The Asbury Houses of Worship

The Asbury Church buildings as we know them today – the church sanctuary, Weyand Hall, Wesley Hall and the connecting cloister – are about as far removed from the architectural thoughts of the early church fathers as one can imagine. In the words of our first bishop, Francis Asbury, “Let all our chapels be built plain and decent, but no more expensive than is absolutely unavoidable. Otherwise the necessity of raising money will make rich men necessary to us. But if so, we must be dependent upon them, yes, and governed by them. And then farewell to the Methodist Discipline, if not our doctirine too.” We have survived and prospered together, to the point that today we seem justifiably proud of the church’s beautiful architecture with its stained glass appointments that we claim as our worship home.

Francis Asbury first preached in this area at the home of Peter Bonnett on what is now Central Park Avenue. Peter was an ardent revolutionary and a dedicated leader of the local Methodist Society formed in 1773. Hiding from the British in the hills above White Plains by day, he returned to the Crestwood area at night to help keep the Society alive. After peace came with the removal of the British and Hessians, Bishop Asbury came north again from his refuge in Delaware and led services at the home of Abigail Sherwood on the corner of what is now Scarsdale Road and Pennsylvania Avenue, as well as at the “other Sherwood” house, now an historic site at the juncture of Tuckahoe Road and the Sprain Brook Parkway. After preaching at Widow Abigail Sherwood’s house on September 24, 1797, Bishop Asbury entered in his journal, “Now they are about building a church.”

A wooden chapel was built by Silas Crawford on the site of the present church. It was a well-built frame building, large for its time, with two entrance doors on either side of the front – one for men and one for women. The exact date for construction of the chapel is in doubt. Although it would seem from Asbury’s journal lo have been started in 1797, the one-acre parcel on which it was constructed was deeded by Moses and Tamer Sherwood for a price of S25 lo the trustees of the Methodist Episcopal Church of Yonkers on December 25, 1800 The deed was not recorded at the county registry until July 30. 1835. Known locally as the Sherwood Chapel, it served an expanding community of worshipers from Tuckahoe. parts of Eastchester and New Roctwile, as well as northeast Yonkers. At the time the chape! was built, the local area contained a few farms, a school, the Underhill Tavern and a blacksmith shop.

Rev. Francis Asbury (1745-1816)

In 1865, this wooden frame church was sold to Charles Dusenberry to make way for the present marble structure on the same site. Mr. Dusenberry moved it across Underhill Street to its present location, where it served as housing for his farm hands and subsequently his own descendants. In 1921, it was sold to the Davenports, and then to the Langhans Family in 1955.

The present church building, with its simple strong lines, was built on the site of the old chapel with marble from the Tuckahoe quarries at the end of the Civil War. Started in 1866, it was dedicated in January or February of 1867 as the Asbury Centenary Methodist Church, with the word “Centenary” added to the name above the front door to note the 100th anniversary of Methodism in America. Costs of construction were considerable but were diminished by contributed labor and materials. Although the trustees had resolved in 1866 that construction costs should not exceed 58,500, when completed in 1867, the new building was estimated to be worth $20.000.
Interior lighting was by kerosene lamps. Electric lights were installed in 1898 with financial help from the Ladies Aid Society, whose minutes note that “. . We also congratulate ourselves on the improved appearance of the church edifice with its beautiful electric lights which we trust will prove an attraction to those we would like to see in the pews.”

A Lecture Room was added to the back of the new church shortly after its construction at the instigation of a Stephen Barker, who seems to have paid for it from his own pocket. In 1903-04. an L- extension was attached to the rear side wall of the church, where the transept now is. Apparently, this addition was made to accommodate demands for increased Sunday School space. At least $500 of the unknown cost was raised by the Ladies Aid Society through pledges, dues, socials and suppers A final oyster supper planned for March 11, 1904 was transformed at the last minute to a much more prosaic roast chicken and chicken pie supper. A further small addition to this “L” was made in 1908 and referred to in the Ladies Aid Society minutes as “that funny little kitchen behind the old Sunday School room.”

Alterations of an extensive but not well-documented nature were made in 1911-12 to the interior and exterior of the church. The marble belfry over the front door was erected to replace the original frame structure. On the inside, the gallery at the rear of the church was removed, the pews were replaced, and the organ was moved from behind the pulpit lo the northwest corner of the .sanctuary, along the cemetery wall. Opalescent green glass windows with oat. leaf borders appeared, and a rose window, later replaced by the Staiber Memorial Window, may have been installed about this time Also, the Hodgman window, the first of the memorial picture windows, appeared at or shortly after this time.

By 1914, the Sunday School had begun to ‘burst its walls,” and the need was met in 1915 at the beginning of World War I by a $15,000 extension to the Lecture Room. Apparently, this was a limited increase in space, for by 1921 a further extension was made to the Sunday School room with improvements for the kitchen below it.

Rapid growth in Sunday School enrollment continued through the twenties, and it became obvious that small incremental expansion of the church would no longer accommodate the growing need. In 1928, plans were launched for an entire new building on the site of the horse shed and old gravel parking lot. Loss of the parking area apparently was not regretted, for members owning early automobiles had complained of being mired in the mud and having tires punctured by horseshoe nails. For the first time, local area residents were solicited in a campaign to raise $50,000 for the new structure. The trustees promised that, with their prior permission, the large auditorium with a floor space of 38 by 80 feet and a magnificent stage would be available to local organizations for dances, card parties and banquets. To emphasize its service to the local area, the new building was named “The Community House.” Its construction began in 1928 when pledges for $40,000 were in hand, but actual costs ran somewhat above the projected $50,000 level.

Although objections were heard from time to time about inappropriate language in some plays prevented by the Workshop Players, community usage by 1930 represented a total reversal from an 1849 trustee resolution “that the church should not be let out for any other purpose than the worship of the Lord, and temperance meetings conducted on religious principles.” The Community House, with its several first floor rooms for offices and Sunday School usage, has served the church and the local community in admirable fashion for three-quarters of a century. Shortly after Rev. George Weyand died in 1977, the upstairs Community Hall of the Community House was renamed Weyand Hall in his honor.

Sunday attendance and use of the new church facilities increased steady through the thirties and forties. A new nine-rank organ was installed in 1931. In 1945, property next to the Community House was purchased with the intent of erecting a new Sunday School building, and in 1952 the present parking lot area was acquired. Shortly after World War II, a three-year building fund campaign was launched with a goal of $130,000 to double the size of the sanctuary and to provide a new church school building. The campaign realized $72.000 in pledges fairly quickly and an additional $27,000 in follow-on solicitations, leaving only $33,000 to be covered by mortgages.

Construction on the church enlargement began in the spring of 1949 and was completed in time for a service of dedication, led by Bishop G Bromley Oxnam in the beautiful new sanctuary on Christmas Eve of that year. The sanctuary was extended to the west, doubling the number of pews, the organ was moved back to the new chancel area, an enlarged choir loft was built, new suspended lighting was installed in the nave and spotlights placed in the chancel ceiling A new kitchen was designed and built off the Community Hall, and new Sunday School rooms were provided beneath the sanctuary and nave. Accompanying these major changes, a new pulpit, lectern, altar, communion railing and carpeting were installed.

To this date, a crack can be seen in the sanctuary ceiling where the extension was added. Re-plastered and painted over repeatedly, it reappears faithfully, arching from one side of the sanctuary to the other. Perhaps it is there to remind us of an earlier time, and of the dedication, resolution and sacrifice of those who worshipped in this hall before us.

These many improvements to the church consumed somewhat less than half of the building fund, and plans proceeded immediately for the new Sunday School building known as Wesley Hall. Sunday School enrollment had grown from 370 in 1947 – already a large number by historical comparison – to 613 in 1934. The new three-story structure with many classrooms, two bathrooms, a small kitchen, a fireside meeting room and and third floor apartment was erected in 1956 and dedicated in 1957 Despite heavy and overlapping use of space, it has served the Sunday School, the Asbury Nursery School, and various Asbury committees and outside organizations very well for the last 40 years.

In 1964, the Community House and Wesley Hall were joined at the second floor level by a bridge of adjoining church offices, thereby providing an attractive open cloister brick path as part of the front view of the church. In keeping with the 1866 church construction, Wesley Hall and the new offices were faced on the front side with gray stone.

This complex of beautiful stone buildings with a large open parking lot dominates the nearby entrance and exit to the Bronx River Parkway in Tuckahoe. It stands as a silent invitation to all who pass by to enter its halls and be a witness to the dedication and resolve that our forefathers brought to their worship experience.