Walkabout: A Church on Fire

Photo by Suzanne Spellen

As we all know, Brooklyn is well known as the Borough of Churches. We’ve got some of the finest church and temple architecture in the city, and we’ve got more than Manhattan, or any of the other boroughs.

We’d have even more, if all the churches and synagogues that have burned down, or been torn down, were still around. I really like sacred architecture.

Not only because of pretty, or pretty impressive stained glass windows, or tall steeples, or soaring spaces and great architectural detail, although that’s certainly enough right there. I like sacred spaces because of what they say about the people who built them, the congregations, their hopes and aspirations, the history of where they came from, or who they expected to be.

Depending on the faith or denomination, we get buildings of great complexity and pomp, and also simple spaces where the Word means more than the World. From an architectural standpoint, churches usually give the architect a reason to do his best. Many of Brooklyn’s finest architects’ best works are churches or synagogues.

Church on Fire -- Brooklyn History

Photo by Suzanne Spellen

The architectural and social history of the Church of St. Luke, on Clinton Ave. in Clinton Hill is a case in point. Before the Civil War, Brooklyn was growing by leaps and bounds, and along with other public institutions, churches were a necessary component to a good residential neighborhood, as they denoted a strong moral core in the neighborhood.

There were so many, that even as early as 1850, Brooklyn had gained the description as the City of Churches. But it wasn’t until after the War, when the new industrialists, merchant kings, lawyers and financiers began to call Brooklyn home, that we began to see a new tradition of large churches in wealthy neighborhoods that rivaled the large Manhattan churches.

Church on Fire -- Brooklyn History

Photo by Joe Bousel via Flickr

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church was built at a time when Clinton Hill was one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in Brooklyn, home to some of Brooklyn’s wealthiest people, and Clinton Avenue was Millionaire’s Row.

The first church on this location on Clinton Avenue, between Fulton Street and Atlantic Avenue, was a wooden Greek Revival church, similar to a New England style church, square, with a steeple, built in 1835. It was called Trinity Protestant Episcopal Church.

At the time, there were few people in the area, not enough to sustain the church, and it had to close. In 1841, a new church congregation, called St. Luke’s Episcopal, bought the building from Trinity.

Clinton Hill, as high ground with a pleasing vista, was becoming the new place for the wealthy to build their suburban villas, and a wealthy congregation soon outgrew the old Trinity building.

A large addition to the church was consecrated in 1883, but only four years later, in November of 1887, the church caught fire, and was partially destroyed, the remainder heavily damaged. It was decided that building a new church was in order.

Church on Fire -- Brooklyn History

Photo by Joe Bousel via Flickr

In January of 1888, the vestry committee received notice that one of their wealthiest parishioners, Colonel Henry P. Martin, had offered to pay for the building of a new Sunday School building, to be dedicated to the memory of his daughter, who had recently died.

The Colonel handed over a certified check for $40,000 to the church, and the search was on for a design for the new church and Sunday school. After looking at designs by noted Brooklyn architects Rudolph Daus, John Welsh, and J.W. Walter, they selected John Welsh.

He had been born in Scotland and educated in England, immigrating to the US in 1849, and moving to Brooklyn in 1860. He was a prolific church architect, and there are at least five other Welch churches still standing in Brooklyn, including All Saints Episcopal on 7th Avenue and 7th Street, in Park Slope, his last church, built in 1892.

Welsh designed a much more elaborate and rich set of buildings than what was eventually built, but had to scale back his designs to meet budget requirements. Eventually the designs were approved, and ground was broken on the Sunday School building first, as it had already been funded by Colonel Martin. The rest of the buildings, the main sanctuary, and the parish hall, all joined by cloisters, soon followed.

Church on Fire -- Brooklyn History

Photo by Joe Bousel via Flickr

What the parishioners got was a very eclectic and unusual church, visually striking, and quite beautiful. Welsh based his designs loosely on 12th century Romanesque churches of Northern Italy. Not a copy of any particular Italian church, Welsh combined elements and features, all worked into the needs of a 19th century modern Episcopalian building. The most striking features of the church are the use of at least six different kinds of stone.

Church on Fire -- Brooklyn History

Photo by Suzanne Spellen

Rough and smooth stone, grey and pink terra-cotta, pink and brown sandstone, white limestone and reddish Scotch granite used in the large columns at the entrances. The granite blocks were the largest shipments of Scotch granite to this country.

Colonel Martin’s Sunday School building is to the left of the main sanctuary. The columns feature sculpted angel faces, depicting the likeness of the Colonel’s deceased daughter.

The campanile tower rises from this building, a beautiful mixture of colored stone and texture, archways, massed columns, both short and tall, topped with a peaked roof. The church itself is a riot of materials, colors, textures and shapes.

Stained glass windows add another layer of color and texture to the mix. The twenty-eight foot rose window is one of the largest in Brooklyn. The whole visual feast really is fantastic. For close ups, please see my Flickr page.

The church opened to great pomp in 1891, but wasn’t consecrated until the debt was paid off in 1896. The interior is a visually sumptuous as the exterior, and was one of the first buildings to be lit by electricity in 1890, electricity provided by the Edison Lighting Company which established itself in Brooklyn only the year before.

The magnificent side windows of the church are signed designs by Tiffany Studios, and include two extremely beautiful windows dedicated to Colonel Martin, depicting the archangels Michael and Gabriel.

The walls were stenciled in polychrome colors, the floors are colorful mosaics, marble and encaustic tiles, and the altar is white Italian marble, with two life sized Caen marble angels flanking it. It is truly beautiful. Flickr photographer Josh Bousel has captured some of that beauty here. And it almost was lost in 1914.

Church on Fire -- Brooklyn History

Photo via Brooklyn Public Library

On March 10th 1914, a fire swept through the chapel, school and church. Most of the Sunday school and chapel interiors were totally damaged, and the church suffered heavy damage when part of the ceiling collapsed, including the cracking of the glass in some of the Tiffany windows.

Fortunately, the congregation at that time included some of Brooklyn’s wealthiest people, and they were able to hire the firm of Dodge and Morrison, prominent church architects to fix everything. All was repaired, including the Tiffany windows, and the church was re-consecrated in 1915. The Daily Eagle shot a lot of photographs of the fire, which are also on my Flickr page.

Church on Fire -- Brooklyn History

Photo via Brooklyn Public Library

The fire, horrible as it was, came at an opportune time when the church had the money to fix everything. In the years to come, Clinton Hill saw a great lessening in its financial fortunes, and in the course of losing a lot of parishioners and income, the church merged with St. Matthew’s Church, late of Bedford Stuyvesant.

It is now known as St. Luke and St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church. The congregation is now mostly made up of people from the British Caribbean islands. On a personal note, I’ve sung in this church several times, and it remains one of my favorite churches, with great acoustics and a warm and welcoming congregation.

Church on Fire -- Brooklyn History

Photo by Suzanne Spellen

They’ve kept the church in fine condition, but like all 100 plus year old buildings, it’s in need of some serious money to repair the roof and other elements. In 1981, the Landmarks Preservation Commission declared the church an individual landmark, as it fell outside of the Clinton Hill Historic District lines, which they also designated in 1981, thus preserving this wonderful piece of sacred architecture, in part, a memorial to a departed daughter, and in all ways, a fine legacy for Clinton Hill.

Most of the information for this article comes from Andrew Dolkart’s extensive and fascinating designation report.

What's Happening