Monday, March 5, 2012

The Lost 1873 Church of the Disciples -- Madison Avenue at 45th Street

A sliver of the old Grand Central Terminal can be seen to the extreme right, behind the riot of domes and towers known as the Madison Avenue Church of the Disciples -- stereopticon view from the NYPL Collection
According to the 1895 “The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography,” George Hughes Hepworth had a calling.  “Early in life he was destined by his mother to be a preacher,” the book said.

The clergyman and journalist emerged from Harvard in 1853 and later furthered his studies at Cambridge.  Purposeful and driven, he headed the newly organized Church of the Unity in Boston in 1857, spearheading the construction of the new church.  Before long the church was among the most prominent and wealthy in the Boston area.  Hepworth devised a popular concept of “Sabbath evening discourses” held in theaters that included the audience in religious discussion.

When the Civil War broke out, he left his pastoral duties to serve the nation.  Beginning in 1862 he served as aide-de-camp to General Bank in Louisiana and subsequently oversaw the free labor system there during Reconstruction.

Returning to Boston, he resigned his post in 1869 to accept a pastorate in New York at the Church of the Messiah.  Three years later, he surprised his congregation on a Sunday morning by announcing that he had converted to Trinitarianism and united with the Congregational church.  Hepworth held his services in Steinway Hall, drawing large crowds of worshipers.

Like everything else in Rev. Dr. Hepworth’s life, his plans for a permanent church building were aggressive and monumental.  Fund raising among the congregation—whose numbers included respected citizens like Ulysses S. Grant and Russell Sage—resulted in $100,000 towards the new structure.  Three lots at the southeast corner of Madison Avenue and 45th Street were purchased in 1872 for $125,000 and Lawrence B. Valk was commissioned to design the structure.

Valk, whose office was at 229 Broadway, specialized in religious architecture and he had recently devised an innovative interior layout that provided unrestricted views of the minister to a large number of parishioners.   The architect would later advertise his concept in “The Year Book of the Congregational Christian Churches of the United States.”

“The attention of Pastors, Trustees, and Building Committees is called to the new form of circular seating on a bowled floor, combined with every requisite for comfort, seeing, hearing, and churchly appearance…Every regard paid in the cost to any required economy, and in all cases the cost will be guaranteed for complete edifices.”

The building was completed a year later.  It was a dizzying assemblage of towers and domes, gables and entrances.  Although the membership was just 800, the church was designed to hold 2,500. Inside congregants sat in 368 pews covered in crimson damask.  The ten rows gently radiated downward as an amphitheater toward the pulpit platform.  The organ itself cost the congregation $125,000—a sum equal to the purchase price of the lots--and The Sun noted that “In the pastor’s study are appliances for private gymnastics.”

The expensive organ with its tiara of trumpets and elaborate cabinet contributed to the financial problems of the church.
The Church of the Disciples was announced to be totally fire-proof.  This was due to the thick brick and stone walls and the exceptional roof.  In the 1870s most upper-class churches closed for the summer months while their parish members were off in Newport or other cooler spots.  This was no doubt a relief for those attending the Church of the Disciples, for the dome and roof were constructed of corrugated iron.

The new church was dedicated on April 3, 1873 to an overflow crowd.  “Ushers in full dress, with flowers in their buttonholes, took pains to accommodate all to the best of their ability, but a large number had to stand through the service,” reported The Sun. 

The newspaper was taken with the floral decorations.  “On the wall behind the pulpit were trailing vines and right in the centre of the organ front was a rarely beautiful circle of flowers.  Around the platform were literally hundreds of bouquets in stands and hot-house plants in carefully wrapped pots.  The mingled colors were beautiful beyond description, and after the service hundreds waited to examine the flowers.”

Even on this joyous occasion Hepworth recognized a potential problem:  money.  The country was seize by the Financial Panic of 1873 following a series of earlier economic recessions.  He admonished his flock “The furniture is not all paid for.  They could not sit at ease at their table when they knew the furniture was not theirs.”  He asked those gathered to “give largely because their indebtedness was large, but that would easily be taken care of if they would stand by the work.”

Indeed, the $100,000 already raised did not pay for the land, let along the additional $150,000 that the building cost.  It would be an on-going problem for the church.

A stereopticon view published by E. & A. T. Anthony & Co. was entitled "Front of Dr. Hepworth's Church" -- NYPL Collection
The Congregationalists were a step apart from other Christian sects and Hepworth would impress his ideology strongly into his members.  The New York Tribune noted on June 24, 1875 that “The Church of the Disciples also bears strongly the impress of the peculiar mind of its founder.  Its members are apt to be logical, argumentative Christians; each individual being driven to the Bible for his doctrines, an exceptional familiarity with Holy Writ is the rule among them; and as there is necessarily a great diversity in these doctrines, each man stands ready to defend the peculiar faith that is in him at the shortest notice.  Religious training of this kind is an education in itself, which fact offers an explanation of the exceptionally small number of illiterate members of the sect.”

On February 14, 1879, the Rev. Dr. George Hepworth resigned as pastor of the Madison Avenue Church of the Disciples.  The financial troubles of the church had become too great a burden and he could go on no more.  

In his resignation letter he said that after erecting the enormous building, “Just then the financial crisis through which the whole country has just passed struck us like a sudden blow form an unseen hand, and the difficulties of the enterprise were largely increased…There seemed to be nothing before us but financial ruin.  Death came into our ranks and removed one upon whom we had the right to depend.  Business difficulties compelled a large number to withdraw their active and much-needed support in order to attend to their own affairs…My own heart was well-nigh broken.  Still, though doing all we could, the dreadful hour came, and we tearfully saw our church building pass into other hands.”

Hepworth said the church needed a pastor with business acumen.  “I honestly believe that a minister can be found, gifted in a direction in which I am not gifted—for I am only too sensible of my lack of ability in the practical administration of a church of this kind—under whose guidance this organization may be compacted and solidified, as result which I most earnestly pray for.”

Hepworth’s prayers would not be answered.

On January 4, 1881 the church applied for a name change to Madison Avenue Congregational Church.   Gideon S. Palmer, a deacon, explained to the courts that the change was intended to “express its position denominationally.”  But there were other, larger, problems for the church.

With Hepworth gone, infighting began and the enormous debt continued to haunt the church.   The new pastor, Rev. W. R. Davis, resigned, telling The Sun on December 20, 1881 that he wanted “to preach in a church which is free from debt, and this church has a debt of $80,000 hanging over it.”

By 1884 the combative nature of the Trustee meetings was public knowledge, with The Times reporting on “some sharp talk” and Gideon Palmer saying that “noisy demonstrations, catcalls, and shouting, rendered impossible the orderly transaction of any business by the Church members.”

It had become obvious to the church members by January 1886 that there was no way out of the problem other than to sell the building.  The New York Times reported on January 3 that “The attendance at the Sunday services did not seem compatible with the size of the auditorium, and, as the expense of maintaining the building was so great and the chance of increasing the membership so slight, the members came to the conclusion that the best thing to be done under the circumstances was to get a smaller church.”

Only five months later, on May 29, 1886, the property was conveyed to the Gospel Tabernacle on the condition that the property would be used solely for church and evangelical purposes for five years.  It was an unfortunate transaction for the Tabernacle.

A year later Mrs. Elizabeth J. Scott, who held the mortgage of $80,000, foreclosed on the property.   On August 2, 1887 the building was offered at auction.  Ironically, the winning bid was $23,000 which, coupled with the mortgage, totaled $103,000 and was placed by the Tabernacle.  The Times noted that the amount “is much less than the property is worth.  It is understood that the Trustees will hold it in the hope of making a private sale at a fair value.”

Seven months later a headline in the New York Tribune called the building “A White Elephant.”  The March 9, 1888 article noted “It was said yesterday by members of the Tabernacle that the location of the building is bad and that the congregation made a fatal mistake in going there.”

In this, one of the earliest photographs of the church, the southwest corner of 45th and Madison Avenue is still undeveloped.
The Tabernacle finally solved the problem by selling the building in June 1888 to the Manhattan Athletic Club.  The Times reported that “The officers of the club say that as soon as title to the property can be perfected, about Aug. 1, plans will be immediately put into operation for the construction of a clubhouse superior to anything of the kind in the country.”

Before long Dr. Hepworth’s extravagant and exotic church was demolished; a victim of its own expense.

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