Monday, March 20, 2017

The Lost Fourth Avenue Presbyterian Church - Park Ave and 22nd Street



The exuberant Victorian pile to the right is the 23rd Street Young Men's Christian Association Buildingphoto from the Robert L. Bracklow Photograph Collection of the New-York Historical Society
On April 20, 1825 "twelve sterling Christians" met in the Bleecker Street house of Peter Hattrick in Greenwich Village.  That evening they organized the Bleecker Street Presbyterian Church.  Two months later Rev. Matthias Bruen was installed as the congregation's first pastor.  The New York Times remarked "Though young in years, he was a man of polished manners, fervid piety, and great culture."

Services were held in a private house until a church could be built.  Reportedly designed by John McComb, Jr., a master of Federal-style architecture, it was completed in 1826 at No. 65 Bleecker Street.

The Bleecker Street Presbyterian Church prospered.  In 1852 the congregation managed to lure the well-known preacher, Rev. Dr. Joel Parker, from the Dey Street Church.  Two decades later The New York Times remarked "A year after his installation the old church was sold and the erection of a new edifice on Fourth avenue and Twenty-second street begun.

While it certainly would appear that Parker was behind the decision to move, his successor, Rev. Howard Crosby, was democratic in his explanation in 1863, saying that the congregation considered its Bleecker Street location "too far down-town."

The congregation purchased the expansive plot on the northwest corner of Fourth Avenue (today's Park Avenue South) and 22nd Street in April 1853 for $45,000.  The pricey amount, more than $1.4 million today, reflected both the wealth of the church and the upscale Murray Hill neighborhood.

In November that year the chapel was completed and services were held there as construction on the main building continued.  Immediately it became the scene of a heated discussion concerning a bitter national issue: slavery.

On November 19 the ministers of the Fourth Presbytery of New-York met to address a letter from the Winchester Presbytery of Virginia.  The Southern clergymen were enraged that New York ministers had spoken out against slavery from their pulpits, and reminded them that the Presbyterian Church in America "had its origin at the South."  Their letter said that the "ceaseless agitation of the Slavery question by their brethren of the North" had "produced and fostered a feeling of alienation between the brethren of the North and South, and has greatly embarrassed the operations of the Southern Home Missionary."

In short, the letter demanded that "this crusade against her...will cease."

Rather surprisingly, Reverend Parker agreed.  He said the complaints were "well-grounded" and added that he "regarded slavery as he did war--an abstract evil, but that all those connected with it were not necessarily guilty of a sin."

We tend to imagine citizens in the North, especially religious leaders, railing out against slavery.  That was certainly not the unanimous case during that November meeting.  Opposing ministers butted heads in strongly-worded arguments.  Rev. O. A. Skinner, Jr. was among those who "refused to acquiesce," according to The New York Times.  "He wanted those who had any opinions on the subject, to express them.  Let the South know how the matter stands precisely, and abide the consequence."

The "consequence" was the Southern Presbyterian's threat to split off "however painful or injurious to her may be the separation."

For hours the ministers proposed and rewrote resolutions.  Finally it was agreed not to issue a resolution, but to write a letter in response.  The meeting broke up, however, without a consensus on what that letter would say.

The church as it appeared on November 3, 1891  photograph by Robert L. Bracklow from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The new church was completed in the spring of 1855.  By now the name had been formally changed to the Fourth-avenue Presbyterian Church.  Rev. Parker published an announcement in religious, Victorian prose informing the public of the coming dedication.  "The Fourth-avenue Presbyterian Church (formerly Bleecker-street Prebysterian Church) erected at the northwest corner of 22d-st., will, by divine permission, be dedicated to the service of the triune God, with appropriate religious services, on Sunday, April 8."   About two weeks later, on the evening of April 25, a public auction for pews for the coming year was held.

Designed in toned-down version of the Somerset Gothic style, the structure's two towers bore striking similarities to that of St. Mary the Virgin's Church in Bath, England.  Like protective sentinels, they flanked the main section.  Tall finials rose from the towers' corners.  The cost of the building was reported at "over $100,000" (more than $2.8 million today). 

Finishing touches on the building would continue for several years.  When William Dressler accepted the position of organist in March 1857, a newspaper account explained "A new organ has been put up in the church."

When Civil War finally erupted in 1861, Rev. Parker addressed war and slavery in his sermon of November 28.  "There was a necessity for the present conflict," he said.  "There is an important sense in which it could not have been avoided.  It was inevitable.  It would have come sooner or later.  Besides it is, no doubt, a needful discipline, on the part of God's good providence, to make us what we ought to be."

Parker went on to discuss rationally and impassively the economic origins of the war; those of the "Slave-labor an Free-labor systems."  He ended his sermon contemplating the possible end of slavery.  And, while using the surprisingly early term "Africo-Americans," he did not veil his support for slavery, and suggested freemen would take paying jobs from whites.

"If it goes to the extend of blotting out the institution, I am sure we shall not mourn it as a loss; and, if 4,000,000 of Africo-Americans should be wasted by being put into competition with our white toilsmen, even this would be a less evil than the destruction of this Government."

Rev. Parker left Fourth Avenue Presbyterian early in 1863 and that March the congregation announced that Professor Howard Crosby of Rutgers Theological Seminary in New Jersey had accepted the position of pastor.  If New Yorkers wondered if Crosby could fill the large shoes left by Parker, he would soon put their minds to rest.

Almost immediately upon his arrival, he spoke to the city's Presbyterian ministers at a meeting in the church on March 10.   His remarks about the war left no doubt that he, too, was a man of strong--yet opposite--opinions.  The New York Times reported that he said the ministers should be "united on the great question of slavery.  He said that the people were unanimous that the rebel leaders must die as traitors."

But almost before he had a chance to make a lasting impression fire threatened his church.  Around midnight on March 29, 1864 fire broke out in the chapel.  The Times reported "Much difficulty was experienced by the firemen in getting water on the flames, and, before they could be extinguished, damage to the amount of $6,000 was done to the premises."  The article noted that the flames had "burned through the flooring into several of the pews; it also burned the floors and beams considerably."

Later that year President Abraham Lincoln declared Sunday September 11 a day of National Thanksgiving.  Rev. Crosby started out his sermon insisting that "it is not my habit in this sacred place to abandon the solemn subjects...and to plunge into the exciting national and social topics of the day."  He said that he did not intend to "make any exception to this rule to-day" by addressing the war.

Then he promptly addressed the war.

War was a difficult thing, theologically-speaking.  Crosby pointed out that while the Northerners were praying to God for victory and help, the rebels were doing the same thing.  The difference, though, was that the rebels were on the wrong side of God.  "A Christian who cannot see the right and the wrong of this present national contest certainly does not go to the Bible for his direction in the matter."

The Confederacy, he explained, was gravely misguided.  "A Government has no more right to connive at rebellion than it has to connive at murder."   He excused the colonial patriots, by the way, by pointing out that theirs was a "revolution," and not a "rebellion."

Before he ended his sermon he asked the congregation to "thank our Heavenly Father" for "the seizure of the Weldon Railroad, the capture of the Mobile forts, and the fall of Atlanta."

In 1869 the church spent $50,000 to replace the chapel abutting the north side of the church.  Its architecture complemented the main structure, appearing nearly as the church in miniature.  Five years later The Times commented on Fourth Avenue Presbyterian, saying it "is one of the finest and most substantial in the city."

In 1877 Rev. Crosby founded the Society for the Prevention of Crime.  His fight against the saloons was unflinching; however his opinions how to accomplish his goal surprisingly flew into the face of the Temperance Movement.  He opposed the concept of prohibition and said "for years the prohibitionists have obstructed the path of reform."   Decades before he would be proven correct, he insisted that making alcohol illegal would simply increase crime and, ironically, drinking.  Instead he pushed for saloon laws that would "put a rational check on the evils of intemperance."

While other pastors were focusing on gambling, the theater and drink; in 1885 the fiery Rev. Crosby set his sights on another villainy: Sunday newspapers.  In November he sent a letter to the congregants to warn them of "the growing evil."

Not only did the printing and sale of newspapers on Sunday require some to work on the sabbath, it "furnishes secular reading to divert the mind from the holy themes especially appropriate to the Sabbath."  He complained "Our young people, who would not otherwise think of spending the day in such reading, are readily led to consider it a safe and proper thing, when they see the paper brought into the family, and even purchased from the stand by members of the church."

Crosby placed the Sunday newspapers on the top of a sinful heap.  "There is no influence more insidiously seductive than this for the demoralization of our Christian households."  He ended his lengthy letter saying 'Let us, then, with those desires pray and labor faithfully to overcome this device of Satan against the gospel of salvation."

In March 1891 Crosby traveled upstate to Troy, New York, where his daughter, Agnes Givan Allen, was dying.  While there he caught a cold, which worsened to pneumonia, preventing him from attending her funeral.

Tragically, he never recovered and died just over a week later, on March 29.  Two days later a private family service was held in his house at No. 116 East 19th Street, followed by the funeral at Fourth Avenue Presbyterian.  The Times reported "For an hour before the time at which the public ceremonies were to begin the Fourth Avenue Presbyterian Church was besieged by an assemblage of such dimensions that it was at once apparently that only a small portion would be able to obtain places within.  At 1:45 the doors were opened and the crowd surged forward to get the best position possible to witness the obsequies."

Visibly absent was the minister's wife.  "Mrs. Crosby was greatly affected, and did not go to the church to attend the public services."

Replacing Rev. Howard Crosby proved to be a difficult and contentious procedure.  Heated arguments and bitter debates continued for nearly two years.  Finally, in December 1892 an offer was made to the Rev. John R. Davies of Pennsylvania.  As Crosby had, he would be replacing a charismatic and powerful figure.  The Times noted "Mr. Davies is a young and eloquent preacher whose voice has never been raised in any pulpit in this city.  He is, therefore, personally unknown in the community, but he has acquired a reputation for learning and ability."

His first test came on February 6, 1893, the morning of his first sermon.  The church was packed not only with congregants, but with the press; all eager to assess the young preacher.  The New York Times felt that he passed the test.  "The new pastor is a brown-haired, brown-eyed man, apparently not much over thirty-five years old...In spite of evident nervousness, he spoke readily and easily, his thoughts being couched in a polished and scholarly form, which gave his parishioners much pleasure and satisfaction."

The writer added "The general impression seemed to be that, though the strong personality of the late Dr. Crosby would tend to overshadow almost any man, it would be found that his mantle had not fallen on unworthy shoulders."

But by the time Davies took the pulpit, stark changes were taking place on Fourth Avenue.  The street of handsome mansions was already seeing the incursion of commerce.   On May 431, 1896 The Times reported on the rampant gobbling up of real estate by developers, and mentioned "Interest has been shown in reports affecting the block on the west side of Fourth Avenue, from Twenty-second to Twenty-third Street."  An attempt, said the article, had already been made to purchase the Fourth Presbyterian Church property.

The rise of commercial structures in the heretofore exclusive residential neighborhood pushed church members from the neighborhood.  So it was not the church's trustees who derailed the sale; it was their valuation.  "The price named is reported to have been considered excessive by the intending purchasers."

By 1898 the dwindling membership had put the church in financial trouble.  It closed two of its three mission chapels, sold those properties, and yet was still running $4,000 a year in the red.  Rev. Davies proposed selling the church building for $500,000 and building a $200,000 structure on the Lower East Side.  When he received an offer to transfer to a Philadelphia church, he gave his trustees an ultimatum:  he would remain in New York only if they agreed to sell and move downtown.

Davies was not bluffing.  On June 20 he accepted the post at the Bethlehem Presbyterian Church and preached his first sermon there in July.

Finding a replacement, again, took time.  A year later on June 28, 1899, the members voted 175 to 5 (the "obdurate" voters were all women) to hire the Rev. Dr. Walter D. Buchanan.  Despite the church's shaky financial conditions, he was offered a $5,000 salary--about $147,000 a year today--and a home in the Fifth Avenue mansion district at No. 54 East 50th Street.

The church's problems could not be ignored for much longer and on March 15, 1907 the New-York Tribune reported that the property was for sale.  "The trustees value the property at $750,000," said the article."

One church spokesman interviewed by the Tribune regarding the proposed sale was George E. Sterry.  He was president of the Weaver & Sterry Company, Ltd, called "one of the oldest wholesale drug firms in the country."  The millionaire had long been a trustee and financial supporter of the church.

The widower, who was in his 70s, became involved romantically with a significantly-younger school teacher, Rachel Blaikie.  Around December 1907 he proposed marriage and she accepted.  Sperry's four adult sons were highly upset; none more so than George E. Sterry, Jr., secretary of his father's firm.

The brothers urged their father to end the engagement; but he refused.  On May 19, 1908, the formal announcement of the wedding was sitting on Sperry's desk, ready to be delivered to the newspapers when, at around 10:00, George, Jr. entered.  An employee heard him say "How are things now, father?"

Then there were two gunshots.  The son had fired a bullet into his father's temple, then another into his own.  Both men died instantly.

Sperry left a long suicide note which began "I took a solemn oath (to myself) that my father should never disgrace the memory of my sainted mother."  In it he insisted that had his father "engaged himself to a lady of mature age," neither he nor his brothers would have objected.

In the half century that the Fourth Avenue Presbyterian Church had stood it had been the scene of scores of funerals.  None would be like the Sperry services on May 22, 1908.  The double funeral for the murdered and the murderer drew the attention of all of New York City.

By the time of the Sperry funeral, modern office buildings were closing in around the church.  photo by Jessie Tarbox Beals from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Among the last funerals to be held in the church was that of Rev. Buchanan's wife, Grace, on September 11, 1908.  The following year it was sold to the dry goods importing firm of Mills & Gibb for $660,000.  In reporting the sale The New York Times remarked "The passing away of this famous church...marks the retreat before advancing business of practically the last well-known landmark in that vicinity of Fourth Avenue."


On January 24, 1910, the day after the final service in the church, the New-York Tribune commented "It was the last word of devotion that the high arched walls would echo, the last sound to reach the vaulted ceiling, until the wreckers begin their work of dismantling the edifice to make room for a modern eighteen story office building."

Some of the members unscrewed the hinges from their pew doors and took them home.  The Tribune said "and some obtained the entire pews as mementos."

On February 22, with the stained glass windows removed and the "interior fittings" taken away, demolition began.   The 14-story Mills & Gibbs Building, designed by Starrett & Van Vleck, survives in its place.
photograph from the collection of the Library of Congress

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