Thursday, February 20, 2014

The 1890 West End Presbyterian Church -- Amsterdam Ave and 105th Street

On February 7, 1888, a small group of Presbyterian men gathered in the Marshall mansion at Columbus Avenue and 104th Street to discuss the prospects of a new congregation.   Nearly a year earlier, in May, a Presbyterian Sunday school had been organized which originally met in the Marshall house and then moved to a ramshackle building nearby.

Now, with the Upper West Side exploding with new homes, businesses and residences, the need for a formal Presbyterian presence was brought to the table.  When the men left the Marshall mansion they had organized the West End Presbyterian Church with 69 members, “three of whom joined on the confession of their faith,” said The Westminster, a religious publication.

A small chapel was erected on “the Boulevard,” later renamed Broadway.  But, according to The New York Times, it “was not completed before it was found to be too small.”   In January 1889 the corner plot at Amsterdam Avenue and 105th Street was purchased and a second, larger chapel was built.  The new congregation commissioned the architectural firm of Carrere & Hastings to design the $40,000 structure.  The cornerstone was laid on June 22, 1889 and the new building, which The Westminster deemed “a remarkably beautiful piece of work with its loggia of stairway columns and its Romanesque filigrees,” was dedicated on October 20 the following year.

A few years later The New York Times printed a grainy photograph of the chapel -- (copyright expired)

The New York Times later remarked that the new chapel “was thought to be large enough for a growth of at least ten years.  In less than one year, however, it was overcrowded.”   Another writer agreed, “No sooner, however, had the second chapel been completed than it was seen that the congregation was destined soon to outgrow even that.”

The congregation called back Carrere & Hastings who designed a church structure that nestled up its chapel.  But the architects proved a little too pricey for the start-up congregation despite its growing numbers.  “These plans, however, called for so large an outlay that it was necessary to modify them, and at the same time increase the capacity of the church,” explained The New York Times.

Kilburn's sketch was published in Architecture and Building News on May 7, 1892 (copyright expired)
The Carrere & Hastings drawings were scrapped and architect Henry F. Kilburn was consulted for a less costly structure.   The cornerstone was laid on June 22, 1891 and Kilburn’s striking Romanesque Revival structure was dedicated in April 1892.  American Architect and Architecture described the church on January 7, 1893.  “This church, built of buff brick, relieved with terra-cotta of slightly lighter tone, is a very good example of rapid building as it is now carried on in this country.”  By not mentioning Carrere & Hastings, the publication deftly skirted the possibility of insulting the esteemed firm.  “While the church proper was building, the society worshiped in the chapel annexed to the present structure designed in a similar style but by other architects.”

The newly-completed church sat in the midst of still-undeveloped lots -- The American Architect and Building News, January 3, 1893 (copyright expired)
Indeed, Kilburn had produced a church “in a similar style.”  He continued Carrere & Hastings’ peaked gable, grouped arches, and bandcourses.  The small pinnacles on either side of the chapel’s gable were copies on the Amsterdam Avenue elevation.  Anchoring it all was a tall Italian bell tower with pseudo-balconies on each side.

The American Architect and Building News, January 3, 1893 (copyright expired)

In its new building, West End Presbyterian continued to flourish.  By 1898, upon the 10th Anniversary of the congregation, it was the third largest Presbyterian church in New York and one of the largest in the country.  The New York Times noted on January 22, 1898, “One church in this city labors under the unique difficulty of having so many members and Sunday school scholars that it is seriously embarrassed to know what to do for the future…The church, large and handsome, has been in use only about six yeas, and now is as much too small as the old chapel was, and pews are not to be had at any price.”  The newspaper noted that on every communion Sunday between 20 and 50 new members were waiting to be admitted.

By now the congregation which had started with 69 members had exploded to 1,400.   The New York Times noted that “No more land can be acquired adjoining the present buildings.  Estimates have been secured on the cost of remodeling the present buildings, and discussion has been had about the erection of a chapel in a near-by street.”

The Westminster attributed the tremendous growth on the church’s location and welcoming atmosphere.  “This personal touch coupled with the fact that the church is located in the very heart of the upper West Side has had much to do with the remarkable growth of the West End Church…It is said that during the last few years more people have got on and off the elevated station at One Hundred and Fourth street than at any other station.”

Coupled with those factors was the church’s innovative and open-minded approach.  In April 1902 the church purchased the house at 166 West 105th Street for $14,000 as a meeting place for the various social organizations of the church.  But the new facility sparked a pioneering concept—a nursery school.  The New-York Tribune reported on April 21, “This house will also be used as a kindergarten Sunday school, and on Sundays room will be set aside for the care of babies.  Mothers who have no one at home to care for their babies, and who cannot attend church service owing to this fact, may leave them at the house, where they will be cared for by women of the auxiliary society of the church until the services are over.”

The innovation was necessary in part because of the large tenement community that had grown up around the church.   The New York Times noted that “Four-fifths of its membership are residents of tenements and flathouses,” and the New-York Tribune said, “In these are a large number of mothers who desire to attend service at the church, but cannot unless they can get some woman to stay with the children at home while they go to church.”

By 1904, West End Presbyterian was taking in an additional 112 members per year.   At the time, fashionable New Yorkers closed their homes and traveled off to summer resorts for the three-month season when heat and humidity made city living uncomfortable at best.  With members gone, churches around the city closed their doors, too.   Then West End Presbyterian rethought the tradition.

On July 2, 1904, the New-York Tribune noted, “Practically all of the Protestant churches here are closed for the summer…One of the notable exceptions to the general rule is the West End Presbyterian Church…which has no hesitation in throwing open its doors all summer long.”

The assistant pastor, Rev. William Bishop Gates, told the newspaper “a church which fails to furnish, in the hardest time of the year, for those who are toiling and sweating in a sweltering city, that cool and calm that its open doors could give, that rest and relief to the physically overborne, and the spiritually depleted which communion with God can afford, is failing in its duty.”

With the resignation of the Rev. Dr. John Balcom Shaw in 1905, West End Presbyterian saw its first new minister since its inception.  When the young Rev. A. Edwin Keigwin took the pulpit, every pew in the church was rented.  Another innovation was put in place: a gymnasium, or “athletic association.”  The New York Observer said it “occupies a fine club building and half a city block fully equipped for its purposes, and owned and operated under the direction of members of the church.”

The New-York Tribune published a photograph of the church and Rev. Keigwin as he took the post of pastor on February 11, 1905 (copyright expired)
A reflection of the open-minded attitude of West End Presbyterian is perhaps seen in the June 8, 1913 discussion held here on the topic of eugenic marriage.  A spirited debate among pastors and civic leaders addressed the pros and cons of what, to the 21st century mind, is somewhat shocking.

The concept of improving the human race by restricting marriages to genetically-stronger individuals was just a part of the eugenics movement that would culminate in the Nazi Party’s experiments a few decades later.  In the meantime, speakers expressed somewhat surprising attitudes in the 104th Street church that night.

The New York Times reported the following day on the opinions of former Congressman William S. Bennet, in charge of the Presbyterian Church’s meeting.  “He called attention to the fact that literature and art had their beginnings in the Church which now was called upon to do pioneer work for morality and a stronger, healthier race of men and women.”

Perhaps equally shocking to certain Edwardian women were the 35 young ladies from the church “in bloomers and middy blouses” who filed into the 71st Regiment Armory on the night of March 4, 1915.  There they “watched white and colored pugilists pummel each other ‘for the benefit of the deserving unemployed of New York City',” said The Evening World.

“The girls, from the West End Presbyterian Church, didn’t appear shocked, but manifested their approval by applauding the fistic efforts of Freddy Welsh, lightweight champion of the world; Young Ahearn, middleweight champion of Europe; Battling Levinsky, Jack Britton, Joe Jeannette and other fighters.”

The newspaper quickly added that the girls were properly attended.  “The young women were chaperoned, however, dignity being added by the presence of Louis H. Junod, Swiss Consul in this city; Djelal Munif Bey, Consul General of Turkey; Paul D. Cravath, Cabot Ward, Elihu Root jr., Mrs. J. V. Bouvior jr., Mrs. Alphous Geer and many other prominent men and women.”  Following the boxing matches, “The girls also contributed more than a fair share of pleasure by performing remarkable Swedish calisthenics under the direction of Charles A. Palmer.”

The church continued its outreach and adaptation to change.  In 1918 the neighborhood saw the arrival of female streetcar conductors—something not only unheard of a few years earlier, but inconceivable.  Called “conductorettes,” they suffered a distinct disadvantage.  Their male counterparts could disembark from the street car at nearly any stop and run into a saloon to use the rest room.  There were no such accommodations for a woman.  Citizens were shocked in December that year when conductorettes “were seen entering the back room of a saloon at 106th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, owned by James P. Droogan,” reported the New-York Tribune.

Rev. Keigwin came to the rescue, offering the parish house.  “This parish house is within a stone’s throw of the 106th Street junction, where these cars make a fairly long stop, and the girls will be able to drop into the house for a few minutes’ relaxation, a cup of hot tea, a chat, or—where their wait is long enough—the privilege of reading magazines which Dr. Keigwin will provide,” said the New-York Tribune. 

The newspaper added “The parish house is, of course, equipped with dressing room accommodations, and is warm and cosey.  The girls will be made just as welcome as are the soldiers and sailors.”

The following year the church hit upon another ground-breaking way to keep congregants engaged—motion picture night.  Every Monday a screen was hung across the chancel and seven reels of motion pictures were shown.  The Sun reported, “Music is furnished by the pipe organ.”  Included in the weekly program was The World To-day, a compilation of world-wide newsreels.

Although no admission was charged, a collection was taken which rarely fell below $100.  The church was able to pay for the film rentals and often added to its treasury.  An unexpected by-product was outreach to other religious communities.  “Christians, Jews and Catholics come to community nights and none leave without having seen something worth while,” said The Sun. 

In retrospect, the programs were a bit propagandist.  “The films shown have as an essential idea patriotism, respect for one’s neighbor, the folly of Bolshevism or some present day principle.”

If New Yorkers thought Dr. Keigwin’s idea of movie night was revolutionary, they were more impressed when in 1924 he instituted live radio broadcasts of the services.   “We are living in a radio age and the radio has opened an entirely new book of opportunity to the Church,” Keigwin explained after the first broadcast service on April 18.  The pastor was ready to “take any criticism” that his fellow ministers would heap upon him—one of them had already told him the idea was “a dangerous thing.”

Instead, according to The New York Times, “hardly was the service over last evening when Dr. Keigwin’s telephone began to ring with messages of gratitude from radio communicants.”

One caller said “I am a cold-blooded woman and it is a long time since I have been to a Holy Communion service.  But I listened in tonight and I am uplifted and have determined to come back to the fold.”

On March 8, 1929, the Rev. Dr. A. Edwin Keigwin’s wife died suddenly at their home at 340 Riverside Drive.  Before her memorial service three days later the pastor had donated and had installed a new set of chimes.   The first time they were rung was at the conclusion of her memorial service.

When the church celebrated its golden jubilee in February 1938, Dr. Keigwin was still at the pulpit after 33 years.  The congregation that had started life with 69 souls now numbered 2,499 members.

Today West End Presbyterian Church continues the tradition of inclusion and outreach begun by Rev. Shaw in 1889.  The congregation shares its striking Romanesque building with a synagogue.  Congregation Kehilat Romenu is run by an equally-progressive rabbi, David Ingber.

non-historic photographs taken by the author

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