The Church of the Master opened as the Morningside Presbyterian Church in November 1893. William C. Haskell designed a little Victorian style building in orange brick in a neighborhood of recently built brownstones opposite Morningside Park. The original interior had no elaborate paint or other decorative scheme;this was just a modest village-scale church, unusual as late as the 1890’s for a corner site in Manhattan.
The NY Times wrote that Harlem was originally built as a white area, but by 1935 Central Harlem north of 125th Street was almost entirely black, and blacks had formed a settlement around 118th Street and Manhattan Avenue that was expanding north and west. Whites often bitterly protested these changes.
In his 1937 report, the Rev. William Bishop Gates, pastor of Morningside Presbyterian, reported “a new interest and vitality in the church” even though there had been no communicants’ class the year before, and most members lived well outside the immediate neighborhood. Mr. Gates lived on Riverside Drive. In March 1938, the Presbytery of New York closed the church; The New York Times reported “an influx of Negroes in large numbers into the vicinity” as the cause.
Churches were no exception to racial conflict. In 1929, St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Brooklyn banned blacks; the tenor of protests by other pastors, by Representative Hamilton Fish Jr., and by the N.A.A.C.P. suggests that such a ban was unusual but not unthinkable. In 1932, the vestry of All Souls, an Episcopal Church at 114th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, withheld its rector’s salary because he encouraged blacks to become members. It is difficult to find evidence of white churches accommodating new nonwhite populations; the typical church in a changing neighborhood simply shut down.
Sheared H. Wright, the Church of the Master’s historian, said the old Morningside Presbyterian Church remained closed until May 1938 when Harry Emerson Fosdick, the pastor of Riverside Church, encouraged a young black graduate of the Union Theological Seminary, James H. Robinson,to take it over. Mr. Robinson developed a long and influential ministry out of what he renamed the Church of the Master.
Another parishioner, Margaret Riley, was there on the first day with her husband and 7-year-old son. They had been going to St. James Presbyterian Church on West 142d Street, but lived at 113th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. They could save carfare by going to a closer church and “every dime counted then,” she says.
The first service had only 10 people, but by 1960, when Mr. Robinson retired, the congregation was over 1,000.
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The historic, century-old house of worship, was 115 year-old neighborhood was considered one of the most beautiful building in the neighborhood..
The institution was demolished in January 2010.
Photo from Harlem Bespoke.