed around 1897.  That same year the church listed between 650 and 700 communicants and more than 700 children in the Sunday school.

The 1897 windows, while retaining the memorial panels of the German purchasers, were altered in 1940 with Stars of David --
Annual excursions were popular around the turn of the century, sponsored by churches and civic groups.  St. Mark’s held an annual boat trip to a picnic grounds each year that provided relief from household drudgery and the heat of summer for church members.

On the morning of Wednesday, June 15, 1904 hundreds of women and children lined up at the Third Street Pier to board the steam side side wheeler, The General Slocum.  It was to be the seventeenth such trip up the East River and a German band played lively tunes on deck.  The passengers would never make it to the picnic grounds.

Around 10:00 am a fire broke out below decks that rapidly intensified when it reached a locker of paint and flammable liquids.  Life vests and fire hoses had been allowed to dry rot and crewmen were never trained in fire fighting.  Within a span of only 15 minutes, the vessel had burned to the water line and over 1000 people were dead – the greatest loss of life in New York City until the attack on the World Trade Center.

Kleindeutschland was devastated.  Some men lost their entire families.  There was not a member of the church who had not lost someone.   

“More than one man lost his mind after witnessing the dreadful scenes that followed his holocaust,” reported The New York Times eight years later when John Schrank attempted to assassinate Theodore Roosevelt.”  Schrank, the newspaper recalled, “appeared wild-eyed at the Morgue, and there identified the charred remains of his sweetheart, who was one of the thousand who died on the burning steamer.”
The neighborhood would never recover.   Little by little, unable to cope with the memories, the German population moved north to the Upper East Side Yorkville neighborhood.
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church struggled on, however.  On its 90th Anniversary, December 12, 1937, the Rev. William C. J. Weidt urged in his sermon that the “church should look ahead, although its membership had been reduced by the disaster but by the residence of fewer Lutherans in the ‘polyglot community’” where the church stood.  Criticizing other “downtown churches” whose membership was also declining but which did nothing to enroll new members he said “God help such congregations who have had an opportunity to spread the Gospel but who have folded their skirts.”

By Christmas Day 1940, however, the church was forced to “fold its skirts.”  With fewer than 50 congregants, St. Mark’s had been forced to abandon its venerable East 6th Street home on July 28 of that year and worship as guests of St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church at Lexington Avenue and 54th Street.  Before long the congregation would merge with Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church on East 84th Street.

Briefly the church was used by a “Russian Catholic group,” but on January 2, 1941 the Community Synagogue Center, Inc., took over the old church.   The synagogue had purchased the property the previous  September for $27,000.

The altar furnishings of 1897 remain intact --
Mrs. Abraham Meller, the first woman ever to head a Jewish congregation, told reporters the organization intended to “use the building for a modern Jewish temple and a social, athletic and cultural center for the Jewish youth of the neighborhood.”

The group, which had 200 members at the time, initiated a $25,000 renovation.

The pews date from approximately 1848 --
The rare pre-Civil War building is very much intact today.  The Sixth Street Community Synagogue remains here after more than half a century and is a vibrant part of the East Village community.  While the neighborhood and its ethnic make-up have drastically changed, the red brick church-now-synagogue persists.

1 comment:

  1. Your history nicely compliments the book by
    Edward….. called “The General Slocum Disaster” which detailed how my great great uncle Mr. Holthusen was Sunday School Superintendent when that fateful annual Sunday school picnic sojourn took place. My thanks.