Besides the sanctuary edifice, the church’s assemblage is home to a 1931 Church House annex and a 1907 Manse on Seabury Street. The church's first pastor, Rev. John Moore, was one of the signers of the purchase of all of Queens west of the Flushing River from Native Americans.
This area was known as Newtown as of 1665, but later became separate villages including Forest Hills and Rego Park.
On May 18, the church opened its doors as part of the New York Landmarks Conservancy’s Third Annual Sacred Sites Open House, which was a first for the church. This event followed last October’s memorable 360th anniversary church celebration.
Saturday’s Sacred Sites Open House schedule began at 11:30 a.m., when Reverend Knowles delivered an introduction, followed by Historian Marjorie Melikian’s presentation of a nearly 361-year history of the church and Newtown.
An exhibit featured the church’s recently restored 1895 doors, as well as authentic documents dating to 1715. Also on display was a seldom seen 1715 book of church records, backdated to 1708, that showed slaves were household members in Newtown and married at the church, and smallpox killed many local families.
Jonathan Taylor, a graduate student of historic preservation at Columbia University, discussed the architectural significance of the present building. That was followed by a historic tour of the church,as well as the surrounding blocks.
The church’s former manse from 1822 was recently discovered nearby on Seabury Street in an altered state. Its present owner provided information on the interior, which includes a chapel. The program was repeated at 2:30 p.m.
From 1652 to 1720, First Presbyterian Church of Newtown was the sole church in the area where English settlers worshipped, and was the focal element of a town center comprised of Broadway, Grand Avenue, and Hoffman Boulevard (now Queens Boulevard).
Originally a community church, it became Presbyterian in 1715. The church was founded in the wilderness of the Dutch colony of the New Netherlands, and survived war, invasion, and religious and political persecution.
On a two-lane road, the church’s cornerstone was laid in 1893, and the church was dedicated on May 5, 1895. Designed by Frank A. Collins, the church features a bell tower, ornate stained glass windows, a pitched slate roof, and elaborate woodwork.
The windows were designed by former Tiffany artists Sellers & Ashley. Above the entryway, “Payntar Memorial” is inscribed, as a tribute to church member John Goldsmith Payntar, who reserved $70,000 in his will for the church’s construction.
In 1924, the city planned on widening Queens Boulevard, so the church embarked on an engineering marvel by transporting the 5 million-pound church 125 feet on greased logs turned by hand winches.
Since 1986, the New York Landmarks Conservancy’s Sacred Sites Program has awarded greater than 1,200 grants totaling over $8 million to 700 historic religious properties statewide.
“These grants have generated more than $560 million in total restoration and repair projects, revitalizing these important institutions and the communities they serve,” said Ann-Isabel Friedman, director of the Sacred Sites Program.
“Participating in the Sacred Sites Open House helped our congregation and community in recognizing the historic and aesthetic value of a religious building for its future,” said Rev. Knowles. “Waves of immigrants are settling in Queens. By understanding these buildings, people can learn about the importance of democratic principles such as religious freedom, and our church tells the history of our struggle for religious freedom.”
In June 2011, Rego-Forest Preservation Council worked with Church Elder and Historian Marjorie Melikian to conduct a first-time lecture and comprehensive tour of the church for the greater community, to call attention to the church’s historic significance and the need for restoration.
Restoration work and historically sensitive upgrades at religious sites can be steep, but the benefits of a restored historic site are character-enriching and educational. Melikian explained,
“The total cost for restoring the church’s five authentic wood doors is $24,300,” said Melikian. “From 2011 through 2013, the congregation donated $15,158, and the community donated $3,142 through concerts.”
Over a six-week period, Craftsman Vincent Battiloro, owner of The Finest Brownstone Restoration, restored the doors on site.
The church could be included on the State & National Register of Historic Places, which could contribute to further grant opportunities for restoration. It will be reviewed by the State Review Board in June of this year, and in 2012 the Conservancy provided a referral to Jonathan Taylor, who worked with Melikian to complete and submit the National Register nomination.
“This made the church eligible for the Conservancy’s Sacred Sites matching grant program,” said Friedman.
Melikian feels very enthusiastic about the church’s potential placement on the National Register.
“We are a Presbyterian National Historic Site and an official State Landmarks Sacred Site,” she said. “The National Register is the list of the most important historical and architecturally interesting buildings in the country.”