George L. Morse, Architect
Dedicated in 1891
The imposing Neo-Gothic structure of Old First stands like a cathedral in a medieval city. The building is accented by beautiful stained glass windows; its foundation is granite, the facade and spire are Indiana limestone. George L. Morse was the architect. We believe he imagined the space first and then designed around it. The sanctuary has a central plan like a dome instead of the linear plan of many churches. It is essentially a Greek (square) cross with an extra bay added for the balcony at the rear, and seats over a thousand persons. Old First's congregation numbered two hundred in 1891 but they thought big, creating enough space to seat their hoped-for Easter crowd, which has been estimated at 1,200. The steeple, at 212 feet, is the tallest live-stone steeple in Brooklyn and has no interior structure of wood or steel.
Brooklyn based architect, George L. Morse (1836/37-1924) was a native of Bangor, Maine. His family moved to Plainfield, New Jersey where his brother William also practiced architecture. (George's father, Timothy Hunting Morse's brief obituary in the New York Times states that he too was an architect and builder). When George was 17, he came into the office of Gervase Wheeler in New York. Wheeler, an Englishman living in the United States for about 13 years, had designed offices, banks, churches, mansions and homes in Maine, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York, along with the chapels at Bowdoin and Williams Colleges. He is most widely known as the author of two influential books, Rural Homes and Homes for the People, written in the 1850s, both still in print. Morse learned so quickly that Wheeler offered him a partnership, which did not materialize when Wheeler suddenly returned to England soon thereafter. Some references hint that Wheeler had an untrustworthy side in spite of his successes.
Morse began his own practice after Wheeler's departure in the Brooklyn Post Office where Wheeler's office can be found in an 1860 directory. The Journal of the American Institute of Architects, January 1925, states that he was 22 years old at this time. His professional career lasted for 50 years until his retirement in 1910/11, still a prominent architect and force in his field. About the time of his retirement, he moved permanently to his summer home in Riverside, Connecticut, near Greenwich, with his two sons. His youngest son, George Tremaine Morse, had followed him into the profession but preceded him in death in 1919, dying of tuberculosis. His eldest son, Herbert, was not an architect; Herbert, then in his fifties, was still living with his father at the time of Morse's passing.
In addition to Old First, Morse designed dozens of homes and commercial structures. Some of his most well known are the massive, quirky, Temple Bar Building (Court and Joralemon Streets, 1901, the tallest building in Brooklyn at the time it was built, its exterior currently under renovation), the graceful, moated, Franklin Trust Building (166 Montague at Clinton, 1891; beautifully renovated as apartments in 2009), the acclaimed 1885 Romanesque Abraham & Straus building (177 Livingston at Gallitin), and the 1892 Brooklyn Daily Eagle Building (a landmark in its time, razed in 1955 to make way for Robert Moses' Cadman Plaza).
Joseph J. Korom, who in 2013 wrote, Skyscraper Facades of the Gilded Age: Fifty-One Extravagant Designs, 1875-1910, credits Morse with "being responsible for almost single-handedly giving early Brooklyn a skyline of its own". Besides the buildings mentioned previously, Korom names the Mechanics Bank, northwest corner of Court and Montague Streets (demolished), and "…the designs of large churches and many prominent Brooklyn homes…". Morse's own obituary names others; the Bank of America, the Brooklyn City Railroad Building (Old Fulton Street ?), and an office building at the southwest corner of Montague and Court, identified as the Continental Building, an early Morse building erected in 1874, since razed. George L. Morse also designed our sister church, Grace Reformed, in the Prospect Lefferts Garden neighborhood, which is stylistically very different from Old First.
Architectural historians and preservationists consider Morse's legacy to have been underplayed but not lost. This may be a result of no surviving Morse heirs; neither of his sons remained in Brooklyn nor did they have offspring. And sadly, the architectural drawings Morse rendered have not survived, perhaps because of his lack of heirs; Morse would have kept possession of them during his career and this archive would have certainly included the designs of Old First. But the largest factor came into play 60 years ago; the memory of Morse's work was nearly obliterated by Robert Moses' Brooklyn improvement plans and the Cadman Plaza development, a decade when over three hundred buildings, along with many of Morse's commercial edifices, were demolished. Today interest in Morse is reviving as the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission moves to protect more and more of Brooklyn's 19th and early 20th century heritage, including a few surviving Morse buildings which are located in the new Borough Hall Skyscraper Historic District, established 2011. Along with protecting surviving structures, the Commission has been recording descriptions of those already gone. Perhaps as a result of this revival of interest, note that the AIA Guide to New York City has upgraded its description of Old First, from the revised 1978 edition, “A bulky granite and limestone neo-gothic,” to the most recent edition released in 2010, “A somber granite and limestone neo-Gothic monolith, stolid, as if carved from a quarry, but with a soaring, slender needle-pointed spire," a bit more positive and appreciative of Old First's contrasts and contradictions. It is hard to remember that the buildings of the 19th century, including brownstones, were considered a liability and nuisance in the years after World War II, when everyone wanted things new and fresh. Tastes change.
And today, many Brooklynites feel that the new constructions by Robert Moses do not begin to make up for the loss of these beautiful old buildings. In the late '50s after the razing of the 300 buildings, residents and friends of Brooklyn Heights and Willowtown drew a line in the sand when Moses set his sights on their neighborhoods by successfully arresting the rampant development and by forcing through improvements such as the Promenade which hides the BQE underneath Brooklyn Heights. Today these neighborhoods are some of New York's finest, full of history and character and beauty. Though George Morse's buildings have been lost, the memory of over-development in downtown Brooklyn was what fed New York's most famous grassroots preservationist a decade later. Jane Jacobs fought to save Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village and fanned the spark of the historic preservation movement in New York City. Jacobs, a journalist, urged city dwellers and officials to rethink urban renewal that did not respect the needs of those who live there. Though not Morse's preconceived outcome of a lifetime of work, this one consequence is not a shabby legacy for the lost buildings of George Leonard Morse.
Other positions related to his field which Morse held were President of the Brooklyn chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and elevation to AIA's College of Fellows, Life Member of the Brooklyn Institute, President of the Department of Architecture at Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences (forerunner of the Brooklyn Museum, Children's Museum and BAM), Resident Member of the Architectural League of New York, a seat as judge on the architectural design committee for the Brooklyn Museum, and one of three on a panel to review the designs for the reconstruction of the Brooklyn City Hall. Morse had great influence in the architectural planning of Brooklyn beyond his own designs.
Thanks to architecture and preservation historian, Darrin Von Stein, for a heads-up on the importance of Morse and for leads in research.
Download George L. Morse fact sheet here.