Wednesday, December 17, 2014

St. Luke in the Fields -- Hudson Street

photo by Alice Lum

In July 1821 The Christian Journal and Literary Register reported “On Monday, June 4th, the corner stone of a new building, to be styled St. Luke’s Church, was laid in Hudson-street, in this city…The part of the city in which the proposed church is building, including the village of Greenwich, and its vicinity, has long been regarded as very suitable for the formation of a new parish.  An attempt to this effect was made by a few Episcopal families last fall.”

The families the article referred to had met in the house of Mrs. Catherine Ritter who lived on the corner of West 4th Street and Little Jones Street.  On November 6, 1820 the parish was organized.  Clement C. Moore, whose family estate Chelsea sat further north, was named senior warden.

Since then, said The Christian Journal, “A convenient room for the holding of divine service was procured.  The congregation has greatly increased; and, by the divine blessing on the zeal and activity of its leading members, aided by the charitable succours of their brethren throughout the city, there is every prospect that, for numbers and character, St. Luke’s will hold a most respectable rank among the parishes of the city.”  The journal went on to print the inscription on the cornerstone, which included “John Heath, Architect.”  Heath paid for the cornerstone himself.

While the small congregation worshiped in the little school house on Amos Street (later renamed West 10th), the plot for the permanent structure was purchased from Trinity Church.  Trinity owned a large swath of land in the area, familiarly called the Trinity Farm and given to the church by Queen Anne in 1714. 

The spot on Hudson Street was bucolic.  The summer estates of New York’s aristocracy engulfed much of the surrounding land—like the 300-acre estate of Sir Peter Warren, now owned by Abraham van Nest; and the famous Richmond Hill just to the south, formerly owned by Aaron Burr.  There were only four structures within eye-shot of the church site, one of which was the old State Prison.  To the south, between the site and Canal Street, there was just one building—the Tyler Tavern.   The only means of public conveyance from New York City was a stage that made two runs a day.

The rural setting would earn the church the familiar name the Church of St. Luke in the Fields, a moniker still used today.

Years later the Rev. Dr. A. W. Jenks, professor at the General Theological Seminary, would remember “Several of the leading men of St. Luke’s first urged that New Yorkers should build their Winter homes there.  Before that Greenwich Village had been a Summer colony.”  Their urgings were aided by calamity.  In 1822, as construction on the chapel was nearing completion, a horrendous yellow fever epidemic took hold in the city.  New Yorkers who could afford to do so abandoned the city for the fresh air and open countryside of Greenwich Village.  The hamlet experienced a building boom as houses sprung up on the dirt streets.

In 1860 Valentine's Manual of New York published a romanticized version of the early setting - copyright expired

John Heath’s completed structure cost $7,500 according to church records—about $154,000 today.  Built of brick, it reflected the prim Federal style of a country church.  The entrance was through a large, square bell tower topped by a wooden parapet.  Tall, round-arched openings flooded the interior with light.

In 1850 the Rev. Isaac Henry Tuttle became rector, a position he would hold for decades.  In its 30 years of existence, the congregation saw rapid change in the neighborhood.  Along with the rise in population came poverty and other social ills.  The Archives of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church recalled decades later that Tuttle was faced with a parish “changing by removals, decreasing in income, and crowded by the advent of a foreign-born population.”  It was Tuttle who initiated many of the social programs for which St. Luke’s was best known.  “His sympathy with those whose circumstances had changed for the worse led to the institution of St. Luke’s Home for Indigent Christian Females.”

On July 10, 1863, just five days before his 84th birthday, Clement Clarke Moore died in his summer home in Newport.  His body was returned to New York during a time of tremendous upheaval.  In March a strict federal draft law was enacted whereby every male citizen between 20 and 35 was subject to military duty.  A lottery was established to select the draftees; but those who could afford the $300 waiver fee could avoid conscription. 

On the day after Moore’s death the first lottery was held.  Two days later, when the working classes realized the inequity of the system, riots broke out.  For five days no one was safe on the streets of New York as mobs murdered civilians and torched homes and businesses.  Moore’s casket arrived in the city and was secretly moved through the streets to the churchyard behind St. Luke in the Field where it was quietly buried.

St. Luke in the Field, like all churches and chapels, would see numerous weddings and funerals throughout the years.  Perhaps none was so poignant as that of Francis J. Lyon and Mary Imogene Greene.  On Thursday, October 26, 1865, just a few months after the end of the Civil War, the happy couple was married in the church by Rev. Tuttle.  The newlyweds boarded the steamer St. John for their honeymoon excursion.

Three days later, at 7:00 on a Sunday morning, the vessel’s boiler exploded.  Both Francis and Mary were scalded to death.  At noon on Tuesday, October 31 and just five days after their wedding here, their coffins were carried into the church.  The New York Times reported “the coverings being removed, the bodies were seen habited in their bridal attire.”  The church was crowded with mourners, and the newspaper said “The services were performed in a very impressive manner, by Rev. J. H. Tuttle the same clergyman who had officiated at the marriage ceremony.”

In the 1880s the grand society churches populated by Manhattan’s wealthy closed for the summer season.  Their congregants were off to Newport and other summer resorts and it was during these three months that reparations and redecoration to the church structures were done.  More humble parishes like St. Luke in the Field remained open.  So during the summer of 1883 services were held in the chapel while the main sanctuary got a make-over.  On September 16 that year The Times reported that services in the main church would resume that day; saying St. Luke in the Field “has been thoroughly redecorated and repaired, and now presents a most attractive appearance.”  The newspaper added “St. Luke’s was formerly known as the Greenwich Village Church, and as it stands in the midst of its quiet churchyard, attracts much attention from those passing by.”

By now St. Luke’s congregation numbered about 400.  The plain, Federal-style architecture was out of date and unappreciated by many.  A writer for The New York Times in 1886 offhandedly remarked “As all old residents of the city know, the old church building, attractive in its ugliness, stands in Hudson-street, just where Grove-street juts into that thoroughfare.”  In January that year its attractive ugliness nearly came to an end.

Around 7:15 on the evening of January 6, 1886 passersby noticed wisps of smoke rising from the roof.  Within five minutes steam fire engines clattered up to the church.  “When the main door of the building was opened a volume of thick smoke drove the firemen back, but not before they had seen furious flames in the rear of the building.  The chancel was converted into a blazing furnace, and before the firemen could enter the building the handsome organ was in ruins,” reported The New York Times.

While some firefighters rushed to remove valuable items to the street; others streamed water into the building.  Unfortunately, they inadvertently shot directly through two valuable stained glass windows—valued at $500 each at the time.  When the fire was extinguished, the organ was a total loss and the chancel roof was “burned to charcoal.”  The loss was estimated at around $15,000; nearly $400,000 in today’s dollars.

The fire was one of several factors leading to the decision to move the congregation north.  On December 18, 1888 many New Yorkers were shocked and dismayed to read in The Times “One of the old landmarks and an exceedingly old and revered place of worship, St. Luke’s Protestant Episcopal Church, in Hudson-street, between Barrow and Christopher streets, will not only be soon leveled to the ground, but all the memories connected with its site will be destroyed by the removal of the dead from the ancient burying ground.”

Following the fire St. Luke's got a few Victorian enhancements like the gingerbread side porches and the entrance hood -- from the collection of the New York Public Library

The congregation had already laid plans to erect a new church at 141st Street and Convent Avenue.  Now, on December 17, the pew holders met and decided to transfer all the 500 or so bodies in the churchyard to other cemeteries “as promptly as possible.”  This included, of course, the grave of Clement Clarke Moore.

Trinity Church had repurchased the land on which St. Luke’s and its associated buildings and churchyard sat.  It now proposed to build a $1.5 million complex including “a great church.”  The New York Times projected “They will form, in all probability, one of the most complete groups of buildings for church purposes in the world.”

Four years later the new St. Luke’s Church uptown was completed and on November 27, 1892 the 83 year old Rev. Tuttle issued his last sermon from the old building.  For some reason Trinity’s grand plans died away and the venerable building survived.  It was now “St. Luke’s Chapel, Trinity Parish.”

Further downtown sat another Trinity chapel, that of St. John’s.  The astonishingly beautiful Georgian structure once stood on St. John’s Park, one of the most elegant residential neighborhood of the early 19th century.  Designed by John McComb and completed in 1807, it was now surrounded by commerce and freight depots.

Wurts Bros. captured the simple, stenciled ceilings and exquisite stained glass around 1910 -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In 1909 Trinity decided to close St. John’s Chapel and combine its congregation with St. Luke’s.  The move would allow Trinity Church to demolish the architectural jewel.  It prompted a debate that lasted for several years.  One of the considerations brought up by concerned citizens nationwide was the architectural value of either structure.  St. Luke in the Fields, often the brunt of criticism, was most often on the losing end.  On June 1, 1914 John Handforth fired off an impassioned letter to the New-York Tribune.  In it he proposed that, if one building had to go, “then let the vestry close St. Luke’s Chapel, the most hideous specimen of ecclesiastical architecture in the city, and transfer the work to St. John’s Chapel.” 

The magnificent St. John’s Chapel was demolished in 1918.  St. Luke’s not only inherited its congregation, but a most extraordinary tradition.  In 1827, five years after St. Luke’s Church was completed, a wealthy recluse named John Leake was found dead before his fireplace in Park Row.  Leake had no relatives to inherit his fortune and he instructed that 1,000 pounds “be laid out in the annual income in sixpenny loaves of wheaten bread and distributed every Sabbath morning after divine service to such poor as shall appear most deserving.”

photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Every Sunday thereafter, until 1860, Trinity Church distributed 67 loaves of bread from the church steps.  Then the practice was transferred to St. John’s (which moved the distribution to Saturday to make the charity less conspicuous).  Now the Leake Dole, reportedly the oldest bread line in the world, was carried on by St. Luke in the Fields.  The Evening World reported on February 10, 1919 “At 9 o’clock every Saturday morning the sixty-seven loaves are piled on a little table in the chapel, and children who are known to be members of deserving families call for them.”

The newspaper added “This weekly dole, which keeps alive the memory of a lonely old man, has come as a God-send to more than one family that might otherwise have been breadless.”

The changes in the Greenwich Village neighborhood that St. Luke’s parishioners experienced throughout the 19th century continued through the 20th.  By 1976, when St. Luke’s once again became an independent church, the area around the structure was the center of New York’s gay culture.  The parish embraced its new members and was catastrophically impacted by the AIDS epidemic.

In 1981 a fire even worse than the 1883 blaze consumed St. Luke’s.  For many there was no hope of rebuilding the gutted and blackened shell.  But a determined Rev. Ledlie I. Laughlin Jr. was resolute.  The architectural firm Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates oversaw the reconstruction and in 1985 the reborn church was reconsecrated.

photo by Alice Lum

No longer considered “ugly” or “hideous,” John Heath’s charming country church survives after nearly two centuries.  The former churchyard is a welcoming garden, open to the public daily.  St. Luke in the Fields, with its contemporary houses lining the rest of the block, forms a unique picture of live in rural Greenwich Village.

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