Calvary Baptist Church is no stranger to meeting in an interim location. The most recent experience in 1929 was a memorable one. The church spent much of the 1920s debating and planning for a new church-hotel complex to replace its dilapidated but beloved 1883 structure on 57th Street. Of great concern was where the church would make its temporary home. Around the same time, the Knights of Pythias, a fraternal organization, had completed a new lodge at 135 W. 70th St. in 1927 – a “lodge” that was impressive even by New York City standards.
The nine-story Romanesque structure was designed by architect Charles Lamb and contained a 1600-seat columnless auditorium with meeting rooms upstairs. The space was rented out regularly to organizations of all kinds. Today the building has been restored for residential use.
A day before the church filed the ambitious building plans with the Manhattan Bureau of Buildings in February 1929, Pastor John Roach Straton announced to the congregation that the church had signed a lease to begin meeting at the Pythian Temple on June 1. Its development partners provided an annual relocation budget of $40,000. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was approximately 300 points on that day in February 1929. A few months later, as many long-time Calvary members know, Pastor Straton passed away of a heart attack on the day of the great stock market crash in October 1929. The Dow Jones would not return to the 300-point level until 1954, but the church would return to its new, nearly-completed home back on W. 57th St. in Sept. 1930, with final dedication services in 1931.
After Straton’s death, his son Hillyer became interim pastor, as the church brought guest preachers from around the country to speak each week. The 42- year-old William Henry “Will” Houghton, recent pastor of Atlanta’s Baptist Tabernacle, had just returned from Europe and delivered the message on that first Sunday in the Pythian Temple. Calvary’s focus on missions did not skip a beat in the temporary location, as the following week the church heard from missionary Harold Wentworth of the Africa Inland Mission.
Will Houghton (pictured left) was asked to preach more regularly, culminating in a call to Senior Pastor in March 1930. Houghton’s background served him well at Calvary: Boston-born, a former young actor in the city, saved in a Brooklyn Nazarene church, served in churches all along the East Coast, and traveled widely as an evangelist.
Houghton’s 1930 sermon, “What Is the Church?” is still fresh today: “The original church of the New Testament was based upon three things. Communion with Christ, commission from Christ and conquest for Christ were its fundamental ideals. It was a growing church, a giving church, and a going church, in terms of its missionary endeavor. Let the local churches of today try to approximate these ideals.”
Calvary’s final service at the Pythian Temple was preached by Rev. Fred Gracey of the Cork Baptist Church, Ireland, on Sept. 21, 1930.
Houghton’s first message in the new building on 57th St. was an echo of Pastor Robert MacArthur’s timeless sermon “Voiceful Stones”, preached at the opening of the old church building on 57th St. in 1883.
Will Houghton eventually left Calvary to become the president of the Moody Bible Institute. Houghton was also a talented song leader, and he is credited with popularizing the 1923 hymn ”Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” Interestingly, this hymn entered the public domain in the U.S. in 2019.
“The 1928 Pythian Temple — Nos. 135-145 West 70th Street”. http://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/2016/03/the-1928-pythian-temple-nos-135- 145.html. Daytonian in Manhattan. Retrieved 2020-06-12.
“Church-Hotel Plan Filed.” The New York Times. 1929-02-12.
William R. De Plata. Tell It From Calvary, 2nd Ed. New York: Calvary Baptist Church, 1997.
“Finds Savage Easier to Reach With Gospel Than the Civilized.” The New York Times. 1929- 06-10.
“Great Is Thy Faithfulness”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Is_Thy_Faithfulness. Retrieved 20206-06-20.
“Houghton Is Likely for Calvary Pulpit.” The New York Times. 1930-01-13. “Last Services Held in Calvary Church.” The New York Times. 1929-05-20. “New Home Awaits Calvary Baptists.” The New York Times. 1930-09-22.
“Pythian Temple.” http://www.nycago.org/Organs/NYC/html/PythianTemple.html. New York City Chapter of the American Guild of Organists. The New York City Organ Project. Retrieved 2020-06-12.
“Pythian Temple on West 70th”. https://forgotten-ny.com/2008/06/pythian-temple-on- west-70th. Forgotten New York. Retrieved 2020-06-12.
“Straton Engages Temple.” The New York Times. 1929-02-11.
“Today’s Programs in City’s Churches.” The New York Times. 1929-06-02.
“William Henry Houghton”. https://library.moody.edu/archives/biographies/william-henry- Houghton. Moody Bible Institute. Retrieved 2020-06-12.