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Historic Elmhurst church cited as one of city’s most sacred sites

Church historian Marjorie Melikian tells old tales of the treasured Elmhurst building seeking its place on the National Register of Historic Places. Photo by Phil Corso
TimesLedger Newspapers

From the outside, Elmhurst’s First Presbyterian Church of Newtown stands alone with a towering exterior that is markedly different from those of its neighbors along Queens Boulevard.

Inside, a bell originally crafted in 1787 — just after the American Revolution — still rings every Sunday, reminding those in the vicinity of its historic past.

The building was chosen as one of the city’s most storied and sacred sites and welcomed the public over the weekend, marking the city Landmarks Conservancy’s third annual open house weekend. Throughout the day, visitors passing through the church were treated to talks on history and architecture as well as walking tours of the building.

The sacred sites program is the only statewide program in the country to give funding and technical assistance toward the restoration of culturally significant and religious buildings, the Landmarks Conservancy said.

“Religious art and architecture is perhaps our greatest creative achievement,” said Peg Breen, president of the Landmarks Conservancy. “Nowhere in the United States is this better demonstrated than right here in New York with its rich diversity of religions and ecclesiastical buildings.”

Church historian Marjorie Melikian stood on the church stage Saturday afternoon and read tales of the building’s long history, surrounded by old photographs and artifacts to supplement the stories. She told the group of onlookers about the congregation’s 361-year history in Elmhurst, making it the oldest church in Queens and one of the oldest in the city. The multicultural church still holds regular services.

“This building is an integral part of history,” Melikian said. “It was important to the development of Queens as we know it today.”

Onlookers followed Melikian throughout the church’s main room, filled with rows of wooden pews, and up the stairs to a large gallery overlooking the Gothic Revival building made of granite with a brownstone trim. On that second floor, visitors were able to take turns ringing the historic bell by yanking on a long piece of rope dangling from the ceiling.

Joining Melikian was preservationist Jonathan Taylor, who was helping the church secure a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. The Brooklyn native told stories of Newtown Village, the original settlement to inhabit the Elmhurst area now occupied by storefronts and apartment complexes.

He said throughout history, the northeast Queens building served as a school, courthouse, town hall and headquarters for villagers to hold important discussions about the church and even government.

“At that time, all matters came through this church,” Taylor said. “There is an amazing historical continuity here and the building is architecturally noteworthy, too.”

The First Presbyterian Church of Newtown was founded in 1652 by early English settlers, but its Elmhurst home is its fifth building since the congregation was established, Taylor said.

The church, built in 1895, showcases stained glass windows made by British craftsmen Sellers & Ashley and used to reside a half block over before being moved for the construction of Queens Boulevard in the 1920s.

Also participating in the weekend’s historic open house event was Ridgewood’s St. Matthias Roman Catholic Church, at 58-15 Catalpa Ave., showing off its cathedral, rectory, school and convent, the Landmarks Conservancy said.

Reach reporter Phil Corso by e-mail at pcorso@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4573.

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