All three structures that have housed the Washington Heights Presbyterian Church (now North Presbyterian Church) have occupied land that was part of the original Audubon holdings: Block 2114, the city block bounded by Broadway (11th Avenue) and Amsterdam Avenue (10th Avenue) between 155th and 156th Streets. In the middle of the 19th Century, at a time when the Audubon family was instrumental in founding the Church of the Intercession and building its first church, their near neighbors, John Dalley and Dennis Harris, were active founders and supporters of Washington Heights Presbyterian, which according to a lengthy sermon the Reverend Charles A. Stoddard, D.D. delivered on July 2, 1876, was originally affiliated with the Congregationalists and known as the Washington Heights Congregational Church. Not until January 29, 1858 did the church vote to become a “Presbyterian Church, to change its corporate name, to approve the articles of faith and Covenant, and to elect Elders and Deacons according to Presbyterian usage.”
While it was still affiliated with the Congregationalists and holding services in a “wooden chapel, built by Dennis Harris, between 155th and 156th Streets, on the Tenth Avenue,” the congregation had purchased property on the corner of 10th Avenue and 155th Street where it intended to build a new church. The Audubons had owned that land since the early 1840s, but when Lucy and her sons consolidated their property holdings after Audubon’s death in 1851, they sold that entire block to Dennis Harris, buying back one lot facing 155th Street near 11th Avenue. Harris then transferred the land to “The Washington Heights Congregational Society” (as it was listed in the deed) in November 1855 at a time he and his brother William were suffering financial difficulties and offloading their property in the vicinity of Audubon Park. They had overextended themselves with the sugar factory at the foot of 158th Street and in a steamboat venture that had failed, probably because the neighborhood around Audubon Park did not have sufficient population to support both the Hudson River Railroad and a steam boat service. The congregation hired Kellum & Sons to draw the plans for the church and “the contract for building was taken by Messrs. Harden & Hopper, of Washington Heights.” (John Harden, who occasionally worked for the Audubons and personally packed the copper plates of The Birds of America, lived in the neighborhood of Washington Heights for decades.) Despite the financial Panic of 1857, the year the congregation began to build, “some progress was made in completing the foundations and rearing the walls” of the second church, but lacking funds, the congregation abandoned the effort before the end of the year. 1858 and 1859 brought dark times. The Rev. O. H. White, the first pastor of the congregation “was dismissed, at his own request” and for awhile the congregation had to abandon its building and hold services in Cuthell’s Hall, on the corner of 156th Street and 10th Avenue, whenever it could obtain the services of a preacher. One of the supply preachers was Charles A. Stoddard, who in 1859, accepted the call and became pastor of the church. At the same time, “some new Presbyterian families had moved to the neighborhood, the times had improved, and the remnant of the church being reinforced, began to take heart again.” Among those families were the Grinnells of Audubon Park, who despite becoming members of the (Episcopal) Church of the Intercession had very strong ties to the Presbyterian Church. Helen Lansing Grinnell was daughter of the Reverend Dirck C. Lansing, D. D., a noted Presbyterian revivalist and preacher of the early part of the 19th century, a successful congregation builder, and a founder, as well as first president of Auburn Theological Seminary – where he also was professor of sacred rhetoric. In one of her diaries, Helen Grinnell frequently mentions attending church services twice on Sundays, so she and her husband may have attended both the Presbyterian and the Episcopal churches.
In 1860, the congregation was financially secure enough that it nominated a building committee “consisting of Robert G. Rankin, D. W. Hurd, W. A. Wheelock, Lewis H. Miner, and the Pastor.” (Wheelock and Miner were both Audubon Park residents; Wheeler’s generosity would prove providential to the church’s growth.) Building resumed, despite the land being “mortgaged to its full value” and “builders’ liens, judgments, and claims against the unfinished edifice.” Smith & Cooper were the masons and David H. Doremus the carpenter. In 1862, the church moved beyond music that consisted of “a precentor, feebly followed by the congregation” and raised a volunteer choir. After the Civil War, in February 1868, William Wheelock donated an organ and paid to add an addition to the “rear of the pulpit” to receive it, adding “about $4,500 to the value of the church, besides contributing to the excellence of the services.” The organist was Mr. O Oxnard.
In his Independence Day sermon in 1876, Stoddard drew the congregation's attention to the church building and reviewed its statistics: 85 feet long and 48 feet wide, “with two brick towers, one of which rises to a height of 120 feet, and is crowned by a belfry, containing a sweet toned bell of 1500 pounds weight. A clock…is a great service to the neighborhood.” The sanctuary of “main audience room” was 72 feet by 46 feet with “a single gallery over the vestibule.” The church had 88 pews of varied lengths that would “accommodate both large and small families with equally eligible seating” and had room for 600 people. Like most churches of the day, the church raised some of its operating funds by renting pews. Stoddard described ceilings and upper walls that were “tastefully frescoed” and lower walls that were “marked off in blocks.” Stained glass windows and oak trim completed the decorations. The total cost of that structure was “about $27,491.96, of which $13,000 was raised upon a mortgage.”
Stoddard was not reticent about his own finances and reminded the congregation that for his first seven years, he had earned $1200 per annum, “but in March, 1866 $800 was added by the congregation, and in December 1868, they increased it to $3000.” During 1873, another year of panic and financial hardship, the Rev. Mr. Stoddard became “one of the owners and editors of the New York Observer, and was by vote of the congregation released from certain responsibilities and duties” – preaching apparently not being one of them; he remained the church's pastor until 1883, when “upon the urgent admonition of his physician, he had made up his mind to leave the pulpit.” (NYT, 1/4/1883, p.8)
After twenty-five years of a beloved pastor, transition to a new spiritual leader, Rev. Allen F. DeCamp, seemed calm and seamless; the congregation received him on the evening of June 3, 1883. However, less than two years later, the Rev. Mr. DeCamp resigned in the midst of a “scandal” that rocked the community. The congregation accepted the resignation “by a majority of one vote in a full meeting of the church.” (NYT, 3/16/1885, p. 8) And, what was the scandal?
In the first communion service that was held after the week of prayer, and just before the distribution of the elements, Mr. De Camp surprised his congregation by reading “The Deacon’s Week,” a humorous story in dialect by Rose Terry. This, according to [a] Deacon, stirred up “a perfect hornet’s nest” in the church. (NYT, 3/16/1885, p. 8)
While Mr. De Camp’s choice of reading does seem ill-timed and unsuitable for a communion service, the root of the problem, as described in the same article, seems to have been that “the friends of Mr. Stoddard…were opposed to Mr. De Camp, and they numbered the leading men of the church.” Filling the Rev. Mr. Stoddard’s shoes would not have been an easy task for anyone; he had seen the church through difficult days and built a congregation through determination and hard work. Mr. De Camp’s gaff seems to have been the match that ignited an explosion that had been building for quite some time. By the following October, the brouhaha had calmed and the church installed the Rev. De. J. C. Bliss who would see the congregation into a new century, retiring in 1907, when he became Pastor Emeritus.
By then, Washington Heights Presbyterian Church had merged with North Presbyterian, which has been forced to leave its home at 31st Street and 9th Avenue because of “the purchase of its property for the terminal of the new tunnel of Pennsylvania Railroad.” (NYT, 3/19/1903, p. 2). The combined churches, took the name North Presbyterian Church and moved to a new location on 155th Street, almost in the middle of the block between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue - facing the Audubon Monument. Construction of the new church building ended plans to extend Audubon Avenue from its terminus at 165th Street down to 155th, where it would have begun directly in front of the Audubon monument, so the monument and Avenue have always been (and will remain) separated by ten city blocks.
A sad postscript to the church’s history: in 1908, a fire “finished the work which time and neglect” had already begun on the structure on the corner of 155th and Amsterdam that had housed the congregation for several decades
(NYT, 3/27/1908, p. 3).
Note: Unless noted otherwise, the quotes in this brief history of the Washington Heights Presbyterian Church are from a sermon the Rev. Charles A. Stoddard, D.D., delivered to his congregation on July 2, 1876. The Rev. Mr. Stoddard took the occasion to review the church's history to that time. Several months later, he (or the church) published the sermon; the apprentice printers at the New York Institution for the Deaf & Dumb (located where Columbia Hospital is today) printed and bound the publication.