The Evolution of Harlem’s Founding Church

The Elmendorf Reformed Church (shown at right) is the oldest church in Harlem. It was originally established in 1660 as the Low Dutch Reformed Church of Harlem, whose emblem can be seen above. Its centuries’ long history is illustrated below.


The slider below shows the different locations of Harlem’s founding church over the centuries. The first two churches were built before the city’s modern street grid and were situated closer to both the village of Harlem and its river. In the preceding years, the church moved westward as streets and avenues divided the initial tracts of farmland into uniform lots on rectangular blocks. The map key below the slider provides additional information.


First Church Edifice-

Built 1665

Second Church Edifice-

Built 1686; Rebuilt 1789

Harlem Church at Third Ave. & 121st St.-

Built 1825; Moved 1884; Demolished 1908

Lenox Avenue Church on 123rd St.-

Built 1886

Pastor House, Elmendorf Reformed Church-

Built circa 1900

126th Street Bus Depot-

Project Site for Redevelopment

God's Acre - 

Church Cemetery for People of European Descent

Negro Burying Ground -

Church Cemetery for Free and Enslaved Africans 


As New York City grew from small agrarian villages to a more industrialized, urban center, the congregation of the Low Dutch Reformed Church of Harlem expanded, requiring several relocations. By the early 1870s, both the Negro Burying Ground and the European cemetery known as God’s Acre had been sold. Many descendants of those buried in God’s Acre were contacted so that their ancestors’ bodies could be exhumed for re-interment in other cemeteries. In contrast, no arrangements were made for those of African descent. Their remains were left in the ground and the city was built on top of the Harlem African Burial Ground. The following slideshow illustrates the evolution of the church beginning in the 17th century.

The first church edifice (no historical image available) was a modest wooden structure built in 1665. It was constructed over two years on top of what would later become the “Negro Burying Ground” on the corner of present day 127th Street and First Avenue. In 1686, a second edifice (shown at left) made of stone was built to replace this rough timber structure. It was placed further south along Church Lane at the corner of present day 125th Street and First Avenue. This church was later destroyed during the Revolutionary War and rebuilt in 1789 (shown at right).