Brooklyn, one building at a time.
Name: Originally Bushwick Avenue Congregational Church, now Bethesda Memorial Baptist Church
Address: 1170 Bushwick Avenue
Cross Streets: Corner of Cornelia Street
Year Built: 1894-1896
Architectural Style: Romanesque Revival
Architect: Fowler & Hough
Other Work by Architect: Parish house, next door to church. 23rd Regiment armory, Crown Heights, free standing mansion, St. Marks Avenue at New York Avenue, Crown Heights, other row houses and buildings in Brooklyn.
The story: This church has seen a lot of drama in its long history, but it started out simply enough. The church was organized in 1887, founded by its first pastor, the Reverend Arthur Chester, and a large group of Congregationalists in Bushwick who were looking for a new church home. One of their members was Adrian M. Suydam, who was raised as a local farmer, and had done well in business. He bought the land on the corner of Bushwick Avenue and Cornelia Street and donated it to the church. The first Bushwick Avenue Congregational Church was a two-story building facing Cornelia Street. The cornerstone was laid early in 1887, and this building, which had a chapel and meeting hall on the second floor and the Sunday school on the ground floor, was dedicated that December. The dedication services were attended by Brooklyn’s Mayor Whitney, a cadre of Brooklyn’s well-known ministers, Mr. Suydam, Reverend Chester, choirs, soloists and parishioners. The church seemed to be off to a great start.
But a year later the drama started. Late in 1888 a group of unhappy church members wanted to get rid of Rev. Chester. They brought him up on charges, saying that he had lied to the church about his credentials and accused him of not being intellectual enough. They also said he was, “eccentric, and not a literary man,” which probably translates to, “we don’t like him, and we want him gone.” The lying part was enough to bring about an ecclesiastical trial.
Those things never go well, and this one was no exception. All kinds of people came out to talk about the man, including those charging that he had claimed to be the salutatorian in his divinity school class when that wasn’t so. Rev. Chester denied all the charges, and then God settled the whole matter by taking the Reverend home. He caught a cold in November of 1889 and died a week later. The cause, according to the Times, was “malignant erysipelas,” probably helped along by a broken heart and spirit.
The new pastor came to a church that was still reeling from the scandal, but still growing in numbers. A fund was begun to build a new church on the site of the old. Adrian Suydam had recently died, and in his will, he left the church $15,000 for the new church. But his will had conditions – matching funds had to be found in order for the money to be given to the church by the executors. This caused a lot of drama as well, but eventually the money was matched and the old church was torn down. The new building was set to begin construction in 1894.
Although one source I found credits the building to the Parfitt Brothers, it seems that the firm of Fowler and Hough was the architect according to the scholars of Columbia University’s Bushwick Avenue project. They had been active in Congregational Church building before, doing a lot of work for the Central Congregational Church, a much larger church on Hancock Street, in Bedford Stuyvesant. The building also looks more like their work, than that of the Parfitt boys. Fowler and Hough were the architects of the 23rd Regiment Armory, on Bedford and Atlantic Avenue, built in this same time period, the mid-1890s.
The church’s campanile and belfry are slightly reminiscent of the armory tower, and F & H were quite proficient with large Romanesque arches. The clerestory windows high in the building are also a feature in the armory, and are also very reminiscent of the same kinds of windows found in the New York Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church, by J.C. Cady, which is only two blocks away from the armory. Fowler and Hough must have passed it daily. It was finished only a couple of years before, in 1891.
But before the cornerstone to this church could be laid, more drama was yet to unfold. The Building Department halted the cornerstone ceremony with a stop-work order charging that the foundation of the tower part of the building was on city property; that the property line was wrongfully drawn four feet into the sidewalk line. The city charged that the builders, W & T Lamb, knew this, but were going to proceed anyway, as they had done when building the 23rd Regiment armory. Working with Fowler & Howe, they had the contract for both buildings. There was a delay of months and the plans had to be changed and the building moved back before work could proceed.
The new church was dedicated with much pomp and ceremony in 1896. The interior was described as having the capacity to hold 750 people and was furnished in oak, lighted by electricity (the newest thing) and the natural light of the clerestory windows above. The basement of the church was used for the boy’s brigade and had room for marching drills and a bowling alley, much like the armory, it seems. All in all, the church was lauded by the New York Times as one of the “most comfortable and attractive churches in the Eastern District.”
At some point in the mid-20th century, as Bushwick was changing rapidly in ethnic background and demographics, the church was sold, and became the Bethesda Memorial Baptist Church. In 1997, a horrific fire totally gutted the interior of the church. It has been rebuilt, but no photos are available. The open belfry of the church tower has also been filled in. GMAP
(Photograph: Christopher Bride for Property Shark)