Walkabout: The Throop Avenue Church Disaster, Part 1

Throop Avenue Presbyterian Church. Image via eBay.

Read Part 2 and Part 3 of this story.

The Throop Avenue Presbyterian Church was founded in 1852 by Presbyterians who wanted to worship in the growing neighborhood known as the Eastern District. This part of Brooklyn contains most of modern day Bushwick, Eastern Bedford Stuyvesant, and parts of East Williamsburg.

Most of this area would become heavily German Catholic and Lutheran, but back in 1852, there were enough Presbyterians to form a good sized congregation. The Presbyterian General Assembly approved the church, and by 1867, a church was built on the corner of Throop and Willoughby Avenues, Pastor-Elect John Lowry in charge. It was dedicated on October 18, 1867, with ceremonies officiated over by the Rev. R. S. Storrs, of the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church.

By 1873, the growing church had a new pastor. Reverend Lowry, for some unknown reason, had been asked to leave, amidst many hard feelings. He resigned in April of that year, and was replaced by the Reverend Lewis Ray Foote. Lewis R. Foote was born in 1844 in South New Berlin, NY, in Chenango County.

(I went to high school in South New Berlin, in a graduating class of 32 students, and this is the first time I’ve come across anyone of note from there. Go, Lewis Foote!) Before his entrance into the ranks of the clergy, he fought in the Civil War, and was wounded in the Battle of Fair Oaks, Virginia.

After the war, he was ordained into the Presbyterian ministry, and ended up in Brooklyn, at the helm of a church that needed guidance.

He was a perfect fit, and would preside over Throop Ave. Presbyterian for 32 years. No doubt inspired and tempered by his war experience, Rev. Foote was a dynamic speaker and a good leader. By the 1880s, the church had grown considerably, and funds were raised to build a new and larger building.

The church was in a residential neighborhood, with homes on both Willoughby and Throop Avenues. Photographs of the church in 1909 show brick and brownstone row houses, as well as what look like wood-framed houses in the background.

The house next door to the church was a wood framed two story house, owned by a widow named Mrs. Sarah Mott. She lived here with her two daughters. One daughter, also named Sarah, was unmarried.

The other daughter, a Mrs. Purdy, was also a widow, and lived here with two teenaged daughters, and a 14 year old son. Another boarder, named Richard Poole, also lived in the house. The family all attended the Throop Avenue church.

Architects Halstead P. Fowler and William Hough were commissioned to design a grand new church building on the site of the old building.

Fowler & Hough were seasoned architects, and at the same time they were working on this church, they had also received the commission to design the 23rd Regiment Armory, on the corner of Bedford and Atlantic Avenues, one of the finest armory buildings in the city. They also had a fine record of other buildings throughout the city, both together and individually.

The new church was a magnificent Romanesque Revival brick building with a tall bell tower directly on the corner of Throop and Willoughby. The church had big, beautiful arched windows and entryways, and was a fine addition to an exceedingly prosperous Eastern District.

Construction started in 1889, and by the winter of early 1890, the walls were going up. The construction company owned by Thomas and William Lamb was in charge of building the church. They had a fine reputation, and were used by many of Brooklyn’s best and busiest architects.

By January 8, 1890, the Lamb brothers had long before finished the foundations of the new church, and were erecting the walls. The church was designed to rise 72 feet from the foundation.

By that date, all four walls of the building were going up, and the front and rear elevations, which were the tallest, had been completed. The side elevations had also been built to their designed height.

The bricks were several layers thick, and were shored up by wooden scaffolding and braces. The carpenters were readying the roof section to be built next. The church was coming along nicely.

The morning of January 9, 1890 arrived. It was cold, with winter’s chill deeply on the land. Had 19th century man had the modern-day Doppler systems and a 24/7 weather broadcasting, the people of Brooklyn would have known that a storm was coming.

It blew down from the north, one of those unexpected violent storms that had the potential to do great damage. The storm hit the city with gale-force winds, hammering the city like a hurricane. All across the city, anything not battened down blew away.

Mrs. Mott’s family, including both daughters and the three grandchildren, were all dressed and in the back parlor of the house. The storm had awakened them, and the adults were waiting it out, listening to the winds howl around their home.

The wood-frame home rattled and shook as the winds blew. They had been up most of the night, but as the winds ebbed and flowed, they had relaxed, gone back to bed, and then gotten up again, as the winds picked up. By 4 am, they were all in the parlor, with the exception of their border, Richard Poole.

The winds had died down again, and everyone was catching a fitful sleep. Sarah Mott, the daughter, was engaged to be married, and was planning her wedding. As the winds swirled, she and he mother quietly made arrangements for the long-awaited nuptials.

At about 4:30 in the morning, the winds picked up speed, becoming more like a tornado than a simple winter gale. The wind gathered around the roofless walls of the church like an embrace, lifted the rear wall from its foundation, and threw it on top of the house next door.

It didn’t just topple the wall over onto the house, it flung tons of bricks, mortar, wood and stone on top of the roof of the two story wood framed house. The family in the parlor woke to a crash.

Before they even realized what had happened, the tons of bricks that had been flung on top of the roof crashed through the entire house onto the parlor floor. The occupants of the house didn’t have a prayer.

(Postcard found on Ebay)


Next time: What happened next.

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