Building of the Day: 118 Henry Street

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)

Photo: Nycago.org

Photo: Flickriver.com

Photo: Ex-atari kid, on Flickr

Photo: nycago.org

Photo: First Presbyterian Church website, fpcbrooklyn.org

9 Comment

  • Beautiful building. I once knew someone who belonged to this church, which is when I learned that these old churches, depite their wealthy congreations in the past, now often have so few members that many don’t have enough money to keep up the buildings. All those doctrinal splits, and failure to keep up with cultural changes, recently ongoing with presbyterians with repect to gay men and lesbians, probably don’t help them out much with membership. I would like to see a preservation of these old building by state funded preservation societies, once the congregations can’t keep them up anymore, rather than see them torn down or converted to condos, as they have a rich architectural history.

  • One of many beautiful churches in the Heights. This one is often overlooked, and as you write, it was built by the area’s oldest congregation. The doorway is particularly interesting with very fine wood carving.

  • Nice write-up.

    About the congregation’s original building on Cranbery Street (where Plymouth is located today, though in a newer building): you mean the land was bought *from* John & Jacob Hicks. Also, the “settled part” of the Heights in that time extended from the ferry landing right up to Cranberry (and on Hicks Street, further south), so while it was an undeveloped set of lots, saying “in the middle of a field, far from the settled part of the Heights” is a bit of an exaggeration.

  • jeremyl, you are indeed correct on the Hicks brothers. Changing my text. My placement in the middle of a field came from a write up from nycago.org, which got their text from the church’s website and a Brooklyn Eagle article. Here’s what they said:

    “In the quaint village of Brooklyn, which wouldn’t be incorporated as a city until 1834, First Presbyterian’s bell tower doubled as a fire alarm and its clock tower as the village timepiece. At that time the population of Brooklyn was less than ten thousand, and the enterprise was regarded by cautious men as hazardous; the church being built in what was then cultivated fields, and far out from the settled portion of the village, though now in the densest part of Brooklyn Heights.”

    http://www.nycago.org/Organs/Bkln/html/FirstPresbyterian.html

  • jeremyl, you are indeed correct on the Hicks brothers. Changing my text. My placement in the middle of a field came from a write up from nycago.org, which got their text from the church’s website and a Brooklyn Eagle article. Here’s what they said:

    “In the quaint village of Brooklyn, which wouldn’t be incorporated as a city until 1834, First Presbyterian’s bell tower doubled as a fire alarm and its clock tower as the village timepiece. At that time the population of Brooklyn was less than ten thousand, and the enterprise was regarded by cautious men as hazardous; the church being built in what was then cultivated fields, and far out from the settled portion of the village, though now in the densest part of Brooklyn Heights.”

    http://www.nycago.org/Organs/Bkln/html/FirstPresbyterian.html

  • I think the reference to the church being in a field far from the center of settlement is correct. In 1821 most of Brooklyn town was huddled around Old Fulton Street, near the ferry dock to Manhattan.
    Ten years later, more and more houses started to be built up in the heights.

  • This is a gorgeous building. Come check it out – always open Sunday mornings for a while before 11 am service. And even if you come just for the building you might want to stay for the people and service. The congregation is vibrant, extremely diverse and welcoming to all people including of any sexual orientation and faith background (or lack of traditional faith but open to reflection and uplift) – just to address one comment. Services last a bit over an hour and feature terrific music, often gospel. Yes I am a member, and a big booster. We would love to see you whether as nothing more than a building lover, or as a person interested in finding a great way to explore and develop faith/spirituality in a wonderful community.

  • Oh yes I agree with Minard that the center of the village (the “settled part”) even in 1820 was by the ferry landing and where dumbo is now. Which is actually what the eagle write-up says. But the original post said “settled part of the heights.” To the extent there was any settled part of the heights in 1820, it was the north end by Cranberry. There were dozens and dozens of houses on Hicks, Middagh, Cranberry and Poplar Streets by the time the 1820 census was taken. But true, few south of Cranberry except for several on Hicks.

    Most of the plaques on houses in the north heights that say “1822″ or “1823″ are actually off by 5-10 years.

  • I shamefully admit that I have lived two streets over from this church for 40 years, but have never been inside, an error which I will now correct. Not aware that the entryway is from 1920, nor the windows are by Tiffany.

    How ironic that the entryway is by the same architect as Memorial Sloan Kettering, in which my life was saved in 2007. It is, sometimes, a very small universe.