Brooklyn, one building at a time.
Name: Church of St. Mark (Episcopal)
Address: 303 Brooklyn Avenue
Cross Streets: Eastern Parkway and Union Street
Neighborhood: Crown Heights South
Year Built: 1901, major alterations 1937
Architectural Style: Gothic Revival
Architect: Henry M. Congdon & Son
Other Buildings by Architect: Episcopal churches all over the country, including St. Andrew’s Episcopal, in Manhattan and Christ Episcopal Brighton, on Staten Island
The story: I find it quite interesting how church congregations change and move around. Sometimes it’s because they need to grow, other times, their demographics change, and in this case, they built a new church in an entirely new neighborhood because they had to leave where they were, and the only land available was far outside of their neighborhood.
St. Mark’s Protestant Episcopal Church was founded in 1838. The following year, the congregation broke ground on a new stone church in Williamsburg, on Bedford Avenue and S. 5th Street. They were quite happy there until 1896 when they were informed by the City of New York that their church was in the way of a new East River bridge being planned. The land was needed for access roads to the new Williamsburg Bridge.
The church formed a search committee, and in 1898, they found a group of six plots bordered by Eastern Parkway, Union Street and Brooklyn Avenues. The land was purchased, and architect Henry Martyn Congdon was commissioned to design a new church and parish hall on the land. Congdon was the perfect architect for the project. He was the son of an Episcopal minister himself, and was also a Brooklyn man. He got his training at Columbia College, and had served in the Civil War as a member of the 7th Regiment.
After the war, he established his practice in Newburgh, NY, but came back to Manhattan to open offices there. He lived in Brooklyn, where he was Vice-President of the Brooklyn Academy of Arts and Sciences, and later, Secretary of the American Institute of Architects. He brought his son Herbert Wheaton Congdon into the firm, changing the name to Henry M. Congdon & Son.
The partners specialized in mostly Gothic Revival churches for the Episcopal Church. Their churches are generally rustic stone Gothic churches, very solid, spread out and not especially tall. They are very English looking, and very Episcopalian. The firm designed churches all over the country, from Minnesota to Kentucky, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York and New England, all between 1869 and 1911.
For the St. Mark’s congregation, Congdon designed a Romanesque and Gothic complex that included the church, parish hall, rectory and perhaps a school. They had the room, but not the funds, so after thinking about what was more important and useful, they decided to build the parish hall, which was designed with worship space inside. They could go ahead with the church later.
The parish officially changed their name to The Church of St. Mark, and opened their new hall in 1901. The building had a gymnasium in the cellar, along with the mechanics, meeting rooms and a billiard room. The ground floor level led the parish guild hall rooms, a parlor and a kitchen. Stairs on the west end of the building led to another level with an exterior entrance, as well as a library, choir room and the main assembly hall, which was built with a raised platform for a temporary altar. Upstairs were more classrooms and a connection to the gallery that overlooked the assembly room.
In 1929, the church sold the lot on the corner of Eastern Parkway and Brooklyn Avenue for about $1.5 million to a developer who was going to build a huge 15 story apartment building. That building was never built as planned, and neither was the church. The Depression probably necessitated a smaller six story building, and instead of building a church, the congregation altered the parish house, adding a tower and steeple, a new stairway, and a new façade and cladding. If you look at today’s church, and the photograph of the original parish house, you can see what they did.
I had a gig here once, as a soloist with a professional choir for a service, a long time ago. I’ve been in a lot of churches in my day, and I remember that the interior was not quite as expected, in terms of layout. It’s beautiful inside, and has all of the requisite High Church Episcopal fittings, but was still subtlety different, and very small. Now I know why. It did have great accoustics, though, and was a wonderful place to sing. The people were also lovely. These are the things I do miss about Brooklyn.
(Photo:Nicholas Strini for Property Shark)