Patricia had a great post recently discussing Brooklyn architecture and architects materials among the Historical Society’s collections. Brooklyn was once characterized as “the city of homes and churches” and while Patricia’s post certainly pointed out some examples of homes and commercial buildings exemplifying a portion of the range of Brooklyn’s architecture, I wanted to focus on a specific instance of the latter half of that characterization with a great example of Brooklyn’s church architecture in our collections. While working on the records of the First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn I was fortunate enough to get a good look at the detailed plans of the Church of the Saviour. Sitting almost directly across the street from Brooklyn Historical Society’s building on Pierrepont Street, the Church of the Saviour was completed in 1844 and is now the oldest church building in the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood.
The First Unitarian Congregational Society at first tried to secure Richard Upjohn as their architect. Upjohn was already making a name for himself with his work on the new Trinity Church in Manhattan and would go on to be famous for his work, particularly on churches in the Gothic Revival style and in founding the American Institute of Architects. Upjohn, however, required a $1,000 fee for services even before submitting any plans (perhaps due to his bias against the Unitarian faith). The First Church went back to reviewing plans offered by architects and settled on the designs submitted by Minard Lafever. While later known for his pattern books on the Greek Revival style, Lafever deserves to be mentioned alongside Upjohn as one of the hands behind the spread and influence of Gothic Revival architecture in America’s 1840’s-1850’s, particularly in New York and Brooklyn. The design of the Church of the Saviour is proof in itself of Lafever’s fine work in this style.
Lafever designed other buildings which were eventually landmarked around New York City including the Church of the Holy Apostles in Manhattan and the Greek Revival styled buildings at Sailors’ Snug Harbor in Staten Island. In Brooklyn (and still remaining within the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood) there are two more buildings that Lafever designed which showcase his work in the Gothic Revival style and its influence on the area. One is the St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church on Montague Street and the other is his final commission, the Packer Collegiate Institute building on Joralemon Street.
The original plans of the Church of the Saviour show the hand of this important architect at work. I particularly liked how these original plans included notations, variations, and comments on materials. It at once reveals Lefever’s mind at work, suggestions from others, and the involved process of constructing this beautiful church.
By the early 20th Century the congregation had grown to a point that they could further beautify the Church of the Saviour with the addition of stained glass windows designed by Tiffany studios with some of them designed by Louis C. Tiffany himself (alas, I could not get photos of the windows that do them justice, but Brownstoner has a decent shot of the windows from the exterior).
Within the First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn records, these plans of Lefever’s and documents on the buildings and renovations exist alongside other documents that fill this architecture with the life and work of the First Unitarian Church in Brooklyn. The collection contains lists and ledgers of the owners and renters of these pews which includes the names of many prominent Brooklynites like Alfred T. White, the Low family, the Pierrepont family, and many others. The collection also contains orders of service and sermons delivered within the church and non-ecumenical work carried on by the congregational outside the walls of the Church of the Saviour.
If you’d like to learn more about Brooklyn architecture, I would recommend you follow the suggestions Patricia made in her post. If you would like to learn more about the Church of the Saviour, the First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn, and the collection of records we have for Unitarianism at Brooklyn Historical Society, check out the postings on Emma, our catablog, in regards to the First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn records and the Women’s Alliance of the First Unitarian Church of Brooklyn records both of which also have linked finding aids.