Brooklyn, one building at a time.
Name: First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn
Address: 118 Henry Street
Cross Streets: Clark Street and Love Lane
Neighborhood: Brooklyn Heights
Year Built: 1846. Memorial Doorway, 1921
Architectural Style: Gothic Revival
Architect: William B. Olmsted. Doorway, James Gamble Rogers
Other buildings by architect: Olmsted: Reddick Mansion in Illinois; Pratt Mansion, Long Island; other homes for wealthy patrons. Rogers: many of the main buildings on Yale University and Northwestern University campuses. Also Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital.
Landmarked: Yes, part of Brooklyn Heights HD (1965)
The story: First Presbyterian Church in the Heights is one of that neighborhood’s oldest congregations. They were founded in March of 1822, when Brooklyn was still a small town, growing back away from the harbor. Two months later, they laid the cornerstone of a new church on land bought
by from John and Jacob Hicks. This first church stood where Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims now stands, on Cranberry Street. It was a large brick building with a tall bell tower that doubled as a fire tower and clock tower to this growing town of ten thousand souls. At the time, the church was in the middle of a field, far from the settled part of the Heights. This was the first church building in Brooklyn Heights.
By 1837, there were over 100 families in the church, and that year, the congregation split over doctrinal differences. With expansion in mind, in 1846, the group that became First Presbyterian sold the old church building on Cranberry to the Congregationalists, who themselves had split off from their own parent church to found Plymouth Church. That year they laid the cornerstone for this present church, here on Henry Street.
Architect William B. Olmsted was hired to design the church, and he came up with a solid mass of a church built of brownstone blocks. Olmsted was related to the younger Frederick Law Olmsted, perhaps a cousin. He would later have a good career designing homes for wealthy industrialists, including the Pratt family, for whom he designed a large vacation home on Long Island. His Reddick Mansion in Ottawa, Ill., is a landmark, and is on the National Register.
This church is early Olmsted. It’s a solid fortress of a church, and sits on a large lot, even today. Its third pastor, Dr. Samuel H. Cox, was an ardent abolitionist, and was united in that cause with his more flamboyant neighbor, Henry Ward Beecher. A later pastor, Dr. Charles Cuthbert Hall was the church’s leader during the late Victorian years, when the first of the church’s fine Tiffany Studio windows were commissioned and installed, as well as the beautiful dark walnut interior woodwork.
In 1882, a fine new and ornate organ was also installed, at the cost of $10,000, a tidy sum at the time. The church enjoyed the services of one of Brooklyn’s finest organists, R.H. Woodman, who took to the organ bench at First Presbyterian at the age of 19 and stayed until he retired at the age of 80.
By the turn of the 20th century, First Presbyterian was in good financial shape, due to the wealth and generosity of its Brooklyn Heights congregation. More Tiffany windows were gifted, including “The River of Life,” a landscape window in the finest Tiffany tradition. A new memorial building was donated, as well as the new teak doors and portal of the church, which was commissioned in 1920.
That commission was taken up by architect James Gamble Rogers, and finished in 1921. Rogers was a meticulous architect, known for his attention to Gothic form and detail. He is best remembered as the architect of Yale University’s great expansion in the 1920s and ’30s, which resulted in the Collegiate Gothic-styled residential colleges, as well as Sterling Library, Harkness Tower and the Law School. He also designed Low Library at Columbia, the Yale Club in Manhattan and Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital, among many other impressive buildings. GMAP
(Photo: Lumierefl on Flickr)