Friday, March 12, 2010

The Church of the Holy Innocents in the Garment District

Squashed between uninspiring buildings in New York's gritty Garment District is the unusual and isolated Church of the Holy Innocents.  The unlikely location on 37th Street between 7th Avenue and Broadway was not always so incongrous.

Ironically, it is the improbable location is the factor that keeps the church alive.  When the Church of the Holy Innocents was founded in 1866 the upward march of the 5th Avenue mansions had only begun and it would be two decades before the great newspaper houses would rise up on Greeley and Herald Squares a few blocks to the south.

While the Midtown grid plan had been laid out, small farms still existed and, reportedly, cows wandered the streets around the small church.   Within four years the parish had outgrown the building and in 1870 a new Gothic-inspired church was completed.  An unassuming brick and stone structure, it rose impressively 60 feet, dwarfing the low residential buildings around it.  Costing $100,000 it could accomodate 1500 parishioners, the nave soaring 47 feet over a while marble altar.  The architect enthusiastically trimmed the facade with white stone, starkly constrasting with the brick and creating a vaguely gingerbread house effect.  The central bay protrudes just enough to add visual interest and the main rose window, rather than being round, nicely mirrors the shape of the main doorway below.

The New York Times reported that "the general appearance of the church is extremely pretty," upon the dedication on February 13, 1870.  Seventy-six "beautiful stained glass windows, presented by different members of the parish," flooded the sanctuary with light.

While the interior was modest overall, the pastor commissioned noted artist Constantino Brumidi to create the powerful fresco above the altar.  Concurrently Brumidi was decorating the U.S. Capitol Building corridors and the Great Rotunda.  It is the altar fresco, unknown to most, that is the great treasure of 37th Street.

The architect, whose name has been lost, lavished attention on details.  The brass pulls on either side of the heavy entrance doors depict medieval men.  Worn down by almost a century and a half of use, their faces belie a look of great disgruntlement.

With the arrival of the 20th Century, the surrounding tenement buildings were razed, replaced by the office and factory buildings of the Garment Center that darkened the stained glass windows.   The local worshippers were replaced by weekday workers who stop in during the day.  The trend remains today with the church offering six masses every weekday; but only one on Sunday.

The Church of the Holy Innocents remains a welcomed oasis of tranquility from a bustling Garment Center outside.

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