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The Riverside Church

435 Riverside Drive

Southeast corner at 116th Street

Riverside Church

Riverside Church from New Jersey
By Carter B. Horsley

Riverside Church is a Baptist and Congregationalist church in the Morningside Heights neighborhood on the block bounded by Riverside Drive, Claremont Avenue, 120th Street and 122nd Street near Columbia University's Morningside Heights campus and across from Grant's Tomb.

It is an interdenominational church that is associated with the American Baptist Churches USA and the United Church of Christ.

The church was conceived by philanthropist businessman and Baptist John D. Rockefeller Jr. in conjunction with Presbyterian minister Harry Emerson Fosdick as a large, interdenominational church in Morningside Heights, which is surrounded by academic institutions.

The original building opened in 1930; it was designed by Henry C. Pelton and Allen & Collens in the Neo-Gothic style.

It contains a nave consisting of five architectural bays; a chancel at the front of the nave; a 22-story, 392-foot-high tower above the nave; a narthex and chapel; and a cloistered passageway that connects to the eastern entrance on Claremont Avenue.

The main feature of the church is the 74-bell carillon near the top of the tower, which is dedicated to John Rockefeller Jr.'s mother Laura Spelman Rockefeller. A seven-story wing was built to the south of the original building in 1959 to a design by Collens, Willis & Beckonert, and was renamed for Martin Luther King Jr. in 1985. The Stone Gym to the southeast was built in 1915 as a dormitory; this was designed by Louis E. Jallade and was converted to a gymnasium in 1962.

Riverside Church has been a focal point of global and national activism since its inception, and it has a long history of social justice in adherence to Fosdick's original vision of an "interdenominational, interracial, and international" church.

The church was designated as a city landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 2000.

Grant's Tomb and Riverside Church

Grant's Tomb and Riverside Church

The following commentary was excepted from the church's entry at

Several small Baptist congregations, including the Mulberry Street Baptist Church that was established in 1823 by a group of 16 congregants, were founded in Manhattan after the American Revolutionary War. The Mulberry Street church occupied at least three locations in the Lower East Side and two locations on Broadway in Midtown Manhattan before moving to a more permanent site at Fifth Avenue and 46th Street in the 1860s. The businessman William Rockefeller was the first of several Rockefeller family members to attend the Fifth Avenue Baptist Church; he became a major financial backer of the church in the 1870s. William and his brother John D. Rockefeller later became trustees of the church and many of its services were held at the Rockefellers' home nearby.

Cornelius Woelfkin, who became the church's minister in 1912, started leading the church in a more modernist direction. By the early 20th century, Fifth Avenue was experiencing increased commercial development and the church building became dilapidated. The congregation sold its old headquarters in 1919 and bought land at Park Avenue and 63rd Street the following year. John Rockefeller's son John D. Rockefeller Jr. funded half of the projected $1 million cost. The new church, which was dubbed the "Little Cathedral", was designed by Henry C. Pelton in partnership with Francis R. Allen and Charles Collens. The final service in the Fifth Avenue location was held on April 3, 1922, and the renamed Park Avenue Baptist Church held its first class in the new location the next week.

In 1924, John D. Rockefeller Jr. donated $500,000 to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights, further uptown in Manhattan, in an unsuccessful attempt to influence the cathedral's ideology in a progressive direction. The following January, Harry E. Edmonds—leader of the International House in Morningside Heights for whose construction Rockefeller had provided funds—wrote to Rockefeller to propose creating a new church in the neighborhood. Edmonds suggested progressive pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick should head such a church. Rockefeller then told the Park Avenue Baptist Church's leaders about the plan and hired an agent to inspect the planned church site.

Woelfkin quit in mid-May 1925 and Rockefeller Jr. immediately started looking for a new minister, ultimately deciding on Harry Emerson Fosdick, who had declined Rockefeller's offers several times, saying he did not "want to be known as the pastor of the richest man in the country". Fosdick stated he would accept the minister position on the conditions that the church would move to Morningside Heights, follow a policy of religious liberalism, remove the requirement for members to be baptized, and become nondenominational. At the end of May 1925, Fosdick agreed to become minister of the Park Avenue Baptist Church. Only 15% of congregants voted against Fosdick's appointment.

Under Fosdick's leadership, the congregation doubled in size by 1930. The new members were diverse; of the 158 people who joined in the year after Fosdick became minister, about half were not Baptists. Though some existing congregants had doubts about whether the Park Avenue Baptist Church should move from its recently completed edifice, the church's board, which was in favor of the relocation, stated congregants would not have to pay any of the costs for the new church.

Morningside Heights, where the new church was to be located, was being quickly developed as a residential neighborhood surrounded by numerous higher-education institutions, including Union Theological Seminary and International House of New York. The development had been spurred by the presence of Riverside Park and Riverside Drive nearby, as well as the construction of the New York City Subway's Broadway–Seventh Avenue Line—the modern-day 1 train—under Broadway. Rockefeller briefly considered a location on Morningside Drive on the eastern edge of Morningside Heights but he ultimately chose a site at the southeastern corner of Riverside Drive and 122nd Street on the neighborhood's western border, which overlooked Riverside Park to the west and Claremont Park to the north. Rockefeller felt the Riverside Drive site was more easily visible because it abutted the Hudson River and would be seen by recreational users of Riverside Drive.

In May 1925, Rockefeller finalized his purchase of the new church's site at Riverside Drive. That July, he exchanged his previous purchase of a plot on Morningside Drive for another plot on Riverside Drive. Shortly afterward, he acquired yet more land, after which he had a frontage of 250 feet on Riverside Drive for the new church. At the time of the acquisition, three apartment buildings and two mansions occupied the church's future site. Rockefeller wished to keep the apartments in place for several years to fund the church's eventual construction.

Rockefeller was the chairman of the committee tasked with developing a new building for the church. Hoping to avoid publicity, rather than host an architectural competition, he privately asked several architectural firms to submit plans for the building. Rockefeller tried to downplay his role in the planning and construction process, asking for his name to be omitted from media reports and discussion of the church, though with little success. His role in the selection process raised concerns from church trustees, including Fosdick, who believed such close financial involvement could place the church in "a very vulnerable position". John Roach Straton, reverend of Calvary Baptist Church on 57th Street in Midtown Manhattan, criticized Rockefeller's involvement and mockingly suggested it be called the Socony Church after the oil company the Rockefellers headed. George S. Chappell, writing in The New Yorker under the pseudonym "T-Square", said the project "was known to most secular minds as the Rockefeller Cathedral".

Neither Rockefeller nor Fosdick had strict requirements for the church's architectural style. Rockefeller asked for the new building to include space for the Park Avenue Baptist Church's carillon, which he had donated. Most of the plans entailed a church facing 122nd Street and wrapping around the existing apartment buildings on the site. The exception was a plan by Allen & Collens and Henry C. Pelton - who had designed Park Avenue Baptist Church - that called for a Gothic Revival church with its main entrance on the side, facing Riverside Drive, with a bell tower and apartment towers for the neighboring Union Theological Seminary. The building committee removed the apartment towers from the church plan and Allen, Collens, and Pelton were selected to design the new church in February 1926. As part of the plans, there would be a 375-foot - later 392-foot - bell tower, a 2,400-seat auditorium, and athletic rooms. The building would occupy a 100 feet by 225 feet lot. There was no room for a chapel in the original plans so Rockefeller proposed trading land with the Union Theological Seminary. In May 1926, Rockefeller gave Union an apartment building on 99 Claremont Avenue, to the northeast of the church. In exchange, Riverside Church received a small plot to its south, allowing for the construction of the chapel and a proposed cloister passage to Claremont Avenue.

Rockefeller chose to delay the construction process until the leases of the site's existing tenants expired in October 1926. The official plans were filed with the New York City Department of Buildings in November that year. The following month, the congregation voted to approve the building plans at a cost of $4 million. Pelton and Collens then went to France to look for churches upon which to model Riverside Church's design. They eventually selected the 13th-century Chartres Cathedral as their model.

The first portion of the new church building to be completed, the assembly hall under the auditorium, opened in October 1929. That December, Fosdick formally filed plans to rename the church from "Park Avenue Baptist Church" to "Riverside Church". The bell was hoisted to the top of the tower's carillon in early September 1930, the tower was completed later that month, and the first Sunday school class was held there on September 29. The church was completed on October 5, the same day the first service was held in the altar; it was attended by 3,200 people. All of the space in the nave and basement was filled and thousands more people wished to enter. The next month, officials received two oil paintings from Rockefeller Jr.'s collection. The first officers of Riverside Church were elected in December 1930 and the church was formally dedicated with an interdenominational service two months later. The total cost of construction was estimated at $4 million. In the early years of the new building, journalists often referred to the church in association with either Rockefeller - who sought to reduce emphasis on his role at the church - or Fosdick. Riverside Church's completion sharply contrasted with the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, which remained incomplete after almost four decades.

Despite the completion of Riverside Church, Rockefeller felt the surroundings still needed to be improved. In 1932, he announced he would pay for a $350,000 landscaping of the adjacent, decrepit Sakura Park. Rockefeller hired the Olmsted Brothers to renovate the park and the project was completed two years later. When Union Theological Seminary announced it would build a new apartment building at 99 Claremont Avenue. Rockefeller offered to exchange his neighboring apartment building at 122nd Street and Claremont Avenue for the lots south of the church, which were owned by the seminary. The land was swapped in 1931 after Rockefeller offered to finance part of the dormitory's construction. In 1935, the land under the church was deeded to Rockefeller and he purchased a lot at Riverside Drive and 122nd Street from St. Luke's Hospital, after which he owned all of the land along the eastern side of Riverside Drive between 120th and 122nd Streets. Rockefeller spent a total of $10.5 million on land acquisition and church construction.

The completion of the new church building at Morningside Heights resulted in a steady increase in the congregation's membership. By May 1946, the congregation had 3,500 members, an increase of 800 in twenty years. According to a brochure issued by the church, "soon every room ... was in use seven days a week", and enrollment at the church's Sunday school had correspondingly increased.

Riverside Church became a community icon and a religious center of Morningside Heights. By 1939, the church had more than 200 staff in both part-time and full-time positions, and over 10,000 people a week were attending its social and religious services, athletic events, and employment programs. 

In June 1945, Fosdick announced he would step down as senior minister the following May. This spurred a search for a new pastor and in March 1946, Robert James McCracken was chosen for the position and officially became the senior pastor of Riverside Church that October. Over the next two decades, McCracken continued Fosdick's policy of religious liberalism. In 1956, halfway through McCracken's tenure, the church conducted an internal report and found the organizational structure was disorganized and that most staff did not feel any single person was in charge. As a result, six councils were created and placed under the purview of the deacons and trustees. The councils partitioned power into "a series of mini-kingdoms", according to a later pastor, Ernest T. Campbell.

Construction on the Martin Luther King Jr. Wing, to the south of the existing church, started in 1955. The seven-story wing was designed by Collens, Willis & Beckonert, successors to Allen & Collens; its $15 million cost was funded by Rockefeller. The wing was dedicated in December 1959 and contained additional facilities for the church's programs. A 15-foot dummy antenna had been placed on top of Riverside Church's 392-foot tall carillon earlier that year to determine whether it could be used by Columbia University's radio station, WKCR (89.9 MHz FM), despite strong opposition from parishioners and the local community. Nevertheless, the church decided to place an antenna atop the carillon for its own radio station, the top of the antenna being 440 feet  above ground level. Riverside Church started operating the radio station WRVR (106.7 MHz FM) in 1961 and continued to operate it until 1976.

In 1960, Riverside Church's congregation voted to merge with the United Church of Christ. Rockefeller purchased the Stone Gym, an existing Union Theological Seminary building southeast of the original church, and reopened it as a community facility in April 1962 after a five-year renovation.

Ernest T. Campbell became pastor in November 1968. Campbell's tenure was marked by several controversial sermons and increasing conflicts among the church's boards, councils, and staff. In June 1976, Campbell suddenly resigned, having felt his style of leadership was not sufficient to reconcile these disagreements. The same month saw the installment of the church's first female pastor, Evelyn Newman.

By a vote in August 1977, William Sloane Coffin was selected as the next senior minister of Riverside Church. Coffin officiated his first service in November 1977. At this point, the congregation's size had been declining for several years but after Coffin's selection as senior minister, membership increased to 2,627 by the end of 1979, and total annual attendance for morning services rose from 49,902 in 1976 to 71,536 in 1978. Coffin's tenure was also marked by theologically liberal sermons, many of which were controversial, though he was more traditional in his worship. This era also saw Channing E. Phillips, the first African-American major-party U.S. presidential nominee, being hired as minister of planning and coordination.

Coffin announced his intention to resign in July 1987 to become the president of disarmament organization SANE/Freeze, and held his last sermon that December. Riverside Church formed a committee that conducted a nationwide search for its next senior minister over the next year. In February 1989, the committee chose James A. Forbes, a professor at nearby Union Theological Seminary, for the position. The congregation voted almost unanimously to approve Forbes's selection and he became the church's first black senior minister. At the time, between one-fourth and one-third of the congregation was Black or Hispanic. Tensions between Forbes and executive minister David Dyson soon developed over matters including the duration of Forbes's sermons and his musical choices. Tensions grew and a mediator was engaged after Forbes tried to fire Dyson. The dispute was resolved when Dyson resigned in October 1992.

In 1996, Riverside Church started conducting a study on the building's current use and services, and the following October, Body Lawson, Ben Paul Associated Architects and Planners published the Riverside Church Master Plan. The plan included a major addition on Riverside Church's eastern side, consisting of the relocation of the Claremont Avenue entrance, paving of the forecourt, reconfiguration of the cloister lobby, and construction of a seven-story building over the gymnasium. This plan was controversial among congregants, some of whom petitioned the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate the church to prevent the alteration of the original appearance of the Claremont Avenue entrance. In December 1998, the congregation voted to officially nominate the church for landmark status. Only the original church building was nominated; the nomination excluded the Martin Luther King Jr. Wing, despite preservationists' requests for the entire structure to be considered for landmark designation. The NYCLPC approved landmark status for the original church in May 2000.

Another nationwide, year-long search for a new senior minister commenced and in August 2008, it was announced Brad Braxton had been selected as the sixth senior minister of Riverside Church. Braxton's tenure was marked by theological disputes; congregants disagreed whether the church should take a fundamentalist or progressive position, as well as a lawsuit over his salary, which a church spokesperson stated was $457,000. In June 2009, Braxton submitted a letter of resignation due to these disputes. For the next five years, Riverside Church had no senior minister and in 2014, its congregation had decreased to 1,670, a loss of over a thousand since 2007.

In June 2014, Amy K. Butler was selected as the church's seventh senior minister, becoming the first woman to hold that job. In September 2018, it was announced Riverside Church would buy the neighboring McGiffert Hall at Claremont Avenue and 122nd Street for $45 million. The dormitory was on land John Rockefeller Jr. had donated to the Union Theological Seminary, and under the donation agreement, the church had the right of first offer to buy the building should it ever be offered for sale.In July 2019, the church's governing council announced Butler's contract would not be renewed, and the Church Council and Butler released a joint letter stating Butler's resignation was mutual. A former Church Council member later said Butler was dismissed after she and several other female staff members had experienced sexual harassment by another former council member, Dr. Edward Lowe. According to the former council member, despite the council's previous extensive investigation into Lowe's conduct, the council had not conducted as thorough of an investigation into allegations against Butler before voting to break off contract negotiations. Media outlets later reported Butler had taken subordinate staffers to a sex-themed shop during a conference in Minneapolis, where she bought female subordinates vibrators and waved a church credit card as she paid for the purchases.

Riverside Church occupies a 454-by-100-foot lot between Riverside Drive to the west, 122nd Street to the north, Claremont Avenue to the east, and 120th Street to the south. The church's interior was designed by Burnham Hoyt. The Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Wing to the south of the original building was designed by Collens, Willis & Beckonert and the Stone Gym to the southeast was designed by Louis E. Jallade.

As of 2017, Riverside Church is the tallest church in the United States and is among the world's tallest churches.

Pelton and Collens chose a Gothic architectural style for Riverside Church's exterior; by contrast, the internal structure incorporates modern curtain walls and a steel frame. Fosdick later said the exterior Gothic style is suited to "make people pray" and that the church had "not outgrown Gothic" in that regard. Riverside Church's design is partially derived from Chartres Cathedral in France but also incorporates designs of several Gothic churches in France and Spain. Pelton and Collens said Chartres would provide the "fundamental principles" for the design of Riverside Church but that Riverside would have a completely different outline. The features inspired by Chartres include the detailing of the three Riverside Drive entrances and the lack of decorative elements on the facade, except for the stained glass windows on the walls and the sculptural elements around each portal. The massive single bell tower was inspired by the two western towers at Chartres. The rest of the facade consists of Indiana Limestone.

Upon Riverside Church's completion, its design received both praise and criticism.  In mid-1931, The American Architect published pieces in mid-1931 that featured a critical viewpoint from Columbia architecture professor Walter A. Taylor and a rebuttal from architect Charles Crane, who had worked on the project with Pelton. While Taylor believed the design should have been more modernist, Crane defended Pelton's Gothic design as being "fundamentally Christian". The writers of the 1939 WPA Guide to New York City said the tower's features make the "building itself seem smaller than it is, so that its scale is scarcely impressive, even when seen at close range". Other critics called the building's exterior overly opulent; according to one critic, when considered along the progressive ideology, the Gothic design "can only be interpreted as an outward confession that religion is dead". The New York Sun referred to the building as one of the "most outstanding additions" to New York City's church architecture "in recent years". Eric Nash, in his book Manhattan Skyscrapers, called Riverside Church "Manhattan's last great eclectic skyscraper" while the AIA Guide to New York City dubbed the church "easily the most prominent architectural work along the Hudson [River] from midtown to the George Washington Bridge".

The Gothic-themed nave was inspired by Albi Cathedral, France, the nave is 100 feet high, 89 feet wide and 215 feet long.

The narthex, which was designed in the late Gothic style with a Romanesque layout, is directly south of the nave and can be accessed from the church's West Portal. The narthex is split into four vaults that have Guastavino tiled ceilings that are supported by simple limestone columns. A stone spiral staircase on the west side of the narthex, directly south of the West Portal, leads to the basement. There are two grisaille windows and one rose window on each of the western and eastern sides of the narthex. The eastern wall has four 16th-century lancet windows that were previously in the Park Avenue Baptist Church; they are the only windows in Riverside Church that were not built specifically for the church. Stairs leading both upward and downward are on the eastern side of the narthex, and a mortuary chapel is on the northeastern corner. The mortuary chapel is known as the Gethsemane Chapel but prior to 1959, it was called the Christ Chapel.

The chapel to the south of the narthex, which since 1959 has been known as the Christ Chapel, was inspired by the Basilica of Saints Nazarius and Celsus in France. Its design was inspired by the pointed Romanesque nave at Carcassonne Cathedral. The design, which was described by architectural historian Andrew Dolkart as "earlier than Gothic", is intended to give the impression the rest of the sanctuary was built after the chapel. The chapel is subdivided into four bays and has a barrel-vaulted ceiling with Guastavino tiles, and the walls and floor have a limestone finish. The southern wall, which is adjacent to the MLK Wing, has four arched, back-lit stained-glass windows; one in each bay.

The 392-foot tower was named after Laura Spelman Rockefeller, the mother of John D. Rockefeller Jr. The tower contains 21 usable floors, which include 80 classrooms and office rooms. The tower has four elevators, two of which rise only to the 10th floor, whereas the other two rise to the 20th floor. The 20-floor elevators, which rise 355 feet, were described in 1999 as the world's tallest elevators inside a church.

The tower's main entrance is on the western elevation of the tower's base and is flanked by projecting vertical piers. Seven arched niches, each containing one statue of a king, are above the main entrance. A large rose window is above the statuary grouping. The apex of the tower is fitted with aircraft warning lights. Above the tenth floor are five tiers of window arrangements on each floor; the higher tiers become progressively narrower. From bottom to top, the successive tiers have two, three, four, and five windows on each side. There are narrow, canopied niches in each corner of the tower, with one statue inside each niche. At the top of the tower is a conical metal roof.

Originally, the fourth through fourteenth floors were occupied by Riverside Church's school while the fifteenth floor and above contained staff and clergy offices, as well as spaces for group activities. The second floor connects to the nave's lower seating gallery, while the third floor leads to the upper seating gallery. The fourth through eighth floors are below the height of the nave's ceiling; these housed the nursery, junior high, and high school departments of the church's school. The ninth and tenth floors housed the double-story school kitchen, school offices, and storage rooms over the nave. The ninth floor also houses a library, and there is wooden furniture in the kitchen and library. The main structure's roof is above the tenth floor, and the tower rises independently above that point. The eleventh through fourteenth floors originally contained the church's elementary school while the fifteenth and sixteenth floors respectively housed the young people's meeting room and the social room. These floors were later converted into office space, and several floors were subdivided and leased out. The seventeenth through twentieth floors include meeting rooms and the seventeenth floor also contains offices. The twenty-first floor includes the carilloneur's studio and the twenty-second floor is devoted to mechanical space.

The 23rd floor of the tower contains a three-level belfry that houses a carillon whose final complement of 74 bronze bells, which at the time of its construction the largest carillon of bells in the world, includes the 20-ton, 122-inch-diameter bourdon, the world's largest tuned bell. Though other carillons with more bells have been commissioned, Riverside Church's carillon is still the largest in the world by aggregate weight: the bells and associated mechanisms weight a combined 500,000 pounds.  Of the carillon's bells, 53 were made for the original Park Avenue church by English founders Gillett & Johnston and another 19 were made for Riverside Church when it opened. Two additional bells were added in 1955 and 58 treble bells were replaced by bell founders Van Bergen.] The bells were replaced again by Whitechapel Bell Foundry in 2004. The bells can reportedly be heard from up to 8 miles from the tower.

A mechanical power room and control room are in the belfry, with the clavier cabin at the top, above the carillon. Due to the weight of the carillon, the heaviest steel beams used in the construction of Riverside Church were used in the tower. The north facade, which overhangs the nave, is supported by a single cross truss that weighs 60 short tons.  Outside the carillon, the tower's facade has ornate Neo-Gothic detailing that includes features such as gargoyles. On top of the carillon is a public observation deck; the deck was closed after the September 11, 2001, attacks due to security concerns but the church resumed tours in January 2020.

The cloister passageway leads from the southern portion of the nave to Claremont Avenue in the east. A gift shop is adjacent to the cloister passageway, and sculptures of the church's architects and builder are above the doorway leading to the tower's base.

The Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Wing is a seven-story annex south of the main structure and facing 120th Street along the southern boundary of the plot. The long arm of this L-shaped building lies north–south adjacent to Riverside Drive and the short arm lies west–east next to 120th Street. The MLK Wing connects to the original church building to the north and the Stone Gym to the east. The area between the MLK Wing and the cloister forms a small courtyard or garth, which is enclosed on the eastern side by a metal fence. Inside the wing are children's chapels, space for the school, a rooftop recreation area, space for a radio station, community areas including a gymnasium and assembly room, and a basement with a parking lot.

The structure, which was designed by Collens, Willis and Beckonert, and built by Vermilea-Brown, is a simplified version of Allen and Collens' original church design and was perceived as being "modern Gothic". The building was known as the South Wing until 1985, when it was renamed for civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

The Stone Gymnasium is a ​1 1⁄2-story English Gothic building at 120th Street and Claremont Avenue, east of the Martin Luther King Jr. Wing. The gym was built in 1912 to a design by Louis E. Jallade and was originally used by the Union Theological Seminary. Its architectural details include a facade of schist with limestone decoration and a metal hip roof. The structure measures five bays long on the eastern facade and one bay wide on the southern and northern facades. In 1957, Rockefeller donated the building to the church and five years later, it reopened as a gymnasium and community facility. The building's interior contains a basketball court with synthetic flooring, and there are offices and lockers in its northern end.

Riverside Church's basement includes several modern amenities such as a 250-seat movie theater and a gymnasium with a full-size basketball court. The basement originally included a four-lane bowling alley that was adjacent to the assembly floor. It was later removed and converted into storage space. There is a two-story, 150-space parking lot underneath the MLK Wing.

The two Riverside Church organs are located in the chancel and the seating gallery. The chancel organ is the 14th largest in the world as of 2017. It was furnished 1n 1930 by Hook and Hastings, and was originally criticized as mediocre. Aeolian-Skinner built an organ console in the chancel in 1948 and replaced the chancel organ in 1953–1954, and the ceiling above the chancel and the front of the nave was coated with sealant to improve the chancel's acoustic qualities. In 1964, another Aeolian-Skinner organ was installed within the eastern wall of the nave's seating gallery and three years later, Anthony A. Bufano installed a five-manual console for the gallery organ. M. P. Moller built another organ for the gallery, the Trompeta Majestatis, in 1978. Two years later, the chancel organ received a new principal chorus with the addition of the Grand Chorus division. In the 1990s, the console was rewired, the chancel organ was cleaned, and the ceiling was covered with ten layers of sealant.

Riverside Church's main building contains 51 stained glass windows, excluding small grisaille windows.

French glassmakers Jacques Simon from Reims Cathedral and Charles Lorin from Chartres Cathedral were hired to create the glass for the clerestory windows in the nave. Lorin designed the stained-glass windows on the western side of the clerestory while Simon designed those on the eastern side. Both sets of windows depict general religious and governmental themes, and also incorporate secular iconography and depictions of non-Christians. The clerestory windows closely resemble those at Chartres and include a rose with lancet windows. The other windows in the nave were created by Boston-based firm Reynolds, Francis and Rohnstock and depict 138 scenes with both religious and non-religious contexts. The three groups of stained glass windows in the apse and the nine stained glass windows in the South Hall were created by Harry Wright Goodhue.

The building's most prominent sculptural details are on the Riverside Drive facade. The main entrance beneath the tower is topped with five concentric archivolts with sculptures of Jesus's followers and prophets inlaid within each section. The third arch of the main entrance has depictions of philosophers including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Immanuel Kant, and Pythagoras, while the second arch depicts scientists including Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, and Hippocrates. Other figures depict the months of the year. The columns framing the door jambs beneath the archivolts are decorated with capitals and gargoyles at the top and bottom, and a single figure in the middle. In the tympanum above the doors and below the archivolts is a figure of Christ seated, which is flanked by the symbols of the Evangelists.

When Riverside Church was completed, there was controversy over the inclusion of Einstein, a living Jewish man, because the other figures represented people who had since died. According to the publication Church Monthly, during construction, the committee tasked with the church's iconography had proposed depicting 20 scientists, not including Einstein, on the facade. The faculty, however, unanimously decided Einstein should be included because he was indisputably one of 14 "leading scientists of all time".

When the Martin Luther King Jr. Wing was built, Jacob Epstein's sculpture Madonna and Child, which was commissioned in 1927, was placed in the courtyard between the MLK Wing and the cloistered entrance.

Riverside Church was conceived as a complex social-services center from the outset; the building has meeting rooms, classrooms, a daycare center, a kindergarten, library, auditorium, and a gymnasium. It was described by The New York Times in 2008 as "a stronghold of activism and political debate throughout its 75-year history ... influential on the nation's religious and political landscapes". Riverside Church provides various social services, including a food bank, barber training, clothing distribution, a shower project, and confidential HIV tests and HIV counseling. In 2007, The New York Times said Riverside Church has frequently "been likened to the Vatican for America's mainstream Protestants".

Starting in November 1976, Riverside Church hosted the Riverside Dance Festival, which was a continuation of previous dance ministries hosted by the church and normally offered 34 weeks of programming from over 60 dance companies. The program ended in June 1987 because of a $900,000 funding shortfall.

On April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech called Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence, in which he voiced his opposition to the Vietnam War, at Riverside Church. The Rev. Jesse Jackson gave the eulogy at Jackie Robinson's funeral service in 1972. In 1991, Nelson Mandela, anti-apartheid activist and later South African president, spoke at Riverside following his release from prison. Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan spoke there after the September 11, 2001, attacks, and former U.S. president Bill Clinton spoke at the church in 2004.

Speakers at Riverside Church have also included theologians Paul Tillich—who taught nearby— and Reinhold Niebuhr; civil-rights activists Cesar Chavez and Desmond Tutu; Cuban president Fidel Castro; the 14th Dalai Lama; and Abdullah II of Jordan.

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