Past and Present: The Plymouth Bethel Mission of Brooklyn Heights

The Plymouth Bethel Mission, 1900. Photo: Brooklyn Museum

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

The Bethel Mission was started in 1847 as a Sunday school near the docks at Catherine Street, organized by a Nantucket sea captain named Alex B. Clark. He was inspired by a local Methodist minister named Father Burnett, who preached to the sailors and the workers on the docks that are now part of the Fulton Ferry and Dumbo area. The Sunday school was established in an old stable on Main Street, which was renovated for that purpose. Captain Clark and a succession of different teachers formally organized the school as “the Bethel,” which was designed to offer Christian education and a place for prayer to the adults working on the docks.

By 1852, the Bethel needed to move, as the stable was no longer suitable, and the Mission moved to rooms over a market on James Street, then in 1855 to Poplar Hall on Poplar Street, to then in 1859, to a larger series of room in a new building on Fulton Street, facing Front Street. The Mission had always been non-sectarian, but by this time had grown to the point that it needed the sponsorship of an established church in order to remain viable, and by 1867 had been formally “adopted” by Henry Ward Beecher’s Plymouth Church, and was renamed the Plymouth Bethel Mission.

Plymouth Church, like many churches, collected a pew rental fee, which enabled it to pay its expenses and fund projects like the Mission, and they soon had enough money to build a new building for the Mission. Plans were drawn up by architect Tappan Reeve, and on December 11, 1867, the cornerstone of this building, at 15 Hicks Street, between Poplar and Fulton Streets, was laid in a ceremony led by Rev. Beecher, Rev. Dr. Storrs, from the Church of the Pilgrims, and other local Congregationalist ministers.

The new building was not a church, per se, but a multi-purpose meeting hall, with a large meeting room on the second floor, and a dedicated reading room on the ground floor. This reading room was an important part of the Mission, as it was a free service, where workingmen could come after work, and read from a collection of daily and weekly newspapers, periodicals and magazines. The publications were from all political and religious persuasions; all gathered for the purpose of educating working class men who had very few other places to gather for this purpose, as free public libraries were not yet established. The reading room also had tables for checkers, and a separate carpeted room which offered comfort and a quiet reading environment.

The Mission’s main function soon became the religious and social education of children. As the second half of the 19th century progressed, Brooklyn’s docks and surrounding factories grew tremendously, and so did a sprawling community of workers and their families. This part of Brooklyn Heights now crisscrossed by highway ramps and entrances to two bridges, as well as large Jehovah’s Witness buildings and other factories and warehouses, was once a densely populated warren of small streets with small factories and workrooms side by side with tenements and frame houses. In the Fulton Street area, masonry row houses had been built, and a large community had been established. A lot of people lived here, many of them recent Irish immigrants, joining a native born population.

There were many children in the neighborhood, and Plymouth Bethel’s mission was to provide Christian education to these children. The children of Bethel became wealthy Plymouth church’s new favorite charity, with money raised to also provide food, clothing, and educational classes for the children. The Bethel also had adult religious classes and Bible Study sessions for both men and women.

At the height of Bethel’s popularity, there were over one thousand children in classes at 15 Hicks Street, but by the end of the century, that number was dwindling down to only a couple hundred. Change had come to this part of the Heights. The first change was the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, which destroyed blocks of housing and factories, displacing people to other parts of Brooklyn. Industry had changed as well, as operations on the docks streamlined, and as many of the white collar businesses once centered around the Fulton Ferry moved to Downtown Brooklyn, and further inland. Large factories replaced smaller ones, and the Dumbo area became a place of warehouses and industry, no longer a mixed residential and industrial neighborhood.

Because of the waning enrollment, Plymouth Church had decided to merge Bethel with another mission they had established in the Dumbo area called the Mayflower Mission, which was located on Jay Street, near Sands Street. In November of 1903, church officials announced that Bethel would close. The news was met with great sadness and disappointment, as the Mission’s many programs were important, not only to those participating in them, but to the teachers and staff and volunteers who had made the Mission their calling. In addition to regular Sunday school activities, the Mission sponsored a Boy’s Club, a Girl’s Club, a Penny Provident Savings Club, a sewing school, a gymnastics class, and it still had the free reading room.

Unfortunately, no sooner did they announce the merging of the two Missions, the city announced the building of the new Manhattan Bridge, and the Mayflower Mission was directly in its path. The merger never took place, but both institutions were instead absorbed into Plymouth, and came back to life when Plymouth built their very large new parish house on Hicks Street, in 1912. Many of their social programs conducted at the Bethel and Mayflower missions continued for many years afterward.

The Bethel was sold, and in a 1916 map appears as the Brooklyn Tabernacle, one of many churches to be called that here in Brooklyn over the centuries. The building probably lasted until Robert Moses began razing the streets for the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, in the late 1930s. Half of this block of Hicks Street was sliced off. 15 Hicks Street was probably about where the concrete embankment separating the highway from the neighborhood was built. The rest of the block, which had gone from tenements, cheap lodgings and small businesses, was taken up by a larger factory building.

By the 1980s, all of the buildings were empty, but the popularity and rebirth of the Heights finally reached over here, and the old factory, as well as other adjoining buildings on Poplar, including the old Newsboy’s Home, were all rehabbed into a large condo complex called Bridge Harbor Heights Condominiums, which opened in 1986. Today, the Bethel Mission is just one of hundreds of forgotten buildings and institutions that pop up on old postcards, or in old newspapers. Who knew? GMAP

The Plymouth Bethel Mission, 1900. Photo: Brooklyn Museum

The Plymouth Bethel Mission, 1900. Photo: Brooklyn Museum

2013 Photo: Googlemaps

2013 Photo: Google Maps

1904 map. New York Public Library

1904 map. New York Public Library

1916 Map. New York Public Library

1916 map. New York Public Library

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