Back in the day when townhouses like ours were built (late 1800s) the ones in Harlem were built primarily for German Jews and Harlem was a predominantly Jewish neighborhood up until around 1910 or 1920.
What’s struck me as interesting is that our block has two churches – one at the corner of Lenox, and another mid-block – but neither were Jewish – they were both originally Protestant.
Closest to us, about halfway between Lenox Ave and Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd, is the Greater Metropolitan Baptist Church at 147 West 123rd St. It was originally built in 1897 as the German-American St. Paul Lutheran Church of Harlem and designed in the Gothic style by architects Ernest W. Schneider and Harry Herter. The German nature of the church fits the neighborhood, but instead of being Jewish it was Lutheran.
Further down the block at the corner of 123rd and Lenox Ave. is the Ephesus Seventh Day Adventist Church. The origins of its building are pretty interesting… It was originally built in 1887 (the architect was John Rochester Thomas) by a Dutch Reformed congregation that could trace it’s roots back to 1660 when they were the Harlem Reformed Low Dutch Church. The church changed it’s name over the years to the First Collegiate Church of Harlem. As the population of Harlem was exploding the congregation, which was then located in East Harlem, decided it needed to open another church in the area, so they built the Second Collegiate Dutch Church at 123 and Lenox and the pastor and 150 wealthy members moved to the new church leaving the poor members over in East Harlem at the old church. The old church, now Elmendorf Reformed Church, is still located over at 121 and 3rd Avenue and is the oldest functioning religious institution in Harlem.
While today we may not care whether someone is Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, etc. back then religion was a much bigger deal. In those days there were “nativists” who saw themselves as “original New Yorkers” – they were all Protestant and rather fiercely anti-Catholic. Today we don’t really understand why the Irish and Italians were so discriminated against, but a big part of it was religion – they were Catholics coming into a Protestant-controlled country. People organized themselves based on religion.
Religion was also important for Jews. There was a big split between the German Jews and the Eastern European Jews. Like their Christian countrymen, German Jews were reformed. German Jews had more money than their Eastern European counterparts and their social service agencies simultaneously took care of Jewish kids and pressured them to become more Americanized (i.e. less orthodox).
Religion was so incredibly important back then you sorta have to assume that with two Protestant churches on one block in a neighborhood dominated by Synagogues, our block was most likely a Protestant block. As I have more time I’ll see if I can’t map the original religious affiliations of other churches in Central Harlem…