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Old First Reformed Church_Brooklyn_1891
1 Architect's rendering ca 1888
Click image for larger picture

Note the smaller building at the rear of the church, on the left. It is the original chapel built in 1886. This chapel was expected to accommodate the congregation for years, but the rapid growth of the neighborhood was reflected in increasing membership for Old First, and plans to complete the main sanctuary were pushed forward. The new church was dedicated on September 27, 1891.

American Architect and and Building News reports that the building cost $225,000. (April 29, 1893, p 75)

ftb2 Franklin Trust Building 1891 Located on the SW corner of Montague and Clinton Streets.
Converted to apartments 2009

bde3 Brooklyn Eagle Building 1892-1955

tbb4 Temple Bar Building 1901
Located at Court and Joralemon Streets. At 13 floors, it was the tallest skyscraper in Brooklyn. Exterior is currently undergoing renovation.

image5 Mechanics Bank Building 1896 located on the northwest corner of Court and Montague, was the home of the Brooklyn Dodgers organization. The building was razed by Robert Moses for development.

An interesting aside: on viewing these few images of public buildings, one observes either a single tower or three. Many people have asked why Old First has only one tower, placed in the corner. Perhaps this hints at the answer. Morse may have preferred these odd numbers, seen either as asymmetric, or as centered, depending on where one stands; as a corner anchor or visual focus.

729 Carroll St
@ 7th Av
718 638 8300
Reformed Church | Park Slope, Brooklyn
sptitle
church
from photograph taken January 1, 2008 by Dean Connor Jr.

George L. Morse, Architect
Dedicated in 1891

The imposing Neo-Gothic structure of Old First stands like a cathedral in a medieval city. The building is accented by beautiful stained glass windows; its foundation is granite, the facade and spire are Indiana limestone. George L. Morse was the architect. Pastor Meeter believes he imagined the space first and then designed around it. The sanctuary has a central plan like a dome instead of the linear plan of many churches. It is essentially a Greek (square) cross with an extra bay added for the balcony at the rear, and seats over a thousand persons. Old First's congregation numbered two hundred in 1891 but they thought big, creating enough space to seat their hoped-for Easter crowd, which has been estimated at 1,200. The steeple, at 212 feet, is the tallest live-stone steeple in Brooklyn and has no interior structure of wood or steel.

Brooklyn based architect, George L. Morse (1836/37-1924) was a native of Bangor, Maine. His family moved to Plainfield, New Jersey where his brother William also practiced architecture. (George's father, Timothy Hunting Morse's obituary in the New York Times states that he too was an architect and builder). When George was 17, he came into the office of Gervase Wheeler in New York. Wheeler, an Englishman living in the United States, had designed offices, banks, churches, mansions and homes in Maine, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York, along with the chapels at Bowdoin and Williams Colleges. He is most widely known as the author of two influential books, Rural Homes and Homes for the People, written in the 1850s, both still in print. Morse learned so quickly that Wheeler offered him a partnership, a venture which did not materialize because Wheeler returned to England soon thereafter. References hint that Wheeler had an untrustworthy side in spite of his successes which may have influenced his decision to suddenly depart although he maintained an active and lucrative practice upon his return to England.

Morse began his own operation after Wheeler's departure, originating in the Brooklyn Post Office where Wheeler's place of business had been listed. The Journal of the American Institute of Architects, January 1925, states that Morse was 22 years old at this time. His professional career lasted for 50 years until his retirement in 1910/11, still a prominent architect and force in his field. About the time of his retirement, he moved permanently to his summer home in Riverside, Connecticut, near Greenwich, with his two sons. His youngest son, George Tremaine Morse, had followed him into the profession but preceded him in death in 1919, dying of tuberculosis. His eldest son, Herbert, was not an architect; Herbert, then in his fifties, was still living with his father at the time of Morse's passing.

In addition to Old First, Morse designed dozens of homes and commercial structures. Some of his most well known are the massive, quirky, Temple Bar Building (Court and Joralemon Streets, 1901, the tallest building in Brooklyn at the time it was built, its exterior currently under renovation), the graceful, moated, Franklin Trust Building (166 Montague at Clinton, 1891; beautifully renovated as apartments in 2009), the acclaimed 1885 Romanesque Abraham & Straus building (177 Livingston at Gallitin), and the 1892 Brooklyn Eagle Building into which Morse moved his practice (a landmark in its time, razed in 1955 to make way for Robert Moses' Cadman Plaza). This last building was one of his most renowned with a press room visible from the street, finished with multi-colored inlaid marble floors, polished brass fixtures and a fine decorative plaster ceiling, perhaps not unlike that of Old First's sanctuary. It was considered a fine achievement in its day for beauty and functionality; a late nineteenth-century high-tech masterpiece. All the workings of the press room, folder, and delivery mechanisms were visible to passersby on the street.

Joseph J. Korom, who in 2013 wrote, Skyscraper Facades of the Gilded Age: Fifty-One Extravagant Designs, 1875-1910, credits Morse with "being responsible for almost single-handedly giving early Brooklyn a skyline of its own". Besides the buildings mentioned previously, Korom names the Mechanics Bank, northwest corner of Court and Montague Streets (demolished; former home of the Brooklyn Dodgers front office), and "…the designs of large churches and many prominent Brooklyn homes…". Morse's own obituary names others; the Bank of America, the Brooklyn City Railroad Building (Old Fulton Street?), and an office building at the southwest corner of Montague and Court, which can be identified as the Continental Building, an early Morse design erected in 1874, since razed. George L. Morse also designed our sister church, Grace Reformed, in the Prospect Lefferts Garden neighborhood, which is stylistically very different from Old First.

Architectural historians and preservationists consider Morse's legacy to have been underplayed, but not lost. This may be a result of his having no surviving heirs; neither of his sons remained in Brooklyn nor did they have offspring. And sadly, the architectural drawings Morse rendered have not survived, perhaps also because of this lack of heirs; Morse would have kept possession of them during his career and any archive would certainly have included the designs of Old First. But the largest factor came into play 60 years ago; the memory of Morse's work was nearly obliterated by Robert Moses' Brooklyn improvement plans for the Supreme Court and Cadman Plaza development, a decade when over three hundred buildings, including many of Morse's commercial edifices, were demolished. Today interest in Morse is growing as the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission moves to protect more and more of Brooklyn's 19th and early 20th century heritage. This encompasses a few surviving Morse buildings which are located in the new Borough Hall Skyscraper Historic District, established 2011. Along with protecting surviving structures, the Commission has been recording descriptions of those already gone. Perhaps as a result of this revival of interest, note that the AIA Guide to New York City has upgraded its description of Old First, from the revised 1978 edition, “A bulky granite and limestone neo-gothic,” to the most recent edition released in 2010, “A somber granite and limestone neo-Gothic monolith, stolid, as if carved from a quarry, but with a soaring, slender needle-pointed spire," a bit more poetic and appreciative of Old First's contrasts and contradictions. It is hard to remember that the buildings of the 19th century, including brownstones, were considered a liability and nuisance in the years after World War II, when everyone wanted things new and fresh. Tastes change.

And today, many Brooklynites feel that the new constructions by Robert Moses do not begin to make up for the loss of these beautiful old buildings. In the late '50s after the razing of the 300 buildings, residents and friends of Brooklyn Heights and Willowtown drew a line in the sand after Moses set his sights on their neighborhoods, by successfully arresting the rampant development and by forcing through improvements such as the Promenade which hides the BQE underneath the Heights. Today these neighborhoods are some of New York's finest, full of history and character and beauty. Though many of George Morse's buildings have been lost, the memory of over-development in downtown Brooklyn was what fed New York's most famous grassroots preservationist a decade later. Jane Jacobs fought to save Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village and fanned the spark of a historic preservation movement in New York City. Jacobs, a journalist, urged city dwellers and officials to rethink urban renewal that did not respect the needs of those who live there. Though not Morse's preconceived outcome of a lifetime of work, this one consequence is not a shabby legacy for the demolished buildings of George Leonard Morse.

Other positions related to his field which Morse held were President of the Brooklyn chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and elevation to AIA's College of Fellows, Life Member of the Brooklyn Institute, President of the Department of Architecture at Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences (forerunner of the Brooklyn Museum, Children's Museum and BAM), Resident Member of the Architectural League of New York, a seat as judge on the architectural design committee for the Brooklyn Museum, and one of three on a panel to review the designs for the reconstruction of the Brooklyn City Hall. Morse had great influence in the architectural planning of Brooklyn beyond his own design commissions.

Thanks to architecture and preservation historian, Darrin Von Stein, for a heads-up on the importance of Morse and for leads in research.

Read or download George L. Morse fact sheet.

Learn more about the interior sanctuary design.


Interior Design
Organ and Grand Piano
Tojetti Mural
Stained Glass Windows
Tour the Windows

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