Friday, April 4, 2014

The 1897 2nd Reformed Presbyterian Church -- 308 W. 122nd Street

In 1877 the Rev. Dr. Andrew Stevenson, pastor of the Second Reformed Presbyterian Church noted in The Reformed Presbyterian and Covenanter, “The Reformed Presbyterian Church in the city of New York had its origin in a praying society of two families who became acquainted in 1790.”  Eight years later the group received its first “Lord’s supper.”  The congregation had increased to 20 members, “six of these were from a distance.”

The number of Reformed Presbyterians, most driven from Ireland and Scotland by persecution, continued to grow and by the last decades of the 19th century there were three congregations.  It was not merely the number of worshipers that resulted in the three separate churches—the Presbyterians were racked with dissention and turmoil among themselves. 

In the spring of 1847, after the Second Reformed Presbyterian Church broke away, the Synod issued a judgment which deemed the congregation “immoral” and read in part “Resolved, That the Second congregation, New York [is] hereby directed to alter the tenure of their property and the mode of managing all such temporalities, so as to free themselves from all connection with said immoral law.”

The judgment created a crisis and only a year later a schism developed within the Second Reformed congregation.  Of its 334 members 182 walked away to form the Third Congregation.  Of those who remained, 104 were women and, according to Stevenson, “This division almost destroyed our existence.”

The church persevered and in 1896 was ready to build a new structure.  The neighborhood of West 39th Street near Sixth Avenue had changed in the two decades that Second Reformed had worshiped here.  The neighborhood was increasingly commercial; pushing congregants out.  The quickly-developing area of Harlem far to the north offered an attractive alternative.

Three elevated train lines served Harlem and the streets were lined with fine brownstone and brick rowhouses, shaded by trees.  In 1897 the streetscape would be improved with an addition when the new Second Reformed Presbyterian Church at 308 West 122nd Street was completed.

The congregation had hired architect James W. Cole to design the building.  In the ten years he had been in business Cole had busied himself mostly with commercial and apartment buildings.  Now he tried his hand at an ecclesiastical work with charming results. 

Cole created a simple Gothic-inspired church.  Its proportions belie the actual size; suggesting a one-story country chapel rather than the rather substantial building that rises as high as a five-story tenement.  Perhaps to save costs, Cole used terra cotta for the contrasting details—the trim of the arches and oculus, and the buttress caps, for instance—rather than expected limestone or granite.  A wonderful brick corbelling drips down from the gable in three lengths, creating a gingerbread-frosting effect.

The old animosities of the Reformed Presbyterians were eventually put to rest.  The Second Reformed congregation continued to prosper.  Its choice of location for the new structure proved to be a wise one as public transportation from downtown to Harlem increased.  On August 22, 1914 Christian Nation made note of the church’s convenient location:

Members of New York Presbytery please notice that the spring meeting is to be held in the Second Church of New York City, at 308 West 122nd street, at 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 5th.  The Eighth avenue surface cars or the elevated trains stopping at 125th street bring you near to the church.  This is not an official notice, only an indication of the way to those not knowing it.

In the meantime, the year after the Second Reformed Church opened the doors to its new building, 23-year-old Methodist preacher William Edward Fuller, Sr. had an epiphany.  The Southern minister walked out into a corn field near his home to pray in solitude and there he received what he later deemed the “Baptism of the Holy Ghost and Fire.”  The term was a reference to John’s gospel account that “he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.”

Fuller had been a member of the African-American New Hope Methodist Church which, despite the name, admitted black and white members without partiality.   Now he resigned his post and turned to the Fire-Baptized Holiness.  The new church was based along the lines of the Episcopal church with bishops holding the highest offices.  Starting with two members the congregation had ballooned to more than a thousand by 1908.

That year Fuller separated the racial content of the church, leading about half of the congregants to organize the Colored Fire Baptized Holiness Church in Greer, South Carolina.  On June 8, 1926 the name of both groups was changed for the final time to Fire Baptized Holiness Church of God of the Americas.

The Harlem neighborhood had, by now, changed dramatically.  At the turn of the century Black New Yorkers began moving into the neighborhood, pushed out by rents and discrimination downtown.  The WPA’s New York City Guide explained in 1939 “Negroes began to move into Harlem in 1901 as a result of a deflated boom in real estate there.  Because of the lack of adequate transportation facilities, fine apartments erected by speculative real-estate promoters were left tenantless.  A Negro agent, Philip A. Payton, persuaded landlords to accept Negro tenants, and hundreds of families soon deserted old tenements in the crowded West Fifty-third Street and Sun Juan Hill (west of Columbus Circle) sections and poured into Harlem.”

Even here, however, the blacks were taken advantage of.  The Guide said “Barred from most residential areas in the city, Negroes pay rents 50 per cent higher than those charged for comparable living quarters elsewhere.”  In 1917 Bishop William Edward Fuller had established a mission in Harlem and a year later the Mount Olive Fire Baptized Holiness Church was formed at No. 6 West 126th Street.

The immediate area around Second Reformed Presbyterian remained did not change as quickly as other parts of Harlem.  When the WPA wrote its guide, it noted “Although Negroes live along the streets north and south of it, West 125th Street is not predominantly a Negro center; white residents of Morningside Heights and Manhattanville have used it as a shopping center for years.”  The white owners’ refusal to hire black employees resulted in a significant race riot in 1935 “of alarming proportions.”

Four years after the WPA published its New York City Guide, the Second Reformed Presbyterian Church put its building on the market.  It was purchased by the Mount Olive Fire Baptized Holiness Church, which had been worshiping at No. 2395 Eighth Avenue since 1932.  The congregation paid $40,000 for the building in 1943—a substantial $625,000 in today’s dollars.

The neighborhood around James W. Cole’s delightful brick church continues to change 71 years later.  The dark days of the late 20th century have given way to revitalization of the area.  The Mount Olive congregation continues to worship in the 122nd Street church.  Apart from the questionable choice of replacement entrance doors, the building which has seen so much change around it is virtually untouched since its completion nearly 120 years ago.

photograph by the author
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