The Midblock Churches of Harlem
These strangely situated places of worship were designed to be read in close proximity and relationship to their neighbors.
In New York, corner lots connote status. While the city is full of churches clad in European garb, there are few piazzas, squares, and plazas to frame them, as there would be in, say, Rome or Amsterdam. Instead, New York offers parishes and congregations the corner lot. Think of First Baptist on West 79th and Broadway; Church of the Heavenly Rest on East 90th and Fifth Avenue; Grace Church on East Tenth and Broadway; St. Patrick’s Cathedral spans the full block between East 50th and 51st on Fifth Avenue. The larger and more prominent a church’s site, the more corners its address accrues: St. John the Divine is located between West 110th, West 113th, Amsterdam Avenue, and Morningside Drive.
For newer congregations and those with limited resources—often serving minority or immigrant communities—the corner lot simply isn’t an option. Such might have been the case in Harlem for three of the city’s most prominent Black churches: St. Philip’s Episcopal (204 West 134th Street), Abyssinian Baptist Church (132 West 138th Street), and Mother African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion (140 West 137th Street). All are mid-block and nearly invisible from Malcolm X Boulevard or Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, the neighborhood’s main thoroughfares. An unsuspecting passerby will hardly notice these churches until, sometimes literally, stumbling upon them.
While collectively they represent some of the oldest Black congregations in New York City (all were founded near the turn of the nineteenth century), these church buildings date back to the early twentieth century. In moving uptown, however, congregations found corner lots either already claimed or simply too expensive, even for St. Philip’s, which eventually became the wealthiest Black congregation in the country. Rather than move into preexisting places of worship (as Mount Neboh Baptist and Mount Olivet Baptist churches had done, taking over desacralized synagogues), St. Philip’s Episcopal, Abyssinian Baptist, and Mother AME Zion not only purchased their own lots but hired locally renowned architects to design new places of worship. The relocation of these key congregations to Harlem directly prefigured explosive population growth in the Black community. Over the past century, the churches have become neighborhood anchors, drawing movement into their respective blocks and reinforcing interconnectedness between the more commercial avenues of Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevards (or Sixth and Seventh Avenues). These places doubled as social and political fora, shaping local decisions by way of prominent church members and leaders. To name a few associated with each congregation is to draw upon an impressive constellation of luminaries: Powell, James Baldwin, Paul Robeson, even the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Further, the churches have a long history in providing social programs and services, organizing local activism, and functioning as community hubs. Historically, the mid-block church is a uniquely anchoring architecture.
But it is not the only typology to possess this quality. Many neighborhoods benefit from institutions located in the middle of blocks, such as the 67 New York Public Library branches funded by Andrew Carnegie in all five boroughs. Each Carnegie branch library was built between 1901 and 1923 and designed to fit in with the scale of its context, while being materially distinctive. (In Harlem, all five McKim, Mead & White–designed libraries are located mid-block.) As only one elevation was “designed,” such projects avoid the higher costs associated with a corner lot design (two-plus elevations) or a design set apart from its context (four-plus elevations). Contrast this idea of single-elevation architecture with today’s high design ethos, which treats buildings as urban islands whose every exposure must be highly designed and expensively detailed
Electing for a simple exterior also frees up more money to be invested internally, as quickly became the mode in Harlem. Vertner Tandy and George W. Foster Jr., the first licensed Black architects in New York State, designed St. Philip’s Church in 1911 with workaday brick elevation. The interior is likewise straightforward: a central nave and side aisles, pews, and altar. However, Charles W. Bolton & Son, a Philadelphia firm that specialized in churches, designed Abyssinian Baptist in 1922 to break with this tradition. The church’s bluestone collegiate gothic facade conceals an unconventionally tiered interior layout. In lieu of an altar, the space’s focal point is a modest elevated stage, ringed tightly with two-tiered choir seating and radiating pews. For the design of Mother AME Zion in 1923, Foster embraced this same centripetal plan, while achieving a more theatrical effect. The relationship of altar to encircling pews evokes that of stage and boxed seating. Heavy hammer-beam trusses frame the auditorium the way a proscenium arch frames a theater.
All these Harlem churches were designed to be read in close proximity and relationship to their neighbors. This creates an up-close, forced perspective (good luck trying to take a flattering photo of any of these buildings) that eschews easy visibility—perhaps a form of anti-vanity architecture. It seems New York could use more of this sensibility.
Amanda Iglesias is an architectural designer in New York City. Apropos of her name, she likes churches.