Brooklyn, one building at a time.
Name: Originally Bedford Reformed Church, then Aurora Grata Scottish Rite Cathedral, Lodge #756, Miller Memorial Nazarene Church, now Community Worship Center of the Church of the Nazarene
Address: 1160 Bedford Avenue
Cross Streets: Corner Madison Street
Neighborhood: Bedford Stuyvesant
Year Built: 1872, alterations and additions, 1887, 1892
Architectural Style: Victorian Gothic
Architect: John Welsh, with massive alterations by I.D. Reynolds
Other Work by Architect: St. Luke and St. Matthew Episcopal Church on Clinton Ave. in Clinton Hill, All Saints Episcopal Church on 7th Ave. and 7th St. in Park Slope. I.D. Reynolds, row houses in several parts of Brooklyn, most especially in Bedford and Stuyvesant Heights
The story: This church building has been many things in its 141-year history. Like many of Brooklyn’s church congregations, this one started out as a small gathering of worshipers who met in a small wood framed building. They were led by a charismatic pastor named J. Halsted Carroll. As their numbers grew, they wanted to build a larger church, land was acquired, here on the corner of Bedford and Madison, and John Welsh, an established church architect, was hired to design a fine hall of worship. The congregants of the Bedford Reformed Church were on the whole, an upwardly mobile group, and they wanted their now bustling and growing community of Bedford to have a Reformed Church worthy of the community, and of the reputation of their minister. Long story short, they overspent.
John Welsh gave them what they wanted: a large Philadelphia brick church trimmed in brownstone, in the Victorian Gothic style. Welsh had recently designed the famously expansive new church for the Rev. Talmage, known as “Talmage’s Tabernacle,” and the Reformists wanted something equally fine. The church was designed in the shape of a cross, and the bell tower originally had illuminated clock faces, which can still be seen in the 1914 photograph below. Inside, the sanctuary had seats for 800 people, and a grand organ, and the space was lined with fine woods, gilt trim and fine upholstery and fabrics. The attached parsonage was also quite posh, with the same expensive furnishings and accoutrements. The entire project cost about $160,000, an awful lot of money at a time when neighboring brownstones were selling for around $10,000.
The revenue from pew rentals, collections and donations did not match expenses, and in a few years, the church went into foreclosure. Rev. Carroll was mortified, and resigned. The church now belonged to the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, which rented the building back to the congregation. The congregation went through several other pastors, all who quit when they couldn’t raise enough money. In 1886, the church was in arrears to Metropolitan for about $40K in back interest payments, and that was it for them, the insurance company put the building up for sale, and the congregation had to move out.
The Aurora Grata Lodge of Freemasons was established in Brooklyn in 1874. “Aurora Grata” is Latin for the “Great Dawn” or the “Gracious Light,” one of the highest allegorical precepts of Masonic beliefs and rites. They started out meeting on Court Street, downtown, and later moved up to 304 Fulton Street. Looking to expand to a larger building, they bought the building in 1887. They made out like bandits; the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company wanted to get rid of the church, and sold it at a loss for $50,000. It was necessary for the Masons to transform the sanctuary into a space more suitable to their rituals and needs, so they hired I.D. Reynolds, a prominent local architect, to transform the space.
When the building was dedicated several months after the sale, it was a church only on the outside. An additional $15,000 had transformed the interior into a Masonic Hall. Now called the Aurora Grata Cathedral, the former sanctuary space was now the lodge room, with expensive Wilton carpeting, and fine furnishings, including two large chandeliers. The original front door of the church had been closed off and a new and very elaborate entrance was cut on the Madison Street side. The organ was moved to the side of the room. The basement was turned into a banquet hall.
The biggest changes came to the old rectory part of the building, which was turned into a club house called the Aurora Grata Club, the only Masonic clubhouse in the state. Additional floors were built, and the rooms were transformed into the poshest of clubhouses, with thick carpets, woodwork for days, comfortable lounging furniture, fine artwork, Turkish furnishings; the whole deal. A smoking room and two card rooms were upstairs, and the basement held a large pool and billiards room. Any Mason in good standing, no matter his lodge or affiliation, was eligible for membership. This was for men only, of course.
For almost thirty years, the Aurora Grata Cathedral was a mainstay of Brooklyn Masonic and social life. Aside from their Masonic activities, the building was also host to concerts and other programs, as well as political rallies and social programs. They had a bicycle team, and several sports teams, all of which competed locally with clubs like the Crescent Athletic Club. But, they too eventually moved on. In 1907, the Aurora Grata Club disbanded, and formed a new club called the Masonic Club of Brooklyn. Their new headquarters was right next door.
The history of the building gets fuzzy in the 1920s. From what I can gather, the Lodge remained with the Masons up until at least the 1930s, with Masonic functions, funerals, and other activities taking place. The latest reference I saw was in 1932. But they also rented the space out to other churches that didn’t have their own spaces, mostly non-denominational churches like one called the Church of the Individual Dominion. At some point, the Masons also moved on. Online records only go back to 1974, which show the church belonging to the Church of the Nazarene, a Pentecostal denomination. It was Miller Church of the Nazarene in 1985, and is now the Community Worship Center. When I moved to Bed Stuy, they put up a horrible brickface over the church. I believe, thank goodness, that was recently removed. GMAP
(Photo: Christopher Bride for PropertyShark)