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Churches of Park Slope, Brooklyn


Where Gumbo Was #370

Park Slope, in central Brooklyn, is generally considered one of the more desirable and upscale neighborhoods of the city, with correspondingly high rents and home prices, along with a plethora of trendy stores and places to eat and spend.


The Old First Reformed Church is one of New York's oldest congregations, one of three created in Brooklyn by Peter Stuyvesant in 1654. The imposing 1891 church is its third home.


But it's also an area dotted with a significant number of interesting, handsome and even unusual houses of worship. While the present young and trendy part of the population is nowhere near as church-bound as earlier generations, some of them serve important roles as community centers and some still operate parochial schools.

Appearances to the contrary, Park Slope United Methodist Church is one of the newer arrivals, built in 1930 to house a merger of the 6th Street Methodist Church with 18th Street Methodist. No, it is not at the mathematically expectable 12th Street.

But Park Slope wasn't always relatively young, hip and thriving. It has seen long years of agriculture, as a suburban retreat for the wealthy, as Brooklyn's Gold Coast, and even as a depressed working-class neighborhood. The churches help us follow the history. 

P1060870Greenwood Baptist looks almost as if it could be fortress for Christian soldiers. The 1900 building is the church's third home. It was successful enough to outgrow two buildings in just over 40 years while also spawning two other churches. Oddly, the signature tower was an afterthought, added in 1914.


In the mid-19th century, Brooklyn was dubbed 'The City of Churches,' a title that later became 'Borough of Churches' when the City of Brooklyn joined New York and a few others to form today's city. Though it was noted then for the number of its churches, the title also grew from how influential churches were in the then largely-rural community.

Built in 1909, a little later than most of the churches we're looking at, Beth Elohim belongs to that era anyway; its roots are in the 1860s as an English-speaking Reform congregation founded by German Jews.


And, of course, there really are not that many churches at all if you compare the area to almost any city in Europe, where churches sometimes seem impossibly numerous. But still, with over 30 churches, temples and more in an area with a population around 60,000, the area is rich in religious architecture.

All Saints Episcopal is a step away from the other Park Slope churches with its Baroque and Moorish influences, but it's of a piece with a number of others in New York and around the world. Its true glory is the elaborate decorative stonework

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Between the arrival of the Dutch in 1637 and the incorporation of the City of Brooklyn in 1834, the area was farmland, notable only as the scene of the Battle of Brooklyn in 1775.

Next to All Saints, the Park Slope Jewish Center, originally B'Nai Jacob, seems like a plain box, but it, too, has Baroque features and some Renaissance elements. It's a relative newcomer, built in 1925.

P1060824But as part of what was then called South Brooklyn, things began to change as new ferry routes opened to Manhattan and horse-drawn omnibuses started making their way down Flatbush Avenue in the 1830s.


The fairly austere exterior of Saint Saviour masks a more ornate interior. The 1906 building's name sometimes causes confusion with Saint Francis Xavier; both have schools, and Saviour and Xavier are near sound-alikes in Brooklyn.


Two men, early versions of today's real estate developers, bought big tracts of land in the area in the 1850s, Daniel Litchfield and Eugene Litchfield got the Common Council to lay out a street plan, and to carry out two projects that made them even wealthier: At the top of the slope, some of Litchfield's land became part of the new Prospect Park, and at the bottom of the slope, the marshes along Gowanus Creek were drained.


St Francis Xavier, just a couple of blocks from St Augustine, was completed in 1904; it's built with enough land to seem almost like a miniature Gothic cathedral with its own close. And, it has lovely gargoyles atop its tower.


The improved amenities and later improvements in transportation, helped turn the area into an early suburb for the well-to-do. Once the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883, it even became possible for some to relocate from Manhattan. Along the edges of Prospect Park, a row of mansions went up, and on cross streets leading to the park the slightly less-wealthy bought smaller but opulent houses and row houses.

If Memorial Baptist, originally an outreach of Greenwood, seems a little plain in an era when all sorts of architectural styles were being revived and embellished, it's an accident. Those round posts were originally topped with fancy minarets, which were removed later when they became unstable.

P1060819Along with the houses, the new residents built churches, and since they were fairly wealthy, they built fairly substantial churches. In a few cases, they were openly out to impress: Saint Augustine, a Catholic church, put up a fund of $300,000 for its building—the most ever in the city up to then—and invited architects to be as novel "as good taste allows."


The Parfitt Brothers won the architectural competition in 1886; just a half-dozen years later they submitted an expanded version of the same idea and won the competition to design Manhattan's Cathedral of St John the Divine, as well as another of the stars of Park Slope, Grace United Methodist, built just a few years before St Augustine. Grace's beautiful stonework provided our first puzzle clue this week. George G was the week's only solver.

Grace's tower once had a conical spire, as high as the tower itself, but it fell to the street during a 1944 hurricane and was never replaced. I've seen pictures; the choice to not replace was a good one.


After World War I, large apartment houses were built on some blocks, especially on the avenues and facing the park, but still relatively luxurious. The Depression put an end to those glory days, and many of the brownstones were divided into apartments and even rooming houses.


One Park Slope 'Gold Coast' mansion, the neo-Jacobean villa built by the Childs  family, who grew rich from Bon Ami scouring powder, now serves as the home of the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture.

 With a shrinking upscale market, the area became more working-class, with first Irish and Italian families moving in, and then after World War II more Puerto Rican and African-American familes. By the mid-1950s, the well-to-do were a small minority, mostly along the park.

P1060891With that change, some of the churches saw significant change as well; in some cases congregations shrank and disappeared and new congregations took over their buildings; others held onto their buildings but were barely able to maintain them.

At left, what was St Matthews, the first English-speaking Lutheran church in Brooklyn, is now Mission For Today, a Pentecostal mission that painted the church red, but seems short of funds for maintenance.

A few were lucky enough to hold on for the next wave of Park Slope's change, the arrival starting in the 1970s of the so-called 'Brownstone Pioneers,' families of young professionals who had the means to buy the elegant brownstones at cheap prices and restore their facades and interiors.

park slope 026The Church of the Virgin Mary is a Melkite Catholic Church, part of the Byzantine Rite, with a Syrian-American congregation and some services in Arabic. Before 1950, it was the Park Slope Congregational Church.


In the process, they drove out most of the the working-class population, especially the non-whites. Landlords were ready to make the quick sale, and could get a higher price by 'delivering' the building vacant.

The Church of Gethsemane's unusual facade masks a 'regular' church within. It was originally Prospect Heights Presbyterian; the congregation disbanded in 1980, and a few years later a new Presbyterian congregation, with an outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners and others took its place.

P1060828Ironically, it was only a few years before the 'pioneers' began complaining that they were being driven out of 'their' neighborhood that they had 'reclaimed' by a wave of even wealthier people who wanted to buy the restored houses. Today, brownstones in the area sell for multi-millions, and apartments in them routinely go for more than a million.


Memorial Presbyterian would be a standout on its own, but it shares an intersection with the even-more-spectacular Grace Methodist. Like a number of other Park Slope churches, some of its windows are by Lewis Comfort Tiffany.



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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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