THE TRUE STORY OF NORTH ROCKLAND’S HIPPIE CHURCH: Fifty Years Later, Local Church Receives Historical Acclaim


Photos credit – many other photos at this link

Much beloved avant garde photographer Peter Moore at USCO performance. He could be counted on as present at any and all events of that period.
Much beloved avant garde photographer Peter Moore at USCO performance. He could be counted on as present at any and all events of that period.

Earlier this month the currently unoccupied Garnerville Methodist Episcopal Church (USCO Church) on Church St. in Garnerville was one of 28 properties, resources and districts recommended for the State and National Registers of Historic Places.

Its Art and Social History area nominations reflect its members’ — artists, musicians and writers — influences during the early to mid-1960s, when the church was both their home and studio, and where they expressed themselves against mainstream society in performances that included stroboscopes (strobes), projectors and audiotapes.

The collective expanded consciousness, altered perception and suggested alternate realities during a time of social changes and 1960s counterculture movements. Founded by Michael Callahan and Gerd Stern — founder of Intermedia Systems Corporation, an international producer of multimedia art — the art collective was influenced by Canadian philosopher of communication theory Marshall McLuhan known for coining “the medium is the message” and the “global village.”

Their move to the church in Garnerville was a statement underlined by the character of their project via the phrase “We are all one;” USCO stands for “The Company of Us.” USCO’s installation “The Tabernacle” was constructed there and opened to visitors in 1966, when the building was known as The Church of the Tabernacle. Locals and neighbors called it The Hippie Church.

USCO members’ work was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, Brandeis University, the University of California, the Walker Art Museum and the Riverside Museum among others. USCO members also designed one of the first multi-media discotheques, “The World,” featured on the May 27, 1966, cover of LIFE Magazine.

Its earlier history as a religious edifice is not part of the nomination because the building “no longer retains sufficient integrity to portray this function.” It does, however represent its cultural and artistic significance from 1964 to around 1968; its members produced what art historian Michel Oren termed “immersive multimedia events.”

Michael Callahan assembling what’s called a black box even though it's white.
Michael Callahan assembling what’s called a black box even though it’s white.

Developed, constructed and sometimes exhibited there, the installations were also shown in New York City, San Francisco, and nationwide on college campuses.

Noted filmmaker and artist, Jonas Mekas said about two installations from the mid-1960s, “There are moments, at the Dom, and at the Riverside Museum, when I feel I am witnessing the beginnings of new religions, [in which] the symbolism of lights and colors are being discovered and explored.…”

Oren said of the group’s intermedia endeavors, “In the 1964-66 period of its most intense activity, the group projected slide and film collages, produced paintings that flashed and kinetic sculptures whose parts turned and scintillated or thrust up jets of water—all in an attempt to open audiences to nonlinear and even mystical experience.…”

While the group’s collective efforts received some critical acclaim at the time, it is only more recently, with the benefit of time and critical perspective, that their contributions to American art and culture in the 1960s is being more fully comprehended.

The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, show “Hippie Modernism—The Struggle Toward Utopia” opened this year and includes four major USCO works. USCO’s work is also featured in an exhibit at Seton Hall University Gallery in Orange, New Jersey. Stanford University also acquired a large reserve of the group’s archival material.

It is not clear how far efforts to restore the church building to an acceptable standard for occupancy have come. An online post by USCO back in 2011 suggested there are efforts ongoing toward that end, however, USCO has yet to reply to queries from the newspaper.

If you remember interacting with church members or were a member of the church please contact [email protected].

After a property is nominated, the documentation is finalized and listed on the New York State Register of Historic Places. Nominations are then advanced to the National Park Service, where they are reviewed and, once approved, are entered on the National Register.

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