Books logo


"From Abyssinian to Zion, A Guide To Manhattan's Houses of Worship"

by David W. Dunlap

Columbia University Press, 2004, pp. 391, 650 original photographs and 250 photographs from archives, $24.95

Book Cover

Book cover

By Carter B. Horsley

This superb and remarkable book is an greatly expanded version of "Glory in Gotham," a book published by David W. Dunlap in 2000 (see The City Review article).

That is an understatement.

This is an indispensable addition to the architectural literature about New York City and takes it place with Elliot Willensky and Norval White's "The A.I.A. Guide to New York City" (see The City Review article) and the massive volumes put together by Robert A. M. Stern as monumental contributions to research on the city.

Mr. Dunlap is a fine reporter for The New York Times who covers architecture and real estate news and this book is fascinating and well-written. He is also the author of another fine book, "On Broadway" (Rizzoli, 1990), a large-format hard-cover book. The only criticism one can offer of "From Abysinnian to Zion" is that it is not a large-format hard-cover book so that its photographs could be larger since they are quite miniscule as can be seen from those reproduced in this article.

The following are some representative entries, quoted in full:

New York Buddhist Church. No work of religious art in New York faced as fearsome a journey to its present setting than the 15-foot-bronze sttaue of Shinran Shonin, founder in the thirteenth century of the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism. For it survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Clad in a robe and sandals, wearing a broad-brimmed amigasa, and holding a staff, the figure was installed on Mitaki Hill in 1937 by the businessman Seiichi Hirose. At 8:15AM, August 6, 1945, when the bomb exploded a mile and a half away and everything around it was consumed in flames, the statue - though pocked and blistered - endured. Hirose brought it to the United States 10 years later in the spirt of 'no more Hiroshimas' and rededicated it on September 11, 1955. The New York Buddhist Church was founded in 1938 by the Rev. Hozen Seki and his wife, Satomi, and is affiliated with the Jodo Shinsu Hongwanjii in Kyoto. The American Buddhist Study Center occupies a 1902 town house at 331 Riverside Drive. The sanctuary, at 332 riverside Drive..., was designed in 1955 by Kelly & Gruzen. The church holds an Obon festival in Riverside Park every July and a peace gathering every August 5, during which a bell is tolled at 7:15PM, that is 8:15AM, August 6, in Japan.

Ephesus Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Harlem's skyline landmark is the slender steeple, at 101 West 123rd street..., of Ephesus Seventh-Day Adventist Church. This is a cultural landmark, too, as the birthplace in 1968 of the Boys Choir of Harlem. The roots of this sanctuary are common with those of the Elmendorf Reformed Church. Both emerged from the Harlem Reformed Dutch Church, which separated along economic and geographic lines in 1887, when this building was constructed as the Second Collegiate Church of Harlem, to serve the wealthier families living in western Harlem. John Rochester Thomas the architect. A bell cast in Amsterdam in 1734 for the original Harlem church was brought here. After the Reformed congregation moved downtown in 1929 to become the East Eighty-ninth Street Reformed Church - taking the bell with them - this building was leased and then bought in 1939 by an Adventist congregation formed by the merger of two older black groups. Fire destroyed the interior in 1969 and forced the removed of the upper 20 feet of the spire. It is to be restored through the help of the Upper Manhattan Historic Preservation fund.

Church of the Crucifixion. Corbusier comes to Harlem? Well, no, but the Episcopal Church of the Crucifixion at 459 West 149th Street...., by Costa Machlouzarides, is as close as anything in Manhattan to Ronchamp. It's terrifically dynamic. Four inclined conical concrete sections - altar, baptistery, chapel, and shrine - converge under an airfoil-shaped roof. Originally on this site....was the Hamilton Grange Reformed Church of 1906 by Bannister & Schnell. After that congregation merged with the Fort Washington Collegiate Church in 1937, the building was taken over by Crucifixion, an African-American and Afro-Carribean Episcopal group founded in 1916 by the Rev. Jedediah Edmead of St. Kitts. His three successors, including the Rev. A. Eric Joseph of Dominica-Antigua, all have come from the Caribbean. The old church burned in 1963 and was replaced in 1967.


St. Luke's Lutheran Church. Can Gothic and Deco marry and find happiness? They can, as this sanctuary at 308 West 46th Street...on Restaurant Row attests. Founded in 1850, St. Luke's Lutheran Church moved in 1879 to 233 West 42nd Street..., the former Forty-second Street Presbyterian Church. The present sanctuary, by Tilton & Githens, was completed in 19233. the nave facade is virtually all window, designed by F. X. Zettler.


St. James Presbyterian Church. It is a splendid Gothic tableau: in the foreground, the ornate tower of St. James Presbyterian Church, a bit of Neuschwanstein fantasy: high on the hill beyond, over the treetops of St. Nicholas Park, the spires of City College. St. James is as important an institution historically as it is a commanding presence architecturally, descended from one of the earliest black congregations in New York. It was founded in 1895 at the Odd Fellows Hall onWest 32nd Street by members of the former Shiloh Presbyterian Church. St. James moved to 211 West 32nd street but was displaced by Pennylvania Station. In 1903, it took over the West Fifty-first Street Presbyterian Church, at 359 West 51st Street...Then it moved to Harlem at 59 West 137th Street..., dedicated in 1915. This is now Rendall Memorial Presbyterian Church. St. James moved to its present home, 409 West 141st Street..., in 1927. Designed by Ludlow & Valentine, it was built in 1904/1905 as the Lenox Presbyterian Church, which had been at 310 West 139th Street....The Lenox congregation changed its name to St. Nicholas Avenue Presbyterian and merged in 1927 into North Presbyterian Church. During St. James's first decades on West 141st street, it was led by the Rev. William Lloyd Imes, whom the Rev.Adam Clayton Powell Jr., described as having 'the mind of a scholar, the soul of a saint, the heart of a brother, the tongue of a prophet, and the hand of a militant.' Dorothh Maynor, the wife of the pastor, The Rev. Shelby Rooks, was an operatic soprano who was bared from a career in opera because of her race, though she was a famous recitalist. In 1964, she founded the Harlem School of the Arts in the basement of St. James, teaching piano to a dozen children. The school is now housed in a building north of the church, by Ulrich Fanzen & Associates, attended by 3,000 children and adults annually.

Church of Our Lady of the Rosary. Overlooking Battery Park are the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary and the James Watson House of 1793 at 7 State Street..., now the Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, founder of the Sisters of Charity and the first native-born American to be canonized. As a young woman, Seton belonged to Trinity Church and lived on this site (though not in this house) from 1801 to 1803. In Italy, where she and her husband had gone in hope of reviving his health, she became immersed in Catholicism and, on her return, converted at St.Peter's Church on Barclay Street before moving to Maryland. In 1883, the Watson mansion was turned into the Mission of Our Lady of the Rosary for the care and relief of Irish immigrant girls. It is now the shrine and rectory for the 1964 church, by Shanley & Sturges, which has a figure of Seton over the entance. After Trinity was shut down on September 11, 2001, the Rev. Peter K. Meehan offered Our Lady of the Rosary as a place of worship for the Episcopal parish, reuniting Seton and Trinity at least temporarily. In the first service on September 16, the Rev. Samuel Johnson Howard, vicar of Trinity, allowed himself the gentle humor of noting 'She was our daughter before she was their mother.' Worshipers laughed, some pershaps for the first time since the attack.

Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. With a tower almost out of Neuschwanstein Castle, and a church house by James Gamble Rogers that overshadows the tower, the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, at 921 Madison Avenue..., cuts a high profile. So have its members, starting with James Lenox - as in Lenox Hill - who gave the site on which the present church stands. The Manhattan Island church was organized in 1834 and called the Church in the Swamp (not to be confused with the Swamp Church on Frankfort Stret). It united with the Memorial Presbyterian Church, formerly the Eleventh Presbyterian Church. In 1872, Memorial built a Gothic sanctuary at 506 Madison Avenue..., designed by D. & J. Jardine, and changed its name again, to Madison Avenue Presbyterian. Meanwhile, the Fifteenth Street Church,organized in 1844, moved to the Lenox site on Madison Avenue ...and renamed itself Phillips Presbyterian in honor of the Rev. William Wirt Phillips, a towering figure in Presbyterianism. Its Victorian Gothic sanctuary by R. H. Robertston was built in 1873. In 1899, Phillips and Madison Avenue decided to merge. The new body would take the name Madison Avenue but occupy the home of Phillips, preserving part of the older structure on the side street for meetings, offices, and choir rehearsals. This annex still stands, visibly distinct, as the Phillips Chapel. The present sanctuary was designed by James E. Ware & Son and built in 1899. Adams & Woodbridge altered the facade in what one pastor later called the St. Philco style. Leading figures associated with Madison Avenue Presbyterian, many of them Yale graduates, including the Rev. Henry Sloane Coffin, Edward S. Harkness, and Henry R. Luce. During a 1998 renovation, the architect Page Ayres Cowley discovered oak triforium screens hidden by plywood panels. They were beautifully restored.

Church of St. Thomas the Apostle. Rising over the tough edges of St. Nicholas Avenue like a fantastic lace scrim, the Roman Catholic Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, at 262 West 118th Street..., is even more awesome inside, with windows by Mayer of Munich that form virtual walls of color, interspersed with elaborate Stations of the Cross, under a spidery fan-vaulted ceiling almost worthy of Kings College Chapel at Cambridge [England]. The parish was founded in 1889. In 1904, Thomas H. Poole & Company filed plans for the upper church, dedicated in 1907. St. Thomas evolved into a mission church as the black population of Harlem grew. Harry Belafonte's family belonged; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was said to have been baptized in the church; and Hulan E. Jack, the first black borough president of Manhattan, was buried from here. St. Thomas was rescued from extinction in 1979 by the Salesians of Don Bosco, but they withdrew in June 2003. Two months later, the church was padlocked without warning, leaving parishioners adrift.

St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral. Commenced, as the cornerstone says, in the reigh of the MOST PIOUS AUTOCRAT AND GREAT EMPEROR NICHOLAS ALEXANDROVIcH OF ALL RUSSIAS, the cathedral at 15 East 97th Street...was built in 1901-1902 and dedicated to Sst. Nicholas the Wonder-worker. The Muscovite Baroque design by John Bergesen - especially the five great onion domes - inspires wonder to this day. The dramatic story of St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral lives up to the setting. The Rev. Alexander Hotovitzky of Ukraine came to the fledgling St. Ncholas parish in 1895. To raise money for a new church, he traveled to Russia in 1900. Czar Nicholar II gave the first 5,000 rubles toward construction. The cornerstone was laid in the presence of the crew from the battleship Retvizan, then under construction in a Phildelaphia shipyard for the Russian navy. The cross from the ship's chapel was brought to St. Nicholas after the Retvizan was sunk in 1904, during the Russo-Japanese war. St. Nicholas was elevated to a cathedral in 1905 when the seat of the vast American diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church was transferred from California to New York. The chaos in Russia after the 1917 Revolution echoed profoundly on East 97th Street. In 1923, the Rev. John Svva Kedrovsky was appointed in Moscow by the Soviet-controlled Living Church as the American Metropolitan, or archbishop, displacing Metropolitan Platon. But church leaders here refused to recognize Kedrovsky, on the grounds that he was essentially a Bolshevik agent. The battle for 'the crook and mitre of St.Nicholas Cathedral,' as the New York Times put it, involved 'raids, riots, court injunctions and the wielding of axes against the church doors.' A state court awarded the caethral to Kedrovsky in 1925, but he still needed police assistance to claim it. Meanwhile, the followers of Platon declared themselves autonomous from the church in Russia, reaffirmed Platon as their leader, and, in 1927, established St. Mary's Russian Orthodox Cathedral in St.Augustine's Chapel on East Houston Street. The struggle over St. Nicholas continued for another quarter century. It eventually turned on the question of whether New York State had the constitutional authority to require, as it did in 1945, that Russian Orthodox churches generally - and thus St. Nicohlas specifically - be administered by the American separatist movement rather than the Moscow Patriachate, which had by then been recognized by the Soviet government and was therefore suspect in the eyes of many. In 1952, the Superme court overturned the New York law, guaranteeing control of St. Nicholas by the Moscow Partiarchate. 'Under our constitution,' Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote, ' it is not open to the governments of this Union to reinforce the loyality of their citizens by deciding who is the true exponent of their religion.'

Trinity Baptist Church. Could this be a church? Your eye is caught by a stepped facade in graduated colors of brick, from loamy brown to bright marigold. You are transported momentarily to Stockholm. The Scandinavian sensibility continues within: blond woods, bottle-blue glass, bold geometry, and expressionistic ornament. If you arrived thinking that Art Deco exhuberance could be put to liturgical purpose, you'll leave wishing that there were more buildings like this gem at 250 East 61st Street....The First Swedish Baptist Church, founded in 1867, conducted services at the Mariners' Temple Baptist Church. By the 1890s, the congregation was at 138 East 27th Street..., later the Davenport theater and now the Gramercy Arts Theater and Teatro Repertorio Espanol. It then moved to the former Trinity Baptist Church, at 141 East 55th Street..., which late became the American Music Hall. Plans for the present sanctuary wee filed in 1930 by Martin Gravely Hedmark, a Swede, who created a sampler of native motifs, with bell steeples modeled on historic originals and a stepped profile recalling buildings along the Baltic. Major services were conducted in Swedish until 1942, when English was adopted, along with a new name that echoed the past: Trinity.

Civic Center Synagogue. A flame is supposed to come to your mind when looking at the bulbous front of this 1969 synagogue by William N. Breger at 49 White Tribeca. The Civic Center Synagogue, home to Congration Shaare Zedek (a different group from that on West 93rd Street), may look more thake a marble-clad pot-bellied stove, but at least it represents an effort to use a distinctly Modernist vocabulary for a house of worship. And it does have some sublime moments; for instance, the building seems to float overhead as you approach it. Shaare Zedek was founded in 1938 to serve textile workers and civil servants in the neighborhood. Today, it also caters to a residential and artistic population in Lower Manhatan. 'Traditional Judaism,' said Rabbi Jonathan Wilson Glass, 'can be a vehicle for anyone's Jewish expression.'

Judson Memorial Church. If the Washington Arch is the gateway to Greenwich Village, the 10-tiered, golden-brick tower of Judson Memorial Church is the triumphal column - proclaiming an institution that could have evolved only in the Village, with its marvelous jumble of religious, social, political, and cultural missions. Associated over time with Stanford White and John LaFarge, with Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg, and Red Grooms the church was, at its origin, linked to the Judson family. The Rev. Edward Judson was called in 1881 to the Berean Baptist Church on Downing Street. He expanded it so significantly that new quarters were needed. The present church, at 55 Washington Square South..., by McKim, Mead & White, was built from 1890 to 1893 and dedicated to Judson's father, Adoniram, a missionary to Burma. Edward's dream was to serve gentry and immigrants. 'If the rich and poor are ever to meet together,' he said, 'it must be in the poor man's territory.' The church was open all week, offering health care, employment guidance, sewing classes, even firewood and fresh milk. In the 1950s and 1960s, it opened itself to artists, dancers, poets and performers. Under the Rev. Peter Laarman in the 1990s, Judson Memorial, affiliated with the Baptist Church and the United Church of Christ, continued to see itself on the side of self-empowerment. It also took care of its physical plant. The stained-glass windows by La Farge were restored by the Cummings Studio to breathtaking result.

Church of St. Francis Xavier. Exhuberantly complex, a bit offbeat, and impossible to ignore - both the architecture and the Jesuit-run Roman Catholic parish itself. After a false start on Elizabeth Street, the Jesuits began building the College of St. Francis Xavier on West 15th Street and a church on 16th Street...., designed by William Rodrigue. It was dedicated in 1851. In March 1877, someone shouted 'Fire!' during a service, and seven people died in the panicked evacution. After this calamity, the Jesuits resolved to build a new church. The present Church of St. Francis Xavier, at 30 West 16th Street..., designed by Patrick C. Keely, was built from 1878 to 1882. Its great, domed crossing, with murals by William Lamprecht, is a space of considerable grandeur and majesty. But the church also had more earthly concerns. The Xavier Institute of Industrial Relations helped longshoremen and tunnel workers fight union corruption. One of the members, the Rev. John M.Corridan, was the model for Father Barry in the 1954 movie On the Waterfront. Later, for eight years, the church offered a Mass for members of Dignity, a group of gay and lesbian Catholics, until the archdiocese ordered an end to it in 1987.


Broadway Temple United Methodist Church. What a church this would have been! The 13-story apartment buildings that flank the modest Broadway Temple United Methodist Church, at 4111 Broadway..., were supposed to have been mere bookend pedestals for a skyscraper with a revolving electric cross rising 725 feet into the sky, an auditorium seating several thousand a social hall for 1,200, a pool and gymnasium, and more than 400 hotel rooms and apartments. this marvelously mad project was the brainchild of the Rev. Christian F. Reisner, pastor of the Chelsea Methodist Episcopal Church.



In his foreword to the book, Paul Goldberger wrote that "David W. Dunlap has proved more effectively than even Henry Codman Potter, Stephen S. Wise, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Norman Vincent Peale, Felix Adler, Paul Moore Jr., John Cardinal O'Connor, and Reverend Ike ever managed to do that New York is not a godless city."

In his preface, Mr. Dunlap notes that the book "describes 1,079 structures of architecture interest, 654 from the present and 425 from the past."

"My favorite building in New York is St. Paul's Chapel," Mr. Dunlap continued, "because its civic utility has run from the bright day of George Washington's inauguration to the dark days of Ground Zero. And I think that the most perfectly beautiful houseof worship in Manhattan - even though it is now an apartment building- is theVillage Presbyterian Church. But I wish that I had been around to see the Church of the Holy Zebra, the Church of the Homely Oil-cloth, and their mad Victorian kin."

Click here to order this book from for $16.47

Home Page of The City Review