New York City is fortunate to have a plethora of historic and often socially active religious institutions throughout the five boroughs. While most exist beyond the bounds of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo, more than a few of the most notable can trace their origins (or at least a good portion of their lives) back here. An exploration of Village Preservation’s two Beyond the Village and Back maps — one for Manhattan below 72nd Street and the other the rest of the city — shows how many of these churches and synagogues are rooted in (and perhaps owe their existence to) our neighborhoods.
Mother A.M.E. Zion Church
The Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church at 140-148 West 137th Street is the sixth home for New York City’s first black church, as well as the founding church of the A.M.E. Zion Conference of churches. Completed in 1925, this neo-Gothic structure was designed by George W. Foster Jr., one of the first black architects registered in the United States and one of only 59 black architects recorded in the 1910 Census. The church has been a strong supporter of and leader in civil rights activism, from the 19th century, when it was also a stop on the Underground Railroad and counted Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass as members, through the struggles that shaped its Harlem home in the early and mid-20th century, to today serving its more than 1.4 million followers.
While Mother Zion has been located on West 137th Street for almost a century, its origins in the city can be traced back nearly 130 years before that, a period that also includes a home in Greenwich Village for half a century.
In the late 18th century, black members of the John Street Methodist Church in Lower Manhattan had become a prominent part of the congregation and began to take on leadership positions, including former slave James Varick as a deacon. In response, the church’s white congregants forced Black parishioners to the back of the church. Eventually, in 1796, the church began holding separate services in a rented house on Cross Street between Orange and Mulberry Streets, becoming the first Black church in the city. The African Methodist Episcopal Church was dedicated in October 1800, and by March 1801 the church formally incorporated. At a meeting of trustees at Varick’s house on July 25, 1820, church leaders voted to officially withdraw from the white “Mother” Methodist Church and create a separate conference of African Methodist Episcopal Zion Churches.
Varick — who also ran a school, served as the first chaplain of the New York African Society for Mutual Relief, and supported the establishment of the first American black newspaper — passed away in 1827, but the church continued to grow. In 1864, the Zion African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, as the institution had been renamed, relocated to a former Dutch Reformed Church at the northeast corner of West 10th Street and Bleecker Street. At the time, the heart of the city’s largest black community was in Greenwich Village, and the area around Minetta Lane, Minetta Street, and Minetta Place was known as Little Africa. Zion A.M.E.’s time on West 10th Street was known as “The Flourishing Period” for the church and the conference, whose wealth and success expanded significantly. While here, the congregation celebrated the passage of the 15th Amendment, which gave Black men the right to vote. The church remained on Bleecker Street until 1904, and followed the movement of the Black community uptown and eventually to Harlem.
Read more about Varick and Zion AME on the Beyond the Village and Back Map here.
Temple Emanu-El at East 65th Street and Fifth Avenue is New York’s largest synagogue, and its first Reform Jewish congregation. Designed by Robert D. Kohn on the former site of the Mrs. William B. Astor House, this Romanesque Revival building overlooks Central Park and features an arch with symbols for the 12 Tribes of Israel, flanked by two 1920s lions resting on semi-engaged columns. The building was built in 1927 to be the largest Reform Jewish synagogue in the world, and it is undeniably grand. Over the entrances’ three doorways are four columned stained-glass windows, topped by a beautiful flower of stained glass with a Jewish Star at its center. The soaring, intricately detailed sanctuary inside can seat some 2,500 congregants.
Temple Emanu-El first organized on April 6, 1845, with a far smaller number of people (just 33) and no rabbi, meeting in a rented space on Grand and Clinton Streets on the Lower East Side. The congregation bought its first building, a former Methodist church at 56 Chrystie Street that served as home from 1848 to 1854. That year, Temple Emanu-El moved to 110 East 12th Street, the 12th Street Baptist Church that had been built just seven years prior. The synagogue’s egalitarian seating allowed men and women to sit together for the first time. Emanu-El introduced instrumental music into religious services, another innovative reform for the period. In 1866, Temple Emanu-El moved out and headed uptown — first to Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street in 1868, then its current location in 1927 — and passed the 12th Street building on to St. Ann’s Catholic Church.
In 2004, the Catholic Archdiocese of New York closed St. Ann’s and eventually sold the site to the Hudson Companies for construction of an NYU dorm. Village Preservation and others met with NYU and Hudson to advocate for preserving and reusing as much of the church as possible, as well as its handsome 1840s rectory row house next door. Unfortunately, that never happened: instead, only the church facade, tower, and iron gates were restored but left empty, standing as a structure detached from its neighbors. As The AIA Guide to New York City noted, the church tower appears as a “folly behind which lurks yet another dorm for NYU … the effect is of a majestic elk, shot, and stuffed.”
Read the full history of this site and Temple Emanu-El on the map here.
St. James Presbyterian Church
St. James Presbyterian Church at 409 West 141st Street, on the corner of St. Nicholas Avenue, stands on the incline of a hill looking eastward over Harlem. The commanding, 1904 neo-Gothic structure boasts an ornate bell tower. While the building has graced this location for well over a century, the church’s history actually extends much further back, descending from Shiloh Presbyterian Church, a leader in the abolitionist movement and a part of the Underground Railroad, and for much of that time served its community from Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village.
St. James was officially founded in 1895 by members of the former Shiloh Presbyterian Church, and went through a series of buildings for about three decades. In 1927, the congregation finally moved to its current home on 141st Street, a building constructed just over 20 years before as the Lenox Presbyterian Church. St. James was one of many black congregations to migrate to Harlem in the 1920s just as the Harlem Renaissance was taking off. In its early decades here, the church was led by Reverend William Lloyd Imes, who served from 1925 until 1943 and grew the church membership to 2,000. From this spot, St. James has developed a number of community, outreach, and choral initiatives, including the Harlem School of the Arts.
Even though the church was established in the waning years of the 19th century, its history actually dates back to 1822, when Shiloh was founded on Rose Street in Lower Manhattan as the First Colored Presbyterian Church. Over the ensuing decades, the church found homes at Elm Street (today’s Lafayette Street, near Canal Street), Frankfurt Street, and Prince Street at the intersection of present-day Lafayette Street (what is now called Lafayette Street originally only went as far south as Great Jones Street; it was extended south in the late 19th century, destroying dozens of buildings).
From 1859 to 1863, Henry Highland Garnet served as the church’s leader. Reverend Garnet placed Shiloh at the center of the city’s anti-slavery struggle, leading boycotts of sugar, cotton, and rice, all products of slave labor; and worked with local newspapers to spread the cause of abolition. When the 1863 Draft Riots erupted, and hundreds of white working-class men attacked the city’s black residents and businesses, Garnet and his church stepped in to help those who were impacted.
Garnet returned for a second phase of leadership from 1873 to 1882, when the Shiloh Church was located at 140 Sixth Avenue (present-day 450 Sixth Avenue) in the Greenwich Village Historic District. As previously noted, the heart of the city’s largest Black community was then in Greenwich Village, centered around Minetta Lane, Minetta Street, and Minetta Place in “Little Africa.” Shiloh operated out of the Sixth Avenue building from 1875 to 1879.
Learn more about Garnet, Shiloh Presbyterian Church, and St. James Presbyterian Church here.
For more than 70 years, The Brotherhood Synagogue, at 28 Gramercy Park South, has sought to meet the spiritual and cultural needs of its members in a welcoming, progressive community, while working to make religious brotherhood a living reality. It became the first Jewish congregation in New York City to open a homeless shelter and was progressive in its long-standing outreach to the non-Jewish community. Its striking brownstone landmarked home on the south side of Gramercy Park, one of New York City’s true gems of preservation, is rich in history and architecture, following some of the most important strains of the social and physical development of our city, with a special connection to the Underground Railroad and to religious reconciliation and cooperation. And one of those strains ran right through Greenwich Village.
The building was opened in 1859 as the 20th Street Meeting House for an early group of New York City Quakers who had outgrown their original Orchard Street home. After acquiring four lots on Gramercy Park South for $24,000, the Quakers commissioned King & Kellum — architects for the Tweed Courthouse downtown and cast iron buildings in our own neighborhood — to construct the new space. The design, created with the help of members, was considered unusual in that it was “less severe” than most other Quaker buildings.
The Quakers were traditionally pacifists, but members of the 20th Street Meeting House took an active role in the Abolitionist movement during the Civil War era. For example, records indicate that members of the Meeting House sheltered fugitive slaves on the second floor, a stop on the Underground Railroad. A tunnel underneath the building that was used as an escape route for runaway slaves is still visible and accessible today.
Even as the Meeting House flourished, another institution, the Village Presbyterian Church at 141-145 West 13th Street, was facing a challenging future. Built in 1845–47 in the Greek Revival style, by the 20th century the neighborhood’s demographics changed, forcing the church to merge with other Presbyterian congregations. In 1954, Rabbi Irving J. Block formed the Brotherhood Synagogue with just 23 members, and found a home in the Village Presbyterian Church for the next two decades.
Four years later, the Quakers moved out of Gramercy Park South, leaving the site ripe for development. Various schemes were put together — a new apartment building, a performing arts center — and all failed; the site was granted landmark status by the City in 1965. By 1974, a schism had formed in Block’s congregation, forcing the synagogue to find a new home. The rabbi eventually came upon 28 Gramercy Park South, which was purchased in 1975; architect James Stewart Polshek was so impressed by the space that he offered his design services to renovate the space as a synagogue pro bono. The sanctuary preserves much of its design roots and heritage, sticking to Rabbi Block’s mission to achieve religious brotherhood among his community.
Read about the 20th Street Quaker Meeting House, its important role in the historic preservation movement in New York City, and the Brotherhood Synagogue here.