Churches in Harlem and East Harlem have been very much in the news, due to declining membership and deteriorating buildings, and numerous sales of these properties. And so, when a reader told us that the historic bells were recently removed from St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Harlem, we were more than curious ~ and delighted to learn that the carillon is on its way to South Carolina for evaluation and restoration. A representative of the Diocese went on to say that their first order of business will be to stabilize the tower and interior space, with scaffolding going up inside the building next week. At present, the Diocese has no plans to sell. Good news for this beautiful Landmarked building that graces Lenox Avenue at 122nd Street.
Let us take a look at St. Martin’s history. The church was designed by William A. Potter, built from 1887-89 as Holy Trinity Protestant Episcopal Church of Harlem. It was extensively damaged in the second of two fires, which occurred in 1939, leaving only the stone walls standing.
Not deterred, the congregation rose to meet the enormous effort it would take to rebuilt, and in the late 1940s, member of the church commissioned the manufacture and installation of its historic 42-bell carillon, to be placed in the tower.
In a 1966 report, the Landmarks Preservation Commission contended that this late 19th century church is “undoubtedly the handsomest example of the Romanesque Revival architectural style in all of Manhattan.” In their findings, they describe St. Martin’s as having “a special character, special historical and aesthetic interest and value as part of the development, heritage and cultural characteristics of New York City,” making particular note of the bells.
The Royal Bell Casting Foundry in the Netherlands was the company chosen and commissioned to build the carillon, which was installed in 1949. The carillon, considered the second largest in the world after Riverside Church, with 74 bells, was visited by Queen Juliana of the Netherlands in 1952 and by Queen Elizabeth for the dedication in 1954. It is made up of a 42 bell carillon and three large chiming bells in the bell tower. Each large bell weighs approximately 2,500 pounds ~ not easy to move.
In The New York History Blog, the editor of Hearing History, Mark M. Smith said, “sound shapes spatial experiences and contributes to people’s sense of identity. The range of a bell’s sound defined a parish, but in Western history, bell ringing meshed religious and secular purposes…….In the American context, church bells were rung for moments of secular celebration, including the Fourth of July, and New Year’s.”
Reverend David Johnson described the carillon as a “cultural gold mine, like a painting” but St. Martin’s riches go far beyond the carillon and include numerous religious mosaics, stained glass and leaded glass windows and doors–a favorite for weddings in what has become a multi-cultural neighborhood.
The beautiful interior of the church also includes leaded stained glass windows separating rooms in the parish hall and stained glass exterior windows. Intricate mosaic work, including floors, and a mosaic panel based on El Greco’s “Cleansing of the Temple.”
In addition, The Tree of Life: Symbol of Salvation, a mosaic by Romare Bearden, whose parents belonged to the St. Martin’s congregation. The mosaic hangs in the tower entry vestibule.
The above picture is of the queen mother of the Netherlands, attending the dedication ceremony of the 42 large bells (carillon), fabricated in the Netherlands.
Aside from the beauty and historic significance of the building, its history of supporting its membership can not go unmentioned. In 1937, the Federal Credit Union was established with the purpose of allowing African-Americans to obtain mortgages and acquire real property. The Credit Union, which was located on the first floor of the parish house, also made small loans at low interest rates to church members.
The membership has dwindled, and the carillon and building are in overwhelming disrepair, with the carillon being structurally unsound. The church is in such disrepair that services are no longer held in the sanctuary ~ where the ceiling has already collapsed.
As reported by the New York Times in 2018, the bishop replaced the congregation’s lay leaders, after failing to come to an agreement about selling one of the church’s three nearby brownstones to help pay for needed repairs and renovations.
The Diocese, now taking the helm, is moving forward with the first phase of what is expected to be a lengthy restoration program. Stay tuned.
St. Martin’s Episcopal Church was designated a New York City Landmark in 1966, and is located in the Mount Morris Historic District of Harlem, which was designated in 1971.
While there are many active churches with substantial membership within Harlem, it is worth mentioning some of the churches lost to the community in recent years.
A lovely tiny church overlooking Central Park, just east of Adam Clayton Powell, seemed to disappear without a trace. Around the corner on Lenox Avenue and 111th Street, Second Canaan Baptist Church was demolished and replaced with an eight-story development; two churches on 116th Street have faced the wrecking-ball ~ Baptist Temple at 20 West 116th Street and Second Providence Baptist Church at 11 West 116th Street, where the church lawyer pleaded guilty to scamming the Harlem Church out of $600,000; the beautiful Mount Moriah Baptist Church located on Fifth Avenue between 126th-127th Streets (2050 Fifth Avenue) faced foreclosure and is now a private residence; St. James Methodist Episcopal Church located at 45 East 126th Street is scheduled for demolition, and The Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary, the nation’s oldest order of black nuns, just sold their 18,000+ building overlooking Marcus Garvey Park. The three-story La Hermosa Christian Church, overlooking Central Park at the Duke Ellington Circle, has requested a rezoning and filed plans for a 33 story tower. These are just a few that caught our eye ~ there are many more, and many more expected, and they aren’t just in Harlem and East Harlem.
Houses of Worship Grappling with Harlem’s Development Boom in Crain’s New York Business, March 18, 2019.
Another historic bell currently being restored, calls Marcus Garvey Park its home. The historic Fire Watchtower project has almost concluded, and expected to return to the Park in the Fall of 2019.