Monday, March 30, 2015

The Lost 1846 St. John's in the Village

A bit soiled in 1930, the church building is no less impressive.  Directly behind (left) is the 1854 Parish House.  Down the block is the church and tower of the North Baptist Church.  photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library

On July 3, 1850 an advertisement appeared in the New-York Daily Tribune announcing “For Sale—That valuable property known as 82 and 84 Nassau-st…formerly occupied by the South Baptist Church.”   The structure was no longer needed by the South Baptist Church as its congregation prepared to move far north to Greenwich Village.

In the two decades between the 1820's and 1840's Greenwich Village had transformed from a bucolic hamlet to a substantial community with impressive homes and thriving businesses.  In 1845, the Hammond Street Presbyterian Church erected a stunning Greek Revival structure at No. 20 Hammond Street (later renamed 11th Street) on the corner of Factory Street (it, too, would be renamed, becoming Waverley Place).  Costing the congregation $15,000, the wooden building was covered in stucco to suggest stone.  The church was entered through a monumental classical portico upheld by four Ionic columns.  The peak of its pediment rose above the three-story brownstone homes that shared the block.  Pilasters along the Waverley Place elevation separated the soaring windows.

photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library.

The structure was completed before February 1846, and on February 7 the New-York Daily Tribune announced that “Rev. Gardiner Spring, D. D. will preach to-morrow evening at half past 7 o’clock” at the Hammond-street Presbyterian Church.

Reverend Spring and his flock would not last long in the magnificent new building.  In 1848 the church was sold at auction to the newly-formed Eastern Congregational Church.  The 1890 book Old New York recalled “In the Autumn of 1848, the new and elegant edifice on the corner of Hammond and Factory streets, New York, erected by the Hammond Street Presbyterian Church, was bought at public auction by Messrs. S. B. Hunt and H. C. Bowen, for about fifteen thousand dollars.”   That sale price would amount to about $457,000 today.

The deeply recessed entrance was sheltered by a monumental portico.  photo by Edmund V. Gillon, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York[St.%20John's-in-the-Village%20Church.]-24UAKVGX5MT.html

“Public worship was sustained in the house for several weeks under the direction of the proprietors; and in the month of November a church was organized under the name of the Hammond Street Congregational Church,” said Old New York.  The congregation was headed by Rev. Dr. William Patton.    Decades later the 1879 pamphlet “Honour they Father” would say of him.  “Anecdotes are abundant to-day in these parts of his strength as a preacher, and his rare gift of humor and geniality in conversation.  His commanding presence, together with his original way of enforcing the truth, gave his sermons a remarkable staying quality.”

“Staying quality,” however, did not apply to his position with the Hammond-Street Congregational Church nor to the congregation’s existence here.   When the South Baptist Church placed the advertisement in the New-York Tribune to sell its former building, it had already purchased the Hammond Street edifice.

On November 15, 1851, The New York Times reported “We learn that Rev. Dr. Patton was recently dismissed by a council, from the pastoral charge of the Hammond-street Congregational Church.  The church-edifice was sold some time since to the Baptist congregation of Rev. Dr. Somers.”   The newspaper noted that a special committee had been formed to find a replacement pastor for Dr. Patton.

If Greenwich Village residents thought that, finally, the exquisite church on Hammond Street had found a long-term owner, they were wrong.  

The one-year anniversary of the Baptist’s acquisition of the structure was celebrated on February 25 1852.  The New York Times reported “The Anniversary exercises (recently postponed) of the Sabbath School of the South Baptist Church, will be held at the Church corner of Hammond and Factory-streets, on Sunday morning, 25th inst., when an address may be expected from the Rev. Thos. Armitage.”

The church members, too, expected to be here for the long haul.  Two years later, in 1854, they constructed a harmonious Green Revival parish house behind the church at 224 Waverley Place Street.  But the end was on the horizon for the Baptists in their Hammond Street Greek temple.

On May 5, 1856, The New York Times reported “On Sunday, this Church, corner of Hammond-st. and Waverley-Place, bearing over the entrance a tablet, “Memorial of Bishop Wainwright, Church of St. John Evangelist, seats free, 1856,’ was formally opened by three appropriate services.”  Within exactly one decade the church had been home to a Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Baptist, and now an Episcopalian congregation.

The Rev. Dr. Vinton advised the congregation during his first sermon, “The church is opened, but is not yet consecrated until free of debt.  It has passed through several hands, and was last purchased by the Baptists, under the pastoral care of Rev. G. C. Somers, for the sum of $30,000, part only being paid.”  Dr. Vinton added “It is situated in a locality where an active minster may be very useful.”

The dignified church building had finally found a long-term congregation in St. John, the Evangelist.  The number of worshipers was increased when, in the 1880's, the congregation of the Church of St. George The Martyr was invited to share the sanctuary.  St. George The Martyr was organized in 1845 “to build a church and hospital for British immigrants,” according to The Centennial History of the Protestant Episcopal Church.     The congregation had sold its church building in 1865 and The Centennial History, published in 1886, noted, “The congregation has worshiped, by invitation,…with the congregation of St. John, Evangelist, in West Eleventh Street, corner of Waverley Place.”

With its guest parish sharing the church, St. John the Evangelist staged special services for St. George’s Day in 1902.  “The church was decorated with the flags and banners of the United States and Great Britain, and a big St. George’s standard hung above the alter,” said the New-York Tribune on April 21. 

“One of the stained glass windows of the church shows a portrait of Queen Victoria, and throughout the sermon all the lights were lowered, so that a lime light in the street without might show up to those within the colored glass.”

photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library

The Rev. Dr. E. Walpole Warren took the opportunity to discuss the ongoing and controversial Boer War.   Newspapers related that “he hoped to be able to announce that peace had been proclaimed on terms so magnanimous to the gallant vanquished that all bitterness and race feeling would be obliterated.  He declared that the British soldiers had not been guilty of the cruelties attributed to them, and said that n a very few years the prosperity of the south African lands would prove that England’s advance meant, as it always had meant, the march of progress and liberty in the interests of the people and institutions concerned.”

Exactly a year later on St. George’s Day, The Rev. Dr. John T. Patey revisited the race issue.  “We hear a great deal to-day of the Anglo-Saxon race, its greatness and its mission.  The vast British empire, embracing as it does in both hemispheres controlling peoples of different races, habits, thoughts and principles, must remember that power means responsibility, that control means care, that might means happiness, that authority must be temperately exercised, and the welfare of the weak sought.”

By the time world war erupted in Europe, St. John the Evangelist had grown to 459 members.   The congregation would see immense changes in the neighborhood.  Greenwich Village became Manhattan’s Bohemia, drawing artists, poets, musicians and writers through the first decades of the new century.   But by the 1960's the area immediately surrounding St. John the Evangelist drew a more nefarious lot.

Thieves repeatedly broke into the church, and on March 7, 1971 Rev. Dr. Charles Howard Graf told reporters that thievery “has been a constant problem.”  The New York Times reported “Dr. Graf said that only a few weeks ago the church had replaced several chalices stolen from the sacristy.”

The exterior of the pre-Civil War structure was restored in February 1971 at a cost of $14,000.   Around midnight on March 6, two weeks after the renovations were completed, the night custodian telephoned police.  He reported that he had found a door of the parish house on Waverly Place broken in, giving the intruder access to the church building.

The magnificent structure was unchanged around 1970.  The spread-winged eagle had perched within the pediment for decades.  photo by Edmund V. Gillon, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York[St.%20John's-in-the-Village%20Church.]-24UAKVGX5MT.html

Around an hour later, at 1:15 a.m. the same custodian, Blair Schench, discovered fire in the church.   The New York Times reported “While hundreds of spectators crowded nearby streets in the early morning hours, 120 firemen using 22 pieces of equipment poured torrents of water on St. John’s in the village, a 125-year old Episcopal church.”  The newspaper said “Before the fire was declared under control at 3:48 A.M., the roof, west wall and interior of the church had been destroyed.”  The venerable wooden building was termed by Deputy Chief James Fogarty, “a lumberyard.”

The resilient St. John’s congregation rebuilt.  It spent $650,000 on a red brick structure designed by Edgar Tafel, completed in 1974.  The architect gave a nod to the lost Greek Revival masterpiece, suggesting columns with brick outlines, and crowning the structure with a modern interpretation of the classical pediment.   The church is protected by the noble 1846 iron fencing—the last remnant of a pre-Civil War treasure.

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  1. The Rev. Dr. Francis Vinton, of Trinity Episcopal Church, was married to the daughter of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry. He was also professor at the General Seminary in Chelsea.

  2. I remember exploring the burned-out ruins, I was 11 at the time and a friend and I went exploring, I remember the ground floor had caved into the basement and we found some kind of cabinets that had lots of what I now know were glass lantern slide pictures of buildings and street scenes, but some clergy guy came in from a doorway and told us to get out.
    Wonder what happened to the eagle and the carvings on the columns.

  3. I wouldn't call that ugly new replacement facade a "nod" to anything, what a shame they didn't just rebuild the facade like it was! I remember that original portico remained standing after the fire.

  4. That spread wing eagle above the portico turned out to be bronze, it doesn't appear in a 1930 photo so it must have been put up there in the 1930s, wonder where it wound up!

  5. I was baptized at St. John's in 1943 and presented for Ordination by the parish 27 years later,
    I was due to come back and preach on what turned out to be the Sunday following the fire, but the invitation was withdrawn.
    During the rebuilding, the congregation met in the Chapel of St. Vincent's Hospital, down the street at Greenwich Avenue.
    -Father Peter J. D'Alesandre