A Tale of Two Churches
Posted on May 6, 2016
While in New York City this last week celebrating the ICA&A’s 35th Arthur Ross Awards, within the passing of a single day I was struck by the powerful nature of two churches under very different circumstances–one filled with glory and the other tragedy.
This cool and overcast weekend had been spotted with rain, and no moonlight would penetrate the dense bank of clouds as a walked home late one evening along 5th Avenue in Midtown, but the glow of light reflecting on the stone of St. Patrick’s Cathedral shown like a lantern in the night.
Always at the center of the Catholic Church life in the city, this startling sight is a new one for someone who is a recent visitor. For the past three years, it has been shrouded in scaffolding–on both the exterior and interior–concealing its astonishing beauty from the city, only hints peeking through the layers of canvas and aluminum frame that we supporting the workers during its elaborate restoration and looking more like more contemporary neighbors.
Originally designed by James Renwick, Jr. who was awarded he commission for the Cathedral in 1853, the cornerstone was laid in 1858, and the doors were opened after twenty one years of construction in 1879, capturing the vision of Archbishop John Hughes “….for the glory of Almighty God, for the honor of the Blessed and Immaculate Virgin, for the exaltation of Holy Mother Church, for the dignity of our ancient and glorious Catholic name, to erect a Cathedral in the City of New York that may be worthy of our increasing numbers, intelligence, and wealth as a religious community, and at all events, worthy as a public architectural monument, of the present and prospective crowns of this metropolis of the American continent.”
This new gothic church was built in the then wilderness that has since grown in to Midtown Manhattan. The construction survived the epic struggles of the Civil War as well as the ups and downs of financial needs and the manpower required to achieve the dreams of Hughes and Renwick.
The seat of the Bishop of New York, this important cathedral had long needed restoration. Scaffolding first went up in 2007–erected to protect visitors and passersby from pieces of stone that were beginning to fall from the building ranging from small chips to fist size chunks that had broken free from deteriorating stone decorations high above.
The exterior restoration was but a part of the needs of the church, and other areas were addressed as well. Stained glass was cleaned and restored. The bronze doors were restored after being exposed to the wear and tear of 50 years facing a busy Fifth Avenue and now stand shining with the panels depicting saints. The narthex and sancutary ceilings–darkened by soot and pollution–had blackened and cracked and the plaster was now been cleaned and restored by artisans. The altars and woodwork was cleaned and restored and the organ was overhauled of the organ along with an updating of systems.
All of these together have helped to bring the church back to its original grandeur reflecting the beauty, eternal truth and goodness of the God and the Church and the enduring message of the Gospel.
Just the day before, walking down 25th Street in the NoMad neighborhood I discovered a unique collection of buildings that made up the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sava on our way to a nearby flea market. The rain had driven the vendors home early, and the church had been locked for the evening or I would have explored further. Upon arriving back at the hotel after dinner in the Village, I learned of the tragedy that befell the church only an hour earlier, a fire had broken out and this historic church was laid to ruins.
While I was not familiar with the Orthodox Cathedral, its roots were actually unknowingly inspiring our work as precedent study for a seminary chapel we are currently working on. The church had stated out as a “chapel of ease” – the Trinity Chapel providing a northern outpost following the emigration of the downtown Episcopal Trinity Church’s parishioners who were moving north. Designed by the architect of its parent church, Richard Upjohn’s 1885 Gothic Revival chapel would impress in its own right.
The tall vaulted ceiling with its ornamented hammer trusses, intricately carved beams and knee brackets, span the nave running along its almost 180 foot length filling the entire depth of the block. The light colored French Caen limestone adorned the interior walls, and later added polychrome ornament would adorn the columns and trusses while the wood panels of the ceiling soft blue ceiling with gold stars.
The Trinity Chapel would host some of the great New Yorkers of its time–in 1855 the marriage of Edith Jones and Edward Wharton, as well as three Astor funerals between 1887 and 1895.
Upjohn, the nation’s leading church architect, would also have a connection to my own home during this same time. The Gothic revival commission of St. Mark’s Church in San Antonio, completed and dedicated on Easter Sunday in 1875, is a rare example of his work west of the Mississippi.
The adjacent parish school is of equal architectural note to the chapel. Built in 1860, the school was designed by Jacob Wrey Mould – an architect, artist and sculptor who had partnered with Fredrick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux on many of the designs in Central Park including the Bethesda Terrace, the Belvedere Castle, and the Ladies Pavilion. His exuberant school building was noted by architectural historians as “the first canonical Ruskinian High Victorian building erected in the United States”.
Trinity Chapel’s history would take another turn when the area around the Chapel continued to change, becoming more commercial and families leaving the neighborhood for more fashionable parts of the city. Ultimately, the church would sell and several Orthodox congregations were interested. In actuality, Trinity Chapel’s ties to the Eastern Orthodox Church tied back to 1865, when the Divine Liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox rite was celebrated for the first time in an Episcopal Church in America – marking the “inauguration of the Russo-Greek Churches in America.” In 1942, the Serbian Orthodox Congregation finalized the purchase of the church and it was rededicated as the Serbian Eastern Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sava. Byzantine elements were added to the original gothic revival interior, including new stained glass windows featuring Orthodox saints after the original windows were destroyed with the bombing of the nearby Communist headquarters in the 1960’s. Gold and crystal chandeliers were also added, and a high altar decorated with 40 icons painted on its panels. It would become the focal point of this emigrant community’s life in New York, both socially and spiritually.
One can only hope, that while it is hard to imagine how this church will be replaced, that St. Sava will be able to rise from the ashes and like the restored St. Patrick’s –and bring new life to the remaining shell of this once grand cathedral.