Queenswalk: The Old St. James Episcopal Church, Elmhurst


    In doing my historic research of our fair city, it always amazes me to find out that some of this city’s oldest buildings are not in Manhattan or Brooklyn, as might be imagined, but in Queens. I guess being a long-time Brooklynite has skewed my view, and I’m happy to report I’m learning quite a bit about early Queens’s history by writing this column.

    Today’s piece of Queens’ history is the St. James Episcopal Church at 86-02 Broadway, in Elmhurst. When it was built in 1735, it was officially the “Church of England in America, Mission Church at Newtowne.” This building is the oldest surviving mission church of the Church of England in all of New York City. It’s an important visual reminder of English Colonial America, and a fine example of early 18th century vernacular sacred architecture. Translation – it’s a cool old church.

    When St. James was built, like all village churches, it had a churchyard cemetery on the property. St. James’ cemetery was in the back of the church, which today is a parking lot. All of the marked graves were relocated to the cemetery behind the congregation’s new church a block away. That cemetery, which is still there, is one of the few remaining churchyard burial grounds in Queens.

    The building was built facing Broadway, and was enlarged with two bays on the east end in 1871. The original tower on the west end was replaced in 1760, and that lasted over 100 years before falling down in 1883. That caused the building to need many structural repairs, which also resulted in the late Victorian wooden trim to be added to the building’s structure. In 1848, a new and larger church was built at 84-07 Broadway, and this building became the parish hall and Sunday school. The 1848 church burned down in 1975. Today’s St. James Episcopal Church dates from 1976.

    The first Europeans in this area were the English, who settled here with the Rev. Francis Doughty in the 1620s. Rev. Doughty and his flock had first settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts with the Puritans, but found them too restricting. He came to Long Island and was granted a land grant by the Dutch, making this the first English settlement in the western part of Long Island.

    The Dutch, most particularly Peter Stuyvesant, tolerated the English settlers and their religious freedoms, although they were wary of their allegiances. But in 1644, the Dutch lost New Amsterdam, and this area, now the town of Newtowne, would eventually be a part of the County of Kings. In 1680, Rev. Morgan Jones was chosen as the new minister, and he conducted his first Sunday school class in 1684, perhaps the first Sunday school in the new English Colonies. He moved on a year later to a parish in Westchester.

    In 1693, the Ministry Act was written, which created the parish of Jamaica, which included Jamaica, Newtown and Flushing, joining those communities and the farms and homes in between together. The following years, into the early 1700s, included some squabbling with the Colonial authorities, when the parish of Jamaica decided to choose a minister other than the one picked for them by the Governor. Flushing and this area in general, have always been fiercely independent and great defenders of religious freedom. This dissention caused a letter to be written from the Crown, instructing them to toe the line, and only accept the services of a minister chosen by the Bishop of London. American independence was already brewing here in Queens.

    In 1733, the Anglican population of Newtown decided they needed their own church. They petitioned, and won permission to have built a mission church, which became St. James. The building was begun in 1735, and was built by a local carpenter named Joseph Moore. Shortly afterward, Jamaica and Flushing also built separate churches. By this time Newtown had a population of over 1000 citizens and over 164 slaves.

    By 1761, St. James was the largest of the three towns’ Anglican congregation. They wanted to become independent, and had to send a petition to England to do so. It was granted, and the pastor at the time, Rev. Samuel Seabury, the first American-born pastor of the church, was formally installed in his own church. He left St. James after the Revolutionary War, and became the first Protestant Episcopal Bishop of the United States. His elevation took place in a ceremony in Scotland, and he returned to the United States and took up his position in New London, Connecticut, where he lived until his death in 1796.

    Another first for St. James was in the person of the Right Reverend Dr. Benjamin Moore. He became rector of Trinity Church in Manhattan, and then went on to become the second American Bishop to be consecrated in the new Episcopal Church in America. He was also appointed the president of Columbia College in 1801. He was born in Newtown, and was the son of Samuel and Sarah Moore, who were parishioners at St. James. Samuel Moore was the first clerk of the chartered St. James Church. Bishop Moore was also the father of Dr. Clement Clark Moore, most famous for his poem, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

    In 1848, the old chapel was just too small, and a new church was built in land given to the church by the town of Newtown back before the Revolution. The new church was built in the Gothic style by the noted architect Minard Lefever. The caskets and headstones from the old cemetery were moved to the new churchyard, some in 1851, the rest in 1882. In 1896, the town of Newtown changed its name to Elmhurst to separate itself from the reputation of Newtown Creek, which was already a foul smelling polluted body of water.

    Elmhurst, as a part of Queens County became a part of greater New York City in 1898. In the 1930s, the City tried to claim that the land behind the old church was a public, not a private cemetery. They wanted to grab the land for a playground. But the church was able to produce the original land grant, and the city had to withdraw its claim. St. James turned that land into a parking lot in 1957. The church used the old church building as a parish hall until 1951, when they built a new parish hall next door to the new church.

    In 1963, the Post Office wanted to buy Old St. James to tear it down for a new post office. The church rejected their offer. In a letter written that year, they cited the historic importance of the church. Today, the building is used as a community center, hosting meetings of groups such as the Boy Scouts, AA, veterans groups, and church services by smaller congregations.

    The church is a great example of vernacular architecture, that is, designed and built in a local style by local craftsmen and builders, not architects. The interior is notable for the quality of craftsmanship displayed. It is in the classical style, with carved pillars and pilasters, woodwork and an excellently designed barrel vaulted ceiling with an elaborately carved arch with pilasters and a keystone.

    In 1883, when the original tower collapsed, the church was not only repaired, but new Victorian elements were added, including the drip moldings, decorative bargeboards and pointed arched window openings. The doors also date from this period. These changes represented a move to “modernize” the church in the popular styles of the day.
    Old St. James was placed on the National and State Register of Historic Places in 1999. It was nominated for NYC landmark status, but has not yet been designated.

    In 2004, the church got a necessary restoration. The project, which cost $430,000, included a $150,000 loan from the Landmarks Conservancy. The building got a new rood, the cedar siding was restored, as were the wooden windows and the eaves and brackets. The 1883 decorative bracketing on the gables, which had been removed, was restored, as well, bringing the building back to its 1880s appearance. The project architect was Kaitsen Woo, and his general contractor was 53 Restorations, Inc. The Conservancy awarded the project with its Lucy G. Moses Preservation Award. Thanks to the stubbornness of St. James, and the desire by the Elmhurst community to preserve an important part of Queens history, this building is with us to enjoy today. GMAP

    (Photograph: Jim Henderson for Wikipedia)

    1890s photo: Landmarks Conservancy

    1890s photo: Landmarks Conservancy

    1980s tax photo: Municipal Archives

    1980s tax photo: Municipal Archives

    1999 Photo: Landmarks Conservancy

    1999 Photo: Landmarks Conservancy



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