In the summer of 2015, Newtown Historical Society sought help from State Senator Tony Avella in obtaining official NYC landmark designation for the Old St. James Church /Parish Hall, located at 86-02 Broadway in Elmhurst. The building has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places for some time, but has never been officially designated a landmark by the city, which would legally protect it from demolition. Senator Avella wrote to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, asking for an evaluation of the property, and received the following reply:
Thank you for your recent submission concerning the Old St. James Parish Hall, 86-02 Broadway. The agency has reviewed the property referenced above for consideration as a potential landmark. While the building was constructed in 1735-36, it was significantly remodeled in 1883 and was resided in the 20th century leaving little historic fabric on the exterior. The current appearance of the exterior of the building is a recreation of the 1883 remodeling, and only the heavy timber frame, rectangular massing and interior paneling and woodwork remain from the Colonial era. Due to these alterations the property will not be recommended to the full Commission for further consideration as an individual New York City Landmark.
Although we acknowledge that the property referenced above is undoubtedly important to its congregation and to its community, we are sure you understand that in a city the size of New York, the committee must be extremely selective in the structures it proposes for landmark designation.
Mary Beth Betts
Director of Research
NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission
This untruthful response was unexpected, and State Assembly Member Jeffrion Aubry wrote the following to Mary Beth Betts, November 18, 2015:
I am writing to respectfully request that the agency re-evaluate its most recent decision to not recommend the Old St. James Episcopal Parish Hall, 86-02 Broadway in Queens to the full commission for further consideration as an individual New York City Landmark.
In your letter addressed to State Senator Tony Avella dated September 22, 2015, you submit several reasons for this decision:
The parish was significantly remodeled in 1883. The minimum age for a building to qualify for New York City Landmark designation is 30 years. The 1883 remodeling occurred 148 years ago.
The parish was resided in the 20th century leaving little historic fabric on the exterior. In 1963, the U.S. Postal Service proposed to buy the parish hall, tear it down and replace it with a new post office.
The church rejected the offer and cited the historic importance of the building. Although there is little 18th century fabric on the exterior, the building has its original 19th century shingles. There seems to be an inconsistency with the Commission’s selection process as well. The Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace and Fraunces Tavern are both designated NYC Landmarks, yet neither contain their original fabric, nor were they reconstructed to their original style.
In 2004, the parish underwent major restoration which included a new roof, restoration of the cedar siding, windows, eaves and brackets. The 1883 decorative brackets on the gables were also restored. The restoration architect was Kaitsen Woo and his general contractor was 53 Restorations, Inc. The total cost was $430,000 which included a $150,000 loan from the Landmarks Conservancy. The Conservancy ultimately awarded the restoration project its Lucy G. Moses Preservation Award.
Old St. James Episcopal Parish Hall is a landmark establishment which still provides services to the community almost 300 years since it was erected. It is one of the oldest and most historic buildings in Queens, worthy of recognition and preservation by the City of New York. Moreover, the residents and businesses of Elmhurst, Queens, would benefit from potential increase in tourism and local consumer spending brought on by the parish’s historical landmark designation.
Thank you for your commitment to historic preservation. I respectfully request that the agency reverse its decision and forward Old St. James Episcopal Parish Hall’s application to the Landmarks Preservation Commission for full consideration to be designated as an individual New York City Landmark.
Assemblyman Jeffrion L. Aubry
Speaker Pro Tempore
New York State Assembly
The rejection was also not acceptable to the preservation group that funded and worked on the 2004 restoration. The following letter was written by Peg Breen, President of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, to Meenakshi Srinivasan, Chair of the Landmarks Preservation Commission:
I am writing in response to the attached letter dated September 22, 2015 from Mary Beth Betts to State Senator Tony Avella, stating that Old St. James Parish Hall will not be recommended to the full commission for designation as an individual landmark. The Conservancy urges you to reconsider this position, based on the reasons set forth below.
Old St. James Parish Hall is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and dates from about 1735; it is the oldest vernacular Colonial Anglican structure in the City of New York. It contains much of its original interior fabric, as Ms. Betts states in her letter. Instead of basing its consideration rejection on its exterior remodeling in 1883, one could readily deem this another period of significance for this structure as has been done for many other buildings that have experienced phases in their use and appearance.
In 2003, the Conservancy provided a $150,000 loan and $45,000 in grants in conjunction with over $50,000 from the owner, and a $182,859 matching grant from the New York State Office of Parks and Recreation and Historic Preservation for a restoration of the exterior to its 1883 appearance. This project revealed and retained a great deal of historic fabric from 1883, including Gothic window mullions and sash, and shingle and clapboard siding and trim. As you understand, the State is extra vigilant in its funding of religious properties to ensure that it underwrites accurate restorative work that furthers historic preservation objectives and not those of worship. The State closely reviewed the plans and reports throughout the course of the project before disbursing its funds. Between the State’s compelling interest and the Conservancy’s participation in the $430,000 project, the 2003 campaign resulted in an historically genuine restoration of the Old St. James Parish Hall that by any measure would warrant landmarks designation. Additionally, St. James has an important social history: several of its parishioners were nationally prominent, among them the Reverend Benjamin Moore, the first president of Columbia University and the Reverend Dr. Samuel Seabury, Jr., the first American Episcopal bishop. Additionally, St. James served as a chapel for prominent British military officers during the Revolutionary War, a key to its survival (unlike the nearby Presbyterian church), including Sir Henry Clinton, Sir William Howe, Earl Cornwallis and King George III’s son William, later King William IV.
Thanks very much for your further consideration on this matter.
New York Landmarks Conservancy
The following article, close to a century old, details the history of St. James Church and why it’s so important to preserve it.
Churches on Long Island More than 100 Years Old
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle · Sun, Sep 21, 1919
The history of St. James Church, Elmhurst, starts in the year 1704 when the Rev. William Urquhart undertook the difficult task of establishing an Episcopal Church in the midst of a territory which the inhabitants were nearly all non-conformists. He belonged to Jamaica, but between the Quakers and the Presbyterians he found very little support in his own parish.
It was uphill work even in those days to live on $250 a year, which amount was his stipend from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. Until the end of the Revolutionary War, this society provided several rectors of the Episcopal Church and directed their labors.
Mr. Urquhart held his rectorship for five years, during which time he held two services on the third Sunday of each month in the Newtown Church, the other three Sundays being appropriated to the needs of Jamaica and Flushing, of which he was also rector. He died in 1709 and was succeeded by the Rev. Thomas Poyer in 1710.
During the incumbency of Mr. Poyer the village church became distinctly Presbyterian and the Episcopalians shared the church building with their neighbors on one Sunday of the month when it was given over to their use by the Rev. Samuel Pumroy. Finding that many of the Presbyterians disliked seeing their church used for a form of worship which they disapproved, Mr. Poyer began to hold his services in the houses of his parishioners. The rector died in 1731.
The Rev. Thomas Colgan succeeded him and it was during his pastorate that the first St. James Church was built. Mr. Colgan was only 24 years old when he came to this country and assumed the charge of the Jamaica parish, which then included Newtown and Flushing. Writing to a friend concerning his parishioners, he said:
“They are a people who by their lives and conversation adorn their religion and profession, and I have hopes that others, seeing their good works, will be induced to follow their example.”
Mr. Colgan was the first to erect churches in the three villages of Jamaica, Flushing and Newtown.
It was two years after the delivery of the deed that the work on the new church was commenced. Subscriptions to the amount of about $1,110 were received for the purchase of necessary material and labor. Five years later, at a meeting held in March 1740, the question of providing seating accommodations was taken in hand. Seats were constructed and the various families were assigned regular places in the church. Among the names of the pew-holders at this time are recorded: James Hazard, Joseph Moore, William Sackett, Benjamin Moore, Richard Alsop, Joseph Sackett, John McDonough, Charles Palmer, Thomas Morrell, Samuel Washburn, Samuel Moore, Samuel Hallett, Capt. Samuel Moore, William Moses Hallett, John Hallett, Thomas Hallett, Jacob Blackwell and Joseph Hallett.
Mr. Colgan died in 1755 after a pastorate of twenty-three years. He was succeeded by the Rev. Samuel Seabury, who was appointed to Jamaica in 1757, about the time that Newtown Church began to agitate for a separation from the churches of Jamaica and Flushing. In 1760 the church was repaired and the steeple was rebuilt; a few years afterward it was enlarged. Then came the days of the revolution, during which the church activities were more or less at a standstill. Mr. Seabury resigned in 1766 in order to become rector of St. Peter’s, Westchester. After the revolution he became the first Episcopal Bishop of the United States. He was succeeded in 1769 by the Rev. Joshua Bloomer, who remained in charge of the three churches.
During the days of the Revolution, Mr. Bloomer held services once a month in the Newtown Church. He remained in charge of the parish until his death in 1790, when he was succeeded by the Rev. William Hammell. This last rector soon resigned on account of failing health and growing blindness.
It was at this time that the cherished plan of St. James Church becoming an independent body was realized and the congregation withdrew from the association and called its own pastor, the Rev. Henry Van Dyke. There was another period during which St. James was united with the Flushing church. It lasted from 1802 to 1809, when the union was dissolved never to be renewed. This brief union took place under the pastorate of the Rev. Abraham L. Clarke, a native of Rhode Island and a graduate of Yale University. On the dissolution of the partnership, Mr. Clarke remained at Newtown until his death in the following year. In 1810, the parish was given to the care of the Rev. William E. Wyatt, but he soon resigned in order to take the parish of St. Paul, Baltimore, and the Rev. Malbone Johnson came to St. James where he remained for thirteen years.
The last services to be held in the old church took place during the pastorate of the Rev. George A. Shelton, who came to the parish in 1827 and remained there until his death in 1863, having served the Episcopalians of Newtown for thirty-seven years.
The new church* of St. James was begun in 1838, but it was a great deal smaller than the present structure. It was greatly enlarged in 1870 and has been added to and beautified from time to time since then.
The Rev. Edward Mansfield McGuffey, the present incumbent, has held his charge for twenty-nine years and during his ministry, the church has been greatly enlarged and beautified. In 1899, the porch was erected in memory of the Rev. William Urquhart, and a number of memorial windows, many of which, including the great chancel window representing the institution of the Lord’s Supper, were the gift of the late Mrs. Sarah S. Thomas. The Rapelye family, Miss Rebecca Orton of New Haven and some other members of the congregation are also represented in the handsome windows of the church. The font, which is especially beautiful, was the gift of the Blackwell family. The bell, which hangs in the tower of the church, was formerly in the same place in old St. James. It was cast originally in 1792, but becoming cracked had to be recast in 1866. It is noted for the fineness of its tone.
The cemetery at the rear of the church is one of the beauties of Broadway, Elmhurst being full of interesting monuments and well planted with trees and shrubs. On the old stones are recorded many of the names of families that have made history in Newtown.
The revenues of the church amount to about $7,500, which sum is derived from funds provided by the sale of property in Manhattan at Reed and Rector Streets. There is also a trust fund for the upkeep of the cemetery.
The old building is at present used as a place for meetings of the church societies and for social gatherings and concerts. It stands on Broadway a block below the new church and on the other side of the road.
*The “new” church referenced in the article, a true architectural masterpiece, unfortunately burned down in 1975. The present triangle-shaped building was then constructed.