Monday, June 8, 2020

The Lost 16th Street Baptist Church - 253-257 West 16th Street

The entrance doors had recently been boarded up in preparation to raze the church in May 1929.  from the collection of the New York Public Library 

In 1893 the New-York Tribune recalled that the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church "was the first church established in the Sixteenth Ward."  Organized in 1828, it originally held services on the grounds of what was known as "the old White Fort" on West 12th Street where years later the Gansevoort Market would be built.  "At that time the neighborhood was mostly cow pasture, where only a few homes had been built," said a later article, "and it was necessary to burn lights in the windows to guide the people to prayer meeting."

In 1839 the congregation moved to West 16th between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, changing its name to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.  Like most church buildings, it served the community with meetings and lectures during the week.  On January 13, 1843, for instance, the New-York Daily Tribute reported "The next Lecture will be delivered at the Baptist Church in Sixteenth-street, third building east of the Eighth Avenue, on Thursday Horace Greeley, Esq.--Subject 'Human Life.'"

Almost assuredly the most poignant service in the old structure took place on November 22, 1851.  Two days earlier a false fire alarm fire in Ward School No. 26 on Greenwich Avenue caused panic.  The 1,881 children swarmed from their classrooms and into the halls and stairways.  The first to reach the ground floor doors found them locked, as was the practice during school hours.  The mass of children continued to back up behind them until the railings of the stairs could not take the pressure and gave way.  Children plummeted to the first floor, described by Our First Century as an "avalanche of sighing, screeching, terror-stricken humanity."  When fire fighters opened the street doors they found untold numbers of wounded children, and 40 dead.

A group funeral was held for four of the little girls--Mary Cecilia Jacacks, Louisa Cooper, Jane Maria Devoe, and Mary Ann Penchard--in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.  The victims ranged from 9 to 11 years old.  "The church was densely thronged with the mourners of the dear departed little ones, their sorrowing friends, and a sympathizing public," reported The New York Herald.

As the Chelsea developed, the church edifice was no longer adequate.  The Sun recalled later "In 1857 the neighborhood was at its best and some of the city's most prominent families lived not far from the church.  Then it was necessary to enlarge the church by building on all of the lot that the congregation owned."  A large red brick edifice, capable of seating 1,500 worshipers, replaced the old building.  The central section of the Romanesque Revival design was slightly recessed between two Tuscan style towers.  Brick corbel tables ran below the roofline and arched stained glass windows filled the upper levels of each section.

Still unpaved in the 1920's, West 16th Street was lined with a mish-mash of buildings around the church.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
The first service in the newly-completed church took place on Sunday January 10, 1858.   Located near the mansions of West 14th Street as well as the fine homes that dotted Chelsea's side streets, some of its members were of considerable wealth.  The New York Herald called the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church "a neat and tasteful church edifice" and deemed its congregation "large and quite fashionable."

During construction, workers excavating the foundations had "discovered that they had a big cave underneath the church," as reported by The Sun.  Once the church was completed the trustees rented the natural subterranean storeroom to an ice dealer.  But "unfortunately for the dealer, his crop of ice melted and he failed in business," according to the Rev. Dr. A. H. W. Hodder later.  The trustees were then approached by a brewer who wanted to store his goods there.  Hodder said that the lease was signed and the trustees' "consciences troubled them somewhat, but not enough to cause a loss of sleep.  The cellar was soon stored to the brim with beer, ale and liquors."  And while the pastor railed about the sin of intemperance in the church, his congregants "sat over thousands of gallons of beer."

But when the secret leaked out the trustees were forced to evict their tenant.  But they soon came up with a solution satisfactory to everyone:  they partitioned the "cave" into vaults and sold burial lots at $25 each.  Decades later, in 1898, Rev. Hodder said "For years the trustees did a graveyard business at 300 per cent profit, and over 300 bodies are now in the cellar."

A bizarre incident occurred in 1875 surrounding a relatively new congregant, whose name was withheld for privacy.  She had been brought up in the Roman Catholic faith, but in 1874 her parents renounced Catholicism and became Protestants.  Their daughter, a young woman, joined the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that year and, according to its pastor, Rev. D. B. Jutten, "has been a consistent member ever since."  

Following her parents' death late in 1874, "by various means and methods her friends sought to induce her to return to the church of her childhood, but she persistently refused."  And so her extended family and friends concocted an extreme plan.

An aunt from the Bronx arrived with the sad news that the woman's uncle "whom she greatly loved, was dead and would be buried the next day."  Of course, she accompanied her aunt to Fordham to attend the funeral, "but found herself a prisoner, with every respect of a speedy incarceration in a convent."  But luckily for the woman, Rev. Jutten heard of her plight.  Before she could be shut in the convent, he and friends procured a writ of habeas corpus.  In April 1874 she was brought to the Supreme Court.  When her abductors failed to appear, she was released. 

Serious trouble came to Rev. Archibald B. MacLaurin in 1905, just two years after he took the position of pastor.   He had quickly become popular "by his splendid eloquence and the fervor of his preaching," according to The Evening World.  But that November a respected member, Mrs. Georgiana McPherson, accused the pastor with "drunkedness and conduct unbecoming a clergyman."  She said she had been talking with Mrs. MacLaurin several months earlier in the rectory parlor when the preacher stumbled in, intoxicated.  "I cannot describe the revulsion of feeling I suffered," she told a reporter.  Before long several other women joined Mrs. McPherson's cause.

The Rev. Archibald MacLaurin had no end of problems. The Evening World, November 25, 1905 (copyright expired) 
The congregation was conflicted.  When MacLaurin took the pulpit on December 10 there were only about 60 people in the church.  The newspapers made note that his wife was not among them.  "Mrs. MacLaurin was not at any of the services at the church, neither was she to be found at home," said the New-York Tribune the following day.  When the reporter asked the minister where his wife was he snapped "Go and ask her."  Asked about the charges of Georgiana McPherson he replied "She is afflicted with mental strabismus.  Don't forget that word, gentlemen--mental strabismus."

On December 20, 1905 a meeting--essentially trial--of the congregation was held.  The New-York Tribune reported "The anti-MacLaurin forces were under the leadership of Mrs. Georgiana McPherson."  She had added slander to her charges, most likely based on his comments regarding mental strabismus.  Two detectives were on hand in case things turned ugly.

When the testimonies were over, the seven members of the board of deacons voted.  Rev. MacLaurin was exonerated by a vote of five to two.  Georgiana McPherson and her supporters were told they could file civil complaints if they so chose.

They did.  Catherine Woodruff sued for $5,000 "alleging that the pastor circulated slanderous stories about her," according to the New-York Tribune, and Mrs. Mary Cameron sued for $562 which she said she lent the pastor.  His annual salary of $820 (about $25,300 today) was "held up" pending the outcome.

A year later the cases were still pending.  MacLaurin had no income and no money in his bank account.  On December 27, 1906 The Sun reported "His wife left him a year ago, taking their seven-year-old daughter with her, but he is not supporting them.  He does support the twelve-year-old son, who lives with him."

There may have been a not-so-subtle message in MacLaurin's sermon on February 10, 1907.  The New-York Tribune announced "The special subject to-morrow evening will be 'The True Way to Find the Right Wife.'"

On November 26, 1927 when this photo was taken, the church would remain only two more years.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

The Chelsea neighborhood had changed by now.  In reporting on Mrs. Miles E. Jenkins's (known by congregants as Mother Jenkins) fifty years of teaching Sunday School on April 17, 1911, The Sun said "Mrs. Jenkins has seen the tide of fashion move up to the old Sixteenth street church and then roll on...After the civil war trade moved on."

A year later, on July 28, 1912 The Sun reported "Among the churches that are desirous of moving to better locations are the Sixteenth Street Baptist in West Sixteenth street."  Nevertheless, the old edifice remained until 1929 when it was razed to make way for a modern apartment building, which survives.

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