Monday, October 7, 2019

The Lost Brick Church - Fifth Avenue and 37th Street

from the collection of the New York Public Library

William Coventry Henry Waddell had built his striking Gothic Revival style "suburban villa" on Fifth Avenue between 37th and 38th Streets in 1842.  Called popularly "Waddell Castle," the Record & Guide described its location decades later saying "The avenue was little more than a common road, with old farm fences visible on every side."

By the mid-1850's, when financial reversals ruined Waddell, the mansions of Manhattan's wealthiest citizens were inching up the avenue.  The trustees of the Brick Presbyterian Church downtown on Beekman Street had begun looking for a new uptown site in 1855.  The search "out into the country," as worded by Shepherd Knapp in his 1909 A History of the Brick Presbyterian Church, was completed when, on September 15, 1856, the trustees reported they had purchased part of the Waddell estate--the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 37th Street for $58,000--a little over $1.75 million today.

Construction on the new building would take nearly two years.  In the meantime, the "frontier" area was developing.  Knapp wrote "In 1857 and 1858 houses were going up to the west of the church site on Thirty-seventh Street and immediately north of it on the avenue."  

Interestingly, two esteemed architects were involved in the design of the Georgian Revival structure.  According to Knapp, "The architect employed for the preliminary work was Mr. Leopold Eidlitz, but after February, 1857, the work was in the hands of the firm of T. Thomas & Son."  He added "On May 18th, 1858, and from that time on, the architect's fees were paid to Mr. Griffith Thomas, who is subsequently referred to as "the architect of the church."

Eidlitz and Thomas were tasked with keeping the Brick Church brick.  Brownstone was nevertheless used for the base, the trim and most of the steeple.  The bell and clock from the old Beekman Street church were installed within the steeple tower.  Stone pilasters defined the three sections of the facade.  The temple form of the slightly projecting center section was echoed in the steeple tower.  Blind oculi, triangular pediments above the end entrances, and a broken arched pediment above the main doorway carried out the Georgian motif.  A high iron fence surrounded the church both on the avenue and street with lamp posts at the entrance gates.  According to The New York Herald on December 1, 1858 the total investment by the trustees was $140,000; more than $4.4 million today.

Inside the plaster walls were scored to imitate stone blocks.  Great folding shutters could be used to regulate the amount of sunlight spilling in through the clear glass windows.  On November 6, 1858 The Presbyterian reported that the floors of the vestibule were "laid with marble" and the stairs to the galleries were of "solid oak."  The "sole extravagance," according to Knapp, "in which the trustees had indulged" was the large brass chandelier in the center of the nave.  Its 100 candles were capable of lighting the entire interior and it cost "no less than $1,300."  That amount would translate to about $41,000 today.

Also brought from the old church was the old dedicatory table which was installed in the wall of the vestibule.  It read "Presbyterian Church erected in the year of our Lord 1767."

The original interior copied the rather simple decoration of its Georgian prototypes.  from A History of the Brick Presbyterian Church, 1909 (copyright expired)  
Church members of the early 19th century did not sit anywhere they pleased.  The "free church" concept had recently arrived in New York City but would not generally take effect for years.  On November 30, 1858 the pews were sold at auction.  The New York Herald listed each buyer and the amount paid, the most expensive pews going for $1,500 ($47,200 today, not including the "premium" of $300 and the yearly rent).

Rev. Gardiner Spring had been the pastor of Brick Church since 1810.  He preached his fiftieth anniversary sermon on August 5, 1860, prompting the New-York Daily Tribune to report "The spacious church was crowded by an immense audience, without any discrimination as to sect or denomination, filling all the seats, aisles, and steps to the pulpit; while large numbers stood in the porch, eager to catch even a few of the words that fell from the lips of this venerated and distinguished pastor."

Nine days after the firing on Fort Sumter and the outbreak of Civil War, Spring firmly backed the President's declaration of war.  He added "But the question now is not between Slavery and Anti-Slavery--not between Republicanism and Democracy, but between law and anarchy, between Government and no Government."

Yet there was one clergyman within the Brick Church, Rev. W. T. Hoge, who did not share those sentiments.  Hoge had been hired by the church as associate minister in 1859.  As tensions worsened in the South, Hoge had peppered his sermons with pro-Southern opinions.  Now, on the Sunday following Spring's remarks, Hoge's sermon shocked his congregation.

The New York Herald said "he delivered a very strong and emphatic discourse derogatory to the attempts of the government to subjugate the Southern people, and declaring the belief that the Union was forever dissolved....He averred that he had been from the first in sympathy with secession, and longed to go back to Virginia to share her fortunes."  Not surprisingly, "The excitement and indignation among the congregation were very intense."

Before the week was up Hoge was forced out.  He resigned citing "a radical difference between my sentiments and those of my people on the great issues of the day."  If he anticipated at least some opposition to his resignation, it did not happen.  The Herald wrote "the utmost unanimity and good feeling prevailed" regarding its acceptance.

The Rev. Gardiner Spring from The Power of the Pulpit, by Gardiner Spring, 1848 (copyright expired)
Gardiner Spring died on August 18, 1873 having served the Brick Presbyterian Church for 62 years.  His replacement, the 34-year-old Rev. Lewellyn D. Bevan of London, was appointed in December 1876 with a salary of $6,000 a year (a satisfying $130,000 today).  The New York Herald apparently approved of the choice, describing him as having "an agreeable presence, a magnificent voice, a cheerful, buoyant temperament, profound good nature and a noble elocution."

With one of the wealthiest congregations in the city, Brick Church naturally was the venue of illustrious weddings and funerals.  One of the most notable was the funeral of former Governor Edwin D. Morgan on February 15, 1863.  The New York Times listed among the pallbearers President Chester Arthur, former President U. S. Grant, John Jacob Astor, J. Pierpont Morgan, and Hamilton Fish.

from A History of the Brick Presbyterian Church, 1909 (copyright expired)  
Munsey's Magazine's December 1893 issue humorously touched upon the wealth of the congregation.  "In the days of the old Brick Church, just after the Revolution, it was the custom after service to take up a collection in tin platters, upon which each member of the congregation placed a copper penny.  Penny contributions are no longer the rule."

In 1883 Dr. Dr. Henry Van Dyke took over as pastor of Brick Church.  Among his first projects, begun in June that year, was to redecorate the spartan interiors.  The grays and whites were been replaced with the currently-popular "Pompeian red," including the woodwork.  Shepard Knapp recalled that when the church was reopened on October 28 it was "totally and splendidly transformed" and that the "spacious interior now possessed some of the warmth and richness of color characteristic of the Byzantine churches of the old world."

Artist John La Farge had lavished the ceiling and walls with mosaics, stenciled work and "relief work in majolica, embroideries, and colored glass in windows and lanterns."

John La Farge's renovations were remarkable.  from A History of the Brick Presbyterian Church, 1909 (copyright expired) 
After serving for more than a decade, Van Dyke resigned in November 1899 to accept a professorship of literature at Princeton University.  Van Dyke's former parishioners showed their appreciation of his service by presenting him with a good-bye gift of $30,000 in February 1900--in the neighborhood of $925,000 today.

He was replaced by the Rev. Maltbie D. Babcock of Baltimore (Babcock was offered a hard-to-refuse salary of $12,000 per year).  The New-York Tribune was specific and thorough in its description of the new pastor on January 15, 1900. 

He is a tall, slender and well built man, with sharp features, that area clean cut and attractive.  In preaching he uses few gestures, but these are free and full, and he has a habit of throwing his shoulders back that gives an air of manly frankness to what he says.  His voice is pitched high, and is so clear and penetrating that yesterday it carried to every corner of the church and yet did not rasp.

Rev. Dr. Maltbie D. Babcock - New-York Tribune May 19, 1901 (copyright expired)

Babcock's pastorage would be short-lived.  On February 24 the following year he and his wife went abroad as part of the Auburn Seminary group touring Egypt and Palestine.  Having seen many sites in the Holy Lands, the group prepared to head home in May.  But in Naples he was afflicted with Mediterranean Fever which, according to the New-York Tribune, "at this time of the year is apt to become epidemic among visitors."  He died there three days later on May 18.  Babcock's body was returned to Brick Church were his "elaborately choral" funeral services were held o June 12.

Another highly visible funeral took place in Brick Church on April 23, 1910--that of Samuel Langhorne Clemens.  The New York Times reported that while the service lasted only twenty minutes, an estimated 1,500 persons had crowded in to hear it.  Among them were some of the most illustrious names in American literature, publishing and industry--William Dean Howells, Andrew Carnegie, Sydney Porter (O. Henry), publishers Robert J. Collier, Daniel Appleton and J. Henry Harper, and Booth Tarkington among them.

"At its conclusion it was announced that the coffin would be opened," reported The New York Times.  Two hours later, at 5:00, after about 3,000 people had viewed Mark Twain's body, "it was found necessary to close the doors."

By 1913 the once exclusive residential neighborhood was ceding to commerce.  That spring the trustees received a $1 million offer for the property.  On April 20 the officers of the New York Presbytery announced "plans that will insure to the Brick Presbyterian Church for a least twenty years its present site and building."  The plans included raising a permanent endowment fund of $1 million.

Another offer came along in October 1916--this time a staggering $2.5 million.  Pastor Dr. William P. Merrill told reporters "The vote was unanimous to decline it."

But the inevitable could not be impeded forever.  On the evening of April 19, 1937 the members voted to sell the property and its 79-year-old structure.  There were only two dissenting votes.  (The congregation may have regretted waiting until the Great Depression to sell--the agreed-upon price was $1.4 million.)

The New York Times reported that the buyer, the General Realty and Utilities Corporation "will demolish the edifice but will permit the church to retain such furnishings in the way of keepsakes as it may desire."

On January 13, 1938 workmen began erecting scaffolding across the sidewalk around the church in preparation for demolition.  The New York Times remarked "busy New Yorkers, despite their habitual hurry, paused to gaze up less casually than usual at the tall spire of the old Brick Presbyterian Church there."

The building erected on the site was demolished in 1984 to make room for the current 30-story granite and glass tower that engulfs the block front from 37th to 38th Street.

photo via 


  1. I recognize the photograph you used of the building currently occupying the Fifth Ave block front from 37th to 38th streets. You used it for your Sept 30, 2019 post on the lost Franklin Simon store. Looking closely at the photographs I see now that this church and that store were side-by-side.

    1. exactly. Actually it was the Franklin Simon post that prompted me to write this one. Good eye!

  2. My grandparents were married there in March 1919 and departed via automobile to California for their honeymoon.