Monday, March 11, 2024

The Lost Scotch Presbyterian Church - 53 West 14th Street


G. Stacy produced this cabinet-card of the Scotch Presbyterian Church in 1863.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

A schism developed within the First Presbyterian Church (better known as the Wall-Street Church) in 1756.  Unable to resolve the heated issue, a faction broke away, forming the First Associate Reformed Church.  (The name eventually became the Scotch Presbyterian Church).  One historian would later describe the turmoil as a disagreement over which version of the Psalms to use, while King's Handbook of New York in 1892 would recall, "The chief cause of the formation of the new society was difference of opinion regarding the use of musical instruments in the church."

The congregation erected its first church on Cedar Street, and in 1836 began construction of a handsome Greek Revival structure on the corner of  Grand and Crosby Streets.  The wealth of the congregation was reflected in the cost of that building, completed in 1837.  According to the New-York Daily Tribune, it cost "$120,000, of which the edifice cost $80,000."  That total outlay would equal just under $3.8 million in 2024.

The Cedar Street church.  rendering by Alexander Jackson Davis, May 15, 1830, original source unknown.

The Grand Street church, etching by F.B Nichols, B. Forrest, and William Wellstood, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

As fashionable society moved northward, so did the Scotch Presbyterian Church.  On May 10, 1852, the New-York Daily Tribune reported that the trustees had applied to the State Supreme Court "for leave to sell the church and grounds at the north-east corner of Grand and Crosby sts."  The article explained, "The object is to remove the church further up town, not above 14th-st."  Most of the "principal members" of the congregation, said the article, had already moved to the upscale neighborhood just west of Union Square.

West 14th Street was lined with the brick and brownstone mansions of millionaires like Frederick Havemeyer, his cousin William Havemeyer, and Andrew Norwood.  The church acquired property on the north side of 14th Street just east of Sixth Avenue and extending through to West 15th Street.  In 1853, "a still more costly structure" was erected, according to J. Alexander Patten in his 1874 Lives of the Clergy of New York and Brooklyn.  A schoolhouse was built on the 15th Street portion of the plot.  

King's Handbook of New York described the new church as "a large stone building, in the Italian Gothic style."  The architect borrowed elements of Sicilian Gothic, notably in the close-fitting portico, the rounded openings, and the wheel-like rose window.  Long corbel tables ran below the eaves, while the unusual tower rose to a crenellated peak.

The school behind the church operated as both a private day school and a Sunday school.  It was self-sustaining, operating on a fund of $50,000 "obtained from certain real estate bequeathed for the purpose by Alexander Robertson," according to Patten.

The Scotch Presbyterian Church was routinely the venue for meetings of the New York Presbytery, including clerical trials.  On November 11, 1890, for instance, The Sun reported that the Presbytery had met the previous day "to investigate the charges brought by the Rev. E. P. Payson of the Prospect Hill church against the Rev. R. H. McCready of Montgomery, Orange county."  Payson accused McCready of accepting a gift from his congregation of $400, "to which he is not entitled."

A much more sensational trial began here two years later.  On November 11, 1892, The Evening World wrote, "The trial of the famous Briggs heresy case before the Presbytery of New York begins this afternoon in the Scotch Presbyterian Church in West Fourteenth street."  The prosecuting committee had been working on its case against the Rev. Dr. Charles Augustus Briggs for more than a year and a half.  The Evening World explained, "The charge against Dr. Briggs accuses him of teaching doctrines to the students of the Union Theological Seminary which are in conflict with the Bible; and contrary to the Presbyterian standards."

Rev. Charles Augustus Briggs, from the collection of Columbia University's Burke Library

Among his purported heresies were the suggestion that there may have been errors in the Holy Scripture, that Moses was not the author of the Pentateuch, and that the Book of Isaiah was not written by Isaiah.  

Nearly a month later, on December 5, Briggs was called to testify on his own behalf.  The indignant clergyman presented a raft of evidence, The Sun reporting,

He submitted the whole of the Scriptures, the Old Testament in Hebrew and the Septuagint version, the Greek New Testament, the King James version of the Bible, and the revised version.  He also submitted the Standards of the Church, which had already been offered by his opponents.  He read several extracts from the Confession, and followed them up by submitting a great mass of documentary evidence.

Each time Briggs made what appeared to be a salient point, the onlookers in the galleries exploded in applause.  The Sun said it, "showed very plainly where the sympathy of the galleries was."  Enraged prosecutors finally threatened to clear the galleries "if the offense was repeated."

In the end, Briggs was excommunicated and defrocked in 1893.   He converted to Episcopalianism and thrived within that church.

At the time of the highly publicized trial, the Scotch Presbyterian Church was preparing to move again.  West 14th Street, once a residential enclave of wealth and fashion, was now one of stores, boarding houses and apartments.  In 1892, Dr. Charles Henry Parkhurst said the trustees "exhibited cowardice" in planning to move uptown.  The Examiner, a Baptist newspaper, came to their defense.  "A Protestant church cannot sustain itself below Fourteenth Street," it stressed, adding, "It must move or die."

When this photograph was taken by Robert L. Bracklow on September 16, 1887, commerce was already engulfing the block around the church.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The trustees had acquired the southwest corner of Central Park West and 96th Street.  They commissioned the architectural firm of William H. Hume & Son to design what The New York Times would call "an imposing Romanesque pile" on the site.  

On October 2, 1893, The New York Times reported, "For the last time the congregation of the Scotch Presbyterian Church assembled yesterday morning in the old edifice in Fourteenth Street, near Sixth Avenue."  The following month, on November 28, The World reported, "The old Scotch Presbyterian Church...will hereafter be known as 'Metropolitan Hall,' the Rev. C. H. Yatman having held the first of a series of daily revival services there last night."

The article recalled, "Only last year Dr. Charles Briggs was tried there for heresy, but from now on the building will be the scene of a religious movement that knows no creed.  At 8 o'clock last night there were a thousand people in the hall."  The current revivalist movement was a renewal of what was known as the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century.  The World said, 

The interior of the church has been entirely remodelled and now looks more like a pleasure resort than a place of worship.  The pews have been taken out and replaced by chairs and upon the stage-like platform stands a piano.  The spirit of the Presbyterian Assembly has departed.

The building's life as Metropolitan Hall was relatively short-lived.  On May 11, 1895, the Record & Guide reported that Nathan Straus had purchased the church.  "We are informed that this property will be improved by the erection of a large mercantile building and will probably be occupied by R. H. Macy & Co," said the article.

Straus replaced the church with a commercial building, but not for R. H. Macy & Co.  (In 1897 a Macy structure was erected directly across the street at 56 West 14th Street).  Straus leased the new building that engulfed the entire former church property through to West 15th Street to Samuel D. Babcock & George P. Slade.  That building was demolished for an apartment building, completed in 1962.

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1 comment:

  1. Doug Floor Plan
    It took the Catholic church 350 years to apologize to Galileo for charging him with heresy when Galileo was right about the Earth moving around the Sun. I'm betting Rev. Dr. Charles Augustus Briggs is still waiting for his apology from the Presbyterian prosecuting committee. Whenever you have a translation, there are going to be errors.