Monday, February 3, 2020

The Lost 1835 18th Street Methodist Episcopal Church - 307-311 W 18th St

from History of the Charter Church of New York Methodism, Eighteen Street, 1835-1885 (copyright expired)

By the late 1820's streets in the Chelsea district had been laid out and houses and shops were appearing.  To serve the increasing population a Methodist "Sabbath-school" was established on West 20th Street east of Eighth Avenue in 1829.   It was used for other religious services from time to time until a small wooden church, the Twentieth Street Society, was erected in 1830.  In the meantime, the deceased Methodist residents of Chelsea were laid to rest in a burying ground that stretched between West 18th and 19th Streets just west of Eighth Avenue.

The need for a more substantial church structure was evident by 1834.  Discussions went on for a year until at a meeting on March 28, 1835 a committee was formed to arrange building a church at the "Cemetery in Eighteenth Street, and to dispose of the church property in Twentieth Street."

Among the congregation's prominent members was builder William S. Hunt.  He doubled as an architect and in June 1835 presented plans for a wooden structure.  The History of the Charter Church of New York Methodism later noted "Economy was practiced at every point, a comfortable and suitable place of worship being aimed at rather than gaudy show."

Hunt's Greek Revival design was called at the time "Grecian Ionic."  A broad set of stairs led to the three entrances, recessed behind two tall columns.  There were no windows on the front facade, and a simple triangular pediment completed the classical temple design.

from History of the Charter Church of New York Methodism, Eighteen Street, 1835-1885 (copyright expired)
Inside were a "commodious vestibule" and the large auditorium and balconies.  The structure had a cutting-edge amenity.  "The trustees aspired to the new and brilliant light used in many public buildings--gas--to light up the new edifice."  In the basement were the Sunday School and other classrooms.

As construction neared completion in February 1836 the ladies of the congregation held a three-day fair to raise money for details like cushions for the pews.  Finally, at 3:00 on the afternoon of February 25 the church was dedicated.

In acquiring the land for the building, the congregation had also obtained ownership of the cemetery.  It proved to be an important source of income as burial vaults were built and sold.  But that came to a sudden halt early in 1850 when a bill was passed that forbade burials below 86th Street.  (At the time there were approximately 500 bodies interred in the vaults.)  "This was met with a vigorous protest from the trustees, and remonstrances were signed by many people, but without effect," wrote church historian Benjamin Q. Force in 1885.

The first remodeling of the church came in 1861 when the galleries were rebuilt, new pillars installed in the auditorium, a new pulpit and gas fixtures brought in, and a "general frescoing of the interior" was done.  The renovations cost about $4,000, or about $118,000 in today's money.

Although tight finances meant that an organ was still out of the question (a bass violin had supplied the music for years), the congregation splurged in an ingenious audio system in 1863 for its aging members who were hard of hearing.   Tubes ran under the floor from the pulpit to select pews.  Benjamin Q. Force explained "the pulpit top was made with perforated metal, and the sound passed down through the tubes was received by ear trumpets."

In 1868 a parlor organ--more suitable for a residence than a church--was purchased.  It made do until 1871 when a collection was begun for a proper instrument.  It was purchased that July for $2,700.  An organ concert was held that fall, one writer saying "The old church was never honored with so much good music on one occasion."

Victorian sermons often aimed to frighten members into goodness.  On May 28, 1876 Rev. Hatfield delivered a sermon exclusively for the young male congregants about "the dangers and temptations at the present day."  The first danger, he said, "was the evil literature of our day," notably newspapers, magazines and novels.  "The reading of opinions of fictitious works that are written merely to please; that hold not up some grand ideal, but that present life in false colors; that make it a tragedy or a farce, are injurious to the intellectual and moral powers."

The Eighteenth Street Methodist Episcopal Church expanded its outreach in 1884 when it established The Chinese School in the basement.   (The overwhelming influx of Chinese into America had prompted the Federal Government to enact the Chinese Exclusion Act two years earlier which prohibited further immigration from China.)  The Chinese School served "a large company of Chinese young men seeking education and gospel truth."  Chinese-born teachers were hired for one-on-one instruction.

As Chelsea continued to develop and the real estate became increasingly valuable, the trustees resolved in 1882 to sell off the graveyard.  It was a plan met with opposition by many congregants whose loved ones were interred there; but the project eventually went forward.  In 1886 the vaults were demolished and the coffins removed to Woodlawn and Cypress Hill cemeteries.

To the left are coffins within the underground vaults.  At right open graves can be seen in the rear of the church building.  The Daily Graphic Illustrated, 1886 (copyright expired)
It was a lucrative, if somewhat cold-hearted, decision.  The 19th Street plots brought the equivalent of about $715,000 today.  The money was necessary to fund the massive remodeling of the old wooden church, just completed.  Architect Howard S. Bush was commissioned to transform the old Greek Revival structure into a modern Romanesque Revival building.  Completed late in 1885, it left no trace of Hunt's simple structure.

Faced in rough-cut granite and red brick, it looked as much like a fortress as a place of worship.  The entrance doors were placed within a maw-like arch.   The stone of the two-story base continued in a tall tower which fought for attention with a pair of large, arched stained glass windows above the entrance.  Bush's design was imposing, if not necessarily pleasing.

from the collection of the New York Public Library

On December 14, 1885 the New-York Tribune reported "The Rev. Dr. James M. King preached to his old congregation yesterday morning at the reopening services of the Eighteen Street Methodist Episcopal church, which has been transformed into a church of the modern style of architecture."  Not everything was new.  The 1835 altar had been preserved and reinstalled.

The Rev. Dr. J. A. B. Wilson made as his moral focus the elimination of alcohol and saloons.  On September 19, 1893 a conference of the Christian Prohibitionists was held in the church, for instance.  

Wilson staged a dramatic opening for his sermon on September 23 the following year.  As he took the pulpit two men approached and handed him two bottles of whisky which they claimed they has just purchased at Hugh Slavin's saloon at 14th Street and Seventh Avenue.  Wilson's sermon went on to attack the police force and the District Attorney's office for allowing the brazen disregard of the excise laws.

Three months later he appeared before the Excise Board after learning that Patrick McGirr had applied for a saloon license on Seventh Avenue and 19th Street.  Rev. Wilson protested "on the ground that children attending his Sunday-school would have to pass the saloon."

Motorcars line the block in front of the church in this 1933 photographs.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

A bizarre incident occurred at the Eighteenth Street Methodist Episcopal Church on the cold Sunday morning of January 23, 1921.  Sexton Crawford pulled the bell rope to summon worshipers to the 11:00 service, but nothing happened.  The New York Herald reported "Puzzled, he pulled again and then decided to investigate."  He found the problem was a man who had been living in the belfry and had rolled into a position that blocked the bell.

Harry Mayer had graduated from the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy in 1919, but was out of work.  He traveled in a freight car from Philadelphia to New York, certain that his prospects would be better.   A week later he had run out of money and had no place to go.  He wandered into the Eighteenth Street Methodist Episcopal Church "half sick with cold and hunger."  He saw the belfry and thought it would be a good place to rest.  By the time the sexton discovered him, he had been there a week (Sexton Crawford confirmed that the church had been locked since the previous Sunday) and was delirious.  "Dr. Durfee of New York Hospital examined him and found him much emaciated and suffering from chills and fever," said the article.

The Eighteen Street Methodist Episcopal Church continued to serve the Chelsea neighborhood until 1945 when the congregation merged with the Metropolitan-Duane Methodist Church on Seventh Avenue below 14th Street.   In 1950 construction on a six-story apartment building was begun.  As crews excavated for the foundation human remains were found.  Apparently the 1886 removal was not as thorough as it should have been.  Eventually the skulls of eleven persons were unearthed, along with several arm and leg bones.

photo via

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