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City Journal Winter 2007.
Winter 2007
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The Houses of Worship That Hallow New York
David Garrard Lowe

A tour through three centuries of history and architecture

A city without significant places of worship is like a garden devoid of flowers. Images immediately spring to mind: Christopher Wren’s St. Paul’s, its majestic dome looming above London like a guardian angel; Notre Dame of Paris, perfectly expressing, in the words of Victor Hugo, “variety and eternity”; Amsterdam’s severe but noble seventeenth-century Spanish-Portuguese synagogue; and Antonio Gaudí’s breathtaking, unfinished Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, forever growing like a tree whose final height is incalculable. Yet to be significant, a place of worship does not have to be of great scale but only to possess something of beauty and something of memory.

Many American cities—Chicago, Miami, and Los Angeles, for instance—have downtowns almost swept clean of places of worship. Either they never existed, or they followed the faithful to the suburbs. Two old cities, Boston and Philadelphia, do indeed possess notable churches at their core, but no American city approaches New York in the richness and variety of its churches and synagogues. Part of what makes the metropolis great, they are wondrous depositories of architecture and art, of history and urban memory.

There is no better spot to illustrate this than St. Mark’s in-the-Bowery, which is a perpetual image of civility in the hurly-burly neighborhood of Second Avenue and 10th Street. Though the fieldstone Georgian structure dates from 1799, the site is the oldest place of continual worship in the city, for it was on this spot that Peter Stuyvesant in 1660 built a chapel on his farm, his “bouwerie.” By turns irascible and generous, bigoted and brave, the one-legged Dutchman, when he became the fifth governor of New Amsterdam in 1646, found it an impoverished, quarreling little colony. When he surrendered it to the British in 1664, he had set it on a course toward lasting prosperity. Stuyvesant is still at St. Mark’s, just to the right of the church, lying in the vault he built. His bust above it was a gift from Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands. There is a spooky coincidence attached to that vault, for when, in 1953, it was opened to receive the body of the last of Stuyvesant’s direct descendants, Augustus Van Horn Stuyvesant, it was found that there was but one empty place left among some 80 already filled, as if the governor had foreseen three centuries earlier exactly how many descendants he would have.

By the late eighteenth century, Stuyvesant’s old Dutch Reformed chapel was derelict, and in 1793 his great-great-grandson deeded the land to Trinity Church. The lawyer for the incorporation of the new Episcopal parish was none other than Alexander Hamilton. The facade of St. Mark’s dramatically exhibits a half-century of changing taste. Atop the reticent Georgian sanctuary is a belfry and steeple designed by Ithiel Town, the noted architect of some of the finest houses on the north side of Washington Square. It is a simply detailed Greek Revival composition, one of the most beautiful steeples in the city. The church’s elegant Anglo-Italianate cast-iron portico, from the famed Cornel Foundry, was added in 1854.

St. Mark’s has always played an important part in New York’s cultural life. Among the founders of the parish was Clement Clark Moore, long credited with the authorship of “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” New York mayor and famed diarist Philip Hone lies in the churchyard. Washington Irving was a constant visitor, finding inspiration at St. Mark’s for his History of New York by Diedrich Knickerbocker. In the twentieth century, Amy Lowell, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Robert Frost read their poetry in the old sanctuary, while Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, and Ruth St. Denis enlivened the place with their dancing. Reports of the dancing led the Episcopal bishop of New York to keep a sharp eye on the rector, Dr. William Guthrie, particularly after the good doctor began leading eurhythmic liturgical processions through Greenwich Village.

Peter Stuyvesant also played a role in another of New York’s precious places of worship, Congregation Shearith Israel (Remnant of Israel), also known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, on Central Park West at 70th Street. It is the oldest Jewish congregation in the city, with a history reaching back to 1654, when 23 Sephardic Jews, mostly Spanish and Portuguese, fleeing the Inquisition in Brazil, landed in New Amsterdam. Governor Stuyvesant did not welcome them, fearing that they would undermine the established Dutch Reformed Church. “To give liberty to the Jews will be very detrimental,” he opined, “because giving them liberty, we cannot refuse the Lutherans and Papists.”

But the Dutch West India Company, with an eye to expanding trade, let them remain in the colony. The congregation’s first synagogue was on Mill Street, now South William Street, and over the years, it followed the migration of New York uptown, first to Crosby Street, then to 19th Street, and then to its present location in 1897.

Arnold Brunner gave Shearith Israel a magnificent classical Beaux-Arts exterior of white marble. With its four tall fluted Corinthian columns, arched entrances, and decorated pediment, the synagogue is intended to recall the synagogues in Palestine at the time of the Roman occupation. Brunner’s Beaux-Arts opulence continues in the interior, where the main sanctuary is a dazzling amalgam of red and yellow marbles, of bronze and gold, and of splendid art-glass windows in the manner of Louis Tiffany.

But it is in “The Little Synagogue,” or chapel, that the history of the congregation comes alive. Essentially a replica of the Georgian Mill Street synagogue, it is a white and gold chamber very similar in feeling to the famed Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. At its center is a crimson-damask-covered reading desk of 1730, surrounded by an elegant railing, upon which stand four fifteenth-century Spanish candlesticks. The white pews with mahogany trim are of the eighteenth century, as is the silver Sabbath lamp, while in the ark rest two Torah scrolls damaged during the British occupation of New York in the American Revolution.

New York’s places of worship are hardy plants with long taproots. They flourish in unlikely places. On East 60th Street between Park and Lexington avenues, a block filled with state-of-the-art hairdressers, health-food restaurants, and bars catering to various tastes, is a simple three-story red-brick building that gives no hint that it is a church. But for half a century, it has been home to one of Gotham’s most historic congregations, “L’Eglise Française du Saint-Esprit,” the French Huguenot church.

Persecution of Protestants in France was endemic throughout most of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries. There had been a respite when, in 1598, Henry IV promulgated the Edict of Nantes, giving non–Roman Catholic Christians the right to worship freely, hold public office, and have access to education. But thousands had already fled to neighboring nations ruled by their co-religionists, particularly Holland. Word spread among these religious refugees of the richness of the new lands across the Atlantic, and in early March, 1623, the ship New Netherland set sail from Holland with some 30 families, most of them French Protestants. In May, they reached the mouth of the Hudson River. Some settled on what is now Governor’s Island, and others became, in all probability, the first European settlers on Manhattan Island.

Over the years, the French Protestants got along well with the Dutch, whose Calvinist faith was very similar to their own, and they even shared a place of worship. But the Huguenots wanted their own sanctuary, where they could have services in French. “It is one thing to get along well with one’s Dutch neighbors,” a Huguenot wrote to a friend in England, “but it is quite another thing to listen to a long sermon in Dutch.” In 1688, a small chapel rose on Petticoat Lane, now Marketfield Street, near the Bowery.

The revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 led to a vast new wave of French Protestants fleeing to America. They would carry names that would become famous in the annals of the United States: Boudouin (which became Bowdoin), Rivoire (which became Revere), Dana, Vassar, Collier, Leroy, Delano, Durand, Delancey, Thoreau. To accommodate these new arrivals, the congregation built a much larger place of worship at what is now Pine and Nassau streets. The name they chose for the edifice was “Le Temple du Saint-Esprit.” (French Protestants traditionally call their houses of worship temples, not churches.) But, as the years passed, the Huguenots, like the Spanish and Portuguese Jews, followed the trek of New Yorkers northward, first in 1831 to Church and Franklin streets, where “Le Temple” became “L’Eglise,” next to East 22nd Street, and then at the end of the nineteenth century to a grand Gothic Revival structure on East 27th Street. But by the 1920s, this cavernous sanctuary was far too large for the shrinking Francophone congregation, and in 1926 it sold the property. After worshiping for a number of years in rented spaces, the congregation in 1941 purchased an empty school building on East 60th Street and remodeled the ground floor into a chapel seating some 70 people.

Saint-Esprit may be small, but on Sunday the congregation still worships in French, still uses the old silver chalice it has carried with it, still reads from its ancient Bible, and still lustily sings those Protestant hymns, the singing of which once would have condemned their ancestors to be galley slaves. And on the Sunday nearest April 15, the day the king promulgated the Edict of Nantes, Huguenots from all over the New York metropolitan region gather to celebrate religious liberty. Looking down from the walls surrounding them are the coats of arms of Huguenot families. Some are renowned, such as Jay, and some are surprising, such as Runyon.

It would be difficult to imagine a greater contrast than that between the tiny Huguenot chapel and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, just a few blocks to the south. The grand cathedral, stretching 328 feet from Fifth Avenue to Madison Avenue, its twin spires majestically rising 330 feet into the air, seems to have been predestined to be on its superb site at the heart of midtown Manhattan. But there was no predestination about it; rather, determination and a bit of luck.

The story begins at another St. Patrick’s Cathedral, on Mulberry Street, just below Houston. The simple brown facade of Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, as it is now called, was not always so simple, for it was given delightful Gothic Revival decoration by its architect, Joseph François Magnin, a Frenchman who was one of the architects of City Hall. That decoration was lost in a disastrous 1866 fire. Perhaps the cathedral’s most distinctive feature now is the high brick wall surrounding its tree-shaded churchyard, where lie the noted merchant, Stephen Jumel; Andrew Morris, the first Roman Catholic to hold public office in New York; and Captain Pierre Landais, second in command to the father of the United States Navy, John Paul Jones. The wall gives the cathedral an evocative old-world charm.

In the years when Old St. Patrick’s was being constructed, between 1809 and 1815, there were barely 13,000 Roman Catholics in New York State and only three churches—two in New York City and one in Albany. The first three bishops of the diocese may have been men of faith, but they were not memorable. The fourth, John Joseph Hughes, who had been born in Ireland in 1797, was both memorable and the father of the St. Patrick’s on Fifth Avenue. He was made bishop of New York in 1842 and, in 1850, New York’s first archbishop. Known as “Dagger John” to his enemies, John Hughes was a powerful orator and debater, an effective advocate of Catholic education—he founded Fordham—and a fiery defender of Catholic rights. When in the spring of 1844 anti-Catholic Nativists threatened to attack and burn Old St. Patrick’s, Hughes surrounded it with armed members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and warned Mayor James Harper that if harm came to any Catholic or any Catholic church, New York would burn.

Hughes understood perfectly the importance in a city of great places of worship and wanted a cathedral far grander than Old St. Patrick’s to express in stone the demographic, political, and religious reality of the thousands of Irish and German Catholics pouring into the city. (Shortly after the middle of the nineteenth century, 40 percent of New Yorkers were Roman Catholic.) The diocese originally acquired the land where the cathedral now stands with the idea of using it for a much-needed Catholic cemetery. But the solid stone lying just below the surface made that impractical. When in 1850 Hughes proposed building a new cathedral, he selected this stony spot for its site. Far from the center of New York, in an area of unpaved, muddy streets and squatters’ shacks, this choice was quickly dubbed “Hughes’s Folly.”

To design his new cathedral, Hughes turned to the perfect architect for the project, James Renwick. He was not an obvious choice. Renwick was an Episcopalian, closely allied to the city’s Protestant aristocracy: his mother was a Brevoort, his wife an Aspinwall. But he had designed what is arguably New York’s most beautiful Gothic Revival church, Grace Episcopal on Broadway at 10th Street. Completed in 1846, Grace Church’s light-colored Tuckahoe marble sanctuary, with its striking tower, pinnacles, and tall pointed windows, is to this day one of the most aesthetically pleasing sights in New York. In addition, Hughes and Renwick got on well. Both wanted a cathedral that would dazzle the city, and Hughes, as far as possible, was willing to pay the price. Renwick used the effectiveness of the light stone of Grace Church to persuade his patron to employ gray granite and white marble for St. Patrick’s rather than the much cheaper brownstone, the material of which Trinity Church and many of New York’s most prominent sanctuaries were constructed. Though it added thousands to the cost of the cathedral, Hughes agreed.

On August 15, 1858, before a crowd estimated at more than 100,000, the archbishop laid the cornerstone for his new cathedral. But because of the Civil War and constant problems with financing the ambitious project, the cathedral was not ready for services until 1879. Hughes had died in 1864, and his successor, John McCloskey, the first American Cardinal, presided over the dedicatory mass. Fate had placed the cathedral on a stretch of Fifth Avenue that was no longer a region of shacks but a grand boulevard where some of the richest men in America lived: Whitneys, Goulds, Vanderbilts.

If Renwick and Hughes were happy colleagues on the great project, no such camaraderie existed between Renwick and McCloskey. Whereas Hughes would not flinch at daring to spend money for the best in building materials, McCloskey was more than ready to cut corners to save dollars. He quickly altered Renwick’s plan to have true stone vaulting for the nave ceiling, insisting instead on the use of cheaper plaster painted to look like stone. (New York would have to wait more than half a century for Ralph Adams Cram to show in his stupendous nave for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine the matchless aesthetic power of true stone vaulting.) He also vetoed Renwick’s proposal to have as seating individual chairs in the manner of European cathedrals. Instead McCloskey opted for pews, on the grounds that they could be rented to the highest bidder; some indeed did go for over $2,000. Yet Renwick’s interior, an unforgettable array of clustered columns, soaring pointed arches, and glittering stained glass, magnificently fulfills Archbishop Hughes’s dream that the cathedral would be “worthy of God, worthy of the Catholic religion, and an honor to this great City.”

Delightfully, Renwick had the last word in his battles with McCloskey. When St. Patrick’s was almost complete, he offered to present a window. It is there in the south transept and is dedicated, not surprisingly, to Patrick, apostle of Ireland. The upper part of the window does indeed portray the saint attired as a bishop; the lower part, however, depicts Renwick himself showing the cathedral plans to a seated, sympathetically portrayed Hughes. But standing, an unmistakable glare of disapproval upon his face, is Cardinal McCloskey, in his hand a paper with his proposed alterations to Renwick’s original plan. The story goes that the window had been put into place before McCloskey saw it, and no one dared remove a window dedicated to St. Patrick in his own cathedral.

Not all of New York’s places of worship have their roots in Europe. An outstanding example is the First Church of Christ, Scientist at Central Park West and 96th Street, designed in 1899 by Carrère & Hastings, the architects of the main branch of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue. Its lofty limestone exterior presents an unexpected combination of classical elements, including Ionic columns, deep cornices, and arched windows. The First Church terminates in a stone spire rising from a square tower embellished with urns and pediments, dramatically recalling the eighteenth-century London churches designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor. The vast interior, with seats for 2,400, reflects the flourishing state of this American denomination founded in Boston in 1879 by the remarkable Mary Baker Eddy. The most striking features of the interior—flooded with light, as Mrs. Eddy said that churches should be—are its powerful arches: great bent beams of steel sheathed with plaster and embellished with robust rosettes, garlands, and elegant curved molding. The combination of raw architectural power and delicate beauty makes this one of the city’s supreme Beaux-Arts chambers. In recent years, its once-thriving congregation has dwindled, and the amazing First Church has been sold to an evangelical Protestant congregation that promises to be a worthy guardian of this masterpiece.

One of the gifts of New York’s places of worship is that they provide infinite surprise. Walking down a narrow street or turning into a square, one is sometimes forced to stop and ask, “What is this?” and “How has this survived?” Just such a feeling strikes one on John Street near Nassau, in lower Manhattan. There among the behemoths of the financial district sits an unassuming structure that pays simple tribute to the Greek Revival with a Palladian window above its entrance, a fine cornice, and a crisp pediment. This is the John Street Methodist Church, and it resembles nothing so much as those Dissenter chapels that dot Wales and parts of Ireland. And this is appropriate, for though the sanctuary dates only from 1841, its lineage goes back to 1768, when it was organized by an Irish preacher, Philip Embury. John Street is the oldest Methodist congregation in North America. In the little museum beneath the sanctuary are a number of significant Methodist relics, including a clock given in 1769 by John Wesley, the illustrious chief founder of the denomination. As one stands in the John Street Church, it is interesting to speculate how from such small beginnings grew those magnificent Methodist institutions, among them Northwestern University outside Chicago, Southern Methodist in Dallas, Vanderbilt in Nashville, and Boston University.

Stuyvesant Square evokes a similar experience. There stands the plain Fifteenth Street Friends Meeting House, constructed in 1860. Flanking it are two very different places of worship. To the right rises the imperious brownstone Romanesque Revival St. George’s Episcopal Church, designed in the mid-nineteenth century by Leopold Eidlitz and Otto Blesch. St. George’s aura of grandeur is appropriate for a parish whose most famous member was J. P. Morgan. To the left of the Fifteenth Street Meeting House holds forth the mad 1960s concrete modernism of St. Mary’s Catholic Church of the Byzantine Rite. Standing between its two voluble neighbors, the Meeting House offers a welcome diffident architectural dignity. Its designer, Charles T. Bunting, made it beautiful by making it simple: red brick, a white wooden Doric portico, large windows of clear glass, all composed beneath a broad gable. The architecture perfectly expresses the Quaker faith, a faith that eschews ostentation and begins its services with silence.

For sheer surprise, though, it would be hard to beat the Church of the Transfiguration, just off Fifth Avenue on East 29th Street. On a block of lofts and high-rise apartment buildings, a garden filled with shrubs, trees, and (in season) flowers flourishes, as though it were in rural England, or at least in Westchester. The entrance to the garden is through one of the rarest architectural features in New York City, a tile-roofed pavilion, known as a lych-gate, modeled on those in English churchyards, under which a coffin could rest before the burial service began. (“Lych” in early English is the word for “body.”) Stepping into the garden, one sees a low church structure of such engagingly picturesque variety—towers, dormer windows, high-peaked roofs—that it could pass for a stage set in a Disney movie. Though the date when the structure was begun—1850—is known, the name of no architect has been attached to it. So peculiar is the church’s almost natural growth that it is affectionately dubbed “The Holy Cucumber Vine.”

But the Church of Transfiguration has another nickname: “The Little Church Around the Corner.” How it got that appellation is a well-known story. In 1870, the noted actor George Holland died, and when his friend Joseph Jefferson, the leading comic actor of the day, went to a grand church on Madison Avenue to arrange for his funeral, the pastor icily dismissed him: the church did not conduct funerals for those in that “morally questionable” profession. But, the pastor added, “I believe there is a little church around the corner where they do that sort of thing.” “If that be so, sir,” Jefferson replied, “God bless the little church around the corner.” Holland’s funeral indeed took place at the Church of the Transfiguration. The event made the church beloved by those in the acting profession.

Stepping into the cottage-like sanctuary, one comes face-to-face with an amazing panoply of memorials to actors and actresses and writers. There in brilliant stained glass is Joseph Jefferson himself, portrayed in his famous role as Rip Van Winkle, supporting the shroud-wrapped body of his friend George Holland. There is a window by John LaFarge showing Edwin Booth, the great tragedian (and brother of John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated Lincoln), dressed as Hamlet. Additional windows and memorial tablets honor, among others, John Drew, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Stephen Vincent Benét, Will Rogers, Gertrude Lawrence, and P. G. Wodehouse.

There is also a memorial to the matchless short-story writer O. Henry. His funeral at the little church had a sardonic twist that would have fit perfectly into one of his tales. The funeral was scheduled for 11 am on a June day in 1910. Unfortunately, a wedding had been scheduled for the same day at the same hour. As the bride and groom approached the church, the groom saw the hearse and was able to whisk his future bride away for an hour to the nearby Holland House Hotel. When at noon they were married, the only thing the bride found amiss were the numerous flower petals in the aisle from what she thought was another wedding.

Not only do New York’s churches and synagogues provide inspiration and surprise; their towers are often significant urban landmarks that speak eloquently of the multiple cultures that built this city. A number immediately come to mind. There is the Brick Presbyterian Church on Park Avenue at 91st Street, a dignified colonial revival edifice of 1938 by York & Sawyer, which looks as though it had been lifted bodily from a New England village green. The restraint of the Brick Church’s three-tier red-brick and white-wood steeple perfectly proclaims the congregation’s Calvinist faith. Another example is Trinity, at the head of Wall Street, Richard Upjohn’s 1846 brownstone Gothic-revival masterwork. Its 280-foot spire—the equivalent of 24 stories—is like some ecclesiastical spaceship ready to whisk Trinity’s Anglophile Episcopalians back to the mother country. There are the twin minarets with copper onion domes with which Henry Fernbach crowned his 1872 Central Synagogue. Their exotic Moorish form is a constant reminder to all who pass the corner of Lexington Avenue and 55th Street of that time when, before their expulsion in 1492, Jews flourished in Spain.

But no New York house of worship has a more spectacular site for a spectacular tower than Riverside Church, perched high on a bluff above the Hudson River between 120th and 122nd streets. Constructed between 1926 and 1930 under the patronage of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the majestic Baptist sanctuary designed by Allen & Collens is a glorious sheath of thirteenth-century French Gothic ornament hung upon a steel frame. Riverside’s 392-foot tower—the most notable landmark between midtown and the George Washington Bridge—houses the 74-bell Laura Spellman Rockefeller Carillon, a memorial to John D. Jr.’s mother. That Riverside is Gothic should come as no surprise, for John D. Jr. wanted that style for Rockefeller Center, begun shortly after the completion of his awesome church.

Rockefeller Center was built, not Gothic, but in the French moderne style known as art deco, popular in the 1920s and 1930s. A number of New York sanctuaries of the period embrace deco totally or in part. Among them is St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue between 50th and 51st streets, designed by the great architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue. Opened for worship in 1919, St. Bartholomew’s, crowned by a high dome, is essentially Romanesque Revival with touches of the Byzantine. But the church was not completed until 1927, and in the 1920s it was given furnishings that include spectacular examples of art-deco religious imagery. Among the most beautiful is the pulpit of golden Siena marble that incorporates a standing cubist Isaiah, while the newel at the base of its steps is in the form of a deco angel garbed as an English judge wearing a glorious full-bottomed wig. The pulpit is the work of Lee Lawrie, the sculptor responsible for the powerful Atlas before Rockefeller Center’s International Building.

Goodhue died in 1924, and his successor firm, Mayers, Murray & Philip, designed the imposing Church of the Heavenly Rest on Fifth Avenue at 90th Street. Completed in 1929, Heavenly Rest is a striking example of stripped-down Gothic Revival transmogrifying into art deco. Its massive, austere interior, a composition of geometric cubist planes, owes as much to the French moderne style as to the architecture of the Middle Ages. Dominating its Fifth Avenue facade are two massive limestone piers, from whose base, flanking the church’s entrance, sprout two winged deco angels by Ulrich Ellerhausen, and whose upper elevations resemble the tops of skyscrapers.

Undoubtedly, though, New York’s most complete example of an art-deco religious structure is the Salvation Army’s combined Territorial Headquarters and Centennial Memorial Temple of 1930 on West 14th Street. Its architects, Voorhees, Gamelin & Walker, were responsible for some of New York’s most magnificent art-deco skyscrapers, including the Irving Trust, now the Bank of New York, at One Wall Street.

Evangeline Booth, daughter of the Salvation Army’s founder, William Booth, supervised every detail of its Centennial Temple; it is the only place of worship in New York with special seats for the overweight. Its entrance, a high arch of triumph in a ziggurat moderne style—with metal gates whose primary motif is a rising sun, appropriate for an organization dedicated to bringing hope to the hopeless—leads to a wall flanked by doorways, upon which is emblazoned the Salvation Army’s battle cry, “Blood and Fire.” The temple’s entrance is one of Manhattan’s supreme art-deco monuments.

Marvelous architecture and magnificent history come together in an unforgettable ensemble on lower Broad- way. There, between Fulton and Vesey streets, stands a structure so different from the surrounding stone, glass, and steel office buildings that it brings to mind a grace- ful wooden sailing ship caught among hulking aircraft carriers.

St. Paul’s Chapel, Manhattan’s only intact pre-Revolutionary edifice, reverberates with memories that go back to the founding of the republic and beyond. Its elegant Georgian proportions, its deep portico of four fluted Ionic columns, and its immense Palladian window recall the eighteenth-century London churches of James Gibbs, such as Saint-Martin’s-in-the-Fields on Trafalgar Square.

This is precisely what its architect, Thomas McBean, intended when he designed this chapel of Trinity Church in 1764. New York was English, and the style was intended to make Englishmen feel at home when they worshiped a God whom they were certain spoke in the stately phrases of the King James Bible. St. Paul’s tall, elegant steeple, rising in stages to a gilded weather vane, is an architectural minuet. St. Paul’s interior, a palette of white, gold, and soft pastels, and Waterford crystal chandeliers that catch the sunlight pouring through the small-paned clear glass windows, magically transports the visitor from a world of boom-box cacophony to one of Haydn’s quartets.

The chapel possesses two precious objects that speak of the beginnings of the nation. The reredos behind the altar, a carved wooden depiction of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, was designed by Pierre L’Enfant, the architect who planned Washington, D.C. On the left aisle is the handsome mahogany armchair in which, on April 30, 1789, following his inauguration as the first president of the United States at the nearby City Hall, George Washington sat when he prayed at St. Paul’s.

On September 11, 2001, the ancient chapel, barely six blocks north of the World Trade Center, came through the ordeal virtually unscathed. Its fragile steeple survived intact; not one of its windows, filled with thin, old glass, shattered. Afterward, New York’s mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, remarked from the chapel’s reading desk: “When the towers fell, more than a dozen modern buildings were destroyed or damaged. Yet somehow amid all the destruction and devastation, St. Paul’s chapel still stands—without as much as a broken window. It’s a small miracle.”

But then it is not too much to say that innumerable New York places of worship, with their surprising beauty, the extraordinary lives that have touched them, and the visual record they provide of the multitude of creeds that make up this city, are truly small miracles and also big miracles.

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More by David Garrard Lowe:
The Plaza’s First Century—and Its Second?
Now They’re Deconstructing the Columbia Campus
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