|A few brownstone residences still survived along Madison Avenue at the time of the church's completion -- photo Library of Congress|
In 1904 the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company had a problem. It had become one of the largest insurance companies in the nation and its 10-year old headquarters building was already inadequate. The firm desperately desired to expand the structure, filling the rest of the block along Madison Avenue between 23rd and 24th Streets.
But the impressive brownstone Gothic Revival Madison Square Presbyterian Church sat on the site. The church’s congregation was not only composed of wealthy and influential New Yorkers, but it was headed by the highly-regarded and powerful Rev. Dr. Charles H. Parkhurst. The church was, in fact, most commonly called “Dr. Parkhurst’s church.” Obtaining the site would be a feat.
|The Gothic brownstone church stood in the way of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company's expansion -- photo NYPL Collection|
Directly across 24th Street from the church was the mansion of Catharine Lorillard Wolfe; one of the surviving remnants of Madison Square’s residential glory days. When the property became available, John R. Hegeman, president of Metropolitan Life, purchased it for $700,000 and offered to trade the site with the church—the properties being about the same in value. To sweeten the pot, Hagemen threw in an additional $300,000 in cash.
The trustees of the church agreed and plans were begun for a new structure. Famed architect Stanford White was given the commission. It was the beginning of a battle between two strong-willed and self-assured men. White envisioned a Roman basilica, chaste and pure; Dr. Parkhurst insisted on a traditional Gothic Revival church with a high steeple.
Stanford White won.
When the architect’s plans were released in March 1904, Dr. Parkhurst begrudgingly explained to the press why he had conceded. “Why is it to be a church without a steeple?” he told reporters. “If anyone could know the awful struggle I had before I could consent to such a thing he would be sure that there was a good reason for it.
“There is nothing like the Gothic for church architecture. It is the accepted style in this country and elsewhere. But the environment of the church in this city makes such a style absolutely impossible, unless its incongruity with its surroundings can be overlooked…a steeple couldn’t be built high enough to overtop the roofs of the buildings all around it, and the result would be a dwarfing of the structure.”
The pastor sighed with resignation. “It is a deplorable state of affairs, but it can’t be helped, and the only alternative is the one adopted by this church.”
“The only alternative,” according to White’s mind, was the Roman basilica and it would prove to be one of the architect’s greatest masterworks.
Ground was broken in April. Before the church was completed in October 1906, Stanford White had been murdered by Harry Thaw in Madison Square Garden just two blocks away. In his dedication sermon on October 14, Dr. Parkhurst admitted that White had created a thing of beauty.
|Century Magazine published a watercolor rendering of the new edifice -- copyright expired|
“With all the many responsible undertakings with which he was charged it was to this church that he seemed particularly to dedicate himself, and to make of it the idol of his thought and effort.” The pastor added “We have the right in a humble way to be proud of this splendidly architectural home in which we are to meet.”
Art critic Helen Henderson, not often one to lavish praise, said in her A Loiterer in New York, “White never stopped short of the best…The exterior is exceedingly beautiful, executed in grey brick, throughout which is repeated, in the manner of a diaper pattern, the Maltese Cross, giving variety and interest to the surface. The porch is supported by exquisite pillars of polished granite.”
The granite pillars rose 30 feet to support a classical pediment. The low saucer dome was surmounted by a gilded lantern. To break the monotony of the grey façade, White splashed color in the form of polychromatic terra cotta elements, such as the massive Corinthian capitals. Outwardly it was an uncorrupted architectural gem. Inside, it was dazzling.
|Louis Comfort Tiffany lavished the interior with iridescent glass and dazzling mosaics -- photo "A Loiterer in New York" 1914, copyright expired|
Among the congregants of the Madison Square Presbyterian Church was the Louis Tiffany family. White worked closely with Tiffany, giving the artisan unusual freedom. Henderson noted that “the interior is, perhaps, most notably a monumental example of the Tiffany favrile glass, in whose happy use the building has no rival.”
The cavernous sanctuary could accommodate 1,300 worshipers. Along the chancel wall, a continuous band of the ten commandments was spelled out in favrile glass on a white mosaic background, suggestive of mother-of-pearl. F. Hopkinson Smith, in his Charcoals of New York, called the church a “mosaic of light and shade.” Tiffany windows illuminated the space and, due to the shadows cast by the tall office buildings, hidden “electroliers” assured that the iridescent windows were always flooded with light.
|Metropolitan Life Insurance got its new tower and Madison Square Presbyterian got a new church -- NYPL Collection|
Unknown to most, the completed structure was not complete. Stanford White intended that the pediment be ornamented with an immense, colored terra cotta sculpture. Not until 1910 would his vision be executed. On May 29 of that year The New York Tribune noted “When Mr. White made his first designs for the church and thought of this decoration he called to his aid Mr. H. Siddons Mowbray, the accomplished painter.”
White and Mowbray worked out the basis for a design but with White’s death, the project temporarily stopped. It was further delayed when the young sculptor Antonin Skodick who was commissioned by Mowbray to prepare a sketch model of the pediment died.
Finally Adolph A. Weinman executed the sketch model along the lines of White’s vision; although as The Tribune pointed out, “he was given entire freedom as to the composition of the figures, and the relief is essentially the product of his art.”
|The completed white-and-blue terra cotta pediment sculpture was finally installed in 1910 -- photo the New York Tribune May 29, 1910 (copyright expired)|
The completed pediment, cast at the Atlantic Terra Cotta Works in Perth Amboy, was titled “The Adoration of the Shrine of Truth.” The pristinely white figures of angels, cherubs, a knight and a shepherd contrasted with the vivid blue background. The Tribune called it “a production of rare significance in the history of American architecture.”
Stanford White’s masterful Madison Square Presbyterian Church was now complete.
|By 1912 the brownstones of the congregants had all been replaced by soaring office buildings -- photo Library of Congress|
Eight years later on May 26, 1918 Charles H. Parkhurst preached his last sermon after 38 years at Madison Square Presbyterian. With the church’s wealthy congregants moving further north, it merged with First Presbyterian Church on Fifth Avenue. The trustees saw no value in keeping the church open.
In his sermon, Dr. Parkhurst made his opinion on the closing of the church apparent. “The general disposition of Presbyterians has been to retreat from the lower sections of the city and to drift northward on the current of culture and wealth,” he said. The pastor admonished that “the successful promotion of civilization is not to be secured by special efforts at Christianizing the refined and affluent classes. Christ’s efforts were given to the people, the common people, for they are the basis of society.”
Parkhurst’s rebuke changed nothing.
“The Madison Square Church closed its doors yesterday for good,” reported The Sun on May 27. “It is understood that the property is for sale and unless disposed of for church purposes the building, one of the last creations of the late Stanford White and one of the finest church edifices in the city, will be torn down.”
Only twelve years after its construction, demolition began in October 1918. “It is a striking comment on the rapidity of changes in New York City ,” said The New York Times. “Within twelve years from its opening the usefulness of the church, in view of the commercial invasion, has gone, and its ultimate destruction will make New York so much the poorer architecturally.”
The New York Tribune was more pointed. Comparing the destruction to “any French cathedral within range of German guns,” it said on May 8, 1919, “There is a shocking waste taking place in New York to-day that illustrates the strange destructiveness of our age that we like to praise for its swift and tremendous creations.”
“But the church is vanishing,” the article went on, “and with it more beauty than our jungle of horror and glory can spare.”
In an astonishingly early example of architectural salvaging, many of the exquisite elements were rescued. The Times reported that “The fine pipe organ, the pews, and wainscoting and even flooring are being utilized in various buildings belonging to the First Presbyterian Church.” Stanford White’s son requested certain architectural pieces and the Columbia University School of Architecture received fragments of the cornices, friezes and balustrades.
Robert W. DeForest was not only a director of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, but president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He had the priceless pediment sculpture removed and put in storage for future exhibition in the museum.
And then, as summer 1919 approached, the Madison Square Presbyterian Church was no more. The New York Tribune mourned, “We wonder if a country can be the home of great creative beauty while the juggernaut of progress is joy-riding over the land. The fate of the Stanford White church is certainly not easy to explain.”
Remnants of the church still survive. An ornate doorway was found in storage in the Brooklyn Museum. In Riverside, California a wedding chapel is beautified by some of the Tiffany windows and the massive granite columns from the portico are now part of an office building in Hartford, Connecticut.
As for the matchless terra cotta pediment, “The Adoration of the Shrine of Truth,” things did not go so well. The 44-foot wide sculpture was exhibited on an exterior wall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When the Met expanded the building in 1960, neither the museum nor any donors was willing to pay for its removal. The irreplaceable artwork once described as “a production of rare significance” was destroyed.