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A Building With a Mission: Brooklyn's Plymouth Church

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Welcome back to Curbed Classics, a column in which writer Lisa Santoro traces the history of a classic New York City building. Have a building to nominate for a future installment? Please suggest it to the tipline.

Brooklyn's Plymouth Church is not only a vital community stronghold in the neighborhood but also an important symbol in American history. Founded in 1847 by 21 New Englanders hoping to replicate the Congregational churches back home, the congregation's original building was a former Presbyterian church first constructed in the 1820s. While it was the third church of its denomination to be built in Brooklyn, it quickly exceeded the other two in influence, thanks to its pastor, Henry Ward Beecher. From his very first sermon, Beecher made it known that he was an ardent abolitionist and that the cornerstone of his ministry would be his staunch opposition to slavery. It was not only his sermons that expressed this view, but also the church's building itself.

The original Plymouth Church burned in a fire in 1849, only two years after it was first built; the building was not totally destroyed, however, and in 1862 would be rebuilt as the church's fellowship hall. But as Beecher's congregation had far exceeded the original space, a larger main building was needed. In 1850, a new meetinghouse, known as the "Sanctuary," was erected by English architect J.C. Wells, one of the founders of the American Institute of Architects. The Sanctuary was located at 57 Orange Street, directly behind the site on Cranberry Street where the original church stood. The design was built according to the same plan that influenced the Broadway Tabernacle in Manhattan, a church that also possessed a strong anti-slavery sentiment.

The Sanctuary, a classic example of 19th century urban tabernacle architecture featuring both Italianate and colonial ornamentation, was tailor-made for Beecher. The building, which seated 2,800 people, more closely resembled an auditorium or a theater rather than a church, and provided excellent acoustics and good visibility without a center aisle?all qualities that lent themselves to Beecher's style of preaching. Other elements of the new sanctuary building distinguished it from its contemporaries. First introduced in 1849, cast-iron columns were installed to support the main balcony, preceding the emergence of cast-iron construction in New York City during the mid-1850s. In 1866, the church installed the largest organ in the United States, built by E. and G.G. Hook of Boston.

The Sanctuary provided Beecher with the stage he needed to showcase his superb oratory and theatrical skills. He was known for holding "mock auctions" in which the parishioners would purchase the freedom of real slaves. The most famous one was a young girl named Pinky, whose freedom was auctioned during the Sunday service on February 5, 1860. The congregation took up a collection to buy Pinky from her owner?$900 was raised and a small gold ring was donated as well. Beecher took this ring and presented it to Pinky as a symbol of her liberation. In 1927, Pinky returned to Plymouth for its 80th anniversary and returned the ring as a sign of gratitude. Today, Pinky's ring and a copy of the bill of sale can still be viewed at Plymouth.

Beecher's abolitionism was not just reserved for church services?he made certain that it would become Plymouth's principal mission. He invited several famous anti-slavery advocates to speak to his congregation, including William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth, Wendell Phillips, Charles Sumner and Frederick Douglass. Plymouth also became commonly known as "the Grand Central depot" of New York City's "Underground Railroad"?the secret network of people who assisted slaves in escaping to the North and Canada. According to oral tradition and published memoirs, slaves were said to have hidden in the tunnel-like basement of the church. A quote from Beecher, recorded by his private stenographer, affirms this claim:"I opened Plymouth Church, though you did now know it, to hide fugitives. I took them into my own home and fed them. I piloted them, and sent them toward the North Star, which to them was the Star of Bethlehem." This became public knowledge as the The Brooklyn Eagle listed Beecher as an active participant in the Underground Railroad in 1872. Although there were other churches in Brooklyn and Manhattan that hid escapees, Plymouth is one of the few active Underground Railroad sites still housed in its original location.

Given Beecher's stance, Plymouth's affiliation with Abraham Lincoln is not surprising. In February 1860, the yet-to-be-announced Republican candidate was invited to speak at Plymouth, but at the last minute, the speech was relocated to The Cooper Union. This historic speech, in which Lincoln boldly stated his position against slavery, was regarded as a political triumph and is credited with winning him the Republican nomination?quite a feat considering his opponent, William Seward, was a New York native. Despite the change in venue, Lincoln did attend church at Plymouth the day before his speech; in fact, Plymouth is the only church in New York City that Lincoln ever attended.

The greatest writers and thinkers of the day were also invited to Plymouth. In 1867, a young Mark Twain was invited to accompany members of the congregation on a five and a half month voyage to Europe and the Holy Land. His experience resulted in his satire, The Innocents Abroad, which became Twain's best-selling work throughout his lifetime. Twain also spoke at Plymouth, as did many other notables, including Clara Barton, Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Horace Greeley and William Thackeray. A century later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would come to Plymouth to preach a sermon on "The American Dream," a precursor to his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech.

Given Beecher's significance, it comes as no surprise that a day of mourning was declared throughout Brooklyn when he passed away in 1887. Fortunately for the congregation, Beecher's successors continued his legacy, most noticeably through expanding the church and commissioning various physical improvements. Artist Frederick Stymetz Lamb, for example, designed ornate stained glass windows for the Sanctuary, which were constructed by Lamb's brothers of J. and R. Lamb Studios in Greenwich Village and installed between 1907 and 1909. The designs were unusual in that they depicted historical, rather than religious, subjects?"taking as their theme the influence of Puritanism (the parent of Congregationalism) on the growth of liberty in the United States?personal liberty, religious liberty and political liberty."

In 1913, an effort to physically expand the church was orchestrated by Plymouth's third minister, Newell Dwight Hillis. Three new buildings were constructed to become a settlement house named the Arbuckle Institute, in recognition of John Arbuckle, a particularly charitable church member. The buildings were designed by Woodruff Leeming, who twenty years prior designed the 1893 rectory for Brooklyn's South Congregational Church on the corner of Court and President Streets in Carroll Gardens.

Bigger changes were still to come. In 1934, Plymouth merged with the neighboring Church of the Pilgrims, the first ever Congregational church in Brooklyn, and became the Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims. The original Church of the Pilgrims was housed just a few blocks away in architect Richard Upjohn's 1846 masterpiece at the corner of Henry and Remsen Streets, now occupied by Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Catholic Church. When the churches merged, the original Tiffany windows from Upjohn's church, which included three signed by Louis Comfort Tiffany and one from Tiffany Studios, were transferred to Plymouth's ownership. Several other windows, including a noteworthy "Ascension" scene on the north wall, were created by Otto Heinigke, a leading glass artist in the 20th century and creator of the stunning mosaics in the lobby of the 1913 Woolworth Building. These treasures were later installed in the 1862 fellowship hall, which was rebuilt in the 1950s following yet another fire. This building was subsequently named Hillis Hall in honor of the man who oversaw Plymouth's sole expansion.

Currently, the Plymouth complex looks very much as it did at the time of the expansion. The buildings of the Arbuckle Institute are currently being used as the Church House, the Gymnasium and the Arcade. Perhaps one of the most symbolic areas of the complex is the Arcade. This atrium hallway connects the 19th century buildings to the 20th century buildings and features a piece of the original Plymouth Rock, another significant artifact acquired in the merger with the Church of the Pilgrims. However, this merger wouldn't last forever: in 2011, Plymouth returned to its original name, claiming that in "going back to our roots prior to the 1934 merger with Church of the Pilgrims, Plymouth Church welcomes a new era with a name as modern as it is historic."
?Lisa Santoro

Further Reading:
Official site: Plymouth Church
Underground Railroad: Plymouth Church [NPS.gov]
· Curbed Classics archive [Curbed]