Birds sing in the broad sycamore that stretches over a forgotten block on Manhattan’s East 19th Street. Not far away, at the end of the block, the impenetrable brick wall of Stuyvesant Town’s towers rises up where once the street continued on to the East River. On both sides of the street several bleak brick buildings, bearing no ornamentation but rusty fire escapes, stand amidst the row of corniced town-homes that have inhabited the block for the better part of a century. And on the north side, wedged between the tidy shutters of a brownstone and a sleepy terra-cotta colored tenement, is an empty, debris-strewn lot where not so long ago the Christ Lutheran Church once stood.
In New York City, and particularly on Manhattan’s East side, which is renowned for its impetuous race to constantly reinvent itself, the church’s congregation had long since learned that almost nothing in Manhattan lasts forever. For nearly six years the crumbling stone arch of the church’s front facade stood amidst the mostly demolished building—a tombstone for the congregation that once called it home. But earlier this year, in the solemn dead of winter, the sounds of hammers and chisels pounded away at its stones, and the arch faded into the shadows of the neighborhood that once raised it.
Rev. Brooke Swertfager led the Christ Lutheran Church congregation for the last 10 years before it closed its doors forever. Now in her 50s, the witty, auburn-haired Swertfager carries herself with grace, but as she speaks she seems haunted by the loss of her congregation’s home. In her office in the Lutheran Seafarer & International House by Union Square, Swertfager leaned back in her chair and rested her chin on her fingertips as she looked back on her life at the small church on 19th Street.
Due to financial troubles and declining attendance, Swertfager’s last few years at Christ Lutheran Church had been a gradual but difficult realization that the once great congregation’s time was coming to an end. For Swertfager, saying goodbye was a bittersweet moment.
“Frankly, I’m so glad that they did it,” said Swertfager, her malachite-colored eyes moist despite her stolid voice. “It was kind of like a scab on a wound.”
For 125 years the Lutheran congregation had called East 19th Street home—although, even during those years, it wasn’t the first time they’d had to watch one of their houses of worship demolished before their eyes.
In 1868 a group of German and English immigrants—led by German-American George Unangst Wenner—founded the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Christ above a blacksmith shop near the corner of 5th Avenue and East 14th Street. In those early days, Wenner used an anvil for his pulpit and the congregation numbered less than a dozen. But as waves of immigrants continued to pour into the area, the congregation steadily grew.
For over a decade the congregation migrated from one place to another as it matured, finally finding a more permanent home in what was then New York’s “Little Germany”—a vibrant neighborhood that stretched along the East Side of Manhattan.
“At the beginning of the ‘70s, after a decade of continuously rising immigration, Kleindeutschland was in its fullest bloom,” wrote historian Stanley Nadel. “Kleindeutschland, called Dutchtown by the Irish, consisted of 400 blocks formed by some six avenues and nearly 40 streets,” and was lined with covered-markets, beer halls, and oyster saloons. The neighborhood also had its own amusement district that featured puppet shows and classical drama performances.
Here the congregation found a home at 406 E. 19th St., the Chapel of Free Grace. The impressive gothic revival church, with its gabled tower, elegant chapter house, and stained-glass rose window, was a symbol of its quickly growing social and cultural significance in the community. But despite the Lutheran immigrants’ relief at settling down, after years of transience, their troubles were far from over.
“The extraordinary conditions of a rapidly expanding metropolis, with its nomadic population, together with our special drawback of congregations divided among various races and languages as well as conflicting schools of theological definition, make our tasks heavy and confront us with problems of grave difficulty,” wrote Rev. Wenner, in his 1918 book, “The Lutherans of New York: Their Story and Their Problems.”
His congregation had finally found a home on the East Side, but New York City’s race to modernize as it approached the turn of the 20th century was creating a kind of urban diaspora that was slowly tearing his congregation apart and redefining the neighborhood around it.
“The completion of the Elevated Lines in 1879 and the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883 changed the course of history for our Lutheran congregations,” wrote Wenner. “It was hard for those of us who still held the fort on Manhattan Island to see the congregations we had gathered with painstaking effort scattering in every direction, especially to lose the children and grandchildren of our faithful families.”
But the problem was one that had only just begun when Wenner wrote these words. The neighborhood around the Lutheran church was to become an increasingly transient place in the decades to come, and by the time Rev. Swertfager arrived nearly a hundred years later, there was already little left to salvage.
While walking his dog below the leafy sycamore on 19th Street, John Donnelly glanced back at the blue scaffolding around the empty lot where the Christ Lutheran Church once stood.
“I guess the church didn’t have a congregation anymore, so they sold,” said Donnelly, who has lived in one of the apartment buildings across the street from the church for the past 15 years. He said that, although the neighborhood traditionally has a high turnover rate, its deep-rooted community has dissolved even more so in recent years.
“Most of these buildings are rentals,” said Donnelly. “Over the years it’s become a lot more transient because you have a lot more college kids moving in.” He said that many of these rentals have replaced homes in the area and that the new, younger tenants are probably less invested in neighborhood dynamics.
The changing demographic was also one of the reasons that Swertfager said contributed to the decline of her congregation during the years that she served as pastor at Christ Lutheran Church.
“When I came there in 1991 several couples retired and moved away,” Swertfager said, “and I was left with primarily single, elderly women.” It was a sobering realization for Swertfager, but by the time she arrived, the Evangelical Lutheran community which had grown in vast waves during the late 19th and early 20th century, had almost completely vanished from the East Side of Manhattan.
One of the major blows to the neighborhood’s sense of community came in the early 1940s. As World War II came to a close and soldiers began returning from overseas, city planners searched for solutions to New York City’s housing crisis. At the time, one of the most prevalent strategies, which was championed by city planner Robert Moses, was known as “slum clearance”—a program in which entire neighborhoods were demolished and replaced with towering apartment complexes.
“You can draw any kind of picture you want on a clean slate,” Moses said, referring to his methods, “but when you operate in an overbuilt metropolis, you have to hack your way with a meat axe.”
Although the neighborhood around the Lutheran’s Chapel of Free Grace was home to some 3,100 families in the early ‘40s, this was one of the neighborhoods chosen for “slum clearance.” Throughout the early part of the decade almost all of those families were evicted to make way for a new housing project known as Stuyvesant Town.
The New York Times wrote that the large-scale eviction of the tenants living in the Stuyvesant Town area was, “the greatest and most significant mass movement of families in New York City’s history.” It was the beginning of the end for a once unified community that had long called the neighborhood home. It was also the beginning of the end for the Lutheran congregation that had made its home there 66 years ago.
“In Stuyvesant Town, because of design, they became semi-autonomous and turned away from the rest of the neighborhood,” said David Smiley, a professor of architecture and urban studies at Columbia University. In what had once been a tightly-knit neighborhood of New York that blended seamlessly with the city around it, was now a looming brick colossus of 56 towers fenced in a 16-block area, and separated from the world around it.
Not only did the construction of Stuyvesant Town, and its twin development of Peter Cooper Village, isolate its residents within, it also fragmented the neighborhoods around its borders. After the Chapel of Free Grace was demolished to make way for the huge developments, the congregation constructed the Christ Lutheran Church at 355 E. 19th St.—a block away—but only to discover that most of its congregation had disappeared, scattered throughout the city and across the nation.
Over the following years the church fell farther and farther into disrepair, slowly running out of funds as its community dwindled away.
“It was an albatross—we couldn’t maintain the building and there was constant damage,” Swertfager said, adding that she spent most of her time keeping up with repairs herself in the moldering building because of the church’s financial troubles.
“We saw ourselves running out of reserves,” said Swertfager. “We sold while we could still get good money for it and before it crumbled into oblivion.”
In 2006, after two years of research and consultation with a real estate lawyer who had recently negotiated the sale of another church by Washington Square Park, Swertfager found a buyer she trusted—a couple with plans for altering the property, but who shared her vision of preserving the legacy of the church.
“We left it with the Goulds,” Swertfager said, “and they had architects coming and going and we had a very special relationship.” But over the course of the next few years, Swertfager noticed that although portions of the church had begun to disappear, little progress had been made.
Jonathan Gould, the developer who had purchased the property, hired architect Garth Hayden to design a low-rise luxury condo tower that would adaptively fit on top of the church while at the same time maintaining the integrity of the church’s facade. Hayden spent the next two years personally surveying and measuring every beam and wall of the church, and designing architectural models of the planned renovation. But things didn’t turn out the way that Swertfager and he had expected.
“We proposed alterations to the church and it was approved and ready to go,” Hayden said, describing the tedious process for obtaining construction permits from the Department of Buildings. However, after working on the project for over a year, he said that for undisclosed reasons construction was halted. Then, after several more months, structurally weakened and exposed to the elements, the arch of the Christ Lutheran Church that had stood at 355 E. 19th St. since 1948 collapsed.
“It was really unfortunate,” said Hayden, who had been very enthusiastic about the project, “because of the historical importance.”
Although Gould was unavailable to speak to current plans for the church, Stanley Vickers, who owns the property next door and sold air rights—the rights to build additional stories on the lot—to Gould, said that the deal was terminated because of financial difficulties. In 2012 the lot was then sold to Yosi Cohen, a developer who recently began construction on a seven-story apartment building that will soon rise above the remaining town homes beside it.
For five years the crumbling stone walls of the lot had sat derelict—a melancholy reminder of the old Little Germany—soon to disappear into the ever more transient neighborhood. The church had been part of the community for nearly 60 years, and although most residents didn’t know why it had been torn down, the few who had long lived on the street were sad to see it go.
“The community didn’t know,” said Swertfager. “There is no community there, really.” The neighborhood where Rev. Wenner had founded the Evangelical Lutheran Church nearly 150 years ago was gone, and the congregation that he had worked to bring together was nowhere to be found. Little by little, the buildings and the residents that had once inhabited Little Germany had been replaced.
After closing their doors in 2007, Swertfager’s remaining congregation joined the Lutheran Seafarer’s & International House, a guesthouse for travelers and asylum seekers, half a mile from the old church on 19th Street and right beside the transit hub of Union Square.
“We’ve done better since we moved over here because we get people from every borough,” Swertfager said. The very trains and bridges that had torn apart Rev. Wenner’s congregation more than a century ago were now bringing together a splintered community in the neighborhood that it once called home.
While New York City continues its perpetual reinvention all around her, Swertfager continues to lead the remnants of her scattered congregation, only one block from the blacksmith shop where the congregation first came together. And after all of the years of searching for home, for now, the congregation has found one in the Seafarer’s & International House, whose motto is, appropriately, “Because nobody should be isolated or forgotten, whether at sea or ashore.”