Thursday, August 16, 2018

St. John's Lutheran Church - 81 Christopher Street

The elaborate decorations surrounding the half-round window in the pediment--called a lunette--are 1886 additions.
In 1821 it would still be several years before Greenwich Village experienced a major population boom.  Nevertheless that year an architecturally refined church building rose on Christopher Street, between West Fourth and Bleecker Streets.  The name of the architect has been lost, but the sophisticated design was worthy of the best of the period's architects.  The octagonal belfry above the triangular pediment was a near-match to the one found on the Newgate State Prison, four blocks away near the river, designed in 1796 by Joseph-Francois Mangin.

The Newgate State Prison sat near the Hudson River, facing Christopher Street.  collection of the New York Public Library

Completed the following year, the structure was built by the Eighth Presbyterian Church, organized in 1819.  The group worshiped in its dignified, Federal-style structure until April 1842, when they sold it to the trustees of St. Matthew's Episcopal Church.   Not all of St. Matthew's congregants were especially pleased with the move to the somewhat remote location.  Two of them filed suit claiming "there was no valid contract for the sale of St. Matthew's Church."  The case ended on December 11, 1844 with judge deciding "that the complainants have no claim."

Manhattan churches often closed during the hot summer months when their more affluent congregants left the city for country homes.  On October 25, 1846 a newspaper notice announced its reopening, saying "St. Matthew's Church, in Christopher street, is open for Divine worship on the evening of every Sunday, and will so continue through the ensuing winter."

There were three Sunday services in the church--"morning, afternoon and evening"--in 1858 (know at the time it was known as St. Matthew's Wesleyan Methodist Church).  The sermons of pastor Rev. C. H. Harvey seem to have most often avoided the fire-and-brimstone railings for which Victorian preachers became noted.  His topics in 1858 covered issues like "The Rich Man and Lazarus," "The Philosophy of Life and Death," and the exhaustively-titled "The manner in which the Miracles of the Bible were performed and their perfect accordance with the Laws of Nature."

But the growing tensions between North and South may have influenced a much different sermon on May 30 that year.  Harvey's topic on May 30 was "The Moral Effects of Revolutions."

In the meantime, Rev. A. H. M. Held had founded St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church in 1845.  The first Lutherans had arrived in New York around 1620 and by now the German Lutheran population had quadrupled.   The new congregation's first services were held in Hope Chapel, on Broadway.  Three months later it moved to the chapel of New York University on Washington Square.

Rev. Harvey's sermon on revolution would be among his last in the Christopher Street church.  That year the trustees sold it to St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church for $13,000--around $400,000 today.  Among the new congregation's improvements was a $1,250 German-built pipe organ.

In 1868 the Parsonage was constructed next door, at No. 79 Christopher Street, designed by John M. Foster.   Rev. Held lived here, and remained pastor of St. John's until ill health prompted him to step down in 1879.  He was succeeded by Rev. Dr. Augustus C. Wedekind.

On December 23, 1883 Wedekind took to the pulpit to announce that "the burden of debt...had been reduced from $25,000 to $8,000."  That was, of course, good news.  But the pastor added that he "knew that the congregation was weary of this debt" and, according to The New York Times:

He had himself undertaken to raise $4,000, and be wanted the members to subscribe $4,000 more before leaving their seats."  Within 30 minutes $2,000 had been promised.  The article added "Some of the leading members said that as soon as the debt is paid an effort will be made to erect a larger church, the present building being hardly large enough to accommodate all the communicants and their families.

At the time of the ambitious fund-raising, over 11,000 children had been baptized in the church, there had been 5,163 weddings, and the membership was around 1,500.    St. John's School, which  operated from the Parish House next door at No. 83, had about 1,000 pupils.

The cash inflow was not used to pay off the debt, but for construction.   Three years later the congregation hired architects Berg & Clark to remodel the Parish House, giving it a new Romanesque Revival brick facade, and to touch up the church itself.

The architects' plans for the church building proper, filed on July 10, called for "floor of church lowered, new windows of stained glass, interior decorations, repairs, &c."  The cost for those alterations alone was a staggering $10,000, nearly $270,000 today.  Not evident in the published plans were updates to the facade.

The architects embellished the half-round opening within the pediment with scrolls and vines, and a plaque that announced Deutsche Evangelish-Lutherische St. Johannes Kirche.  On either side of the pediment, neo-Classical balustrades topped with urns were added.

The corner balustrades and urns can be seen in this 1913 newspaper photo.  collection of the New York Public Library

The broad-ranged congregation of the German-language church included tenement-dwelling immigrants and wealthy businessmen.  Charles Knox was one of the city's best known hatters.  His Broadway store catered to the upper crust at the time when a gentleman’s closet would hold a silk top hat, a beaver business hat, a straw boater for casual recreation and multiple other hats for other purposes.  The funeral service for his wife in St. John's Lutheran Church on February 16, 1888 were impressive.  The Evening World reported "There were 150 of Mr. Knox's employees in the funeral procession."

By 1896 St. John's had been established as the meeting place for the annual Evangelical Lutheran Synod of New-York and New-Jersey.  The days-long conventions would continue to be held into the second half of the 20th century.

On December 16, 1905 the New-York Tribune reported that "the church property is now free from debt and has lately been enhanced by the installation of a three manual organ and the gift of several memorial windows."

Little by little, the German language ceded to English with separate Sunday services being celebrated in the two languages.  The incursion of English was evident in a comment by The New York Herald on November 26, 1922.  "The German tradesmen of the vicinity assembly here on Sundays in family groups of Teutonic appearance, if of American speech."

An extremely disturbing incident occured during services on March 17, 1935.  Although George Tietjen lived in Rutherford, New Jersey, he was a life-long member of St. John's and an elder.  The 59-year old arrived for Sunday evening services when, just as they began, the pastor, Rev. Dr. F. E. Oberlander, felt "a slight indisposition."  Oberlander asked Tietjen to stand in for him.

Tietjen read the Scriptures, then announced that the congregation would sing a hymn.  He read the first line, then sat down as the organist started to play.  Before the hymn began he fell to the floor.  The New York Times indelicately reported that he "dropped dead in St. John's Lutheran Church...last night while conducting the service."

Rev. Oberlander had been pastor here since 1914.  He was prominent in the United Lutheran Synod and during its 1935 meetings was chairman of the Committee on Welfare and Morals.  It condemned "hasty divorces and 'easy marriages'" and ruled that the Lutheran Church could no longer raise funds through "the proceeds of card parties, dances, roulette wheels, raffles and bazaars."

Despite that seemingly rigid stance, Oberlander was beloved by his congregation.   He was 70 years old at the time of George Tietjen's sudden death, and was fighting blindness.   Nevertheless, he steadfastly took to the pulpit each week.

Oberlander well remembered the difficulties German churches underwent during World War I.  Now, with Germany ruled by Adolph Hitler's Nazi Socialist Party and newspapers filled with stories of hate, Oberlander responded.  On March 15, 1937 The New York Times reported "Speaking in German...the Rev. Dr. Fridolin Emil Oberlander urged avoidance of the prejudice prevalent abroad in his sermon yesterday morning at St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church."    He reminded his congregation that "the children of Israel were God's chosen people, from whom Jesus Christ was descended."

Nine months later Oberlander was dead.  Following an illness of almost two months, he died in the Parsonage on December 5, 1937.  His obituary noted "Despite infirmity and impending blindness, Dr. Oberlander had conducted services, mostly in German, until his final illness."  The Times mentioned "His church is one of the oldest of the denomination in Manhattan and members of his congregation came from widely separated districts."

The following year on December 4, almost exactly to the day of Oberlander's death, guest speaker Rev. Dr. Samuel Trexler noted in his sermon that "St. John's had achieved the unique record of having had only four pastors since its incorporation, an average of twenty years of service for each man called to its pulpit."  A new pastor, Rev. Ernest J. Mollenauer, was scheduled to be installed on New Years Day.

The essence of the simple Federal-style interior survives.  photo via St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
Seven months after the beginning of World War II the Lutheran Synod addressed the Nazi problem overseas from St. John's.  On May 23, 1940 it announced that "more than 50 per cent of the Lutherans in the world are under German domination."  The synod's publicity committee estimated that "at least half the churches in German are not in use at present," and that "up to the outbreak of the war, a great number of Lutheran ministers were said to be in concentration camps."

In response, the Lutherans established a non-commercial short wave station, WUL, in Boston for world broadcasts of Lutheran services.  A synod spokesman said "Although we know that there is a severe penalty for any German who listens to a short wave broadcast, we hope that some of them will be able to listen in...We must not despair, for religion cannot die in Germany."

By the third quarter of the 20th century the Greenwich Village neighborhood around St. John's Lutheran had vastly changed.  Christopher Street was now the heart of New York City's--if not the nation's--gay culture.  German language sermons had long since disappeared, yet St. John's remained a fundamental presence in the community.

A hand-painted face stares from one of the 1886 Eastlake -style windows.  photo via St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
Perhaps nothing exemplified the congregation's ability to adapt to its changing environment than Tony 'n Tina's Wedding, the hit interactive off-Broadway show that opened in the church in 1991.  New York Magazine described it as "a wedding at St. John's Church, 81 Christopher Street; then a reception at 147 Waverly Place, with Italian buffet, champagne, and wedding cake."  The play ran for years and locals and tourists stopped in their tracks as Tony and Tina ran through a shower of rice to the waiting limousine night after night.  The church continues to stage musical and dramatic productions.

A graceful, splendid example of Federal period church architecture, St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church is rare gem.


  1. Yes indeed.. it was a very refined piece of architecture refined church building for 1821 New York. Would the architect have already seen a similar church in the USA, and if not, might he have been inspired by a European model?

    1. Manhattan had some fine examples of Federal and Georgian architecture--City Hall, for example. And, you're right, European influences were important; although American architects managed to put a domestic flavor to the buildings.