Saint Luke’s was established in 1850, but didn’t worship in a church built by the congregation until 1923. For the first 13 years, the tiny congregation rented rooms on the West Side of Manhattan. In 1863 they finally acquired their first building, the former Bloomingdale Baptist Church on W. 43rd St. By 1875 the congregation had outgrown that building and bought the former Forty-Second Street Presbyterian Church. As 42nd St. became more commercial, the congregation decided to move, but was determined to stay in Hell’s Kitchen. After years searching for an appropriate location, they moved to their present home on W. 46th St. in 1923.
St. Luke’s first meeting was held in a building on 50th St. owned by Columbia College. Since most of the members lived on the West Side, Saint Luke’s determined to find a worship space in that area, and for their first 13 years worshiped in the third floor of a building on the northwest corner of 9th Ave. and 35th St. When they had outgrown that space, they moved to a building on 8th Ave. between 45th and 46th Sts. The larger space was made more “church-like” with pews donated by Trinity Episcopal Church in lower Manhattan.
The photo above does not reflect the condition of the building in the 1850s. The picture was probably taken around the time of the congregation’s 90th anniversary. When Saint Luke’s began, the area was semi-rural and sparsely settled.
The former Bloomingdale Baptist Church on 43rd St. between 8th and 9th Aves. became Saint Luke’s first church building. The congregation bought the 45 ft. x 60 ft. framed structure in 1863 for $400 – but that did not include the property it stood on! The original plan was to move the building to land they owned on 8th Ave. near 46th St. However, the city refused to let the congregation move the structure across the 8th Ave trolley tracks. Consequently, the congregation had to sell the 46th St. property and relocate the building to newly purchased land on W. 43rd St. near where it originally stood.
The acquisition of the building during the darkest days of the Civil War reflected the optimism of the small congregation, which also purchased silver communion vessels at that time. The new sanctuary was dedicated on June 25, 1863. Yet less than a month later, mobs built barricades along 9th Avenue from 35th to 42nd St. during the Draft Riots of 1863, which sparked five days of some of the bloodiest and most destructive rioting in U.S. history.
As immigration from Germany resumed following the Civil War and industry developed on the West Side, Saint Luke’s grew dramatically. By 1875 the congregation had outgrown their 43rd St. building, and in 1875 they acquired the former Forty-Second Street Presbyterian Church, which could seat 1,500 people. At one point in the last decades of the 19th century, Saint Luke’s had some 3,000 members. Confirmation classes numbered over 100—one was 188—and the Sunday School had over 800 members. The Sunday School was so large that it had to use the nave for its activities.
Commercialization & Change
42nd St. Church post 1911
Longacre (Times) Square
By the turn of the 20th century, W. 42nd St. was changing rapidly. Theaters, entertainment venues, and bars moved in, with Saint Luke’s council having to grant permission for establishments serving liquor to locate near the church. Forty-second Street became a major throughfare, and in 1911 the city required the church to remove its front steps so the street could be widened.
The congregation realized that they would have to relocate if they were to prosper. Many other churches facing neighborhood commercialization moved north to more residential sections, or to other boroughs. Yet Saint Luke’s was determined to stay in Hell’s Kitchen. Luke’s had been moving from the area in large numbers, and the church council hoped that if the new building was located near the Times Square transit hub, its far-flung members could remain connected to the congregation.
Purchasing the 46th St. Property
The church council spent several years searching for an appropriate site with no success. Finally, in 1920 the wealthy president of the congregation, J. Louis Schaefer, purchased five lots on W. 46th St. from the estate of Henry Astor for approx. $115,000 in anticipation of Saint Luke’s moving. The congregation sold the 42nd St. property for $400,000 in January 1922 and purchased the five lots from Schaefer.
The property Saint Luke’s acquired had originally been owned by an early Lukan, Herman H. Landwehr, who used it as a truck farm. In the 1860s representatives of the Astors (extremely wealthy real estate developers) offered him $10,000 for the property. Herr Landwehr, who thought the property worth only $4,000, thought the offer a scam and refused. The next week the Astors offered $20,000, and he again refused. They returned again with one final offer: $50,000 cash (about $1.35 million today). Herr Landwehr accepted!
The Astors built row houses on the land, which they leased on a short-term basis. These were demolished in 1922 to make room for Saint Luke’s.
Beginning in January 1922 the congregation met for services at the newly built Selwyn Theater next door to the old church. While the hit comedy, Partners Again, played during the week, Saint Luke’s used the space from 9:00–12:30 on Sundays for regular worship services. Communion and festival services took place at Redeemer Lutheran Church (now the New Dramatists building) at 424 W. 44th St. Other meetings were scattered throughout the West Side. Congregational meetings took place at the home of Saint Luke’s official funeral director, Frederick Gennerich, at 688 9th Ave. Choir rehearsals and Confirmation classes were held in the pastor’s home at 431 W. 43rd St., while the council and Ladies Aid Society met at J. Louis Schaefer’s elegant townhouse at 327 W. 108 St.
Throughout the spring of 1922, the congregation debated several plans for the new church, which the architects, Tilton & Githens, had submitted. One serious contender would have divided the property into three buildings: the sanctuary with a parsonage and a parish house on either side. But ultimately, in April, the congregation chose a plan for a single building in two parts separated by a 7-story bell tower. The east part housed a sanctuary holding some 450 people and Sunday School/kitchen space. The west section was the site of the parish house and parsonage.
Construction began in July 1922, and by May 1923 it was far enough along for the congregation to worship in the basement Sunday School rooms of the new building.
Sanctuary under Construction
Cornerstone Laying, 1922
On October 29, 1922, Saint Luke’s laid the cornerstone for the new building. Lutherans from around the area attended, with the band from Bethlehem Orphanage providing the music. For the occasion, the council presented congregation president J. Louis Schaefer, who had supervised the construction, with a silver hammer and trowel, which are still in our possession.
Saint Luke’s dedicated the new building on September 16, 1923. The formal dedication was held in the morning in German, while an English service took place in the afternoon. (See Bulletin.)
The 1940 history of the congregation described the ceremony:
On September 16, 1923, the congregation gathered for a brief and final service in the Sunday School rooms. In solemn procession came the officiating clergymen, with the deacons of the church carrying the sacred vessels, the pulpit and lectern bibles, and the altar prayer book. The church council and the congregation proceeded to the front of the church. On the steps, Pastor Koepchen delivered the opening address and conducted the rites of dedication, After Mr. J. Louis Schaefer, as president of the congregation, unlocked the doors, the entire assembly proceeded into the church and took its place for the continuation of the festive service, while the deacons placed the sacred vessels on the altar.
The new building was designed not just as a worship space but also as a community center in which the dispersed congregation could gather throughout the week for meetings and recreation. The parish house included multiple meeting rooms, as well as two bowling alleys, a billiard room, a gymnasium, dressing rooms, and showers. The fourth floor was reserved for a seven-room parsonage. The original plan also included a swimming pool in the rear of the basement, but it was never built.
Initially Saint Luke’s offered its facilities to Lutheran institutions and outside groups for meetings and concerts—including by a group of black musicians. But in the decades to come, the congregation opened its doors to the neighborhood, using and reworking its space to address the needs of Hell’s Kitchen.
Following Pastor William Koepchen’s death in 1936, the congregation searched for a way to honor their leader of more than 36 years. Because he played a major role in building the 46th St. church, they ultimately decided to create a baptistry in his honor. Pews were removed, and the baptistry situated in the southwest corner of the church behind the pulpit. Since the marble font they had brought from the 42nd St. church did not fit in with the chancel’s woodwork, the congregation commissioned a carved wooden font. The altar may have been moved from the Sunday School. The cross on the altar was given by Pastor Koepchen’s four sons. The congregation dedicated the William Koepchen Memorial Baptistry in 1940 as part of the 90th anniversary celebrations.
Shortly after his arrival in 2000, Pastor Paul Schmiege moved the font to a more central location at the entrance of the nave. The pews in the rear of the nave were shortened so the congregation could gather around the font. In 2007 the former baptistry was remodeled to establish the columbarium, and its altar is now in the lounge. Rev. Roy Roderick donated the ship above the columbarium in 2016. A ship is common in churches of Scandinavian heritage, where it symbolizes the church as the ship of faith.
Liturgical Renewal 1977
In 1977, the high altar was divided, with a section becoming a lower altar established in center of the chancel for the minister to face the congregation. The sanctuary was reconsecrated on May 22.