Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The 1903 Lutheran Church of the Redeemer-- 424 West 44th Street

photo by Alice Lum
The United Presbyterian Church—sometimes called the West 44th Street Presbyterian Church—had stood at 424 West 44th Street since at least, 1872.  The church was the second largest of the New York Presbyterian churches and its rectory snuggled up next door at No. 422.  It was here that the Rev. Gawn Campbell, pastor of the church for 17 years, died of pneumonia in February 1887.

The congregation moved on at the turn of the century, however, and the site caught the eye of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, an offshoot of the German Evangelical Lutheran church of St. Matthew at Broome and Elizabeth Streets.   On April 9, 1903 the church and rectory were sold to the Lutheran church and before long the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide noted that the German builder, Jacob A. Zimmermann, had been given the contract to construct a new church and “church house” on the site.

St. Matthew’s contracted architect John Boese to design the two buildings.  Although Boese, whose office was at 280 Broadway, spent most of his time designing ice houses and other not-so-impressive structures, he was also responsible for several churches around this time.

Completed the same year, Boese’s buff-colored brick buildings cost around $25,000.  The Gothic Revival structures melded together as a delightful whole—the rectory at No. 422 balanced by a section of equal width on the opposite end of the main building.  Shallow buttresses defined the three sections and only careful examination reveals that the rectory is a separate structure.

The asymmetrical church building became balanced by the charming rectory (left) -- photo by Alice Lum
Although Boese used limestone for the buttresses, finials and arched lentils, he relied mostly on creative brickwork and carved wood for his decorative touches; most likely due to budgetary constraints.

Although the Church of the Redeemer had sprung from St. Matthew’s German Lutheran Church, the Rev. William Dallmann pointedly advertised it as an “English speaking church.”  The Rev. Ferdinand g. C. Schumm look the pulpit as pastor of the new church.

The neighborhood of the Schumm’s church was decidedly unfashionable.  Just north of the notorious Hell’s Kitchen district, its residents were mostly poor, working class families.   When, in 1913, the Sage Foundation erected two “model apartments” directly across the street from the church, the neighborhood buzzed with excitement.   “They are lighted by electricity, have hardwood floors, and modern conveniences utterly unknown in the district,” reported The New York Times.    The apartments, which rented for $22 a month for a front exposure and $20 a month at the rear, had luxuries like steam heat, a garbage incinerator, two perambulator rooms for baby carriages in the basement, and marble-paneled hallways.

Most of the worshipers at the Church of the Redeemer, however, did not have it so cushy.

In 1915 Schumm proudly served on the executive committee of a publicity campaign in 1915 “to make Lutheranism better known in America.”  The campaign was organized to coordinate with the 400th anniversary of Martin Luther’s break with the Catholic Church.
Photo by Alice Lum
While the jubilee celebrations, which took place that October, were among Schumm’s happiest times, his darkest day possible came in October three years later.  The pastor’s 23-year old son, Army Sergeant Karl H. Schumm, went to France with the 77th Division in 1917.   The division was decimated in April 1918, losing 1,646 soldiers “in its valiant career on the front in France,” said The New York Tribune.

The congregation’s fears were realized when The Tribune listed Sergeant Schumm’s name among the list of the dead.  On October 6 Reverend Schumm bravely presided over the memorial service for his son in the church.

On November 18, 1926, after 23 years as pastor of the Church of the Redeemer, Rev. Schumm died at the age of 62.  The Rev. Dr. Herbert h. Gallman took the reins, and like his predecessor, embraced the Reformation with a passion.

The message of one of his first sermons was “The Reformation is not an event that happened once in a foreign country some 400 years ago, but is a movement and a continued achievement that will last throughout the ages.”

As time passed the church became headquarters of the Lutheran Metropolitan Inner Mission Society which sponsored various charitable causes including an immigrant ministry, a seaman’s mission and a child-welfare office.  By the 1960s it had become the All People’s Church.

John Boese’s Gothic Revival church was later converted by New Dramatists—an organization founded in 1949 that works with and grooms budding playwrights.  With grants from the Sam S. Schubert Foundation and the John Golden Fund, the group transformed the nearly century-old church into an auditorium-type space with risers for readings, a library, and workshops.
photo by Alice Lum
From here New Dramatists holds nearly 90 workshops and readings each season and its work with playwrights has earned it a Tony Award and an Obie.  Its members have included James Baldwin and Lonnie Elder III.

The attractive one-time church, called by the AIA Guide to New York City “a free-spirited Gothic Revival fitted gracefully into a continuous row house” started a new century as a recycled vintage structure.

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