Thursday, July 21, 2011

James Renwick's Masterful 1846 Grace Church

Grace Church before the addition of Catherine Lorillard Wolfe's chantry in the south lawn -- photo NYPL Collectio
According to New York City lore, Broadway swerves sharply to the northwest at East 10th Street because the wealthy and influential Henry Brevoort refused to have the thoroughfare demolish his orchard.

The fact that his tavern stood on the site is rarely mentioned.  But for whatever reason, that Brevoort is responsible for the dramatic turn in the road is uncontested.

By 1841 when Brevoort died the parish of Grace Church downtown at Broadway and Rector Street was rapidly growing and his land was developing into one of the most fashionable residential neighborhoods in the city.   In 1843 land was sold to the church by Henry Brevoort, Jr. and plans initiated for a new structure.

Whether  Brevoort had anything to do with his nephew being given the commission to design the church is unclear; however 23-year old James Renwick, Jr. had no actual experience as an architect.  The single job he had completed to date was a fountain downtown in Bowling Green.

Rector Thomas House Taylor had spent extensive time in Europe touring the great Gothic cathedrals and it was mostly he who influenced Renwick in his design.  Gothic Revival architecture was unheard of in New York at this time with most churches designed as Greek temples.

Grace Church was completed in 1846, three years after the cornerstone was laid, and was a masterpiece.  Although the main building was constructed of white marble quarried by inmates at the Sing Sing prison in Ossinging, New York, the steeple – high above street level and not so noticeable—was wooden to reduce expense.  

Its ideal location in the elbow of Broadway gave the structure dramatic visibility along Broadway looking uptown.  In 1891 Gustav Kobbe wrote “Hardly any building in the city occupies so advantageous a position from an architectural point of view, for it faces obliquely down Broaday, effectively ending off the vista from down town.”
As seen here in around 1890, the site at the abrupt turn of Broadway provided an advantageous setting -- photo NYPL Collection
Renwick had studied copybooks and etchings of the great cathedrals to design a remarkably perfect structure.  King’s Handbook of New York City would say of it “Few if any of the churches surpass Grace in beauty of interior design and decoration.  It is impressive and magnificent.”
The plain, wooden steeple is evident in an 1850 etching -- NYPL Collection
The year that the church was completed, construction began on Renwick’s rectory, finished in 1847.  The church sat on a broad lawn behind a cast iron fence.  “In front of the parsonage is a pretty garden,” wrote Kobbe, “with well-kept lawn, flower-beds and shrubbery, the whole forming a most picturesque break in the line of business houses.”

In 1888 Renwick was called back to design a replacement steeple, this one in marble.    He produced a lacy stone spire that magnificently complimented the original structure; although the stone came from Vermont and, upon close examination, is noticeably whiter.
Upon inspection, the difference in color of the Vermont stone is evident -- photo by Alice Lum
The congregation of Grace Church was composed of some of the wealthiest families in the city.  It was the second wealthiest Espicopal Church in New York, after Trinity.  In his 1882 “New York by Gaslight,” James D. McCabe, Jr. wrote “At the morning service a greater display of wealth and fashion is presented here than at any other city church.  Grace Church has been the scene of more fashionable weddings and funerals than any other place of worship.”

Indeed, it was considered the greatest of prestige to have either a “Grace wedding” or a “Grace funeral.”   Attending the funeral of Mary Rogers Rhinelander, for instance, were Mr. and Mrs. William, K. Vanderbilt, Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Vanderbilt, Mrs. William Astor, Mr. and Mrs. John Jacob Astor, Chauncey M. Depew, M. Roosevelt Schuyler, J. Pierpont Morgan among others of New York’s most socially elite.

Renwick's picturesque 1847 rectory -- Photo by Alice Lum
To prevent the common gawkers from ruining a Grace wedding, long awnings were erected from the entrance to the curb, with cloth panels extending to the ground.  These enabled the bride and the privileged guests to alight from their carriages and enter the church in privacy.  This highly-sought privacy scandalously collapsed, however, during the wedding of the Earl of Craven to Cornelia Martin in April of 1893.

“The disgraceful scenes which followed the opening of the side doors of Grace Church…was the main item of conversation of the ladies of fashion at luncheon and of the gentlemen of fashion at the clubs yesterday,” reported The New York Times.

Inside the church 1,500 refined guests witnessed the ceremony, while outside crowds gathered hoping to catch a glimpse of the affair.  The sextons prematurely unlocked the side doors and were rushed by the crowd, many of them jumping the fence and leaving “portions of their clothing on the pickets.”

“Ladies and gentlemen whose dress and bearing showed a certain amount of refinement and good breeding disregarded every rule of etiquette in their mad desire to see the inside of the church,” reported The Times.

The wealthy guest, Mrs. S. Van Rensselaer Cruger, was repulsed.  “They talked in loud, vulgar voices,” she said, “Ladies forgot the modesty of their sex in elbowing their way to the front.  Men forgot their manliness in pushing others aside, and even used the backs of the pews as a highway to reach the front, and in the crush my dress was nearly torn from me.”

But despite the spectacle of the Earl’s wedding, no nuptial at Grace Church would ever attract more attention than the 1863 wedding of General Thomas Thumb and Queen Lavinia Warren.   P.T. Barnum’s famous show attractions, whom The Times dubbed “The Loving Lilliputions,” were married before a mixed audience including the Civil War luminary Major General Burnside and “each and every strata of New York’s respectable society.”
photo by Alice Lum
Broadway between Union Square and 19th Street was packed with onlookers and from every window and door of nearby buildings people craned their necks.   The line of carriages dropping off wedding guests continued, unbroken, for over two hours preceding the arrival of the bride and groom.  After the ceremony, hundreds of people ran after their couple’s carriage on its way to the Metropolitan Hotel.
Renwick's graceful tracery of the rose window is unusually sinuous -- photo by Alice Lum
Gustav Kobbe pointed out that “there is an idea prevalent that [the congregation] is a self-satisfied collection of worshippers, partaking of religious stimulants in commodious and elegant quarters, and not caring very much what becomes of the souls of the rest of the world.”  On the contrary, he insisted, the church was engaged in a “vast amount of arduous mission work,” supporting its own missions, a library and reading room and a nursery.

Church member Catherine Lorillard Wolfe donated the chantry and two organs “connected by electrical machinery,” in 1879 as a memorial to her father.  Adjoining it, Grace House was erected two years later.   Wolfe additionally donated the chancel window, the altar and the lofty reredos.  Then, in 1903 architects Heins and LaFarge were commissioned to extend the chancel fifteen feet.
The chancel, donated by Catherine Lorillard Wolfe, with spires matching the main building, rises behind the elegant Gothic cast iron fencing -- photo by Beyond My Ken
Upon completion of the chantry, the rector hired Gotthelf Pach to photograph it.  When the magnesia powder was ignited to take a flash picture, the resulting explosion blew out some of the stained glass windows.
Grace House connects the Rectory to the main building -- photo by Beyond My Ken
As the 20th Century drew to a close, the iron plate that anchored the iron rod running down the center of the spire, pinning the stone together, had substantial rusting.  The result was that little-by-little the steeple began leaning until, in 1993, it was at a noticeable 6-inch tilt.

As correction of the problem began, “sugaring” of the stone was apparent – the powdering away of the surface due to weather and pollution.  Architect Robert Bates supervised a $3 million restoration that included removing and rebuilding 20 feet of the steeple, repairing the leaking roof and stone reparation.

In 2011 restoration of six complex stained glass windows was completed by Michael Padovan’s Jersey Art Stained Glass Studio.
photo by Alice Lum
Grace Church sits regally at the crook in Broadway as it did in 1846, a charming and magnificent assembly of historic buildings.  It is, as the AIA Guide to New York City called it, “One of the City’s greatest treasures.”

1 comment:

  1. I would hope that the knowledge of the living savior was many times explained to the congregations in this beauty, for as Pascal I believe said , there is a God-sized emptiness in us all. Trinity church tho not of this beauty is the one my World Trade center office could see.

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