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Glory in Gotham

Manhattan's Houses of Worship

A Guide to their History, Architecture and Legacy

By David W. Dunlap and Joseph J. Vecchione

A City & Company Guide, 2001, pp. 170, $14


book's cover

Book's cover

By Carter B. Horsley

This inexpenisve, pocketbook guide to religious institutions in Manhattan provides short essays and small black-and-white photographs for 104 religious institutions and very brief commentaries on another couple of dozen. It is a nice supplement to the "A.I.A. Guide to the Architecture of New York City, Third Edition," by Elliot Willensky and Norval White (see The City Review article), because its essays are generally longer than that superb guidebook's snippets.

This book is rather frustrating, however, because its essays often have more to do with the particular institution's ecleasiastical and social histories rather than architectural criticism. The eclesiastical and social histories are, of course, interesting, but one wishes that more space had been allowed for longer architectural commentaries. The greatest disappointment with this book is the inadequacy of the photography. The pictures are very small and often no exterior shots are provided.

This is surprising since David W. Dunlap, a long-time reporter for The New York Times who has covered architectural news, has previously published a very fine, and large, book on the architecture of Broadway that has excellent pictures and he provided the photographs for a New York architecture guidebook written by Paul Goldberger, a former architecture critic for The New York Times. Mr. Vecchione is an editor at The Times.

Despite such caveats, there is enough good writing and research here to make it definitely worth buying, especially given its inexpensive price.

The book provides information on 23 Roman Catholic churches, 22 Episcopal Churches, 8 Orthodox Jewish synagogues and congregations, 6 Presbyterian churches, 6 Baptist churches, 5 secular institutions, 4 Conservative Jewish synagogues and congregations, 4 Reform Jewish synagogues and congregations, 3 Methodist churches. Lutheran, Unitarian Universalist, United Church of Christ, Christian Scientist and Islamic religious instititions have two entries each and Russian Orthodox, Salvation Army, Serbian Orthodox, Ukranian Catholic, African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Armenian Apostolic, Friends (Quakers), Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Greek Orthodox, Buddhist, Pagan and Nondenominational institutions have one each.

The book is organized with neighborhoods, each with a map showing the locations of the institutions covered. The Upper East Side and Yorkville neighborhood has the most, 21, followed by Harlem, El Barrio and Upper Manhattan, 15, Midtown, Times Square and Clinton, 13, Chinatown, Little Italy and the Lower East Side, 12, the Upper West Side and Morningside Heights, 11, Greenwich Village and the East Village, 10, Lincoln Center and vicinity, 6, Wall Street, The Financial District and TriBeCa, 6, and Gramercy Park, Stuyvesant Square and Kips Bay, 4. The contents by neighborhood only lists 98 entries, although the book has 104 entries.

"Three and a half centuries of spiritual journeying on Manhattan Island have left an extraordinary social, artistic and architectural heritage: more than 100 buildings that would easily earn two or three stars on, say, a European itinerary. Unfortunately, few New Yorkers and even fewer visitors focus on these cultural and historical treasures, whose variety alone is surely unrivaled in any other city," observed Mr. Dunlap and Mr. Vecchione in their introduction to the book, which, he added, "is an invitation to explore and celebrate the transcendent qualities that recommend these fascinating places to anyone, regardless of faith (or lack thereof)."

The authors note that "The last ecumenical overview of the city, Jonathan Greenleaf's History of the Churches of All Denominations in the City of New York, was published in 1846."

"Dozens of the most significant houses of worship in New York City have been designated as official landmarks, and many of these have been restored, in part with the assistance of the Sacred Sites Program of the New York Landmarks Conservancy. A happy few even find themselves operating beyond the capacity imagined by their builders. Yet a cloud hangs over other beautiful buildings that are vastly larger than needed by the congregations that now use them. They greatly tax their members' ability to pay for basic upkeep, much less roof repair or stained-glass conservation. At the end of the 20th Century, it had been more than a decade since the demolition of any significant house of worship in Manhattan, but there is no reason to believe that all of these glorious buildings will survive. So it seems timely to chronicle them. This is not meant to be a comprehensive compilation. Rather, we've chosen institutions that are notable for their art and architecture; for their narratives and sagas; for their presence on the civic and social scenes; and for the members of the clergy who've molded and guided them," the authors continued.

The authors are planning a more comprehensive work, entitled "From Abyssinian to Zion," to be published by Columbia University Press in 2002. Hopefully that work will have larger and more photographs.

One of the longest entries - three pages with three photographs - is, not surprisingly, for St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue at 50th Street. The authors note that "Because of its place in the heart of mid-Manhattan, because of its size and beauty, and because of the power and influence its bishops have long enjoyed, St. Patrick's is the very image of the Roman Catholic Church in America," adding that "It comes as close as any single religious institution to being synonymous with New York."

The entry also notes that its cornerstone was laid in 1858 but the cathedral, designed by James Renwick Jr., did not open until 1879 and its 330-foot-high twin spires were not finished until 1888. "What are those scarlet disks hanging from the ceiling, looking like wide-brimmed hats with tassles? That's exactly what they are: 'galeros,' emblems of the cardinals who lie buried beneath them in the crypt," the entry observes.

The book notes of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral at 260 Mulberry Street that it is "a very early essay in Gothic Revival" that when completed in 1815 was the largest religious structure in the city and that "King Louis Philippe of France donated stained-glass windows made in Sèvres, but they were the wrong size, so Archbishop John J. Hughes gave them to a seminary chapel in the Bronx that is now the Fordham University Church." "Violence between nativist neighbors and Irish Catholics," the authors continued, "flared several times before a crowd gathered in 1836 to attack the cathedral. Warned in advance, defenders cut musket ports in the brick wall and stationed armed sentinels on Prince StreetWhat the Know-nothings couldn't achieve, an accident accomplished in 1866. The cathedral burned down to the exterior stone walls. It was rebuilt to designs by Henry Engelbert and rededicated on St. Patrick's Day, 1868.Still set off beautifully behind the same high brick walls from the dense streets of what was once Little Italy, St. Patrick's has a surprisingly sumptuous interior, that is well worth a visit. If you have a sense of déja vu, it's because the christening scene from The Godfather, was filmed here."

Of the still unfinished Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine on Amsterdam Avenue at 112th Street, the authors comment that "Like a Hollywood spectacular, it is stupendous and gorgeous to behold," adding "But it has a melodramatic subplot that twists and turns without ever reaching a conclusion." The entry comments on the 1843 Greek Revival building designed by Ithiel Town that housed the Leake and Watts Orphan Asylum that formerly occupied the 12-acre site and is now the cathedral's Textile Conservation Laboratory, and that George L. Heins and Grant La Farge, who won the competition for the cathedral's Romanesque design, also designed stations of the city's original subway system. After Heins died in 1907, the church's trustees decided they wanted a more Gothic design and commissioned Ralph Adams Cram to redesign the structure and on November 30, 1941, the 16,822,000-cubic-foot interior was celebrated. World War II interrupted construction but in 1979 construction resumed with stonecutters imported from England. "There was even bold talk of completing the south transcept as a biosphere designed by Santiago Calatrava. But as the edifice entered its second century, the money had run out, the stoneworks was bankrupt and construction stopped again," the authors wrote. (See The City Review article on Paul Byard's excellent book, " ," for an image of Calatrava's fabulous design.)

In 1697, King William III gave Trinity Church on Broadway at Wall Street a charter that called for the parish to pay an annual rent of one peppercorn to the crown. "While history does not record how faithfully that was discharged over time, Trinity covered its bases in 1976 by handing over 279 peppercorns - one for each year - to Queen Elizabeth II during her visit to the church," the authors wrote, adding that "Trinity's destiny as an extraordinarily rich and powerful institution was cast by Queen Anne in 1705, when she enlarged the church's holdings to 215 acres, a parcel stretching along the Hudson from Fulton to Christopher Street." The present structure was designed by Richard Upjohn and was consecrated in 1846 and the authors observed that he was "influenced perhaps by Augustus Pugin's Church of St. Giles in Cheadle, Staffordshire" and that "astonishing in many ways, Trinity Church was, first of all, the tallest building in New York and remained so for four decades."

In their entry for the First Presbyterian Church on Fifth Avenue between 11th and 12th Streets, the authors made the following commentary:

"You're in Greenwich Village but Trinity Church comes to mind: an early Gothic Revival tower rises proudly from an improbably expansive churchyard, framed by high-rises, overlooking a vital thoroughfare. The similarities between Old Trinity and Old First don't end there. First Presbyterian also began on Wall Street - not too many years after Trinity - in 1716. And it was the mother church in an early ecclesiastical hub-and-spoke system that yielded significant congregations in their own right: Brick Church in 1767, Rutgers Church in 1798 and the Ceadar Street Church (now Fifth Avenue Presbyterian) in 1808. Unlike Trinity, however, First Presbyterian moved uptown when it became clear that lower Manhattan would be given over almost entirely to business.The verdant grounds, ringed by a cast-iron fence, are an extraordinary sight today. Designed by Joseph C. Wells, the building was patterned on the Church of St. Saviour in Bath, England, with a tower modeled on that of Magdalen College, Oxford. The south transcept, by McKim, Mead & White, was added in 1893. Old First merged in 1918 with the Rev. Charles H. Parkhurst's Madison Square church and the University Place congregation. Before moving uptown to Riverside Church, the Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick was assistant pastor here, causing a storm of controversy in 1922 - three years before the Scopes trial - when he asserted that Darwinism was not consistent with Christian faith. A church house was added in 1960. The architect, Edgar Tafel, blended Gothic details with the Prairie style of Frank Lloyd Wright under whom Tafel studied."

Stanford White of McKim, Mead & White designed the Judson Memorial Church at 35 Washington Square South. "If the Washington Arch is the gateway to Greenwich Village, the 10-tiered, golden-brick tower of Judson Memorial Churchis the triumphal column," the authors maintained, "proclaiming an institution that could only have evolved in the Village, with its marvelous jumble of religious, social, political and cultural missions.In the 1950s and '60s the church opened itself to dancers, poets, performers and artists like Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg and Red Grooms. Under the Rev. Peter Laarman in the 1990s, the church continued to see itself on the side of self-empowerment, but it also took care of its physical plant. Stained-glass windows by John La Fargewere restored by the Cummings Studio. The results were breathtaking. When the sun hits, certain colors leap to the foreground like French horns slicing through the sound of a symphony orchestra."

Another famous church in the Village known for its patronage of the arts is St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery at 131 East 10th Street at Stuyvesant Street. The church was largely finished in 1799, making it the second oldest church in Manhattan, after St. Paul's Chapel, the authors wrote, adding that "The steeple was added by Ithiel Town in 1828 and the cast-iron portico in 1854." "St. Mark's became a free-wheeling outpost in the 20th Century," the authors continued, "drawing performers and worshippers like W. H. Auden, Ted Berrigan, Isadora Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, Martha Graham, Robert Lowell, Sam Sheppard and Edna St. Vincent Millay.Fire ravaged the church in July, 1978. Under the Rev. Daniel A. Garcia, the building was restored over the following five years, to designs by the Edelman Partnership."

Fire also took its toll at the Central Synagogue at 652 Lexington Avenue at 55th Street. In August, 1998, a fire gutted the sanctuary during a renovation. "Designed by Henry Fernbach and constructed from 1870 to 1872, Central is the oldest synagogue in New York still in use by the congregation that built it," the authors noted, adding that "Using Moorish architecture to proclaim itslef vibrantly and exuberantly different from Gentile churches, this venerable Reform synagogue is notable for its twin octagonal minarets, topped by copper globes, and its bichromatic horseshoe arches, flanking a rose window with a ten-pointed star tracery." "Inside, it was - if possible - even more exotic, with intricate, scintillating Moorish-style stenciling on every surface that isn't otherwise carved in black walnut, covered in encoustic tile, or shaped into cusped arches," the authors continued.

As much as they were impressed with the Central Synagogue, the authors appeared to be even more awed by the Park East Synagogue, designed by Ernst Schneider and Henry Herter and completed in 1890, at 163 East 67th Street:

"There are few other flights of architectural fancy on this scale in New York. Moorish, Byzantine and Romanesque, it is an astonishing, almost hallucinatory, presence with dozens of arches and apertures in ample horseshoe shapes, sinuous ogees and delicate multifoils. The towers flanking the rose window are asymmetrical, adding to the picturesque quality."

Of the Marble Collegiate Church at 1 West 29th Street on Fifth Avenue, the authors relate that "Looking like a Romanesque pile of sugar cubes, Marble was designed by Samuel A. Warner and built from 1851 to 1854 as the Fifth Avenue Church," adding that "Its glistening stones imprinted themselves on the civic consciousness, however, and the building material officially gave its name to the congregation in 1906." The church is part of the Collegiate Reformed Protestant Dutch Church and describes itself as "the oldest Protestant denomination in America with a continuous ministry." "In the 20th Century," the authors wrote, "few pulpits and preachers were as intertwined as Marble and the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, one of America's most influential religious figures. Called to Marble in 1932, Peale was among the first clergymen to bring psychological counseling to his flock, working with Dr. Smiley Blanton, a psychiatrist trained by Sigmund Freud. Peale was also a pioneer in the use of radio and television in his ministry. But most famously, he was the author of The Power of Positive Thinking."

Church of the Crucifixion

Church of the Crucifixion, 459 West 149th Street at Convent Avenue, shown as size reproduced in book

Of The Church of the Crucifixion at 459 West 149th Street at Convent Avenue, shown above, the authors have the following commentary:

"Corbusier comes to Harlem? Well, no, but this Episcopal church, designed by Costas Machlouzarides in 1967, comes as close as anything in Manhattan to Le Corbusier's Notre-Dame-du-Haut in Ronchamp, France. (Machlouzarides also designed the Calhoun School Learning Center, resembling a giant television set, at West End Avenue and 81st Street.)"

Despite its small size, there actually is a great deal of interesting, and hard to obtain, information in this short guide, and one can only hope that the more comprehensive book will be larger with bigger, and more pictures.

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