All the History That Will Be Lost if St. John’s Is Sold

St. John's and Rectory
Photo by Hey Ridge

Preservationists and history-minded locals were disappointed this month when St. John’s Episcopal Church (9818 Fort Hamilton Parkway) was put up for sale. The historic church’s congregation had already been worshipping in a new space, at Christ Church, on 73rd and Ridge, for more than a year before their former house of worship was put on the market—for almost $3 million, despite the zoning restrictions that would permit at most a 24-foot-tall two-family house on the site, the Home Reporter reports. Even before the congregation relocated, local Councilmember Vincent Gentile’s office led an effort to have the church landmarked, without success.

St. John’s is nicknamed “The Church of the Generals,” alluding to the many military officers that have attended services there, most famously—though not exclusively—Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jackson, years before he acquired the sobriquet “Stonewall.” (Another dozen generals have worshipped there. “Indeed,” reads an 1894 letter to the Brooklyn Eagle, “the archives of the Church of St. John read rather like an army list.”) The church is directly across the street from J. J. Carty Park, which, before the construction of the Verrazano Bridge, was land that belonged to Fort Hamilton armybase; the old parade ground would have been right there, as well as, at one point, the main entrance gate.

Fort Hamilton Entrance
The old entrance to Fort Hamilton, from a 1907 postcard

A major problem with landmarking the building was that Lee and Jackson did not actually worship at the church that exists now; the present house of worship was built in the last decade of the 19th century, most likely in 1896, replacing the original wood structure erected in 1835 (the cornerstone of which had been laid March 24; construction finished July 16).“The historic building has always had  a special place in my heart,” Councilmember Gentile wrote by email. “Unfortunately, our attempt [at landmarking] was unsuccessful because Landmark’s investigation discovered that the building had been altered more than once since its original design, thus making the building ineligible for landmark status.” Attached now is also the rectory, built ca. 1910; St. John’s also once owned a parish house at 452 99th Street—the last house on the block before Fort Hamilton Parkway, on the other side of the street, facing the church—rebuilding it in 1943 after the old one was destroyed by fire. But that building seems to have been privately owned since at least the 1960s, around the same time the church took out a mortgage on its church building from the old Lincoln Savings Bank, according to city records.

St. John's Parish House
From the Brooklyn Eagle

The parish had congregated earlier than 1835, as Rufus Rockwell Wilson explains in his 1902 book Historic Long Island.

[A] couple of officers attached to the garrison [Fort Hamilton], with three or four families of the neighborhood, formed the nucleus of a congregation that grew with the years. The worshippers at the outset met every Sunday morning in the district school room, and for the afternoon service at the fort. At the end of three years a tract of land at the corner of the present Fort Hamilton Avenue and Ninety-ninth Street was donated as a site for a church, and thereon was erected a structure…The original St. John’s [was] a wooden building, modest in dimensions, with the altar pointing due east, and having the semblance of a castellated steeple over the front elevation…

St. John's Episcopal Church
From Reminiscences of Old New Utrecht and Gowanus

At the time St. John’s was built, Andrew Jackson was president—the country’s seventh. The church was in the village of Fort Hamilton, whose sister village to the north was still called Yellow Hook; the name “Bay Ridge” was almost 20 years away, almost as long as it would be before Henry C. Murphy built his mansion on the land that he’d turn into Owl’s Head or a group of artists would buy the Ovington farm and turn it into an artists colony. Most of the great mansions of Shore Road that were long-ago torn down hadn’t even been built yet. Construction on Fort Hamilton had only finished in 1831, which means the village around it had only just begun to develop. This was sparsely populated farmland, the countryside, and St. John’s was a country church.

It was the third Episcopal church in Kings County, where today there are roughly a dozen, and the first anywhere near southern Brooklyn, at a time when a trip to the northern part of the county would have required significant travel. (The Episcopal Church is a Protestant denomination of Christianity that’s practically Catholicism.)

The Most Famous Residents
“Stonewall” Jackson came to the church in 1848, when the First Artillery was assigned to the base after the Mexican War, Charlotte Bangs writes in Reminiscences of Old New Utrecht and Gowanus (1912). He was baptized there on April 29, 1849, by Rev. Michael Scofield, although Jackson’s name is miswritten in the church’s records as Thomas Jefferson Jackson. (History remembers his middle name as Jonathan.) The font was ever-after known as “the Stonewall Jackson baptismal font,” and it was restored in 1934, according to an Eagle article.

Stonewall Jackson Baptismal Font
From Reminiscences of Old New Utrecht and Gowanus

“At Fort Hamilton [Jackson] was an earnest churchman,” Bangs writes. “He was also known to be a great pedestrian, and each day might be seen walking among the streets of the village brandishing a big cane as he did in sword drill. Friends gave him safe margin in space at such times.” According to an article on HistoryNet:

Jackson was…a deeply spiritual man, almost mystically so…despite the fact that he had never been baptized and officially belonged to no church. In Mexico he had come under the influence of Captain Francis Taylor, a Virginian and army veteran of 20 years service at the time of the Mexican War and a devout Episcopalian. Taylor urged young Jackson to think more about his spiritual welfare and advised him to study the Bible. Inclined in this direction anyway, Jackson took the advice to heart and began exploring the direction his religious impulse should take him…Perhaps the quiet of garrison life—Jackson spent much of his time at Fort Hamilton serving as an officer on Army court-martials in New York and Pennsylvania—gave him the time for further reflection. At any rate, Jackson eventually resolved to be baptized.

Lee had left Fort Hamilton, and St. John’s, two years before Jackson arrived. “His departure was deeply regretted, for he had quite won the hearts of the townspeople by his uniform courtesy and lovable disposition,” Bangs writes. This is why today the main road through the Fort Hamilton armybase is named for Lee, who served for three years in St. John’s vestry. Lee is said to have planted a Norway Maple in the church’s yard; in 1912, the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution restored the tree and placed a plaque beside it, and in 1935 the group planted a new tree on the site. (It’s a fine line between recognizing one’s connections to the Confederacy and celebrating them, a line some Bay Ridge residents don’t always seem to be on the right side of.)

Robert E. Lee 1845
Lee, with son William, ca. 1845, possibly when he was stationed at Fort Hamilton. Photo by Michael Miley (1841-1918), via Wikipedia

Lee’s son Robert E. Lee, Jr., remembers the family’s time at Fort Hamilton with discomfiting cuteness in his Recollections and Letters of Robert E. Lee (1904).

The dog…was a black-and-tan terrier named “Spec,” very bright and intelligent and really a member of the family, respected and beloved by ourselves and well known to all who knew us. My father picked up its mother in the “Narrows” while crossing from Fort Hamilton to the fortifications opposite on Staten Island. She had doubtless fallen overboard from some passing vessel and had drifted out of sight before her absence had been discovered…

Spec was born at Fort Hamilton, and was the joy of us children, our pet and companion. My father would not allow his tail and ears to be cropped. When he grew up, he accompanied us everywhere and was in the habit of going into church [St. John’s] with the family. As some of the little ones allowed their devotions to be disturbed by Spec’s presence, my father determined to leave him at home on those occasions. So the next Sunday morning he was sent up to the front room of the second story. After the family had left for church he contented himself for a while looking out of the window, which was open, it being summer time. Presently impatience overcame his judgment and he jumped to the ground, landed safely notwithstanding the distance, joined the family just as they reached the church, and went in with them as usual, much to the joy of the children. After that he was allowed to go to church whenever he wished.

The flagpole, on the other side of the yard from the Lee tree, was dedicated on Memorial Day, 1951, to John Richard Paradise, a local GI who had died in the Korean War. His father “donated the flagpole and the flag, [and] did the foundation work for the pole,” the Eagle reported. A letter from General Matthew Ridgway was read; Ridgway was baptized at St. John’s.

St. John's Episcopal Church flagpole
From the Brooklyn Eagle

The Land
St. John’s’s land had once belonged the Denyses, one of the area’s oldest and most preeminent families, who among other pursuits operated a ferry to Staten Island from what’s now the base of the Verrazano Bridge, the charter for which had been granted by King George; it was where British troops landed before the Battle of Brooklyn, kickstarting the Revolutionary War. (A remnant of the modern iteration of the original pier survives, a stubby stone jetty off the bike path.) It was donated by the children of Rev. Hugh Smith Carpenter and Jane Smith (née Denyse), the fourth child of Denyse Denyse and his wife Teuntje.

Proponents of preserving the church say that the deed states it must be used for a church, which Bangs supports. “[The] property…can never be used for other than church edifice purposes,” Bangs writes, adding later, “The Denyse heirs so gave the property that only a church can occupy the ground, under forfeiture of property.” The actual language, as quoted by Bangs (who prints the deed in its entirety in her book), states that “if the said parties…shall cease to use, occupy and possess said premises for the uses and purposes [of a Protestant Episcopal Church], then the said premises shall rest in the Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of New York and his successors forever in trust that the same shall be held for the uses and purposes of a Protestant Episcopal Church and for the support and Maintenance of a Protestant Episcopal Ministry for ever.”

I asked James Joseph Whooley, the principle title examiner for the New York City law department, to find the deed—but he couldn’t. “It looks like the deed conveying title to the Church was never recorded,” Whooley wrote in an email. “It’s pretty unusual, but, in this case, since the Church has held title for almost two hundred years, my guess is that the deed was put in a safe somewhere and never actually made public record. Either that, or it was recorded and misplaced or misindexed to another property.” The only deed that turns up is one dated 1806 (though not recorded until 1834), partitioning the Denyse estate and putting the future-church’s land (and much more) in Jane Smith’s possession. “It’s pretty unusual that I wouldn’t be able to find the current deed,” he added. “It’s kind of amazing in a way that the public record reflects Jane Smith, who acquired title in 1806, as the record owner of the land.” (We contacted the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island for a response and will update this post if/when we receive it.)

St. John's Deed Records
No deed on file for any owners but Jane Smith. From a set of books created under the WPA as an easy reference for the public to search for deeds. They are unofficial and meant to be used in connection with the official deed indices. Via NYC Department of Law
St. John's Episcopal Deed
Microfiche scan of the first page of the 1806/1834 deed to Jane Smith. Via NYC Department of Law

(At the time of its donation, the land was at the corner of “Clarke Street” and “Smith Avenue.” Smith Avenue was later renamed Fort Hamilton Avenue, and then even later Fort Hamilton Parkway, after the military installation; Clarke Street was renamed Gates Street, then later 99th Street. Most of the streets around there once had names: 92nd Street was once called “Atlantic Avenue,” 93rd Street “Union Street,” and so on; presumably, many New Utrecht streets had to change their names when the town joined the city of Brooklyn in 1894, as Brooklyn already had streets with these or similar names. 101st Street was once called Denyse Street.)

The New Church
Regardless of who owned it, the old church “was torn down in 1895 to make room for a larger and more durable stone structure,” Wilson writes, “but luminous memories attach to its vanished walls.” This might not be quite right; a Brooklyn Daily Eagle article from May 1897 reports, “The work of tearing down the old St. John’s Episcopal church at Fort Hamilton was commenced yesterday preparatory to erecting in its stead a handsome edifice of stone. The new church, which is expected to be completed early next September, will be slightly larger than the present structure. Smith & Cromwell are the architects…The church now being razed was built seventy-two years ago…The windows were obtained from St. Ann’s, the altar from St. Paul’s and the church doors from Holy Trinity.”

St. John's Episcopal Church
From Reminiscences of Old New Utrecht and Gowanus
St. John's demolition headline
From Brooklyn Eagle, 1897

The new church was built “in a style neither [Lee nor Jackson] would readily recognize: Arts and Crafts,” Suzanne Spellen (née Montrose Morris) writes on Brownstoner. “The church and the rectory, which was built twenty years later, are classic Arts and Crafts, low slung, simple, and rustic cottage style buildings, in stone and shingles, with red, white and gold polychrome trim. Meant not to impress with tall Gothic spires, this church is a perfect complement to [the] neighborhood, although the presence of Fort Hamilton Parkway/Gowanus Expressway rising above, across the street, ruins the bucolic atmosphere.” (Hear, hear.)

St. John's Episcopal Church
1911 poscard, via Brownstoner

The Landmark Fight
When St. John’s congregation began to make it known that it might vacate the building, Councilmember Gentile’s office looked into landmarking it, perhaps using it as a potential site for his dream, a community arts space. But the city’s landmarking commission was unreceptive, in part because the church’s greatest historical significance—Lee and Jackson in the 1840s—belonged to a totally different building. The
Episcopal Diocese of Long Island was also uninterested in preserving the building, or in even negotiating with the city for its use; and the US Army also proved unwilling to try to secure the space, for potential use, say, as a welcome center. (Which is something the very unwelcoming base could use!) “I think because of the many bitter preservation fights Councilman Gentile had been through over the years, he saw the writing on the wall,” Justin Brannan, Gentile’s former staffer who helped lead the battle to save St. John’s, wrote by email. “But in spite of that, we suited up for battle and raced out in front of the situation in earnest. Looking back now, by the time we’d heard the rumors of St. John’s closing and the property being sold, it was likely already too late, a fait accompli. We were stonewalled at every turn.”

So, without Denyse heirs stepping forward to file a lawsuit, or a neighborhood patron putting up $3 million to preserve some history for the community, it looks like Bay Ridge will lose another old church, along with, in recent years, the Bay Ridge United Methodist Church (the “Green Church”), which was turned into a tasteful school, and the Salam Arabic Luterhan Church, which was turned into literally the single ugliest building I’ve ever seen (345 Ovington Avenue), like a hideous condo tower mated with a landfill.

No one knows yet what will happen to St. John’s, but at this point the best result seems it would be, “well, it could have been much, much worse.” Realistically, there is no good outcome—the fact that the building is up for sale means that Bay Ridge has already lost.

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Thanks to Councilmember Gentile’s office and Justin Brannan for their assistance, including documents and research materials.

One thought on “All the History That Will Be Lost if St. John’s Is Sold

  1. My company brooklynONE productions used the parish hall as our home and created a cultural and artistic hub for bay ridge there for almost 10 years. We tried along with John Heffernan and the rhapsody players who also used it as a home base – to raise money and help the congregation over the years. The church had been in trouble for years with No one listening – it’s a damn shame

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