Monday, November 13, 2017

The Lost Madison Avenue M.E. Church - Madison Ave at 60th Street

When photographed in 1907, brownstone rowhouses shared the 60th Street block with the church; while modern structures loom in the background.  photograph by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In 1881 Methodist Episcopal Bishop William L. Harris called a meeting to discuss "a place of worship for Methodists in a locality where it was thought a church was greatly needed."  That locality was the rapidly-developing Upper East Side.  The New York Times reported "A number of gentlemen purchased the ground to hold until the society was organized."

It was a remarkable scheme.  The building plot at the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and 60th Street was purchased for a congregation that did not yet exist.  A fund raising drive was initiated and when $150,000 had been amassed in November 1881, "the society was incorporated," said The Times.

That society was the Madison-Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church.  At the time there were just 30 members (the wealth of whom was evidenced by the building fund already accumulated--more than $3.6 million today); but, according to the newspaper "The projectors look for a large membership and feel gratified at the success they have met with in raising funds."

On April 21, 1882 architect Robert H. Robertson filed plans for the church and adjoining chapel.  The cost of the structure was estimated at $125,000.  With the land, the total cost would be $225,000, or just under $5.5 million today.   The cornerstone was laid in July, with construction on the chapel projected to be completed that fall, in time for services for members returning from their summer homes.  It would take a full year to complete the church proper.

As the complex neared completion on November 9, 1883 The Record & Guide expressed its satisfaction with the design, calling it "the most important, architecturally, of recent churches in New York" and "also one of the most successful."  The journal thought Robertson's Romanesque Revival design was "much more domestic than ecclesiastical in character."

In 1889 the church was still surrounded by rowhouses.  A woman navigates crossing the streetcar tracks on Madison Avenue.  Note that the stained glass windows on 60th Street (deemed by the Record & Guide "the best side") are fitted with awnings.  photo by John S. Johnston, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Built of rough-faced brownstone, it was 89 feet wide on the avenue and 125 feet deep along 60th Street.  Robertson's church was decidedly Norman in character.  The Madison Avenue elevation was stark in comparison to many contemporary Romanesque Revival buildings--with their massive arches, heavy carvings, and hefty columns.   But severe gave way to flamboyant in the 128-foot tall central tower.

The Record & Guide said the obvious, "The most noticeable feature in the composition of the church front is the treatment of the tower."  Toward the top of the tower Gothic arches opened (Robertson's single step away from the Romanesque), each containing a bowed balcony.  This was the feature The Record & Guide found "domestic" since, it said, "the belfry of a church not being primarily an observatory--but it is so pretty it is ungracious to find fault with it."

The architect topped it all with a pyramidal cap, ornamented with blind dormers containing flat discs that begged for clock faces that would never be, and corner pinnacles.

Robertson lavished equal attention on the interior.  The New York Times described the treatment as "of whitewood and pine in panes and heavily ribbed."  Capable of seating 750 worshipers, its ceiling rose 53 feet from the floor.  

The lower gallery, at left, was reserved for guests.  from American Architect & Building News, January 5, 1884 (copyright expired)
The first service in the church was held on Sunday, November 11, 1883.  It was one of a week-long series of "special services" that would culminate in the formal dedication on November 18.  By now the membership had risen to 120.  The cost of construction had risen as well, to a total of $250,000 including the land.

A reporter from The New York Times was satisfied with the smaller details.  "The acoustics are excellent, and the low tones of the preacher can be heard distinctly all over the building...The pews are large and comfortable."

On Good Friday 1884 the church was host to a group which might surprise modern readers--the Knights Templar.  The Times reported that 50 members of the Palestine Commandery, No. 18, Knights Templar, assembled at the Masonic Temple at 7:00 and marched in full uniform "with waving plumes and clanking swords" to Park Avenue and 26th Street where special cars were waiting.

The circus was appearing in Madison Square Garden, and "the circus-ticket speculators became impressed with the idea that they were an organization about to visit the circus and descended upon them with offers of the most advantageous bargains."

Once at their destination, the Knights presented an impressive show.  "Upon arriving at the church they formed in the parlor of the edifice and marched in double file up the centre aisle, while the choir sang 'Onward, Christian Soldier.'  Then, while Eminent Sir O. H. Tiffany, D. D., offered an invocation, they stood in a double row facing each other with swords crossed."

Among the well-known congregants were Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia.   Three days after Grant's death on July 23, 1885, members filled the stiflingly-hot church.  The New York Times reported "The Madison-Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church, in Sixtieth-street, was unusually crowded yesterday morning, considering the intensely hot weather."  The congregants were aware that the Rev. Dr. O. H. Tiffany would be speaking on "Personal Memories of Gen. Grant as Former Parishioner."  The newspaper said that during the sermon "a complete silence reigned among the audience.  Several ladies wept, and the whole congregation seemed profoundly impressed."

In 1901 the church announced its new pastor, the 38-year old Rev. Dr. Wallace MacMullen.  The minister had been pastor of the Park Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia and was deemed "one of the most eloquent pastors in this city."

MacMullen and his family moved into the rectory at No. 46 East 60th Street where, five years later, the pastor discovered that some home repair jobs were best left to the professionals.   For some reason the lighting gas in a room on the second floor was not flowing.  MacMullen suspected that water had gotten into the gas line and set out to investigate.  He asked his 11-year old son, Paul, to accompany him to the cellar and hold a candle while he attempted to blow the water through the pipes.

The following day, on December 7, 1906 The Sun reported "The minister and his son no sooner landed in the cellar with the lighted candle than there was an explosion which knocked both men off their feet.  Rubbish in the cellar took fire at the same time."  Paul ran to the fire house on the same block and the fire was soon put out.  The Sun concluded "Dr. MacMullen will preach on Sunday minus his eyebrows and some hair."

Preachers like MacMullen were uneasy with a modern fad that was sweeping the nation: the motion picture.  In the eyes of many clerics, the theater had always posed a threat to morality.  This new technology, inexpensive and accessible to the masses, was worse.

On December 22, 1908 Mayor George B. McClellan was faced with a conundrum: whether or not to allow moving picture shows to operate on Sundays.  He called together a public hearing on the matter and Rev. MacMullen was there to make his opinion known.  He summed up his feelings about motion pictures in two words "abominable and degrading."

But the minister would have problems much closer to home to be concerned with in the spring of 1911.   On March 13 The Sun ran the headline "Minister's Son Shot Boy."   Paul, now 16 years old, had been arrested and charged "with shooting Robert Polinsky in the right eye with an air rifle."  The eight-year old victim was taken to the German Hospital where doctors said he would most likely lose the sight in that eye.

It all started when Paul was "amusing himself with an air rifle" in the back yard of the rectory.   Robert and a friend were on the roof of his house on 59th Street; the backyards of the two properties nearly back-to-back.  MacMullen's lawyer said it was all an unfortunate accident; but the judge, Magistrate Herbert, was not so sure.  He said "that would be determined at the examination when the other boy is able to appear in court."  Paul father paid the $500 bail to free him, a substantial $13,000 in today's dollars.

One of the most colorful of the Madison Avenue M.E. Church's congregants was Charles G. Gates.  The son of steel tycoon John W. Gates whose estate had been estimated at $38 million, he lived life large.  He was especially fond of hiring "special trains" and ordering the engineer to run them as fast as possible--on one occasion reaching the reported speed of 90 miles per hour.  The Times noted in 1913 that he "had made himself the last few years for his record-breaking dashes across the continent in special trains."  When a friend asked him why he spent thousands of dollars to arrive a few minutes before a regular train, he replied "Speed is life."

Gates bragged that he spent $1 million every year on tips to waiters and such.  "I can't take it with me when I die," he told a reporter, "and I believe in spending my money."   He spent his money at the gambling tables, as well.  In 1911 he reportedly lost $40,000 gambling.  The Times said that although "he pooh-poohed the story, it was generally credited."

He and his wife, the former Mary W. Martin, lived in an apartment at No. 667 Madison Avenue.  But their domestic life was noticeably souring in 1911 and Mary obtained a divorce on August 5 that year.   A month later, on September 27, he married Florence Hopwood.

In September 1913 Gates boarded his private train car, the Superb, with six companions for an extended hunting trip in Wyoming.  After five weeks in the hills hunting elk, deer and bear, the men returned to the Superb which was on a side track in Cody, Wyoming.  A newspaper reported that it was a "very successful hunt" and "elk heads, bear hides, and other trophies of Mr. Gates's skill with the rifle are now being prepared for shipment east."

On October 29 The New York Times said "On his return from his hunting trip Mr. Gates spent more than $7,000 buying fur coats for friends.  He gave his chauffeur $1,000 and presented to his guide on the trip $10,000 in cash."  They would be the last of Gates's extravagant gifts.

The 37-year old fell ill on the morning of October 28 and was taken to his private car,  Doctors were called and at one point it was planned to connect the Superb to a train headed for Billings; but his condition had worsened to the point that moving him was deemed inadvisable.   Around 1:40 that afternoon he died "of apoplexy," or a stroke.

Gates's funeral in the Madison Avenue M.E. Church did justice to his flashy lifestyle.  The Sun reported "Lilies of the valley, chrysanthemums and orchids predominated in the floral offerings."  Orchestra leader Nathan Franko played the same songs he had performed at the funeral of Gates's father.  The Sun said the services were attended by "many Wall Street financiers and men interested in racing."  Among them were Charles M. Schwab, James Buchanan, and millionaires from as far away as Chicago and Texas.

In May 1915 the Rev. Dr. Worth Marion Tippy took MacMullen's place as pastor.  According to newspapers he was the highest salaried pastor in the Methodist church.  He took the pulpit at a tense time, as war spread across the European continent.

On Thanksgiving 1915 the churches were unusually crowded, The Sun explaining "Pastors generally attributed this to the fact that the dreadfulness of the world war and the good fortune of the United States in being able to keep out of it has stirred the religious feeling of the people and caused great numbers to feel a special reason for giving thanks."

While many pastors across the city waxed militant in their sermons, Rev. Tippy was decidedly more diplomatic, noting that "the outpourings of the Germans about God must not be thought a mockery because they represented the deeply religious spirit of the German people."

Within a few months at least one New Yorker felt the pastor's sentiments did not go far enough.  In the spring of 1916 Tippy received a letter from George Jacobson, who said that the war in Europe could be ended if the ministers in America "would do their duty."  Tippy replied to that letter, but ignored those that continued to pour into his mailbox.

Finally, the letter that came on Thursday, May 18, got his attention.  The New York Times reported "the writer said that if Dr. Tippy did not agree to an appointment to discuss steps to end the war, he would be shot on Sunday as he stood in his pulpit."  The letter got the attention of the police department as well.

That Sunday Jacobson was arrested and Magistrate Murphy of the Yorkville Court had him committed to Bellevue Hospital "for observation as to his sanity."

Tippy was by no means ignoring the European conflict.  Well before the United States became involved and "stirred by the calamity of war," as explained by The Times, he opened the church for relief work.  Scores of women arrived every day to make bandages for the wounded.

On February 19, 1917 Tippy announced that he was leaving Madison Avenue M. E. Church to become Secretary in Charge of Social Service in the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America.  The New York Times noted that he was taking a $4,000 a year salary cut to do so.   But the progressive-thinking minister had other things, apparently, than money on his mind.

"Mr. Tippy has also been of the belief that the churches of the nation should take a leading part in bettering conditions of labor, in elevating women to an equal status with men, in enforcing a six-day work week, in advocating prison reform, and in turning the churches over to the use of the people for proper recreation purposes," said The Times.

Two months before the end of World War I a somewhat surprising guest speaker took the pulpit at the Madison Avenue M. E. Church.  Bishop Yoshishu Haraiwa gave the sermon on September 1, 1918--one that might have been interpreted more as self-promoting propaganda for his homeland that as religious enlightenment.

"Japan has been grossly misrepresented," he began.  "Japan is not in lust of territory, but any improvement in her army and navy has been brought about because of her desire for self preservation.  Our attitude toward America is and always has been friendly."

Rev. Tippy's replacement was the Rev. Dr. Ralph W. Sockman.  He made his voice heard repeatedly regarding the issues that naturally followed the declaration of peace.   He pointed out in his sermon on May 11, 1919 that "The army and navy of Germany have been taken away from her.  We no longer need fear her in those realms."  But, he warned, the real danger was the commercial rivalry of the trade routes and reminded his parishioners that was one of the chief causes of the war.  He stressed that the United States and its allies needed to control the commerce of the world.

Five years later, at a world-wide conference, he warned against the rearming of the world's military.  "Armies should be reduced from the level of war power to a police power level...There can be no war to end war."  He believed that the only avenue to lasting peace would come "by stopping preparations for war."

Like Tippy, Sockman was progressive in his thinking.  In 1924 he modified the church's long-standing ban "against dancing, attending theatre, cards and other forms of amusement."  He calmed his congregants in his sermon on June 8 saying he "expected no orgy of abuses" and considered the fear that the church would become a center of "dancing and card parties" as absurd.

A month earlier he had condemned the Government's proposed policy of censorship.  "There must be self-mastery before than can be healthy self-expression," he said.  Regulation of what a person could do or see was not a solution.  He recommended teaching people self-control.  And the following year he denounced the very concept of the Scope Trials.  "Some legislators think they can preserve belief in Christian truth by passing laws to prevent the teaching of certain scientific theories," he said.

When this photograph was taken on October 20, 1930, the tower had lost its topmost portion.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
On April 29, 1929 The New York Times announced "in a transaction involving nearly $4,000,000, the Madison Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church has sold its present building and site on the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and Sixtieth Street and purchased a larger site in the same block at the northwest corner of Park Avenue and Sixtieth Street."  The following day the newspaper ran the headline "Office Skyscraper to Replace Church; Campagna Building will Rise on Madison Avenue M. E. Site."

But fate had other ideas.  The church sat vacant and neglected for years; The New York Times explaining that the Campagna development firm faced "delays due to depression and war."  Finally in 1941 things seemed to be progressing when Robertson's striking building was demolished to make way for the long awaited Campagna Building.

But then World War II brought on another delay.  The empty lot was purchased by the Madison-Sixtieth Street Corporation in 1943; but it would not be until 1950 that work finally began on the 24-story International Style building known as 655 Madison Avenue.

from the collection of the New York Public Library

That building survived until the turn of the century, remodeled in 2002 as the 25-story office building designed by Swanke Hayden Connell & Partners.

photo via


  1. The 1950 structure at 655 Madison Avenue was not replaced, but only re-clad.

  2. Your fascinating article raises an equally fascinating subject: the history of the he Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States. Especially appealing to the poor and middle class because of its renunciation of the mores and materialism of the rich and to free blacks because of its staunch anti-slavery stance, it became one of the largest denominations in the United States. My sense is that as the 19th Century wore on, many of its more prosperous, or at least socially conscious members decamped for the Episcopal Church and by the mid 20th century, the various Methodist denominations formed a United Methodist Church.