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St. James Church

866 Madison Avenue

Northeast corner at 71st Street

St. James

Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, center, and parish house, left
By Carter B. Horsley

This prominent brownstone church building was established as a summer chapel with clapboard sidiing, grey shingles and a belfry in the countryside north of New York City in 1810 on Hamilton Squar on East 59th Street and Lexington Avenue.

The second church was built in 1869 on East 72nd Street, with a lively Victorian Gothic fašade by James Renwick Jr. This edifice was never consecrated. In 1884, it was sold to Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church. A fire in 1927 destroyed the building.

In 1885, it was rebuilt to a design by Robert H. Robertson in the Romanesque Style. The church was built of rock-faced brownstone in the Romanesque style with Lombard and Gothic details. Robertson's plans called for the altar to be located on the west end, at Madison, rather than the traditional east end, so that no new construction would block sunlight from reaching the chancel windows. The Madison Avenue fašade included a small spire, the curved wall of the apse, and a square tower at the corner that was to rise over 150 feet. Although there was an entrance in the square tower that led to an ante room off of the chancel, the main entrance was located midblock on 71st Street. The church opened in 1885, although the tall tower was not built.

Ten years later, in 1895, St. James merged with the Church of the Holy Trinity from East 42nd Street and built a settlement mission, known as the Church of the Holy Trinity, at 316 East 88th Street.

By the 1920s, the heavy Romanesque style was out of fashion and high church Gothic was in vogue, as evident in the recently completed churches of St. Thomas (Episcopal) and St. Vincent Ferrer (Catholic). Even the trustees of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine had been convinced to change their plans from Romanesque to Gothic.

The vestry of St. James contacted Ralph Adams Cram, the noted ecclesiastical architect, who proposed a new church. Cram undertook a radical reorientation and redesign of the building that included a Gothic overlay. As a cost-saving measure, Cram retained the existing roof structure and most of the exterior rock-faced brownstone walls. A new chancel was added at the east end, extending the length of the church by half, and the main entrance was relocated to a new fašade along Madison Avenue. 

In 1926, Cram was called back to add an English Gothic tower on top of the French base, bringing it to a height of 93 feet. Built at a cost $40,000, the tower was dedicated by Bishop Manning on November 14, 1926.


The present Parish House was dedicated in November 1938. Designed by Grosvenor Atterbury, the seven-story structure was built of brownstone and replaced a smaller parish house on the same site.

By the 1940s, Cram's tower addition began to fail and was removed. A replacement spire, affectionately called "the tin can," was designed by Richard Kimball and added in 1950.

Beginning in 1999, the church and parish house were renovated. The project included a makeover of the east hall, a new atrium in the parish house, the addition of a columbarium in the base of the tower entrance, and a restoration of the church interior.

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