Monday, January 10, 2022

The Lost Church of the Nativity -- 46-48 Second Avenue

A 19th century stereopticon view with the original steeple intact was reproduced in Valentine's Manual of the City of New York, 1919 (copyright expired)

When the congregation of the Second Avenue Presbyterian Church erected its new building on Second Avenue between 2nd and 3rd Streets, it chose the best in New York City architects.  Completed in 1832, the Greek Revival structure is attributed to the firm of Town, Davis & Dakin.  Ithiel Town and Andrew Jackson Davis had joined forces in 1829 and by now had brought James H. Dakin in to the firm; however Town is not credited with this project.  It appears that Davis and Dakin worked with James H. Gallier on this structure.

Their Greek temple design was a century later described by the Historic American Buildings Survey, which said that the firm "introduced the facade pattern, widely copied but usually imperfectly; here presented as intended, with columns and antae (six instead of the usual four) regularly spaced."  The authors deemed the facade "a fine and very significant example of Greek Revival distyle-in-antis church type."

The neighborhood, just a block east of the exclusive Bond Street  district, was lined with elegant homes.  Next door at 44 Second Avenue was the rectory building.  The members of the Second Presbyterian Church included millionaires like William E. Dodge.

On April 17, 1841, the Second Presbyterian Church's pastor delivered a moving sermon about the death of President William Henry Harrison exactly one month after his taking office.  It was so impelling that the Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer announced on April 24, "By request the Rev. Chas. S. Porter will repeat, on next Sabbath (to-morrow) evening, in the Second Avenue Presbyterian Church, the sermon delivered by him last Sabbath evening, on the death of the President."

In 1847 the Second Avenue Presbyterian Church merged with the Braynard Presbyterian Church and erected a new structure on 14th Street.  The Second Avenue church and rectory were leased to the Nativity of Our Lord, a Roman Catholic parish established five years earlier and better known as the Church of the Nativity.

An early focus of the congregation in its new building was the ongoing Irish famine.  A collection taken on Sunday morning, February 28, 1847 raised $2,005 ($65,000 today).  The New-York Tribune commented, "It is delightful, grieve as we must at the wretchedness which prevails there, to witness this unanimity and to find an occasion of action about which there is no dispute."

In 1848 an announcement appeared in the Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer of a chancery sale of the "lots of ground with the buildings thereon, known as the Second Avenue Presbyterian Church," to be held on February 14, 1848.  It was purchased by the Church of the Nativity, which paid the equivalent of $422,000 in today's money for the property.

Among the cautious remodeling the congregation made to the building was the installation of stained glass.  In a letter to the editor of the New-York Tribune on February 18, 1851, the church's treasurer, James de Vose wrote:

These windows were obtained with great exertion, through the liberality of some friends who, admiring the interior construction of the church, did not wish to see common plain glass windows, which would have been in keeping with the limited means of the congregation, but not in accordance with the style of architecture.  We were thus enabled to procure windows with stained glass, which have been generally admired for their simplicity and neatness.


from the collection of the Library of Congress

As De Vose's letter had hinted, by the 1850's the once-affluent neighborhood had greatly changed.  The influx of indigent, immigrant families was reflected in an article in The New York Times on January 14, 1857.  It said in part, "Rev. Dr. Manahan delivered a lecture last night in Hope Chapel for the benefit of the poor children of the Church of the Nativity, in Second-avenue."

On June 28, 1857, Henry Beers (described by The New York Times as "a young, good looking Irishman) was married to Ann Hanbury here.  But when Ann's brother found out that Henry "had another wife living," he had him arrested.  As it turned out, Henry had married Phebe Tully on September 30, 1855 in the Church of St. Francis Xavier, on West 21st Street.

In a case of déjà vu, on December 13, 1861 Rev. George W. McClosky married Irish-born William Griffin (alias McDonald) and Anne Cannon.  Just a month later, on January 22, 1862, Griffin was convicted of bigamy.  He had initially been married in Brooklyn in June 1860.

Before long Rev. McClosky would have more serious issues to consider.  On July 11, 1863 the nation's first draft lottery was held.  Newspapers published the long lists of those drafted after each proceeding.  On August 26 The New York Times reported, "Father McCloskey, the well-known pastor of the Church of the Nativity was drawn, as was also his Sexton, Mr. McGovern." 

The interiors were restored after a devastating fire in 1912.  from the collection of the Library of Congress

By the turn of the century any of the surviving rowhouses along Second Avenue had been converted to business and rooming houses.  Most had been demolished to be replaced with tenements.

Tragedy occurred on January 20, 1912.  Fire and Water Engineering reported, "Fire partly destroyed the Roman Catholic church of the Nativity, 44 and 46 Second avenue, this city.  The flames were confined to the church, which is one of the land-marks on the East Side, the damage being estimated at $20,000."  That amount would top half a million in today's dollars.  "The organ, the balcony over the entrance, the choir stalls and portions of the roof were burned."

Patrolman Koschau had run into the rectory and awakened Rev. Father Bernard J. Reilly, the pastor, and his assistant, Rev. William S. Creedon.  Fire and Water Engineering reported, "The priests, partly clothed, rushed into the burning building by a side entrance, and, despite the heat and smoke, took the sacrament of the altar and saved the communion vessels."

The ruins of the interior following the fire.  Fire and Water Engineering, February 14, 1912 (copyright expired)

The magazine noted, "The Church of the Nativity is one of the oldest on the East Side.  It was built nearly a century ago and its stately Roman architecture contrasted so distinctly with that of the huge tenements surrounding it that its aged appearance was emphasized all the more."  A photograph taken just after the fire showed that the stately steeple was gone.

original source unknown

Rev. Reilly, who had so bravely entered the blazing sanctuary, had an interesting history.  He was admitted to the priesthood in 1889 and spent his first two years in Nassau, the Bahamas.  The New York Times later reported that he was one of the priests who "sailed from the Bahamas to San Salvador, where they donned vestments and celebrated the first mass held on the island since its discovery by Columbus."  He arrived in New York in 1891 as assistant in the Church of the Nativity, and was made its pastor in 1900.  He died on July 7, 1928.

At some point the congregation modernized the venerable structure with a stepped parapet and a short spired.  Large bronze lettering reading "Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam"--For the Greater Glory of God--were installed on the entablature.

from the collection of the Library of Congress

A second fire occurred in 1968 and a demolition permit was issued that year.  The magnificent Greek Revival building, described by the Historic American Buildings Survey as "probably the earliest extant example of its type," was demolished.  A new structure designed by Genovese & Maddalene was erected, described by architectural historian David W. Dunlap in his From Abyssinian to Zion as looking "more like a firehouse than a house of worship."

photo by Beyond My Ken has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog


  1. Wikipedia says the 1968 church was deconsecrated in 2017 and sold to developers for $40 million in 2020. Google's street view of July 2021 shows the building under demolition.

  2. There were quite a few church fires in the 1960s, including nearby Epiphany. Cui Bono?

    1. Hard to speculate on whether the fire was suspicious. It doesn't appear fire investigators thought so, however.