Governor nominates church for historic-places listings

Helderberg Lutheran Church

— Photo from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation

Standing on a slight rise above Helderberg Trail in the Berne hamlet, Helderberg Lutheran Church was impressive when it was built in 1835, and still is today. The Verizon cell phone antenna inside the tower is not included in the landmark nomination.

BERNE — It is not recorded whether the rafters shook when the  Anti-Rent War convention assembled inside St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Berne in 1845. The Hilltowns revolt of angry tenant farmers against the onerous patroon system of the day was not a quiet affair.

However, it is recorded that when William Krattinger, a historic preservation program analyst from  the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, visited the church for the first time last year, he was impressed by those selfsame “king-post”  rafters, which have been on the job since the church was built in 1835.

His findings — about both the building itself and its long history — satisfied him that the church deserves a high form of recognition: placement on the State and Federal Registers of Historic Places.

Last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo included the church — as recommended by Krattinger — in an exclusive list of 27 places across the state that he nominated for placement  on both  registers.

The venerable church is now known as Helderberg Lutheran Church, after being renamed in 2010 when St. John Lutheran Church of East Berne and St. Paul’s merged to form one congregation.

A freestanding bell tower to the front of the church, constructed in 2010, houses tower bells from both churches.  The St. Paul bell was displaced by a Verizon cell phone antenna that was installed inside the tower.

Neither the presence of modern — though concealed — technology nor the 2010 bell tower got in the way of the singling-out of the historic church.

Pastor Wendy Cook said the church is “very excited to receive this honor, which recognizes both its architectural and social history.”

She said the church, especially its interior, has undergone many renovations over the years, but the original brick exterior and its three-tiered wooden tower have remained largely unchanged. (Stained glass replaced the clear glass of the windows in 1905.)

The governor’s recommendation said, “The transitional Federal-Greek Revival style church remains the rural hamlet’s most impressive work of 19th century architecture, as manifested in its overall scale, brick construction, and tall bell tower.”

The Federal architectural style of Colonial America was notable for its austerity and simple lines, while the Greek Revival style, which was becoming popular around the time the church was built, introduced a bit more grandeur.  Helderberg Lutheran is impressive but could never be accused of over-statement, though its lofty tower did introduce a Greek Revival element to its design.

Cook credits lifelong member Sharon Nevins with spearheading the church’s bid for recognition. Nevins contacted state officials on behalf of the church.  They were immediately receptive, she says.

She had help from fellow congregant Patricia Irwin in making the case to the state.

“The church has talked this for for many years,’ Nevins said, of obtaining landmark status. “But they were afraid they would never be able to make changes to the church once the church was listed. But, in fact, that’s not true.”

“Mr. Krattinger came up very soon after we contacted the state, and took a close look at the entire buildings and looked at our archives,” she said.”He was very excited.”

He pointed out many details, she says, that had not been noticed by the members,  little things like the kind of  cement used  to mortar the bricks.

A large brick building in this rural setting was unusual at the time and still is, in a hamlet and area that have not much changed over the years.

The nomination says, “The church remains this rural Albany County hamlet’s most impressive work of nineteenth-century architecture as manifested in its overall scale, brick construction, and tall bell tower.”


Enterprise file photo — Marcello Iaia
A church rich in history, and with the archives to prove it, also possesses members who love to look back.  Sharon Nevins looks through some church records in preparation for a church anniversary celebration.


Constructing such a building at that time in this place was no easy task, the nomination notes.  The location was too remote to source construction material anywhere but locally. The clay for brick-making, it is believed, came “from the nearby farm of Peter Bassler.”

The nomination draws on the church’s copious archives to come up with nuggets like, “Once the brick-maker’s work was complete ‘a bee was held and all the brick was hauled to the church in one day.’ ”Under the supervision of builders John Wolford and John McDonald, masons built the walls and carpenters framed the roof. “Finish carpenters” fashioned doors, window sashes, pews, and pew doors.

The builders didn’t know they were employing — in the words of the nomination —  a “transitional” design vocabulary. The church has both traditional elements like the Federal-style fanlight over the entrance, and the horizontal rows of windows rather than  “single vertical band” windows, and progressive elements like the three-tiered tower rising from the roof ridge). But were probably partly inspired by pattern-books of the day that showed the latest in innovative design.

But what may make the church a shoo-in for even national designation may be its role in the Anti-Rent War, also known as the Helderberg War, that broke out in the Manor of Renneslaerwyck, the vast holdings of the Van Rensselaer family, which included the Hilltowns and extended up and down the Hudson Valley.

Not so much a war as organized resistance by tenant farmers against the patroon’s rent collectors, the movement evolved into a quasi-political-party that held a  convention in January 1845 in the biggest building around, the Lutheran church in Berne. Delegates from eleven counties attended.

Pastor Cook bemoans the fact that local  high school students she talked with recently seemed to know nothing about the Anti-Rent War.  She hopes listing of the church on historic registers might raise awareness.

Nevins says listing will also help the church in obtaining grants to support the ongoing work of maintaining the 181-year-old church  and keep it standing tall and proud.    

More Hilltowns News

  • With absentee ballots counted, Berne Republicans are still victorious, now by an even wider margin; Democrat Russell Pokorny is still the supervisor-elect in Knox; and Westerlo incumbent justice Ken Mackey has kept his seat.

  • The Berne Town Hall.

    Berne Planning Board member Lawrence Zimmerman resigned in November over frustrations that the town is not following the guidance of its own comprehensive plan. Former town board member Dawn Jordan says that ideology and partisanship got in the way, along with some more prosaic — and even healthy — obstacles.

  • Municipalities have until Dec. 31 to request that the New York State Cannabis Control Board prohibit marijuana dispensaries and consumption sites from establishing themselves within each municipality’s respective borders. So far, only two of the four Hilltowns have initiated public conversation on the matter.

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