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Judson Memorial Church
Historical Background

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At the time of its construction from 1888-93, Judson Memorial Church’s location on Washington Square South served to cement the church’s artistic vision with its purpose. In the middle of a wealthy patrician neighborhood, Judson Memorial intended to unite the immigrants of the tenement communities near the square with the wealthy upper classes. Dr. Edward Judson, rector of the Berean Baptist Church of Christ, sought to move his congregation to a new location. He resolved to build an ecclesiastical structure that would bring beauty to the lives of the low-income immigrants and also memorialize his father Adoniram Judson, the first American missionary in Asia.

 

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Located on the corner of Washington Square South and Thompson Street, Judson Memorial’s brick and terra cotta surface has overlooked Washington Square Park for over one hundred years. The church’s most significant identifying  factor remains its dedication to egalitarian membership and social concerns of the urban area.

The Building Stages

In 1886, Edward Judson studied Manhattan to determine the best [JUDSON 2] position for the relocated Berean Baptist from its original place on Bedford and Downing Streets. He acquired the 130 by 100 foot lot on Washington Square in 1888 for $132,500 (Tauranac 48). John D. Rockefeller was a major donor, and Judson hired the well-known architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White to design the complex. When officially completed in 1893, primary architect Stanford White had constructed the 102 foot long church, a 165 foot high campanile tower that housed orphans and the adjoining Judson Hotel which intended to net income for the church. The entire cost of the Judson complex totaled $240, 578 (Sloan 300-309 ).

McKim, Mead and White, Architects

At the time Edward Judson envisioned his ecclesiastical masterpiece, the architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White was among the most well-known in New York, if not all of the United States. The firm introduced Renaissance-style buildings to the American metropolis, and Stanford White remains its most recognized partner. Popular culture remembers White because of his sensational life and murder at the hands of an angry jilted husband. However, White’s artistic contributions to New York City and to the field of urban architecture immortalized his life and career. White designed some of the United States’ best examples of neo-Renaissance architecture in the original Madison Square Garden, a structure designed like a palazzo similar to buildings in Northern Italy with a tower adapted from Spain’s Moorish cathedrals, and the Washington Square Arch across the street from Judson Memorial Church.

The Finishing Touches

Construction was completed on Judson Memorial Church in 1893, although the congregation had begun worshipping there in 1891. Dedication ceremonies included a lecture series discussing social concerns of immigrants. The terra cotta exterior was heavily influenced by northern Italian churches in the early stages of the Renaissance, allegedly an attempt to lure Italian immigrants to the church. Judson’s interior resembles a rectangular auditorium; its plain decor is in keeping with the Baptist tradition that focused on preaching. The main visuals in the beige-colored room included a baptistery sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, but carved by Herbert Adams, and the stained glass windows lining the walls of the sanctuary.

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The actual structure of the church as well as its accents were fundamental to Edward Judson’s goals for the church’s memorial function. Judson planned the decorative baptistery and the stained glass windows to commemorate the lives of Baptist missionaries and he hoped they would be funded by family members of the missionaries because the church did not expect a wealthy congregation. The addition of John LaFarge’s stained glass windows and Saint-Gaudens was not unusual to a White design. He frequently requested his friends to join his projects, thus creating a cohesive artistic vision among all aspects of the completed structure. It is known from Edward Judson’s fundraising records that he intended the windows and marble frieze to fulfill a memorial and financial purpose, and it can be assumed "the patron, architect and designer(s) worked out a general scheme of imagery at the start of the project" (Sloan 300-309).

Funding difficulties affected that scheme and the windows were installed gradually over a number of years, as money became available to construct more. Only a few of the windows commemorate Baptist missionaries, according to Edward Judson’s plan, and instead commemorate family members of substantial donors. Judson’s final window was laid in place in 1912, two years after LaFarge’s death. It had been completed by his assistant.

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LaFarge’s window of the Infant Samuel was completed in 1894 to memorialize David Malcolm Kinmouth, Jr. who donated a children’s retreat home to Berean Baptist Church. The east wall window is 14 feet, 6 inches by 4 feet, 6 inches.

Judson’s Mission Continues

Although Edward Judson’s dream of "a splendid edifice where the ‘classes’ and the ‘masses’ could find common ground" (User’s Guide) was not fully realized, Judson Memorial Church has maintained its social conscience. The church’s programming well into the twentieth century focused on health and educational assistance to the urban poor. The importance of experimentation has not diminished among church members in its many years of history. Judson gained recognition in the mid-1960’s when avant garde artists began utilizing the arts in both worship and organization around social issues. Currently, Judson Church members participate in community-based art and focus on economic issues facing the city and the world.

The Congregation

While established as a Baptist church, today Judson is affiliated with the American Baptist Churches and the United Church of Christ. However, Judson members describe their "distinctly non-creedal community" that enforces no particular theology and "respects the individual’s search for truth" (User’s Guide). With a congregation numbering approximately two hundred, all Church members are well-aquatinted. Many have continued a part of Judson Memorial Church for decades, remaining longer than a single address.

WWW Link: The Judson Memorial Church Page

 

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