Monday, September 20, 2021

The Lost Broadway Tabernacle - Broadway and 56th Street

 
from the collection of the New-York Historical Society


In 1857 the congregation of the Broadway Tabernacle moved from its location at Broadway between Worth Street and Catherine Lane because of "the encroachment of business."  Less than half a century later the same problem would force the church to move from its site at Sixth Avenue and 34th Street.

On January 4, 1902 the Real Estate Record & Guide announced "The new home of the Broadway Tabernacle congregation, of which the Rev. Charles E. Jefferson is pastor, will be located at the northeast corner of Broadway and 56th st."  The trustees had paid the equivalent of $14 million today for the Midtown parcel.  That amount would be more than doubled after the architectural firm of Barney & Chapman filed plans in October that placed construction costs at $500,000--around $15.5 million today.

Construction on the massive structure took three years.   The dedication of what The New York Times called the "city's most novel edifice" was held on March 5, 1905 with "impressive ceremonies."  The New-York Tribune described it as a "beautiful cathedral-like structure" and said it "embraces within its walls a huge auditorium, two chapels, a score of Sunday school rooms, parlors, offices, living rooms, a museum and safe deposit vault, each function expressed in the exterior architecture and all culminating in the tower in a harmonious whole."

from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

Architectural critic Montgomery Schuyler called the style, "advanced and elaborate Gothic, advanced in some places to the verge of the French Renaissance."  He was especially taken with the 10-story cimborio, or tower, at the rear of the structure, which he said admirably "crowns the edifice."  Although known for his often biting criticisms, he wrote:

How successful is the choice and combination of material, the pale buff of the brickwork and the pale gray of the terra cotta.  How full of life and spirit is the modelling of this latter, really recalling the old work in comparison with the lifelessness of so much of most modern Gothic.

The Architectural Record, September 1904 (copyright expired)

The interior of the auditorium had been decorated by M. G. Broadbent.  The understated Gothic décor allowed for no painted murals, however hanging from the groin-vaulted ceiling were striking bronze-and-art-glass chandeliers.


Two views of the auditorium.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

The New York Times said, "The new edifice is perhaps the most unusual structure in the city, having a theatre, kindergarten, club rooms, a private wedding chapel, and a complete equipment for Settlement work."  

The article reminded readers of the church's beginnings, saying it was founded in 1840 "for the express purpose of reaching the masses" and adding, "The Tabernacle was the first church in New York to stand for free speech.  It was foremost in opposition to slavery."  The Rev. Dr. Charles E. Jefferson explained that the innovations in the new structure were a continuance of that history, saying "This church must be a people's church...This church must hurl itself against political corruption, against the liquor traffic, against militarism, and against industrial injustice."

Jefferson had been pastor for seven years at the time.  His views matched the historically open-minded, progressive stance of the Broadway Tabernacle.  Several years later he listed several issues that the church should fight.  The Sun quoted him on March 4, 1918 as saying that "the frightful inequalities of our social condition brought about by capitalistic injustice should be radically reformed, that race prejudice should be boldly attacked and rooted out and that militarism should also be regarded as a foe."

Rev. Charles E. Jefferson, from the collection of the Library of Congress

The New-York Tribune was unsympathetic with Jefferson's rabid anti-war stance.  (He said, "When I die and you should wish to place a tablet in the church for me I want you to put on it "Peacemaker, or, if you prefer, "Pacifist.")  

Calling his sermons "lectures," on March 12, 1919, as American boys were still returning from Europe, the newspaper wrote, "It is a little difficult at times to reconcile realities with Dr. Jefferson's teachings, but apparently his aim is to show that realities do not matter."  Even when America was deeply embroiled in World War I, Jefferson visited many of the military camps to preach to the soldiers, always insisting that "the great war must be the last war."

A canteen for soldiers was established within the church which "attracted uniformed men by the hundreds," according to the New-York Tribune.  An issue of the parish newsletter said that 100,000 men had visited the church, "attracted by the programme for the soldiers and sailors."  The New-York Tribune reported on May 12, 1919, "So grateful have the uniformed men been that they are planning to put up a bronze tablet to show their appreciation."

The Architectural Record, September 1904 (copyright expired)

Leading an important church like this one was financially rewarding.  In 1924 Jefferson was earning $10,000 per year--about $151,000 today.  The New York Times said he was "one of the highest paid Congregational ministers in this country."  He was offered a raise in salary that year, but he refused to accept it.  He was an author, as well, writing around 24 books on biblical subjects and three on peace.

The highly visible and idealistic pastor would go on to lead the Broadway Tabernacle congregation for 32 years.  The 69-year-old preached his last sermon on June 29, 1930.  Upon his retirement, the church gave him a yearly pension of $3,000--around $46,500 in today's money.

When he died in his New Hampshire home in September 1937, The New York Times reminisced about "'The Saint of the Great White Way' (as it often was suggested to name him)."  It said, "Dr. Jefferson had a longer 'run' on Broadway than any actor."

Whether it was the loss of its powerful leader or simply the fact that, once again, the church was being hemmed in by commerce, change came little by little.  On January 28, 1955 The New York Times reported, "The Broadway Tabernacle church will be known henceforth as the Broadway Congregational Church."  The pastor, Rev. Dr. Albert J. Penner explained, "The word 'tabernacle' has frequently led to misunderstandings."

In 1959 Rev. Dr. Joseph B. Huntley initiated a program to attract young adults--one of which Rev. Dr. Jefferson may not have approved.  He formed the Broadway Chapel Players, which staged plays within the church.  Writing in The New York Age on December 26, Virgil Cabaniss reviewed Susannah and the Elders, the twelfth in a series.  He called it "the most soul-searching religious drama this column has ever witnessed."  He said the concept was "a famous educational and entertaining drama as a form of worship service," adding, "And the place is packed with honest-to-goodness worshippers and discriminating theatre-goers."



But not even the popular theater program could save the congregation from waning attendance.  On February 26, 1969 a headline in The New York Times read, "Broadway Church Is Closing Doors After 129 Years."  The pastor, Rev. Lawrence L. Durgin, explained that the congregation had deferred maintenance for 30 years, and now $500,000 was necessary to "put it in good condition."  The article noted, "The building's nine-story twin gray towers and stained-glass windows are surrounded by office buildings and automobile showrooms."  The trustees had arranged to share the nearby Roman Catholic St. Paul the Apostle Church with that congregation.

Within the year the striking Gothic style church was leveled for a parking lot "for 105 cars," as outlined in Department of Buildings documents.  In 1977 Carnegie Mews, a 34-floor tower rose, on the site, erasing the memory of the Broadway Tabernacle for almost all New Yorkers.

photo via linecity.com

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4 comments:

  1. Are those dates right? In 1967-68 I worked at 1776 Broadway, corner of 57th Street, but I have no memory of this structure at all. Also, curious if architectural elements and interior furnishings ended up in other structures throughout NYC.

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    1. The dates are correct (Andrew, you've been forgetting several buildings lately! LOL) I don't know about the interior elements but I pray those light fixtures were salvaged.

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  2. Montgomery Schuyler may have admired the crown atop this edifice, but I notice mixing Gothic with French Renaissance in this manner did not become popular. To me, it looks as if the tower top was accidently placed there.

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  3. Unfortunately considering the demolition was in 1969, I am sure most if not all of the spectacular structure including all of that magnificent terra cotta ornamentation ended up in a landfill. Such a wasteful and thoughtless society we are.

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