Saturday, April 05, 2008

New Projects

While I'm hoping to put together something about the old Staten Island Hospital this week, I'm working on two larger projects. The first will be about the secret architectural history of the North Shore of Staten Island and the second about its plethora of old churches.

The secret history project is about all the beautiful homes that once lined the North Shore's tree lined streets. I always knew there had been big mansions and estates but only as I've been going through books and archives have I started to get a sense of all the other buildings that have been lost over the decades. On as regular a basis as I can manage I'll add a picture or two with commentary when able.

This is where the St. George Municipal Parking Lot now sits. If you look closely at the picture's center you can make out the cupola on the house that's in present day picture of St. Mark's Place. I count at least ten large homes where the lot is today and the picture only shows its upper half.

My plan is to collect historical pictures of some of these buildings and get as many of the few remaining ones with my camera. The hard part will be tracking down histories of the houses but I will try.

The church project is a whole different thing. Staten Island has a long history of Christian denominational diversity. Some of it was based on theological differences and some on ethnicity. At one point there where half a dozen German, Norwegian and Swedish Lutheran congregations, as well as Episcopal and Methodist churches (with missions to the immigrant groups), and Baptist, Dutch Reform, Presbyterian and, of course, Roman Catholics.

Over the years, as populations shifted (to New Jersey) and the strength of the old Protestant denominations waned many of the older churches were sold to different denominations. I used to think this was a new phenomenon but my research has already disabused me of this idea. People were always moving away while others were moving in. During the great immigration periods around the beginning of the twentieth century this happened all over Staten Island. The same sort of thing has been happening again for the last thirty years.

My obsession with the North Shore's churches started when I discovered this beautiful old building on Delafield Avenue. At the time it was an Orthodox Jewish yeshiva but I didn't know anything about its history.

Since then I've learned quite a bit (it was the Elizabeth Methodist Episcopal Church and its congregation merged with Grace Methodist's in the sixties and formed Faith United in Port Richmond. The building was sold to a Jewish shul and later a yeshiva. Now it's abandoned) and it's only left me wanting to know more. So the project was conceived. With luck and work it should be done sometime this fall, though I suspect it will always be undergoing updates and revisions. There are about sixty churches I've discovered that I want to get exterior, interior and historical pictures of as well as historical data.

I plan to start with the Port Richmond Reformed Church as it's the oldest congregation on the North Shore and exists pretty much today as it looks in this old picture. It's surrounded by a graveyard with seventeenth century headstones in it which I remember reading when I went to Port Richmond when I was a little kid.

From there I plan to move on to the dozen or so churches that have changed congregations and denominations, or in the case of a few, face demolition. After that I'll get to the rest. Each building and congregation has its own history that I want to collect in a single place.

As a Lutheran I'm interested in how other Christians worship and what things they surround themselves with in terms of buildings and interior appointments. As a Staten Islander and historian I'm fascinated with the borough's shifting populations, demographics and development. Hopefully I'll convince other people that it's equally intriguing. If not you'll at least have, hopefully, dozens of very cool pictures to look at.

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