Two new apartment buildings to replace 19th century church in Williamsburg

williamsburg church
The new owners of a 19th century church plan to replace it with a pair of apartment buildings.
Photo by Susan De Vries

A small 19th century church in Williamsburg that was once used as a synagogue will be demolished and replaced by two four-story apartment buildings, if the new owner’s plans go ahead. The quaint house of worship has sat on the corner of Leonard and Stagg streets since 1855, when it was built for a German congregation in what was then a German enclave in the borough.

Although the property is now the worse for wear and seemingly forgotten, its early 20th century tax photo shows an elegant Italianate building with neo-Classical details.

Historic photo of Williamsburg church
The historic tax record photo taken circa 1940 shows the building in use as a synagogue. Photo courtesy of New York City Municipal Archives, Department of Records and Information Services

In February, the church, located at 157 Leonard Street, was sold by Action in Christ International to 157 Leonard Street LLC for $4 million, city records show. Joel Schwartz signed a mortgage for 157 Leonard St LLC.

A permit to demolish the building was applied for in September 2023, but has not been issued. Two new-building applications for the site, which includes the parking lot at 78 Stagg St. behind the church, have been submitted but neither permit has been issued yet. Both applications are for four-story apartment buildings; the one at 157 Leonard St. will have seven units and the one at 78 Stagg St. will have eight, the applications say.

Diego Aguilera Architects P.C. is the architect of record on both, and Hershey Silberstein of Blue Shine Builders Inc. is listed as the owner. No renderings have been posted on the construction fence or online.

Originally built as the German Evangelical Mission Church, in an area old maps show had a number of German businesses at the time, the structure started going up in the spring of 1855. The cornerstone was put in place in May, and in October the brick church was dedicated.

details on williamsburg church
Details on the exterior of the church. Photo by Susan De Vries

The building’s tall arched windows and doors were popular during the heyday of the Italianate style in the mid-19th century and also recall Romanesque Revival. The four pilasters across the front bring Greek Revival to the mix, and the front facade’s keystones are neo-Classical. Three stars of David on the roof and three more on the frieze, along with a plaque and a sign in Hebrew, identify the building as a synagogue. The cornice with its dentil molding and gable could be original or a later addition.

The church was substantially remodeled circa 1885 to 1895, and the congregation celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1903. Around the time of the celebration, “a great number of Jewish families from the east side of Manhattan moved over to Brooklyn and settled in the immediate vicinity of the church,” while the German congregants moved to other parts of the city, according to an early 20th century newspaper account of the church history. With a dwindling congregation, the church moved to Ridgewood in 1904 and laid the cornerstone for a new building there in 1907.

From at least 1903 through 1915, space in the basement of the church at 157 Leonard Street was rented for use by the local public school. During that time the ownership of the building changed, and by 1914 the Congregation Lovers of Peace Synagogue (also known as Ohev Sholom Anshei Sfard) was occupying the former church. The synagogue owned the property until 1970 when it transferred the deed to the building to the School of Biblical Instruction of Brooklyn (also known as Beth Talmud De Tora Brooklyn). In 1993, the school transferred the deed to Marcos Miranda of Action in Christ Church for $80,000.

church in williamsburg
Two four-story buildings will replace the church. Photo by Susan De Vries

Across the road from the church is Brooklyn’s oldest NYCHA development, Williamsburg Houses, which was built in the 1930s.

The Leonard Street church is the latest in a years-long building sell off by churches all over the borough, which have faced declining attendance and deteriorating structures while property values have skyrocketed. Many have been demolished for new housing, including the recently torn down St. Lucy-St. Patrick in Bed Stuy, but in some cases buildings are altered or extended, and occasionally preserved and adapted for new uses.

This story first appeared on Brooklyn Paper’s sister site Brownstoner.