Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The 1868 First German Baptist Church -- No. 334 East 14th Street

photo by Alice Lum

When John Eschmann arrived in New York from Germany in 1845 there were already over 24,000 German immigrants in the city.  Eschmann quickly adapted to his new home and affiliated himself with the South Baptist Church.  The Home Mission Board appointed him to be a missionary among the German population and within the first year he organized the First German Baptist Church of New-York City.  It proudly boasted a full one-dozen members.

German immigrants flooded into New York over the next two decades.  By the start of the Civil War there were 118,292 Germans living in the city; most of them settling in the Lower East Side.  By 1866 the congregation that Eschmann had founded with just 12 members was ready for a new impressive church structure.  Julius Boekell was commissioned to design the building; an architect who would keep busy producing warehouses, tenements and commercial structures for decades in Manhattan, but who has been mostly forgotten.

On May 20, 1868 The New York Times ran a one-line article that seemingly aroused little interest.  “The corner stone of the First German Baptist Church, in Fourteenth-street, near First-avenue, Rev. H. A. Schaffer, Pastor, was laid yesterday afternoon.”

The lack of fanfare surrounding the cornerstone ceremony would carry on through the building’s completion and dedication.  But Boekell’s finished First German Baptist Church was flourish enough.  If many of the architect’s other, more utilitarian, projects were somewhat bland, the new church was anything but. 

Boekell produced a charming white stone fantasy that engulfed the building lots at Nos. 334 and 336 East 14th Street.  Generally Romanesque in style, it was outlined with wide corbels along the top, inset with trios of lofty arched windows that were mimicked by the entrance doors, and surmounted by two spiky spires.  The Hansel-and-Gretel-ready design was no doubt a stand-out on the street lined with brick and brownstone clad rowhouses and stores.
The spires were later removed.  photo by Alice Lum
When the congregation celebrated its 40th anniversary in July 1886 its numbers had risen to 352.  In his sermon on July 11 that year, Rev. George A. Schulte mentioned that the church had produced nearly two dozen German Baptist ministers. 

Later that same year, on the morning following Christmas Day, the reserved congregation was traumatized by a shocking disturbance.  Just as Pastor Schulte had completed the sermon and the last hymn was about to be sung, “a man who had been sitting quietly in one of the side rows of the seats jumped up and began violently hugging a lady who sat next to him,” reported The Sun.  “He was a stranger to her.  She shrieked and tried to get free.”

What had been a normal Sunday service was suddenly thrown into chaos.  The congregation jumped to their feet and about 12 men grappled with the man, dragging him out of the church.  The well-dressed crew helped policemen carry him to the 5th Street police station.

In the meantime, said the newspaper, “The services at the church were hurriedly concluded.”

The man turned out to be 30-year old Cornelius Hendrickson whom The Sun said was “handcuffed and pretty well tired out.”  Dr. McCurdy of Bellevue Hospital later diagnosed him with “acute mania.”

The First Baptist German Church became involved in a messy and highly-publicized love triangle when Rev. G. A. Guenther married William Reid and Albertina Keefer on July 9, 1898.  The problem was that the bride was already married.

Less than three years earlier, on September 65, 1895, the then-19 year old Albertina had married Otto Wuchner in Hoboken.  When Wuchner, who made his living as a bill poster, found out about the superfluous husband in 1899, Albertina explained that she had been hypnotized by Reid. 

Otto Wuchner stormed off to the Yorkville Court on August 17, 1899 complaining about the outrageous act of hypnotism which “had induced her to leave her home and marry [Reid] without the formality of a divorce.”  Wuchner added that Reid “belongs to a gang of young men in Brooklyn that amuses themselves by throwing policemen in basements.  He sent around word that I had better get off the earth, as he and his friends were going to lay for me and put me out of business.”

When Reid’s employer at the Fulton Market testified that he was a good worker and he had never seen anything wrong with him, Wuchner countered saying “You can see by his eyes that the devil is in him.”

Reid insisted that he was unaware that his wife was already married.  “I didn’t know she was Wuchner’s wife until last February,” he told the judge.  “I was in his house and when I saw his marriage certificate hanging up on the wall I said ‘Great Caesar, Otto!  I’ve married your wife.’  I left her shortly after that.”

While the men battled it out in court, Albertina stuck to her story of being hypnotized.  Wuchner said “I forgave her when she said Reid had hypnotized her.  When I told her I would take her back, she begged me to take her some place where the other man could not find her, as she was afraid of getting under his influence again.”

The magistrate dismissed the strange case after Reid promised to keep his distance from the couple.

By the turn of the century many of the German citizens were leaving the Lower East Side for the less crowded Yorkville neighborhood further north.  According to The New York Times later, the congregation of the First German Baptist Church had fallen to “three or four persons.”  In 1902 the church turned over the deed to the 14th Street property to the General Missionary Society of the German Baptist Churches of North America for $7,000.  It would later be the seed for a long and uncomfortable court battle between the congregation and the Society.

In the meantime, however, the church building was used temporarily by the Church of God.  In December 1919 the Church of God held “public sessions in former Old First German Baptist Church” relating to the organization’s State Convention.

Storm clouds gathered over the 14th Street church late in 1927 when the First German Baptist Church found a purchaser.  The Ukrainian Orthodox Autocephalic Church of St. Vladimir had agreed on a price of $80,000 for the building and a contract was signed.

But the General Missionary Society was quick to point out that it had purchased the deed.  “The society asserts that the church signed away its rights to the property when it turned over the deed,” reported The New York Times on November 20, 1927.

While the two factions took the matter to court, St. Vladimir’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church moved in.  It obtained a $50,000 mortgage on the property and everything seemed legitimate.  Then the New York City Baptist Missionary Society promptly sued the new owners with foreclosure.  There was an existing $19,354 mortgage on the property when the First German Baptist Church turned over the deed in 1902 and now the Society wanted the money.

It would be months before the legal entanglements were worked out; but by September 25, 1932 St. Vladimir’s Church was firmly ensconced in the former Baptist building.  On that day the Right Rev. Joseph A. Zuk was installed as Presiding Bishop of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of North America.  The New York Times described the service as “an impressive ceremony in St. Vladimir’s Church.”
In 1936 the spires were still intact -- photo from the collection of the New York Public Library
To reflect the Orthodox Church’s roots, Julius Boekell’s tall, thin spires were chopped off and replaced by copper-clad onion domes.  Although the exotic domes are out of proportion—a bit too small for the steeple stumps on which they sit—they are a surprisingly attractive addition.

The Ukrainian congregation would remain in the church for over three decades.  Then on June 7, 1958, it announced the purchase of the former West End Synagogue on West 82nd Street.  A spokesman told reporters that the congregation was scattered “over the city and near-by suburbs and that it was moving to acquire larger quarters.”

Interestingly enough, while the Ukrainian church moved into a former synagogue; a synagogue moved into the old church building.  The Town and Village Synagogue, Temple Tifereth Israel, had been formed in 1948.  In the spring of 1962 it purchased the old First German Baptist Church building as its permanent home.

On April 7 that year The New York Times reported that the congregation “will move into its new home at 334 East Fourteenth Street tomorrow afternoon.  A procession will march from the temporary quarters at 225 Avenue B to the opening ceremony at 2 P.M.”  Once again changes to the building had been made to accommodate the new owners.  The Christian iconographies, such as crosses, were removed and a large Star of David incorporated into the central stained glass window.

The replacement stained glass windows were appropriate to the building's new purpose -- photo by Alice Lum

Four years after the synagogue moved in the Landmarks Preservation Commission added the building to its calendar of buildings to be considered for designation.  Forty-seven years passed and the remarkable structure never rose to the top of the list for a Commission hearing.  Then, as 2013 drew to a close the Town and Village Synagogue put the structure on the market for $14 million.

The fate of the wonderful, early relic of German settlement in the Lower East Side still hangs in the balance.

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