Eye On Real Estate: Free tours of New Utrecht Reformed Church set for Sept. 17
By Lore Croghan
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
These building blocks came from Holland — three centuries ago, when the Dutch colonized Brooklyn.
The austere, beautiful façade they're part of can be found in Bensonhurst.
Colonial history lives on at New Utrecht Reformed Church, which is at 8301-8323 18th Ave.
In a minute, we'll tell you more about the historic stones that were used in the church's construction.
But first, something important: The congregation is trying to raise money to finish this city landmark's restoration, which it has been diligently pursuing for more than a decade.
The church has been closed since late 2003 because of the repair project.
“The whole hope and prayer is that we get to reopen this building,” Susan Hanyen, vice president of consistory, which is the governing board of New Utrecht Reformed Church, said in a recent interview.
Hanyen has been involved in the restoration effort from the beginning.
“It's something that becomes part of your life,” she said.
At this juncture in the restoration process, the church's organ alcove needs to be repaired — possibly a $100,000 job, Hanyen said.
There are huge holes in the sanctuary walls because of scaffolding that was used when a new ceiling was installed. Her guess is that repairing them might cost an additional $100,000.
And a chimney flue, which was discovered in a wall adjacent to the organ alcove, must be addressed.
Donations may be sent to the New Utrecht Reformed Church Restoration Fund, P.O. Box 97, Brooklyn, NY 11214-0097.
This is a cause that preservationists and history buffs should support. Those of you who haven't yet opened your checkbooks on the church's behalf ought to do so ASAP.
See newutrechtchurch.org for additional info.
New Utrecht Dutch Reformed Church, as it was originally called, was founded in 1677. It is the fourth oldest church congregation in Brooklyn, Hanyen said. How's that for longevity?
The Blessing of the Pets
For a first-hand look at the progress of the restoration, a rare opportunity to enter the sacred site will be offered on Saturday, Sept. 17. Free tours will be given of the church sanctuary during a Blessing of the Pets event scheduled for noon to 3 p.m. on the church lawn.
“We hope it will be a sunny day,” Hanyen said — to light up the church's century-old stained-glass windows, which were designed by Lamb Studios.
By the way, there will be a bake sale/hot dog sale during the pet blessing, with proceeds going to the church restoration fund.
Parishioners will want to mark their calendars for the tours, since they never get to see the inside of their church. Their Sunday worship services are held in the nearby Parish House, which is also landmarked, because of the marathon church repair project.
And such a saga it has been.
Roof trusses have been steel-reinforced. A new cedar shake roof has been installed.
During testing, big chunks of the ceiling fell down.
“When you stood in the church, you could see up to the rafters,” Hanyen recalled.
So the barrel-vaulted ceiling had to be replaced. It was replicated with the use of glulam, or glued laminated timber, which is super-strong.
The church's pipe organ has been dismantled. The pipes were stored in wooden boxes the contractor built, she said.
Colonial-era ship ballast
Now, some info about the three-century-old stones of New Utrecht Reformed Church.
According to a city Landmarks Preservation Commission designation report about the church and its grounds, the stones sailed over from Holland — as ship ballast.
They were used to construct the congregation's original church in 1700. It stood on what is now 84th Street near 16th Avenue, at the edge of a cemetery. By the way, the cemetery is also a city landmark.
That original church served worshippers in New Utrecht — one of the first six towns built in Colonial-era Kings County.
A century and a quarter later, American independence had been won. John Quincy Adams was president.
Because of population growth, a larger church was needed. The original building was torn down and the stones from that church were used to construct the Georgian-Gothic style structure that stands today on 18th Avenue.
Hanyen said the three-century-old stones are to the right of the church's front door.
The current church, built in 1828, has been an individual city landmark since 1966.
Parsonage sold to raise money
The church grounds were landmarked in 1998 — and the designation included the Romanesque Revival-style Parish House at 1825-1833 84th St., which was built in 1892.
The church owned a parsonage, too, just outside the landmarked grounds. This house was sold because money was needed for the church restoration, Hanyen said.
The Shingle-style former parsonage at 1828 83rd St. was built in 1906. City Finance Department records indicate that New Utrecht Reformed Church sold it in 2006 for $825,000 to Jasper Cumella.
The Liberty Pole
A noteworthy historic artifact stands on the landmarked church grounds: The Liberty Pole.
Since 1783, a flagpole topped by an eagle and a weather vane adorned with the word “Liberty” has stood at this spot.
The first Liberty Pole was put there to celebrate the American victory over the British in the Revolutionary War. Over the years, the flagpole has been replaced several times.
The one standing there now was exhibited at the 1939-1940 World's Fair and brought to the Bensonhurst site in 1946.
Target practice with tombstones
Finally, a word about nearby New Utrecht Dutch Reformed Church Cemetery at 8401-8427 16th Ave.
It has been a burial ground since around 1653-1654 — even before the church was established.
There's a blood-chilling reason that tombstones from that era have not survived in the landmarked graveyard.
During the Revolutionary War, British soldiers used the headstones for target practice, a Landmarks Preservation Commission designation report about the cemetery says.
The troops took over the church, which as we've mentioned was then located at the edge of the cemetery. They used the church as a hospital, a prison and later a riding school.
Another reason no tombstones from the 17th Century can be found in the cemetery — the oldest surviving ones are from the late 18th Century — is that they were often made of brownstone or other materials that deteriorated, the Landmarks Preservation Commission designation report notes.
New Utrecht's earliest families had burial plots in the cemetery. Van Brunt. Cortelyou. Cropsey. These names sound familiar, don't they? And a communal grave was made for Revolutionary War soldiers.
By the way, there's a new church standing beside the cemetery. It was called St. John's German Evangelical Church at the time of its construction, the designation report says.
Today it is used by Metropolitan Baptist Church, Metropolitan New Revival Church and NY Lighthouse Baptist Church.