Monday, February 1, 2021

The Lost Second Avenue Baptist Church - 162-166 2nd Avenue


The church sits just to the right of the New-York Historical Society building on the corner.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society.

In 1850 architect David Henry Arnot published his Gothic Architecture Applied to Modern Residences.  The Gothic Revival style had arrived in America about a decade earlier and Arnot was among its staunchest proponents.   While writing his book, he had also been working on the designs for a striking church building in the same style.

On May 21, 1850 The Evening Post reported "The new church of the Tabernacle Baptist Society, in Second avenue, between Tenth and Eleventh streets, is drawing near to completion."  Churches had traditionally taken on a Greek temple form and the striking new Gothic design impressed the journalist.  "The view of the front from Stuyvesant street is one rarely to be met with, either as regards outline or workmanship; it is well worthy the study of amateurs or professors, and from its proximity to the leading thoroughfares of the city, we would recommend the design itself to their inspection."

Arnot designed the building in three vertical sections.  He set the triple entrances within pointed Gothic arches atop a high, wide set of steps.  Directly above, a massive stained glass window with intricate Gothic tracery dominated the façade.  The design of the 64-foot wide structure featured tall, hooded niches, pierced parapets and crocket-crowned spires.

One element of the interior decoration was innovative.  "The ceiling is to afford an instance, we believe the first in this city, of the application of painting, to produce the effect of the oaken panel work of the middle ages; the architect, Mr. Arnot, having made the architecture of those times his especial study, no doubt it will be successful," reported The Evening Post.

Missions magazine, 1922 (copyright expired)

The "new and beautiful edifice," as described by the New-York Daily Tribune, officially opened three days before Christmas in 1850.  Daniel Curry, writing in his New-York: A Historical Sketch of the Rise and Progress of the Metropolitan City of America, described it as:

...a neat ornamented gothic building, with pointed towers at the angles, and having the whole front elaborately ornamented.  It is...altogether one of the most elegant and commodious churches in the city, capable of seating nearly a thousand persons.

The congregation had been formed in 1839 as the Mulberry-Street Church.  And although it was now formally the Baptist Tabernacle, before long for the name of the Second Avenue Baptist Church was used most often.  

The neighborhood around the church was one of elegant homes and well-to-do families.  And so the lecture by a Black minister in February 1853 may been somewhat unexpected by some congregants.  The Rev. Mr. Waring was visiting from Haiti.  The New York Herald wrote, "The Rev. gentleman, it seems, was born in Virginia, and belongs to the colored race.  About twenty years ago, he emigrated to Hayti, embarked in business for himself, and realised a handsome competency."

The minister's lecture was purportedly about his salvation.  But he was more likely speaking directly to the Abolitionists in the audience.  He deftly digressed into telling of the slave revolt in Haiti--no doubt a warning about the slavery rampant throughout the South.  (Slavery was abolished in New York in 1827.)   Among his remarks he said "the French were guilty of acts of great and unnecessary barbarity; that the negroes retaliated, and finally succeeded in destroying the whole of the French population."  It was a chilling warning.

The affluence of the congregation was reflected in the high salary it paid its pastor, Rev. Edward Lathrop.  When he suffered health problems a few weeks after Rev. Waring's lecture, he was granted a sabbatical.  In its March 1853 issue The Baptist Reporter wrote, "The Second Avenue Baptist Church have granted their pastor, Rev. Edward Lathrop, a leave of absence for six to nine months, owing to his impaired health, to enable him to make the tour of Europe.  His salary of 2,500 dollars will continue, and a purse of 2,000 dollars is being made up by the members of his church a congregation as a testimonial for him."  The "purse" would be equal to more than $68,000 today.

The congregation that had seemingly supported the abolition of slavery now confronted the "problem" of freed Blacks in 1870.  The New York Times reported "A meeting of the American Colonization Society was held on Sunday Evening, May 22, at the Baptist Tabernacle, Second avenue, near Tenth street, for the purpose of counseling increased earnestness in the movement to aid the emigration of the colored people to Liberia."  The goal of the group was to return Blacks to Africa where they could live prejudice-free.

No one, it seems, had asked the Black community what they thought about the idea.  In most cases the families had been in the United States for generations.  They insisted they were no more African than white Americans were British.

In 1886 the new pastor, Dr. D. C. Potter, remodeled the interior, creating an amphitheater, and erected a large parish house next door.   To pay for the expensive projects, three wealthy congregants gave major loans:  John D. Rockefeller provided $30,000 as did Jabez A. Bostwick, and Caroline C. Bishop loaned $5,000.  The total would be about $1.8 million today.

Like many well-paid ministers, Potter enjoyed a lifestyle similar to his wealthy congregants.  But it caused major problems in the spring of 1893.  Formal charges were brought against him in a meeting of the deacons, elders and members of the church on May 23.  The New York Times remarked "Trouble has been brewing in the congregation for some time."

Among the long list of accusations, the clergyman was charged with "abusing the truth and misrepresenting and falsifying facts" for his own benefit; with being often "seen in private and in public in a state of intoxication," and with having embezzled church funds for his own use.  Worse yet, according to The New York Times, "Dr. Potter is further accused of frequenting questionable places of amusement, and of being guilty of 'flagrant immorality, which renders him unfit for the Christian ministry or a member of a Christian, or even decent society.'"

The "turbulence" went on for four years.  Finally Potter was fired, but the drama was not yet over.  He barricaded himself in the rectory and refused to leave.  On January 6, 1897 The New York Times reported, "With his two sons, Dr. Potter is installed in his old rooms in the church annex...refusing to obey all requests to leave, while four watchmen are stationed around the doors, with instructions not to allow the doctor to return if he does leave."

An exasperated congregation finally ousted him when John D. Rockefeller foreclosed on the building in a dramatic last ditch 

King's Handbook of New York City, 1892 (copyright expired)

By the time of the upheaval, the neighborhood around the Second Avenue Baptist Church was no longer one of opulent private homes.  It was the center of New York City's immigrant population.  In August 1902 the New-York Tribune reported that the church ran ten Vacation Bible Schools in as many separate languages for a total of 1,500 children.

The pastor, Rev. Charles J. Keevil, had a surprising view of Christmas presents for the indigent children.  He told a reporter from The Sun in 1904 "In the first place, these presents are useless.  They cost on an average perhaps 50 cents apiece.  For 50 cents nothing can be bought that is of any use or value to the child or will last any length of time.  Yet in the aggregate it makes a large sum."  That sum, he felt, could be better put to use to real relief for the poor families in the neighborhood.  But there was more.  "We are systematically training children to come to Sunday school for the sake of getting something out of it.  Every year there is a rush to the Sunday schools just before Christmas, for the sake of the Christmas presents."

Rev. Keevil's wife, Pauline, threw herself into the work of the community, earning her the nickname "the Angel of the East Side."  The Evening World said "Her special work was visiting the homes of the poor and attending to their wants.  Almost all of her private means was devoted to her charitable work."

But the work and the constant exposure to the squalid conditions of the families took their toll.  On June 21, 1905 the New-York Tribune wrote, "Mrs. Keevill had worked hard among the poor of the East Side, and, as a result, she broke down about four months ago.  The breakdown was followed by an attack of nervous prostration."

Pauline improved and a trip to visit her family was planned for her mental and physical well-being.  The trunks were packed and Rev. Keevil's mother arrived to help take care of the two children--five and seven years old--in her absence.

On the morning of June 20 Pauline cheerfully talked about the trip.  As the family ate breakfast, she left the room.  Later Keevil found the bedroom door locked and smelled gas.  The New-York Tribune reported "He burst open the door and found Mrs. Keevil lying on the bed with her head covered and a tube from a gas jet in her mouth.  She was dead."

In its May 1908 issue The Baptist Home Mission Monthly wrote about the work of the Second Avenue Baptist Church.  A group, including the writer, had arrived while the Hungarian Mission was in session.  Later she was taken to another part of the building to see the Chinese Bible School.  "After listening to members of the school recite Bible verses in broken English, the party found their way to another part of the building where Rev. A. Zarephenethes, a native of Greece...was speaking to a group of his own countrymen."  The writer went on to talk about services in Italian, Slovak, and Russian.

Slovakian members assembled on the steps of the church in 1908.  Baptist Home Mission Monthly, May 1908 (copyright expired)

The outreach to the diverse community was clearly evidenced in an article in the New-York Tribune on January 27, 1912 which said in part:

The Second Avenue Baptist Church, as the upper end of the Bowery, describes itself as the greatest mission church in America.  It has services every Sunday in no fewer than seven languages, and there are sixteen services in all.  The list comprises Slovak, Chinese, Italian, Magyar, Polish, Greek and English.

Philip A. Nordell, in his 1914 The Modern Church, described the challenges.  He said the church sat "in what formerly used to be the center of the old Knickerbocker aristocracy," but now, with the population of the densest part of London being 300 people per acre, the neighborhood around the Second Avenue Baptist Church was 900.

Estonian members assemble before the church in 1922.  Through the Second Gate, 1922 (copyright expired)

The church continued to adapt to the increasingly diverse population by adding services and Sunday schools in new languages.  In the post World War I years classes were begun by which the indigent children could learn life skills like woodworking for the boys and cooking for girls.  In 1922 a representative told a reporter from Missions magazine, "There are gymnasium classes, boys' clubs, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, kindergarten, industrial school, cooking class, supper club, study hour periods where the children get help for their day-school lessons, and in addition hikes and camping in summer, along with the vacation school and numerous other activities."

Boys in the upper photograph learn woodworking while the girls below study cooking.  Missions magazine, September 1922 (copyright expired)

A movement spread across America in the 1920's whereby churches increased their revenue by replacing their old buildings with "skyscraper churches"--normally a high-rise apartment building with dedicated religious space on the ground floor.  In 1928 David H. Arnot's magnificent Gothic Revival structure was demolished to be replaced by a 15-story building-and-church designed by Emery Roth.  That building survives.

The Gothic arched opening to the former church space is at lower right.  


  1. The street-level space that housed the church in the 1928 apartment building retained its "Baptist Tabernacle" carved stone entryway, but in the 1970s and 80s it was home to the Theater for the New City, an important Off-Off Broadway company that subsequently relocated one block east to the former First Avenue Retail Market.

  2. When did the Church cease to operate and become a theater venue?