By Lauren Brincat, Curator, Preservation Long Island.

Unidentified artist, Landscape of Newtown, Long Island, 1839. Gift of Mr. Edward Voss, 1968.15.

Preservation Long Island is home to an extraordinary collection of regional artworks and artifacts that document Long Island’s ever changing landscape, its rich history, and the people who have called it home. Currently on view at the Preservation Long Island Gallery is an oil on canvas painting of a small Long Island village featuring fenced pastures, country estates, and a street lined with churches, businesses, and homesteads. The artist is unknown, but an inscription on the reverse indicates the setting to be Newtown, Long Island in 1839. It is difficult to imagine that the picturesque townscape painted nearly 180 years ago is today Elmhurst, Queens—a bustling and vibrant urban community. Newtown’s name changed to Elmhurst in 1897, just one year before Queens County was incorporated into Greater New York City.

The street depicted in the background is Broadway, and the churches illustrated from left to right are: the Dutch Reformed Church of Newtown, constructed in 1831; Old Saint James Episcopal Church, built between 1735 and 1736; and the First Presbyterian Church, built after the Revolutionary War, but no longer standing.

The painting is a wonderful document of the community’s historic structures located today at the intersection of Broadway and 51st Avenue in the heart of Elmhurst. Because of its remarkable detail, it recently served as a valuable research tool for historic preservationists seeking landmark designation for Old Saint James Episcopal Church, whose history dates back to the neighborhood’s colonial settlement.

From the seventeenth century into the middle of the 1800s, Newtown was an agricultural community that raised produce for the New York City market. Preservation Long Island’s 1839 landscape wonderfully captures this rural character of Queens County well into the nineteenth century. When it was painted, the population of Newtown was close to 5,000. Today, about 100,000 people live in Elmhurst, Queens.

The Algonquian-speaking Lenape people were the earliest inhabitants of the area. In 1652, the first European settlers arrived, establishing the town of Middleburgh. Most were English religious dissenters seeking refuge in what was then an outpost of Dutch New Amsterdam. After English conquest in 1664, the town’s name changed to Newtown. Saint James parish officially began in 1704 as “as the Church of England in America, Mission Church at Newtowne,” which was part of a three-town mission church under Jamaica. Robert Ryder, “Long Illand Siruaide” (Detail), ca. 1675. Ink on vellum. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, Providence, RI.

Thanks to the research efforts of preservationist Marianne Hurley, of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission—who first brought the identity of the buildings in Preservation Long Island’s painting to our attention—the Old Saint James Episcopal Church received landmark designation earlier this fall. It is New York City’s oldest Church of England building and the second oldest religious building in the City, after the Old Quaker Meetinghouse in Flushing (ca. 1700).

This copy of an illustration of Old Saint James Church as it looked in 1773 comes from A Brief History of St. James Parish, 1704–1954 written by Minnie Germond in 1954. The church was originally built according to the prevailing style for meetinghouses and rural churches common during the colonial period, which often featured a gabled oblong building with a square tower at one end. According to a 1882 newspaper article, Old Saint James Church had separate rooms in the tower for slaves to worship.

Although the structure lost its tower and steeple and was updated with Gothic Revival and Stick style details in the late 1800s, the building retains its early eighteenth-century rectangular box-like form, wood shingle siding, round-arched windows, and heavy timber framing. With no known photographs of Old Saint James Church dating prior to 1900, Preservation Long Island’s 1839 landscape of Newtown is a rare document of the church’s original appearance and that of its early rural surroundings.

Today’s exterior of Old Saint James Church is the result of a major remolding in 1883. The Gothic Revival and Stick style features were most likely added at the same time. These included the truss-like trim below the clipped gable ends, overhanging eaves with brackets, the round window, and drip molding. Old Saint James Episcopal Church, Newtown, 2017. Courtesy of Marianne Hurley.