Monday, February 7, 2022

The Lost St. Clement's Church -- 108 West 3rd Street

On July 26, 1830 the parish of St. Clement's Protestant Episcopal Church was officially organized.  Only three days later the cornerstone of its church building was laid at 108 Amity Street, between MacDougal and Sullivan Streets, in Greenwich Village.  (Amity Street would be renamed West Third Street in 1858.)  

The property had been donated by Thomas L. Servoss, "a wealthy businessman," according to The Sun.  Decades later, the New-York Tribune would recall, "At that time, the section was a choice portion of the city.  It contained the homes of many of New York's wealthiest and most respected families, many of whom were members of St. Clement's."

The structure was completed at a cost of $32,000 (nearly $920,000 today) and consecrated on May 5, 1831.  A stark departure from the ubiquitous Greek temple design, St. Clement's was styled in the new Gothic Revival style.  Two six-sided, crenellated towers flanked a double-height portico with graceful ogival arches and delicate, pencil-thin columns.  Both the portico and the gable shared the crenellation of the towers.

The revolutionary architecture quickly met with condemnation.  The Sun later reported, "In a few months it was decided the church was unfit for use and it should be torn down."  The concern was "that an attempt was being made to introduce so called 'Romish practices and doctrines'" and "The church attained much notoriety as a result," said the article.  However, "In about two years this was forgotten and St. Clement's went on as before."

Among the early members of the congregation were Edgar Allan Poe and his wife, Virginia.  The newlyweds (they were married in October 1830) had arrived in New York in February 1831 and lived "in a little frame house," according to The Sun years later, across the street from the church.  The newspaper said, "St. Clement's was the first Episcopal church in the city to have a vested choir and it is said the child wife of Poe often sat at the open window of their humble rooms to listen to the strains of music which floated across narrow Amity street from St. Clement's."

Interestingly, there was just one burial vault below the church, that of the Pintard family.  John Pintard, a wealthy merchant, is best remembered for founding the New-York Historical Society.  Pintard had the remains of his family removed from the old French graveyard on Pine Street to this vault.  He died on June 21, 1844, the last of the Pintards to be interred here.

In 1851, the organ originally built for St. John's Chapel in 1814 was installed in St. Clement's Church.   The 1909 Historical Guide to the City of New York would recall, "It was captured by the British and ransomed for $2,000."  

Like other congregations, St. Clement's threw its support behind Union troops during the Civil War.  On November 20, 1861, The New York Times reported on gifts being sent to injured soldiers.  The article said, "From the Ladies' Aid Association of St. Clement's Church, repeated evidences of liberality in well-chosen gifts for patients, and recently a large and valuable case containing pillows, cushions, &c., &c."

The church's assistant rector, Rev. Treadwell Walden, was appointed to a six-man "Committee of Inquiry" by the United States Sanitary Commission on May 19, 1864.  The other members were three eminent physicians (Dr. Valentine Mott, Dr. Ellerile Wallace and Dr. Edward Delafield) a district court judge and  diplomat Gouverneur Morris Wilkins.  Their purpose was to investigate "the terrible reports of suffering" in Southern military prisons.

The men traveled to enemy territory, gathered information, and published their findings in October 1864.  Their reports of "tens of thousands of brave men suffering under anguish as great as mortal can endure," according to The New York Times, resulted in a humanitarian agreement between the Union and Confederacy.  On October 28 the newspaper explained the plan permitted the Union Government "to send necessary supplies of food, clothing and medicines to the starving, naked and sick brave men whom the fortunes of war have placed in the power of the rebels."  In return, the Confederacy were allowed to "purchase abroad" supplies needed for prisoners held by the Union.

In the decade following the end of the war, well-to-do families moved further north along Fifth Avenue.  On December 12, 1875, Rev. Theodore A. Eaton spoke on the history of the church in his sermon.  "It was founded 45 years ago, when the locality in which the church edifice stands was one of the fashionable quarters of New York," he said.  But, as The New York Times noted, "The  gradual moving of private residences up town had taken away most of the wealthy members, and to-day there were but seven families connected with the church which worshiped there when the Rector began his ministry, twenty-five years ago."

from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

The passage of time did not improve the situation.  On November 24, 1900, in reporting on the congregation's 70th anniversary, the New-York Tribune noted, "When St. Clement's was built it was surrounded by the private houses of many rich families.  St. Clement's finds itself now in an undesirable cosmopolitan population, near to factories and business houses."

The Sun added, "Houses formerly occupied by wealthy families [are] now tenanted by the poor.  Those people looked to St. Clement's not only for religious consolidation but also for financial aid."

As the neighborhood declined, Bishop Henry C. Potter led the push "to put the property to larger use," according to The Sun on September 4, 1909.  But the rector of St. Clement's, Rev. Edward H. Van Winkle, fought back, recognizing the parish's importance to the poor.  With his death on August 30, 1909, the only impediment to the diocese's plans was removed.  The Sun reported, "The vestry of St. Clement's Episcopal church in Third street is puzzled to know what to do with the property, estimated to be worth $250,000...The building has long been in a dilapidated condition."

A vestryman told the reporter from The Sun, "The church is falling to pieces and it is not wise to repair it.  There are a few loyal people, poor it is true, but they cannot be abandoned.  The property is theirs more than it is that of anybody else."

It did not take the diocese long to make a decision.  In June 1910 the remains of the Pintard family were moved to St. Michael's Cemetery in Queens, and demolition of the architecturally ground-breaking edifice began soon afterwards.  On August 13, 1911, The Sun reported, "The old church was razed last year as it was in danger of falling down.  Its site is now vacant, but it is supposed it will eventually be improved with big flats similar to those adjoining it on either side."

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  1. "On June 19, 1920 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that the Church of St. Cornelius had sold its building to the trustees of St. Clement's Church. That congregation, founded in 1830 in Greenwich Village, had just merged with the Chapel of St. Chrysostom, a mission chapel of Trinity Church." As your previous article on St. Clements indicates, it is still an active church