Friday, June 11, 2010

The 1841 Church of the Ascension


On a clear Wednesday morning on June 26, 1844 the President of the United States quietly left New York's Howard's Hotel in a carriage pulled by four horses.  John Tyler had been widowed for two years and he and his staff had taken every precaution to keep his visit a secret.  The hotel staff had been ordered not to talk and "all the servants locked up" to keep them quiet.

The secrecy had nothing to do with security, the type of which surrounds the president today; that was of little importance in the first half of the 19th Century.  Instead the president had traveled to New York to be married to the beautiful Julia Gardiner.  The fact that Julia was 30 years younger than the 54 year-old president had already caused minor scandal in Washington social circles.

Tyler's carriage took him to No. 430 LaGrange Terrace, the home of Julia's parents.  The couple emerged, she in a white wedding dress and veil, and proceeded to the new Church of the Ascension on lower Fifth Avenue.

The church had its beginnings on October 1, 1827 when a group of men met to form a new parish.  The city was rapidly growing with a population of 200,000, the majority of those being Episcopalians.  They called their new parish the Church of the Ascension and, after meeting for two years in a room on Howard Street and Broadway, erected a white Greek Revival church that was dedicated on May 23, 1829 on Canal Street.

Church membership grew rapidly and after a fire totally destroyed the building following services on Sunday June 30, 1839 there was talk about moving the parish uptown.  Talk turned to argument and the congregation became irreparably divided.  Ten months later the "uptown" faction laid the cornerstone of a brownstone church at the somewhat remote corner of Fifth Avenue and 10th Street.

The young, fledgling architect Richard Upjohn was chosen to design the Gothic Revival church.  In only a few years he would become esteemed for other Gothic churches in the city like the Church of the Holy Communion on 20th Street and the new Trinity Church downtown.

Completed in 1841 it was the first church on Fifth Avenue.  An Englishman, Upjohn modeled its tall, spired bell tower on the one at Magdalen College, Oxford, England.  The area was still relatively undeveloped and the avenue was not yet paved.  That was soon to change.

By the time President Tyler and his bride were married here three years later mansions had begun cropping up along Fifth Avenue above Washington Square where fine Federal residences had already been firmly established.  The list of church members soon included names like Belmont, Rhinelander, Astor and de Peyster.

A progressive church nearly from its inception, the parish donated hundreds of thousands of dollars for outside charities in the mid-19th Century, many far away: the Irish Potato Famine, the construction of buildings at Virginia Theological Seminary and Kenyon College in Ohio, establishment of churches as distant as Libya and the founding of the Five Points Day School which fed, clothed and educated the children of the most deprived section of the city.

What comes to the minds of most New Yorkers, though, is the artwork and superb interior of Acension.  In 1885 Julia and Serena Rhinelander, the daughters of William C. Rhinelander, funded the redecoration of the somewhat drab chancel area as a memorial to their parents.  After a four year renovation overseen by Stanford White the church became a virtual repository of late 19th Century masterworks.

The tour de force is the enormous John LaFarge painting "The Ascension of Our Lord" over the main altar.  Painted in place on canvas, it is considered one of the most important mural decorations in the United States.  Four of the exquisite stained glass windows were also executed by LaFarge.

Directly below the painting are two bas-relief angles sculpted by Louis St. Gaudens.  Embedded in the marble just below them and on either side of the altar are intricate mosaic angels by D. Maitland Armstrong who also designed two of the stained glass windows.  The oak choir stalls were designed by McKim, Mead and White.   Hundreds of thousands of small stone tiles make up the multicolored mosaic floors.

Photograph by David Shankbone

It was here, during the Great Depression, that homeless men came to sleep on the oaken pews.  In 1957 the Municipal Art Society and the Society of Architectural Historians deemed the Church of the Ascension "nationally important."  Yet despite the priceless artwork in the sanctuary, the doors were never locked, day or night, from 1929 until October 1966, when, finally, increased crime made the advisability of leaving the church open questionable. 
Declared a National Historic Landmark in 1988, the church is open weekdays from noon to 1 pm.

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