Thursday, February 15, 2024

The 1940 Brick Presbyterian Church - Park Avenue and 91st Street


photo by Jaucourt

Despite religious bigotry that was forcing Presbyterians to worship in secret in the early 18th century, in 1716 a church was established.  Half a century later, in 1767, the esteemed architect John McComb Sr. designed what would be known as the Brick Church at Beekman and Nassau Streets.  The red brick Georgian structure was trimmed in white stone.  A central bell tower soared above the entrance.

The Brick Church Memorial pamphlet, published on May 25, 1856, depicted the original structure. (copyright expired)

On September 15, 1856, the trustees purchased the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 37th Street and hired architects Leopold Eidlitz and Griffith Thomas to design their newest home, referred to by many as the new Brick Church.  The two honored the previous structure by creating a Georgian Revival church which, like its McComb-designed predecessor, was faced in red brick, trimmed in limestone, and featured a prominent bell tower.

from the collection of the New York Public Library.

The Fifth Avenue structure, which had sat among the mansions of Manhattan's wealthiest citizens and was the venue of the funerals of Samuel Clemens and Governor Edwin D. Morgan, was surrounded by commercial structures in the early 20th century.  The trustees repeatedly rebuffed offers to buy the property, but the inevitable could not be staved off forever.  On April 19, 1937, the members voted to sell the property.

A new site at northwest corner of Park Avenue and East 91st Street was acquired.  On November 26, 1938, The New York Times reported on the cornerstone laying, officiated by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia.  "The Mayor followed four prominent churchmen in wielding a silver trowel to spread mortar beneath a five-ton white sandstone block which formed the cornerstone," said the article.  "More than 100 parishioners and the church choir braved the cold to witness and participate in the outdoor ceremony."

The latest version of the Brick Church was designed by Lewis Ayres of the architectural firm of York & Sawyer.  He, too, honored the architectural tradition by designing it in the neo-Georgian style.  Once again, red brick would be trimmed in limestone and a two-stage, polygonal bell tower would rise above the entrance.  

As the dedication ceremonies neared almost two years later, on March 11, 1940 The New York Times commented, "The new Brick Presbyterian Church will seat 764 persons in nave and balcony.  A chapel will be finished later."  The article added, "Below the church is a large recreational hall for assemblies and games, with an asphalt floor for basketball, volley-ball and badminton."  The historic organ from the Fifth Avenue church was relocated to the new building and given a new cabinet.

The dedication of the church on April 14, 1940 included an address by Mayor La Guardia.  Included in the procession were "representatives of York and Sawyer, architects."  The event prompted The New York Times to point out that the church's "history is longer than that of the nation."  It noted, "The present church, a handsome edifice appropriately in the Georgian style, brings the long story down to date.  No doubt future passers-by will point it out, too, as one of the city's historic structures."

The generations of congregants who had witnessed the marriages and funerals of some of Manhattan's elite citizens soon saw another.  On December 7, 1949, Lillias Pomeroy Dulles, the daughter of John Foster Dulles and Janet Pomeroy Avery Dulles, "of New York and Cold Spring Harbor," as reported by The New York Times, was married to Robert Hinshaw here.   The bride's great-grandfather, John W. Foster, and her great-uncle, Robert Lansing, had served as United States Secretaries of State.  Her father had just stepped down as United States Senator from New York, and would become United States Secretary of State under Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953.

Lewis Ayres carried the Georgian motif into the auditorium.  image via

An impressive ceremony was held here on February 16, 1941--the 51st annual service of the Sons of the Revolution in the State of New York.  At a time when war was raging in Europe, guest speaker Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale gave "an evaluation of the liberty-loving tradition of the society and a warning that the causes that led to the Roman Empire's fall are 'sinister in our midst today,'" recounted The New York Times.  The article reported, "The Rev. Dr. Paul Austin Wolfe, minster of the church, led the service from amid a forest of seventy-five Revolutionary battle flags that filled the chancel."  An estimated 1,000 persons crowded into the church that afternoon.

A year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, on January 17, 1943, an ecumenical service was held here during which "worship flags of the United Nations were massed."  From the pulpit, Rev. Wolfe said, "we are fighting for our lives and for our souls."  His sermon reflected a dismal stance on the war.  "I must not say we go to battle like dumb driven cattle, for we are not driven.  We know the war must be won.  But in our warfare there is no fine rapture of conviction.  There is no high vision of achievement."

Wolfe may have been tepid in his enthusiasm for war, but the Brick Presbyterian Church's commitment to do its part was evident.  On May 3, 1943, The New York Times reported, "Two top floors of the Brick Presbyterian Church parish house at 64 East Ninety-second Street have been entirely made over for servicemen.  There are twelve beds, 'and they're real beds too,' as one of the parishioners expressed it."  Female congregants volunteered to be on hand to cook breakfast.  The article added, "A sun-room has been fitted up as a sitting room for the visitors.  Besides reading matter, it has a piano and radio."

A prominent congregant was Louise Whitfield Carnegie, the widow of steelmaker and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.  Upon her death in June 1946, she left $200,000 to the Brick Presbyterian Church--about $3 million by 2024 standards.

The Chapel of the Reformed Faith, which The New York Times had promised in 1940 "will be finished later," was completed in May 1952, designed by Adams & Woodbridge.  Three memorial windows were installed in the chapel in November 1953.  They were given in memory of Mary Montagu Billings French by her children, John French, Elizabeth French Hitchcock, and Mary French Rockefeller.  Interestingly, the windows were designed by the chapel's architects.

John Foster Dulles continued to play an active part in the church, even as he was called to Washington as Secretary of State.  He was a ruling elder and trustee of the church, according to The New York Times.  In 1956, he was diagnosed with colon cancer.  He was thought to be cancer free following an operation in November 1956, but it recurred in 1959.  He resigned on April 15 and died a month later on May 24.  Although his funeral was held in the Washington National Cathedral,  a memorial service was held in the Brick Presbyterian Church on June 14, 1959.  

The church was the scene of a contentious meeting in March 1971.  The Council of Churches of the City of New York annually presented the Family of Man Award, a gold medallion, to "a public figure who has made a special contribution to mankind," according to The New York Times.  The recipients had included Presidents Richard Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy.  

The general assembly of the council assembled at the Brick Presbyterian Church on March 16, 1971, during which it was announced that Bob Hope was that year's honoree.  The New York Times said the revelation resulted in "a tumultuous meeting."  Twenty clergymen demanded that the honor be rescinded "because of the comedian's 'uncritical endorsement of the military establishment and the Indochina war," reported the newspaper on March 18.  They also objected to Hope's "unconscionable mocking of those in society who are deeply committed to social justice" such as "hippies and draft resisters."

After what the Rev. Dr. Dan M. Potter, executive director of the council said was "a long debate," it was decided "that even with all the embarrassment it might cause, the choice should be withdrawn."  Hope was informed that he would not be receiving the award, and it was given posthumously, instead, to the recently deceased Whitney Young.

photograph by EditorE92

The handsome Georgian-style structure continues to serve its Carnegie Hill neighborhood after nearly 85 years, fulfilling The New York Times 1940 prediction, "No doubt future passers-by will point it out, too, as one of the city's historic structures."

many thanks to reader Douglas B. Kearley for suggesting this post
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1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Tom, for publishing this! It is very interesting that the church has always been Georgian or Georgian Revival, even the 2nd church, from the 1850's. Such a thing would have been almost unheard of at the time!