One of Greenpoint’s oldest buildings, the Episcopal Church of the Ascension (127 Kent St.), although beautiful, does not feel as if it belongs in Greenpoint. It feels more like a church from North London transported across the Atlantic and placed on Kent Street. It is also not hard to imagine the structure in some quaint English country town.
The British feel to the building is not an accident, as it was designed by Englishman Henry C. Dudley just at the end of the Civil War and dedicated in 1866. Dudley, a major American ecclesiastical architect who built in the English Gothic Revival style, designed a few churches so lovely that they were placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Although Dudley built a number of American churches, Ascension is one of only four remaining Dudley churches in New York City and the only one in Brooklyn. Dudley is most famous for his buildings in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his partner Frank Wills designed the elegant Church of the Holy Trinity, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
When Dudley came to Greenpoint, Hunters Point was still open land. Dudley found large granite slabs there, which he laid in a random ashlar pattern, giving the façade that unique English countryside feeling people so admire. He incorporated other British elements in the design. At the time of its building English church builders like Dudley believed in exposing the interior portions of the church on the front of the church, so that the nave, baptistery, side aisles and roof are all clearly seen from the front of the church.
This was not the first church building on the site. A church was organized in the 1840s, and in 1853, a simple wooden lecture hall and Sunday school were built. One of the members of the congregation, though, wanted a more elegant structure and he had the money to hire Dudley and build a thing of beauty. His name was Thomas Fitch Rowland and it was at his shipyard, the Continental Iron Works on Quay Street in 1862 that the genius inventor John Ericsson completed the first ironclad battleship, the famous Monitor. Rowland built a number of other monitor type ships, employing fifteen hundred men round-the clock during the War Between the States. Rowland became a very rich man and died a millionaire, but he was also a man of great piety who wanted to build a church that reminded him of quaint country Episcopalian churches he knew as a boy in Connecticut.
The pews, columns and decorative elements are made of wood and must have reminded Rowland of the churches he prayed in as a boy. The church also features simple, but elegant stained glass windows, early English lancets and British style buttresses. The lot where the church had to be built was narrow; Dudley chose to make two side entrances instead of a central entrance, each with a pointed arched door, with a roundel window above it. Dudley’s original plan for the building included a corner tower, but this proved to be too elaborate for the small congregation and Dudley redesigned the building to create a copy of a tiny Early English style parish church.
In the back of the church there is a reminder of Rowland, the patron. A small model of the monitor sits in a glass case along the wall. Perhaps few parishioners are aware that the man who built the famed ship also helped fund this graceful old church.