DESCRIPTION AND ANALYSIS
Harlem and its Churches
As the population of New York increased after the Civil War, development spread rapidly far uptown. By 1881, three lines of the elevated railroad, along Second, Third, and Eighth Avenues, opened new neighborhoods, such as the Upper West Side. The introduction of electric cable car service in 1885 on Amsterdam Avenue and along 125th Street made Harlem more accessible. New residential and institutional buildings, including churches, were constructed lining the newly paved avenues and streets, while many elegant homes, such as the King Model Houses (1891) on West 138th and 139th Streets, helped establish Harlem as a fashionable community.2
The character of Harlem again changed dramatically during the early years of the 20th century. A proposed subway route to Harlem in the late 1890s ignited a new round of real estate speculation, leading to highly inflated market values. Excessive vacancies in the many new residential buildings, however, caused a collapse in Harlem’s real estate market prior to the completion of the subway. Taking advantage of this deflated market was Philip Payton, a black realtor who founded the Afro-American Realty Co. in 1904. Promoting easy access to Harlem via the I.R.T. subway to 145th Street, Payton negotiated leases on white-owned properties and rented them to blacks. Despite the fact that they were charged higher rents than were whites, New York’s black middle class – long denied access to “better” neighborhoods – seized the opportunity for decent and comfortable new housing and moved uptown. In 1906, the demolition of housing in the “black Tenderloin” neighborhood of western midtown for the construction of Pennsylvania Station uprooted hundreds of families, who flocked northward to Harlem. Black immigrants from the Caribbean and the American South soon joined the migration to Harlem.
By the 1920s, most of the major black institutions and churches that were once located in lower Manhattan and in midtown had moved northward along with their constituents. Harlem emerged as the African- American center of New York City. New churches were built by some of these congregations, including St. Philip’s Episcopal Church (1910-11, Tandy & Foster), 214 West 134th Street, and Abyssinian Baptist Church (1922-23, Charles W. Bolton & Son), 132 West 138th Street, while others took over the buildings of former congregations that had moved from the area, such as Metropolitan Baptist Church (formerly New York Presbyterian Church), 151 West 128th Street.3 Harlem has an especially fine architectural ensemble of religious structures. These churches have also had a major social role in Harlem. As stated by Cynthia Hickman in a recent guidebook on Harlem’s churches,
The sheer number of active churches in Harlem makes it, perhaps, the most “churched” community in the world. More than fifty of these institutions have been havens in the community since the Great Depression, with nearly two dozen of these churches playing a pivotal role in the establishment of Harlem as the “Negro Mecca” during its renaissance in the 1920s. 4
Construction of St. Aloysius Roman Catholic Church
The Church of St. Aloysius of the City of New York was organized in 1899 after Archbishop Michael Augustine Corrigan appointed Rev. John Aloysius McKenna to found a new Harlem parish to be located between those of All Saints, on East 129th Street, and St. Charles Borromeo, on West 141st Street. Rev. McKenna (1852-1913), a graduate of St. Joseph’s Seminary, Troy, N.Y., had been ordained in 1884, served as assistant priest at the Church of All Saints until 1894, and was then appointed pastor in Liberty, N.Y., during which time he presided over the construction of St. Aloysius Church, Livingston Manor. McKenna remained the first pastor of St. Aloysius Church (Harlem) until his death. The new St. Aloysius parish included the area bounded by West 125th and 135th Streets, Lenox Avenue, and St. Nicholas Terrace. Named after the 16th- century Italian St. Aloysius Gonzaga (a young Jesuit who died serving victims of the plague), the church was incorporated in December 1899. In anticipation of the future construction of a new church edifice, the Church of St. Aloysius obtained a mortgage that same month from the Mutual Life Insurance Co. and purchased six adjacent rowhouses at 209-219 West 132nd Street (between Seventh and Eighth Avenues) for $71,150. Services were held in a meeting hall located at West 131st Street and Seventh Avenue. The congregation, mostly German, Irish, and Italian immigrants, grew quickly, overcrowding the temporary church hall.
Rev. McKenna petitioned the archbishop in February 1902 to commission a new church structure. The archdiocese retained architect William W. Renwick, a specialist in ecclesiastical architecture, who filed plans in