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First St. John’s Lutheran: Telling this York church’s 140-year-old story in architecture

Steeple of the German Lutheran Church which is now First St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church of York, PA. Submitted
Steeple of the German Lutheran Church which is now First St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church of York, PA. Submitted

First St. John’s Lutheran Church is observing its 140th anniversary this year.  This is the first of a monthly series in this anniverary year by local architectural expert Terry Downs. Dutchie, as he’s known around social media, undertook a similar series on J. Horace Rudy-design stained-glass windows in his home church, York’s First Moravian. First St. John’s has been in the news recently for its progress toward installation of a FM radio station WYCO-LP, which will cover community events. Also of interest: Finding significant Dempwolf design features in venerable York, Pa., church.

And now, a guest post, with photos, from Terry Downs, the first in a series: “The History of First Saint John’s Lutheran Church in Architecture.”

The German Lutheran Church which is now First St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church of York, PA. Submitted
The German Lutheran Church, now First St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, stands on West King Street in York.
The importance of the German Lutheran Church which is now First St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church of York, PA in location is shown by its edifice.  Moreover, its mission – from early days and now in the present period is one of adaption, imagination and commitment.

The 1870’s saw change in American cultures; as the Civil War and the kick start of the Industrial Revolution gave rise to a new progressive spirit in our Country, and our Community.  Such was York – as many Churches had or were setting aside the former customs of Old World language(s) to align to a unified English (or, emblematic Americanism) character, compounded by the reign of Queen Victoria.  This was most true in York, where, founded by English Settlers mingled with those of the Palatinate region, these were many times reluctant to surrender their ‘old world’ morals.  But with a new vigor, America, as was York was reinventing and improving itself.

Upon the German speaking members parting of the ‘First’ Lutheran Church in York in the early 1870’s, the German Lutheran Church desired to embrace the values of its pioneers and yet keep in step with the progression of the times.  The inspiration of that became St. John’s Ev. Lutheran, today’s First St. John’s.

A site for the new edifice was chosen, on former kiln sites near The Codorus off Water Street (today it is South Pershing Avenue) which was largely low level industry neighborhood.  Several stone buildings were located along the waterway, and a new stir of industrial and residential development was happening in this region.  A building lot on the corner of West King Street at Park Lane South was purchased for $9.000 for the erection of a church building.  Upon the parting of the First Lutheran Congregation on South George Street, this body of believers met at the Court House, while the new structure was being built.  Many charter members pledged their treasure, talents and materials to embody a New Vision.

At this time, York had but a few budding architects, essentially an exploding profession upon the end of the War – such was famed Edward Haviland, whose noteworthy architect father John Haviland built the Pennsylvania State Penitentiary near Philadelphia, and Edward, locating to York, followed in those same footsteps.  Haviland’s contributions in York was public buildings and church structures – all in similar shape and construction – including Otterbein E.U.B (United  Methodist), Duke Street Methodist and York (now First) Moravian Church; in addition executing the 1859 renovation of the Almshouse on the Elm Spring Farm addition in eastern York Borough, to name a few.  Edw. Haviland died in 1872.  Very little informative documentation remains on Haviland, or his works.

John Augustus Dempwolf and his family immigrated to the United States in 1867, he the eldest of 12 children, settling just outside York Borough in Manchester Township – northwest of the Codorus Creek (George St. bridge), where Hamilton Avenue intersects North Beaver Street.  The family home yet exists.  In 1874, the German Lutheran Church was dedicated; it is not clear how Dempwolf achieved this commission, nor how he trained (not stated he did with Haviland) – as of this writing – – but further research may prove to tell the story.  One account states Dempwolf’s architectural practice commenced in 1876, where in Philadelphia he executed work for the U.S. Centennial Park & buildings with other architects.

J.A. Dempwolf’s work for what may be his “pilot project” was legion!  The astounding breadth and scale of this structure departed from what seemed staid for late Colonial and more or less vernacular, non-descript building forms in York.  Its attitude was brash and highly wrought. And, it brought in a newer flavor of style not well placed in the Susquehanna Valley – a flamboyant gothic building.  Not since erection of the Presbyterian Church (1860) had so tall a steeple and commodious sanctuary been built in York, and this too holds ornamentation that’s second-to-none, but such embellishments were added in later alterations.  Many structures (such as the National House, the Court House [prior to 1897] and the Odd Fellows Hall were prominent structures in York, this initial effort of Dempwolf’s was surmountable to change in York – as the commanding spire aptly towered above the height of the First (Christ) Lutheran steeple vane – this German Ev. Church was of brick, iron, slate construction and very massive.  Its presence gave a sense of ostentation in this newly developing neighborhood, off the main line thoroughfare of West Market (then Center) Street and, was easily visible from entry roads leading into York.  It remains such today.

The importance of this facility is as an essential stepping stone in the life of this Congregation and Dempwolf mutually.  Projects on this grand scale would not conquer York’s skyline for another 5 years, when the noteworthy City Market, below, opened in 1879, also designed by J.A. Dempwolf.

Tremendous energy and faith was the testimony of the German Evangelical Lutheran Church from that launch, and though many future trials and triumphs would ensue, the strength of this fellowship of Believers reigns as securing a place of importance in York’s Pillars of Faith, seeing a resurgence of renewed energy in a City regaling to a new vision and purpose.  First Saint John’s works to keep in step, and future installments will feature noteworthy aspects of this Worship Center, and its congregants.
This series is created Celebrating 140 years of the building and mission of First Saint John’s Lutheran, reaching its milestone in October 2015. Installment No. 1 – May 2014

City Market, York, PAPhoto courtesy York County Heritage Trust
City Market, York, PAPhoto courtesy York County Heritage Trust