Thursday, September 28, 2023

The 1957 House of Advent Hope - 111 East 87th Street


photograph by the author

Until 1955, two identical brownstone-fronted apartment buildings stood at 109 and 111 East 87th Street.  In 1933 musicians Charles Louis Seeger, Jr. and his wife, Constance de Clyver Seeger moved into an apartment in 111 East 87th Street with their 14-year-old son, Peter.  Pete Seeger would go on to be one of America’s best known folk singers and social activists.
The Seegers had moved into the then-predominantly German neighborhood of Yorkville.  It had seen an influx of German and Irish immigrants in the 1850s, many of them hired to build the Croton Aqueduct.  Following the horrendous General Slocum disaster in 1904 that killed more than 1,000 German-speaking residents of the Lower East Side, residents migrated north.  Yorkville became Manhattan’s center of the German immigrant community.
A German language Seventh-Day Adventist congregation was established in Yorkville in the second half of the 19th century.  Its building burned in 1949 and a fund-raising drive was begun to purchase a new property and erect a church.  Alfred B. Heiser, a Seventh Day Adventist who may also have been a congregant, was chosen to design the structure.  A 1910 graduate of New York University, Heiser was educated as an engineer, not an architect.  At the time of the commission he was the chief draftsman of the American Can Company.
For the site of their new Church of the Advent Hope, the trustees chose the old flat buildings at 109 and 111 East 87th Street.  The property plus construction costs were projected at $320,000—nearly $4 million in 2023.  Less than one-third was guaranteed by the Seventh-Day Adventist Conference.  Fund-raising for the remainder took time and it was not until 1955 that Heiser filed plans. 
The dedication took place in May 1957 with German Consul General Franz Josef Hoffman addressing the congregation.  Heiser had produced a charming, country church in an urban setting.  Faced in randomly laid, rough-cut granite blocks, it was a rustic version of Tuscan Gothic.  Flat-faced limestone piers separated the façade into three vertical sections.  The two Gothic-arched entrance doors sat within a larger, slightly recessed arch that announced, “Haus der Advent Hoffmung / Siebenten Tags Adventisten Kirche.  (House of Advent Hope / Seventh Day Adventist Church)
photograph by Eigenes Werk

A virulent anti-German sentiment pervaded the country following World War I.  In its February 17, 1947 issue, Life magazine published an article entitled "Peoples of New York."  Its description of the German community of Yorkville reflected the still-fresh anti-German sentiment, saying in part, “Dressed in their regional costumes and speaking German, they engage in violent Bavarian folk dances and drink huge quantities of beer…Germans in the city's Yorkville district are fond of uniforms and costumes, and a pro-Nazi Bund flourished before the war.”  The pervasive mindset no doubt had much to do with the dilution of the district’s German language, customs, and identity. 
By the last quarter of the 20th century, the ethnic personality of Yorkville had changed as younger generations of Germans moved away.  The House of Advent Hope eventually discontinued its German language services.
Like the side walls, the wall behind the altar was originally unplastered.  photograph by Eigenes Werk

Music was an important part of the church’s function within the Yorkville community.  On December 5, 1986, for instance, The New York Times reported, “The New England Youth Ensemble and the Atlantic Union College Choir will present the American composer Randall Thompson’s rarely heard ‘Nativity According to St. Luke’—the Christmas story in music, pageant and biblical costume—at the Church of the Advent Hope.”  In October 1990 a concert by the New England Youth Ensemble/Collegiate Choir presented “works by Haydn, Handel, Bach, and English composers,” according to New York Magazine.
Another rarely performed work presented here in the summer of 1994 was C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters.  On July 10, The New York Times explained, “Screwtape, a senior devil, instructs his nephew Wormwood, a junior demon, in the art of winning over a young man’s soul—not by luring him into a sudden fall into mortal sin but by means of the routine temptations of daily life.”  The readings of C. S. Lewis were accompanied by the music of Benjamin Britten, John Ireland and Frank Bridge.  Music director David I Spelman said the work had been chosen “because we wanted to stick with programming that had a spiritual quality but also goes against the mainstream.”
Sitting between modern apartment buildings, Alfred B. Heiser’s quaint country church is a calming presence.  Its German inscription above the entrance is a reminder of an era when Yorkville was the epicenter of Manhattan’s German culture. has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

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