Monday, August 13, 2012

The Lost 1767 Old Brick Church -- Beekman and Nassau Streets

The above view appeared in "Brick Church Memorial," distributed during the last sermon at the church on May 25, 1856  (copyright expired)

It was the Episcopalians who held sway among the religious sects in New York City in the 18th century.  And they gave the Presbyterians had a hard go of it for a while.  By 1706, a handful of English, Scottish, Irish and French Presbyterian families were assembling in a private house to conduct services.  That year the Rev. Francis Makemie was arrested when the Governor charged that his preaching was illegal.  Although Makemie was acquitted, the authorities continued to pressure the Presbyterians and it would be a full decade before a full-time minister would settle in.

In 1716 a regular Presbyterian church was formed under Scottish-born Rev. James Anderson.  For three years the congregants assembled in City Hall, then in 1719 they built their first real church on Wall Street.  By 1766, the Presbyterians had outgrown the small building and the cornerstone for a second church was laid.  The once-shunned congregation now chose what decades later The New York Times would call “the finest piece of property the city owned” and obtained a perpetual lease.  The church was charged a ground rent of $200 per year—about $5,500 today—for the oddly-shaped plot bounded by Nassau and Beekman Streets and Park Row.

Architect John McComb, Sr. was hired to design the new church.  McComb would go on to design other important structures like the President’s House in 1790; but it was his son, John McComb, Jr. who would be most remembered for his brilliant Federal-style buildings like City Hall.

The cornerstone amazingly survives at the current Brick Church uptown -- photo by Alice Lum

McComb produced a chaste Georgian brick-and-stone structure in keeping with the English vogue of the day.  Completed on New Year’s Day in 1768, it was similar to St. Paul’s Chapel, which was just being completed as the new cornerstone of the Presbyterian church was laid.  Its multi-tiered steeple rose high above the roofs of the surrounding homes and a plain wooden picket fence enclosed the large churchyard.  The nearly-unadorned interior reflected the Protestant disdain for ostentation.

The interior was chaste and relatively unadorned -- "Brick Church Memorial" May 1856 (copyright expired)

The original church was not abandoned, rather the congregation split into the two houses of worship, continuing under the single Presbyterian operation.  The new church was known as The Brick Church.  Dr. John Rodgers was brought in as the Brick Church’s first pastor.   

The dapper Dr. Rodgers was given a fine parsonage at 7 Nassau Street.  Over a century later, The New York Times would remark that he lived “in a fine style” and wore clothes that “were invariably neat, elegant, and spotless.”  Washington Irving described him “with his buzz wig, silver-mounted cane, well-polished shoes, and silver buckles.”  Rodgers was not merely a fashion plate, however.  He was influential in city affairs, elevated the church by attracting erudite congregants, and was, as The New York Times said “delightful socially.”

And then came the war.

During the British occupation of New York City, both Presbyterian churches were taken over.  The Wall Street church was used as a barracks and the Brick Church was turned into a hospital.  The interior was gutted and left “in ruins” as a later minister would recall.  The elegant parsonage was burned to the ground.

At the war’s end, the former animosity of the Episcopalian Church had long abated and Trinity Church offered St. George’s and St. Paul’s Chapels to the Presbyterians for worship until the damaged churches could be restored.    On June 1784, after considerable expense, the Brick Church reopened and Dr. Rodgers was back in the pulpit.

This romantic engraving was produced three years after the Brick Church (left) was destroyed -- NYPL Collection

By 1809, the operation of the two churches as a single body became cumbersome and the congregants agreed to a separation.  A year later, it became necessary for the Brick Church to find a replacement for Dr. Rodgers after four decades in the pulpit.  Brick Church Memorial, written in 1856, recalled, “The age and infirmities of Dr. Rodgers had released him from all duty, and the great object of the church now was to secure the services of a stated pastor.”

Finding a new pastor would not be easy.   The congregation was in turmoil, dissatisfied with the split of the two churches.  The Memorial noted, “There were divisions among them arising from the separation…from ancient feuds, personal animosity, and political excitement.”  Several ministers were offered the position but they politely declined.  The trustees finally found, in June 1810, young Gardiner Spring who had just graduated from the Andover Theological Seminary.  Like Rodgers, Spring would be here for a very long time.

Yet, Spring nearly lost his ministry and his church the following year.  On a Sunday morning in May 1811, while the congregation worshiped, a fire broke out in a waterfront warehouse three blocks away.  A burning cinder was carried on the spring breezes to be dropped onto the wooden steeple.  There it smoldered, then caught fire.  Before long the steeple was burning.

As the congregation crowded onto Beekman Street in horror, certain that they would witness the destruction of their beloved church, a seaman named Stephen McCormack elbowed his way through the well-dressed crowd and, using his skills as a sailor, shimmied up the lightning rod.   Using his jacket, he beat out the fire and saved the church.  The thankful parishioners offered the young man a $100 reward, but he disappeared into the crowd and never returned for it.

Possibly because of McCormack’s actions, the Brick Church and Rev. Spring became active in the ministry to seafarers.   Since sailors notoriously avoided formal church services, the Brick Church laymen initiated a series of prayer meetings in houses along Water Street “in the hope of benefiting such classes of the population as did not frequent public worship.”   Somewhat to their surprise, it was not only the women running the boarding houses and their cooks and other help who attended the meetings—the crusty sailors came.

Buoyed by their success, a prayer meeting “specifically for sailors” was started in a house near the docks at Old Ship and Front Street.  Before long other denominations and churches joined in, laying the foundation for what would evolve into the Mariners’ Church.
Rev. Gardiner Spring -- from The Brick Church Memorial, May 25, 1856 (copyright expired)

Members of the Brick Church were expected to toe the doctrinal line and Mrs. Maria Townsend found that out quite clearly in 1820.  Church officials discovered that Mrs. Townsend felt that wrong-doers would be absolved of their sins and admitted into Heaven by the grace of the Crucifixion.   Presbyterian belief firmly declared that the wicked would be punished in Hell.  Maria Townsend was called in to explain herself and renounce her earlier statements.

She refused.

After two years of exasperation, Maria Townsend gathered her children and began worshiping at Trinity Church.  The Rev. Dr. Spring was not pleased.  From his pulpit he announced, “It has become my painful duty, to announce that Mrs. Maria Townsend, a member of this Church, has for two years past, persevered in denying the doctrine of the everlasting punishment of the wicked, and has presented her children for dedication, at that place of pretended worship, where the doctrine is taught that the wicked will be saved as well as the righteous.

Maria Townsend was publicly excommunicated from the Presbyterian Church.  The indignant woman got the last word, sending Rev. Spring a polite and educated lesson on God’s love and the sacrifice of His Son.

By 1856, the Beekman Street neighborhood was no longer the quiet residential area it had been.  But the property was still among the most expensive in the city.  With the majority of the congregation having moved away, the church needed to relocate and the decision to abandon the venerable structure was made.

print NYPL Collection

A last minute attempt to save the Old Brick Church was launched by Rev. Spring, who proposed to the Presbytery that the building be retained as a church for travelers.  Under his plan, the New York Presbyterian churches would contribute towards the maintenance of the satellite church.  But a committee formed to consider the proposition turned it down and, as Rev. Spring wrote, “the Presbytery and the congregations dropped the subject.”

Early that year, the elegant old church was sold for $200,000 in cash to The New York Times.  The congregation purchased a plot in Murray Hill for $58,000—a sum that included a considerable amount of the building materials for a new structure.

On May 25, 1856, the Reverend Gardiner Spring issued his last sermon from the pulpit of the Old Brick Church.  “For whatever purposes this hallowed ground may be hereafter employed, experience has convinced us that it is no longer a fit place for religious worship,” he began.  The minister said, “Had any one told me twenty years ago that I should live to see it abandoned as a place of religious worship, I should have thought him a romancer, if not a madman; yet the hour of abandonment has come.”

Two days later. James S. Hall, the church sexton, announced in The New York Times, “The Brick Presbyterian Church…having been sold, the trustees have procured a beautiful location in the Cemetery of the Evergreens to which place all the remains of the dead found in the graveyard will be removed, unless otherwise indicated by surviving friends.”  That tied up the last dangling thread.

John McComb’s handsome Georgian style church was demolished later that year.  The New York Times erected its new building on the site in 1857-1858.  

The former New York Times building stands on the site of the Old Brick Church -- photo by Alice Lum


  1. Dr. Gardiner Spring was one of my ancensors. He wrote many volumes about theology and other topics. He was related to Samuel Spring who served as a chaplain in the Continental Army during General Arnold's expedition to Quebec, Canada during the Revolutionary War. Gardiner Spring was a staunch abolitionist who strongly opposed slavery in the United States.

    John Walton Spring

    1. Thank you for the history, Mr Miller. And thank you for the note, Mr Spring. BUT the story continues. The Brick Church moved to Fifth Avenue and 37th Street in 1858, and remained there until 1940, when, again, in response to the migration of its congregation, it relocated to its third and present site at Park Avenue and 91st Street. The Brick Church community is very alive and very well. Further I hear the name of Gardiner Spring quite often in sermons or in the hall ways of the current building.