The rural feel of an 1851 Harlem parish house

West 126th Street, in today’s Harlem, is an otherwise ordinary urban street of tenements and former factory buildings.

But cross Amsterdam Avenue, and you’ll find a simple wood parish house built in 1851 set back behind a lush front yard and shaded by tall trees.

Stop here for a moment, and you’ll be instantly transported back to mid-19th century Upper Manhattan.

The clapboard building is the former parsonage for St. Mary’s Protestant Episcopal Church.

Founded in 1823 when West 126th Street was called Lawrence Street, St. Mary’s served the small village of Manhattanville.

Manhattanville itself (below, a depiction of the road to Manhattanville in 1865) has a interesting history.

Laid out in 1806 with its own street grid 8 miles from the downtown city, this industrial town had about 15 houses the year the church was founded.

The congregation was an outgrowth of the more affluent St. Michael’s Church to the south in Bloomingdale, according to the 1998 Landmarks Preservation  Commission report. (St. Michael’s is still here, on West 99th Street.)

The first St. Mary’s church (at left) was a simple white structure consecrated in 1826.

“Manhattanville’s founding families, many of whom were related by marriage, were the core of St. Mary’s early congregation, which also included the widow and sons of Alexander Hamilton, and Daniel F. Tiemann, mayor of New York in 1858-1860,” states the report.

But most of Manhattanville’s early 19th century residents were poor; they were mainly British and Dutch descendants as well as some African Americans.

This might be why the church became the first in the city to abolish pew rental fees—a normal and accepted practice in New York’s churches at the time.

As Manhattanville grew, so did St. Mary’s. The clapboard parish house was completed in 1851.

In 1908, the original St. Mary’s was replaced by the current church. It was designed by Carrere and Hastings, the architects behind the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, among other buildings.

Through the 20th century, Manhattanville was subsumed by the larger city. Some vestiges of the old village remain, and the parsonage is the most enchanting example.

St. Mary’s continues to serve the community, an oasis with a rural feel harkening back to a more bucolic Upper Manhattan that’s been lost to urbanization.

[Third image: nycago.org; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: MCNY 193233.173.477]

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7 Responses to “The rural feel of an 1851 Harlem parish house”

  1. wibiwonder Says:

    Another great post – thank you!

  2. rtrjt@aol.com Says:

    I don’t know this spot.

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  3. Greg Says:

    Interesting that these white Episcopalians invested in a new church in Harlem in 1908. I would have thought that the demographic writing was on the wall by then.

    It seems based on my causal research that the Episcopal churches were more willing to accommodate new black populations with institutional continuity. White Protestant congregations of other sects seemed to be more inclined to sell their buildings to black churches.and fold or move elsewhere.

    I’ve often wondered what those transition years where like. Did the white congregants more or less all stop coming at once? Or was there a transition period with a racially integrated congregation? I’ve seen very little written about this.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I wonder if in 1908 there was more of a sense that Manhattanville, or what remained of it, was separate from Harlem, which as you point out was beginning to fill up with African American residents. It’s also worth noting that Harlem had many pockets of Irish, Italian, and German residents, and even an enclave of Finns. Some of these residents could have migrated to an Episcopalian church.

      • Greg Says:

        I think that is unlikely. They would have had their own ethnic Catholic and Lutheran church communities. Conversion was not unheard of but not common either.

  4. Lisa Says:

    What a wonderful gem this little house is! I am new to this site and am so excited to find fellow “time-travelers” who are searching for traces of New York’s illustrious past.

    Lisa

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