Monday, March 7, 2022

The Lost West Presbyterian Church - 29 West 42nd Street

from Valentine's Manual of Old New York, No.4, 1920 (copyright expired)

The West Presbyterian Church was organized in 1829 and incorporated in 1831, an outgrowth of the former North Church.  That year construction began on its handsome Greek Revival style building on Carmine Street, designed by Town & Davis.  Three decades of growth forced the congregation out of that structure, and in 1860 pastor Rev. Thomas S. Hastings moved the congregation into the chapel of the Rutgers Female Institute on West 42nd Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.

The trustees hired British-born architect Jacob Wrey Mould to design a replacement structure on the site facing Bryant Park.  (Interestingly, Mould was simultaneously designing the Church of the Holy Trinity, just one block to the east.)  Credited with introducing the Victorian Gothic style to New York City, the architect had a full plate at the time.  He was also working with Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmstead in designing elements of Central Park, and in 1857 had been appointed assistant city architect.

The new church was dedicated on April 30, 1865.  The New York Times described it as "a noteworthy addition to the church architecture of this city."  Patently Mould, the brick and stone structure erupted in shapes and angles.  The centered Gothic arched, story-and-a-half portico sat upon Victorian Gothic columns.  A six-sided steeple sat upon the tower to the west of the entrance, and a pyramidal roof over the sanctuary sat above stained glass panels that admitted extra light to the interior.

On December 11, 1865 the church was "the scene of an interesting musical entertainment; the occasion being the exhibition of a new and very beautiful organ, just completed for the edifice by Mr. L. U. Stuart," according to The New York Times.  Jacob Wrey Mould's design presented a challenge for Stuart.  "The instrument has been built on a novel plan, necessitated by the architectural requirements of the building...the great organ and swell divided by a space of some 60 feet, and manual in the center between the two."

from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

After serving West Presbyterian for a quarter of a century, in 1881 Rev. Thomas Samuel Hastings stepped down to join the faculty of the Union Theological Seminary.  A hint of things to come appeared in The New York Times on January 23, 1882, when an article reported, "The Rev. John R. Paxton, of Washington D. C., delivered a sermon in the West Presbyterian Church, yesterday morning.  The church was crowded.  He spoke with fervor and in an impassioned manner."

Paxton was being wooed by the congregation to replace Hastings.  On February 13 The New York Times reported that his Washington congregation had begrudgingly withdrawn its refusal to accept his resignation.  The fiery preacher officially accepted the position as West Presbyterian Church's new pastor.

In 1884, Jacob Wrey Mould's interiors were given a massive redecoration by architect J. C. Cady.  On May 24 The Real Estate Record & Guide reported that the "extensive changes and improvements" would be completed by October.  

In the balcony will be placed a number of boxes, each of which will be provided with seats for eight persons, something after the style of the boxes in the Madison Square Theatre.  The choir, which now occupies a gallery above the pulpit, will be brought down to a level with the platform.  The church will be entirely-reupholstered and other minor changes will be made.

The renovations did not come cheaply, costing the congregation $60,000--more than $1.6 million today.  Near the end of Rev. Paxton's Thanksgiving Day sermon that year, he turned to "the evil of church debts."  If congregants expected that he was about to press them for donations, they would be happily surprised.  He read a letter from the treasurer which said the entire $60,000 debt had been paid anonymously.  "I do not know whether the sum was paid by one man or by several," he said, "but we can thank God that we have such generous, modest, and noble manhood among us.  I could propose three rousing cheers, but I mustn't.  I can only say, thank God."

The wealthy congregants earned West Presbyterian Church the nickname, the "Millionaire's Gate to Heaven."  The Record & Guide would later comment, "The wealth of its members was said to be $750,000,000."  

Among them were the Jay Goulds.  Unlike her financier husband, frequently decried as unscrupulous at best, Helen Miller Gould was known only for her philanthropies and kindness.  In 1887 she suffered a massive stroke, which left her paralyzed and unable to speak.  On January 15, 1889 The Patterson Morning Call began an article saying, "Mrs. Jay Gould, beloved by the large circle of friends in which she moved for her kindly manners and benevolences of heart, has at least found relief from the living death which she has endured so long."

Although her funeral was not held in the church, as some expected, but in the Gould mansion at 579 Fifth Avenue, it was officiated by Rev. Paxton, and a quartet from the church's choir sang.

An impressive funeral that did take place in the church was that of Civil War General Henry A. Barnum on February 1, 1892.  A military procession accompanied the casket from the Barnum home to the church.  "The coffin was placed on a caisson drawn by four horses," reported The New York Times.  "It was covered with the Stars and Stripes and on it were the hat and sword belonging to the dead officer."

The church was filled with millionaire mourners, like John D. Crimmins, Daniel Appleton, H. W. Dodge, Elliott F. Shepard and Lispenard Stewart, as well scores of high ranking officers and veterans.  Among the honorary pallbearers were Generals Fitz John Porter, Daniel E. Sickles, M. T. McMahon, Daniel Butterfield, and W. D. Whipple.

At the time of the funeral, storm clouds were about to form within the West Presbyterian Church.   The devastating Financial Panic of 1893 caused Rev. Paxton, never afraid to speak his mind from the pulpit, to become more outspoken about massive personal wealth.  It was a dangerous stance for the pastor of a millionaire congregation.

The Call, December 4, 1893

On December 2, 1893 The New York Times wrote, "Unless the white-winged dove of peace performs some extraordinary serial maneuver, there is a lively time ahead for the Paxtonites and the anti-Paxtonites in the West Presbyterian Church."  The faction the newspaper called the anti-Paxtonites was headed by Russell Sage and E. C. Van Glahn.  The article explained:

They say that although Mr. Sage has been sitting quietly in a front pew in the West Presbyterian church for many years with a look of rapt and benevolent interest on his countenance, drinking in with seeming unctuous approval the vigorous sermons of Dr. Paxton against miserly rich men, he has, in realty, been storing up a choice lot of opinions about vigorous sermons in general and about Dr. Paxton's in particular.

Rev. John R. Paxton resigned and promptly disappeared.  Then, on December 4 The Call reported, "Rev. John R. Paxton, pastor of the wealthy and aristocratic West church congregation of New York, who was reported missing for several days, was found by a representative of the Pittsburgh Dispatch last night at the residence of his wife's sister."  Paxton's interview with the reporter revealed his acrimony.  He said in part, "there never was and never will be any shame connected with 'Johnnie' Paxton's name...And now this young little kid of a clerk--this Van Glahn--he stands up in the West Presbyterian church and couples my name with 'shame.'"

The newspaper then quoted him as making an outrageous and shocking pronouncement.  "If I ever do go back to New York, it will be to kill one or two people.  Young Van Glahn--as for him, I'll cut his ears off."  And as for Russell Sage, who had said his sermons were not as good as they had been, Paxton said, "Now, what does he know about it?  With his deafness he couldn't have hard them.  I doubt if he could hear Gabriel's trumpet.  I know he will not want to hear it."

Reaction, as would be expected, was momentous.  The following day The New York Times reported, "The sensational statements accredited to Dr. John R. Paxton of New-York by a Pittsburg Sunday paper, and copied by this morning's papers, are absolutely without foundation."  A nephew of Paxton (who said the minister was too ill to leave his room) explained, "The main points of the interview are substantially correct, but the language is distorted and exaggerated.  My uncle never said that if he went back to New-York it would only be to kill somebody."  He also refuted the "epithets" against Van Glahn and Sage.

The ugly severance of the pastor and congregation most likely contributed to the difficulty in finding a replacement.  On March 18, 1894 The New York Times reported that a committee that included Russell Sage had twice offered the position to the Rev. Dr. Maltbie D. Babcock with a salary of $10,000 (about $310,000 today).  The minister told the reporter, "on both occasions when such overtures were made I thought proper, after careful and prayerful consideration of the matter, to decline."

A year later the situation was the same.  On June 3, 1895 a Springfield, Massachusetts newspaper reported, "A letter from Dr. [Philip] Moxom stating that he had declined the call to the West Presbyterian Church in New-York City was read in the South Church pulpit this morning."

Finally, in October 1895 the church found a new pastor in Rev. Anthony Harrison Evans.  The New York Times declared that after being "practically without a pastor of its own for nearly two years," West Presbyterian Church "has entered upon a new chapter of its existence."

The New York Times, October 3, 1895 (copyright expired)

But the relationship between the 33-year-old Evans, whom The New York Times described as "quiet, unassuming, and a trifle nervous," and his new congregation would be a rocky one.  Four years later, on March 14, 1899, The New York Times reported he "made no attempt at theatrical delivery.  He did not 'set off fireworks,' in the pulpit.  His sermons, though earnest and enthusiastic, well-delivered and thoroughly pleasing to many of this congregation, were apparently not showy enough to suit many of those who held expensive pews."  Among the dissatisfied was, once again, Russell Sage (who held the $45,000 mortgage on the building).

Evans tendered his resignation in March, 1899, but then was convinced to stay.  The decision did not sit well with Russell Sage and he and the entire Board of Trustees, with the exception of two, resigned within two months.  If Sage expected the congregation to beg him to return, it was not going to happen.

By the beginning of October that year, the church's debts had been paid and things were going well.  On October 9 an article in The New York Times quoted a new trustee who said, "I do not know whether Russell Sage has left us for good; he hasn't attended the services so far this Fall.  Under the new management everything is progressing satisfactorily, and the greatest harmony and good feeling prevail."

Commerce had begun creeping onto the block when this photograph was taken at the last of the 19th century.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

The first decade of the 20th century saw great change in the 42nd Street neighborhood.  West Presbyterian Church merged with the Park Presbyterian church early in 1911.  On April 1, the Record & Guide reported that West Presbyterian Church had sold its property to Frederick G. Bourne, a director in the Aeolian Co. for $1.1 million--more than 30 times that much in today's money.  "A 16-story building is to take its place, at a cost of $1,500,000," said the article.  The Evening World recalled that over the years the church's members had included millionaires "Russell Sage, Jay Gould, J. Hood Wright, Alfred H. Smith, E. Francis Hyde, Seth Thomas, H. M. Flagler, Robert Jaffray, and a score of other wealthy men."

photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The new Aeolian Building, designed by Warren & Wetmore was completed in 1920.  It survives as The State University of New York's College of Optometry. has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

No comments:

Post a Comment