November 22, 2021

Judson Memorial Church: A Convergence of Arts and Service

Judson Memorial Church has always been dedicated to the diverse communities of New York City, and, thanks to the National Fund for Sacred Places it hopes to continue with its mission and expand its reach for years to come.

In the fall of 2020, Judson Memorial Church hosted an immersive theatrical walking tour production called Voyeur: The Windows of Toulouse-Lautrec—one of the first in-person theatrical productions in New York City since the COVID-19 pandemic forced theaters across the city to shut down.

The performance began in the streets and open windows of Greenwich Village, pulled viewers through the neighborhood's geography, and eventually brought the audience indoors, into the open theater of Judson Memorial. As the title suggests, the play is about viewing without interacting, a sentiment that felt apt for Judson Memorial, which had to shift from large-scale in-person events to pre-recorded Sunday services in the midst of the pandemic.

For Rev. Roy Atwood, senior administrator of Judson Memorial Church, the performance made him feel like the community could finally come home and the church could return to the mission that had driven them since they opened in 1891.

“We say we have three legs of our stool: worship, arts, and activism,” said Atwood. “We try to use our space to empower boundary-pushing people who are working in those fields.”

Between 2019 and 2020, Judson Memorial Church participated in the National Fund for Sacred Places, a grantmaking and support program of Partners for Sacred Places in collaboration with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. With financial support from the National Fund, Judson Memorial preserved the church’s structure and roofing, allowing their community to safely continue to engage in place-based performances, activism, and worship for years to come.

Black and white overhead view of a park with greenery. In the distance is the edifice of a church with a tower.

photo by: P Romaine via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

A black and white image of Judson Memorial Church and Washington Square Park in New York in 1986. The image was taken by an unknown student at New York University.

Inspired in part by the support offered to it through the National Fund, Judson Memorial founded Bricks and Mortals, a grassroots organization dedicated to supporting houses of worship across New York City by providing resources, connections, and trainings aimed at maximizing their historic spaces and continuing their missions.

Judson Memorial has always been a church inspired by and dedicated to the diverse communities of New York City, and, thanks to the National Fund for Sacred Places, the church hopes to continue with its tripartite mission and expand its reach for years to come.

Preserving an Iconic Structure

In 1890, Edward Judson founded Judson Memorial Church in memory of the work of his missionary father, Adoniram Judson. Edward Judson aspired to unify the upper- and lower-income populations of New York City by building a church that geographically connected the two. Judson built his church on Washington Square Park to connect the wealthy upper classes to the north and the immigrant tenant communities to the south.

With financial backing from John D. Rockefeller and design support from architect Stanford White, stained glass master John La Farge, and sculptor Herbert Adams, Judson laid the cornerstone for the church on June 30, 1890, and completed construction in 1893. Judson envisioned an ecclesiastical, neo-Renaissance structure, and his design team, alongside architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White, helped bring this vision to life.

The exterior of the church was modeled after the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, Italy, and the entrance was inspired by the Lucca, Italy, Renaissance church San Alessandro. La Farge designed 14 stained-glass windows, which open into the church’s main sanctuary, and is the largest collection of windows designed by the famous glassmaker in any one place in the United States. A campanile tower was added to the building in 1896 and is located on the church’s west side.

View from the roof of a church overlooking the gate at Washington Square Park.

photo by: Judson Memorial Church

View from the roof of Judson Memorial Church.

An exterior view of a church from across a round courtyard. There are people sitting, standing, and walking through the space.

photo by: Judson Memorial Church

Exterior view of Judson Memorial Church.

In 1913 due to lack of funds, the church property was transferred to the New York City Baptist Mission Society. The tower and the Judson Hotel were purchased by New York University from the City Society in 1925.

The interior of the church is simple, keeping with the Baptist tradition of focusing on preaching. The space resembles a rectangular auditorium, featuring four arches crest along each cardinal direction and Romanesque-style columns supporting a vaulted ceiling.

Between 1990 and 2006, the church building was repainted and reroofed, but part of the new roofing proved to be historically inaccurate and did not protect the structure in the way it was intended. The church was originally built with clay tile roofing but portions were replaced with asphalt.

In 2019, Judson Memorial was selected to participate in the National Fund for Sacred Places. Originally, the church sought to replace the existing elevator and make the space comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, upon starting the construction process, the church ran into structural issues they did not anticipate.

A church in shadow with a gorgeous yellow and orange sunset. There is a tree in the foreground in shadow as well.

photo by: Boss Tweed via Flickr CC By 2.0

Judson Memorial Church at sunset.

When the construction team removed the shingle tiles from the roofing, they quickly realized that the wood beams, which were original to the 1890 structure, were rotted and needed to be replaced. Luckily for Judson Memorial, the National Fund for Sacred Places strives to be flexible with congregations in the program when they encounter unanticipated challenges.

“When you open parts of the building that you couldn’t see from the interior, there are going to be things you didn’t expect,” Atwood says. “Without the funding from the Trust and Partners for Sacred Places, we literally would not have been able to complete the project. Now it is beautiful, and it is complete, and it is the way the architects intended for it to look.”

Becoming Bricks and Mortals

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, churches in New York City had been facing a crisis of their own. Approximately 3,500—about 1 percent—of churches nationwide close their door each year, often due to low revenue, dwindling support, and lack of use of the space. Judson Memorial seeks to counter that statistic by helping houses of worship in New York City stay open and learn to use their space in innovative ways.

Detail of the exterior of a church building. The carving is ornate and there is a tiny green weed coming through the cracks.

photo by: Nick Normal via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A look at some of the details on the exterior of the Judson Memorial Church.

In 2016, former senior minister of Judson Memorial Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper founded Bricks and Mortals, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting and amplifying historic houses of worship through trainings, financial planning, resources, and connections. Bricks and Mortals advises communities on how to preserve their buildings, bring in revenue through ventures like space rentals, and reinvigorate their community.

According to Atwood, some of the biggest threats facing congregations in New York City are not simply a lack of community interest or a lack of funds, but also gentrification, racism, and a lack of transparency in development initiatives.

“Places of worship go through hard times, and not every place is able to preserve itself on its own. Unfortunately, when they get to that place, they sign themselves to the highest bidder in terms of developers,” Atwood says. “The point of Bricks and Mortals is to preserve these spaces in ways that are consistent with their values and maintain them as public goods in the way that we do with our space.”

According to Schaper, the extraordinary opportunity of houses of worship exists hidden in plain sight around religious buildings. For Judson Memorial, it meant removing the pews from the church. The church removed the pews in the 1960s to make the space more adaptable so that it could be used as a performance space, art center, and worship venue. But Atwood says removing the pews is not only a literal statement.

Interior of a church with an alter during a worship service. There are people seated in a semi-circle in portable chairs rather than pews so that the space can be used in other ways when not in service.

photo by: Judson Memorial Church

Interior of Judson Memorial Church during worship service.

"We have to remove the pews from our minds as well," he says. "We have to remove the barriers we put in place of what churches and other places of worship are, and what they can and cannot be."

Bricks and Mortals received a $1 million grant from the Lilly Endowment, which they hope to use to broaden their work in New York City and expand their mission into other cities across the country that are facing similar problems. The organization’s goal is to help break down barriers for historic houses of worship and keep sacred spaces open for those who need them.

“We have physical barriers that are preventing creativity, but we also have psychological barriers that are preventing creativity,” Atwood says. “We can preserve historic spaces by removing some of those barriers, by finding new funding sources, and by discovering new ways of presenting public goods like art and justice work in ways that benefit the community.”

Where Arts and Service Converge

Judson Memorial Church has always served underrepresented and underserved communities. In the early 20th century, the church opened one of the first community health clinics in the nation, which moved off-property in the 1950s but continues to serve community members today. In the 1960s, the church began to embrace avant-garde art and performance, especially those performed by underrepresented groups.

A single individual standing in the center of a stage bathed in pink light. The individual is in a white loose dress with a black facemask as the production took place during the pandemic.

photo by: Judson Memorial Church

A look at Voyeur as performed at Judson Memorial Church.

A blue lit stage with the circular glass window during a theatrical production inside a church. There is a black and white suited individual being projected below the video and an individual sitting on a bench white floaty costume on the main stage.

photo by: Judson Memorial Church

A scene from Voyeur at Judson Memorial Church.

The Judson Dance Theater of the early 1960s situated Judson Memorial as the birthplace of postmodern dance. In 2018, a retrospective of the dance group was featured at the Museum of Modern Art, making it one of the only church-sponsored programs to exhibit there. The church also was known for hosting emerging visual artists in The Judson Gallery and the prolific musicals and plays performed by the Judson Poets Theater during the 1960 and '70s. As Judson Memorial saw so many downtown Off-Broadway theaters closing, it committed to opening The Gym at Judson in 2011, where critically-acclaimed productions continue to delight audiences.

Since the 1960s, Judson Memorial has been a haven for artists looking to challenge industry norms, hone their craft, and build community. The church incorporates art and service into its Sunday worship, and it hosts a Wednesday night arts program that features up-and-coming artists, particularly LGBTQ artists and artists of color, and provides attendees with a free meal, uplifting both the local arts and the food insecure in the process.

A dance performance with a variety of different people clustered together in a circle on stage at a church.

photo by: Judson Memorial Church

The church is often used for a variety of performances that include dance and theater. In the 1960s, it was the home of postmodern dance.

A look at a theatrical production inside a church. The ceiling and windows are a deep blue with a stained glass circle in the center. A group of individuals in multi-colored clothing are lined up with their arms in the air.

photo by: Judson Memorial Church

One of the many performances at Judson Memorial Church.

“Our artists produce art for art’s sake, and don’t necessarily cater to a mass audience or fit the whims of the funding class,” Atwood says. “Any kind of movement can be dance, and anyone can do dance. The Judson Dance Theater is a rejection of the hierarchy that says what is and isn’t dance.”

Judson Memorial also gives back to the arts and activist communities by renting out its space at a rate of whatever each group can afford. Using this sliding scale model, “We give away over $500,000 a year in space rentals,” Atwood says. “We try to use the resources we have, including our building, for good, to try to help those groups put on performances, fundraisers, and other events to multiply their impact in the city.”

Even though Judson Memorial uses a sliding scale model, much of the church’s income comes from space rentals, resulting in financial struggles throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Luckily, Atwood says, the church received PPP loans, and the community rallied around the church and donated money to keep the facility going.

While most events were cancelled in the past year, Judson Memorial learned to adapt throughout the pandemic. The church prerecorded worship services and screened them virtually on Sunday mornings for people to view from their homes. Amidst the pandemic, Judson Memorial provided living space for activists who participated in a hunger strike to bring relief funds to undocumented New Yorkers, leading to the establishment of the Excluded Workers Fund.

“The heart of our community is the belief that beauty and equity are divine values, even if they might be presented in a secular framework,” Atwood says. “Art productions or justice work that are done with no religious overtones or explicitly religious messages are religious work, to us, because they are making our community more like the beloved community that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. talked about. We try to support that work with our space and with our funds because even if the organizers would never call it a religious activity, we see it as inherently spiritual.”

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Image of Morgan Vickers with some trees behind them.

Morgan P. Vickers is a writer, historian, and graduate student based in Oakland, California. They are passionate about spatial histories, underrepresented narratives, and questions of belonging.

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