Monday, November 17, 2014

The Lost Church of the Heavenly Rest -- 551 5th Avenue

At the time of this photograph, around 1897, the clock had not yet made its appearance.  photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

On April 20, 1925 the Rev. Dr. Henry V. B. Darlington stood in the pulpit of the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest and reminisced to the congregation about its 57-year history. “In 1868, when the Church was planted here,” he said, “the neighborhood presented a very different aspect from what you see today.  This and the adjoining blocks were for the most part unoccupied or used as cattle yards.”

Darlington was fairly accurate in his description.   When the congregation was formed in 1865 the hulking Croton Reservoir sat on the future site of the New York Public Library at 42nd Street.   The avenue was graded and improved only up to that point.  A few houses and some buildings, most notably the Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum between 51st and 52nd Streets dotted the rocky landscape; and the construction of St. Patrick’s Cathedral at 50th Street had begun.  But, indeed, the neighborhood was “for the most part unoccupied.”

The Rev. Dr. Robert Shaw founded the church along with a group of returning soldiers.  The name was intended to memorialize those who had died in the war.    For a few years the congregation worshiped in the Rutgers Female Institution across from the Reservoir.  Considered a “missionary church” it was far above the established residential section of Fifth Avenue.

Land was purchased between 45th and 46th Streets as the site of the permanent structure.  The odd-shaped plot was L-shaped—the main structure, originally 100 feet long and 75 feet wide and later enlarged to 150 by 95, would sit behind the building lots facing Fifth Avenue.  The Fifth Avenue exposure was the width of a high-class residential building lot at 32 feet.

Construction on the main structure, designed by Edward T. Potter, began in 1868 and was essentially completed by the beginning of 1869.  On February 7 the first services were held.  The New York Times noted “It at present stands back upon its lot, but next year the front will be removed, and replaced by a richly ornamented façade of Dorchester stone, in line with the street, and surmounted by a figure of Jesus and two angels.”

Although the mansions of Manhattan’s millionaires were just beginning to appear above 42nd Street, the building's appointments reflected the wealth of the congregation.  “The interior presents a most agreeable effect,” said The Times.  “It has no galleries.  The ceiling and immediately-adjoining sides are of ultramarine blue, supported by richly carved rafters of fawn color.  The lower walls are temporarily of a light yellow and will receive a final coloring on the enlargement of the church.  Beautiful windows of stained glass are to be found in every direction.”

The interior columns were of imported Irish marble and Aberdeen granite—alternating pale red and green.  The capitals were of carved white stone and incorporated gas jets for illumination.   Drawing inspiration from European cathedrals, Potter enhanced the chancel with a heavily carved black walnut Gothic-style baldacchino.  White marble columns with brass capitals supported its roof.

While much of the woodwork was Gothic-carved black walnut—the altar, pulpit, organ cabinet and choir seats for example—the pews were of contrasting butternut and upholstered in crimson.  Crimson carpeting ran up the aisles.  Potter’s playing of brilliant colors off the somber woodwork carried on to the organ pipes which were decorated with blue, crimson and gold.

By February 1870 the block was filling with brownstone mansions.  The congregation desperately needed to complete the Fifth Avenue elevation before its church was completely lost behind houses.   The Times noted “The unfortunately position of the church—setting back as it does from the avenue—and the homely temporary exterior, have also been drawbacks.  The church is not always found by those who seek for it, and those who see it from without have no idea of the exquisite beauty of its interior.”

Dr. Howland pushed to raise funds to erect the entrance vestibule to Fifth Avenue, telling the parishioners “to place their candle in a candlestick.”  The congregants responded generously.  On February 14 The Times noted “The donations to the church have been unusually liberal.  Almost every beautiful thing upon which expense has been lavished has been a present.  One gift was of $3,000; another of $2,000; another of $1,800; another of $800.”  Donations had, to date, amounted to $12,000—nearly a quarter of a million dollars by today’s standards.

Later that year, in December, the church ladies did their part.  The most common method of raising money for churches and other charities at the time was the staging of a fair.  Church fairs were often elaborate affairs during which patrons could buy donated items and purchase refreshments.  The Church of the Heavenly Rest opened its fair in Lyric Hall.  “The tables are arranged in a truly harmonious and artistic manner,” reported The New York Times on December 22, 1870, “and are filled with every variety of fancy articles specially adapted for holiday presents.”

The affluent visitors to the fair were not looking for pot holders and doilies.   “The gem of the Fair is the magnificent doll, ‘La Belle Helene,’ whose endless trousseau occupies one entire table.  This doll is to be raffled for, and is expected to realize $300.”    The price of the costly toy would amount to about $5,500 today.

Within the year the Fifth Avenue entrance had been completed and the main church extended.  Squeezed between brownstone mansions, Potter somewhat surprising design drew on Venetian Gothic—with alternating colored stone and a false arcade—and an arched stone hood supported by columns above the entrance steps.  A steep mansard with lacy iron cresting stepped away from the style.  It was flanked at the four corners by immense statues of trumpeting angels.  

Despite its eccentric architecture, the narrow 5th Avenue portion slipped into the fabric of handsome residences.  photo from "New York Sketches" 1902 (copyright expired)

While many members lived along Fifth Avenue; others traveled some distance to worship here.  Among those were Chester A. Arthur and his wife Ellen Herndon Arthur, who lived on Lexington Avenue near Gramercy Park.  On January 10, 1880 while Arthur was attending meetings in Albany, Ellen attended a concert.  She caught a chill waiting for her carriage in the rain and within 24 hours it had developed into pneumonia.  By the time Chester Arthur reached home, Ellen was comatose.  He remained at her bedside for nearly 24 hours until the moment she slipped away, never having regained consciousness.

On January 15, in what The Times called an “impressive burial service,” Ellen Arthur’s funeral was held in the Church of the Heavenly Rest.  Newspapers listed a seemingly endless list of dignitaries, military and political figures and prominent persons who attended the service.

The beautiful Ellen "Nell" Arthur died before Chester Arthur became President -- photograph Library of Congress

Happier events in the church were the high-profile society marriages.  On February 7, 1884 Stanford White married Bessie Springs Smith here.  The bride was from a socially-prominent Long Island family.   In December 1888 Englishman and White Star Line executive J. Bruce Ismay was married to the Florence Schieffelin.  Called by The Times the “belle of the city,” the bride wore lace and diamonds and the church was filled with “a fashionable assemblage.”

Perhaps even more socially exciting than Florence Schieffelin’s wedding was that of Sarah Phelps Stokes two years later on February 11, 1890.  The Evening World reported “To-day New York gives another of her fair daughters to enrich and infuse new blood into the effete nobility of Europe.  Miss Sarah Phelps Stokes, after elaborate services in the Church of the Heavenly Rest, emerged at noon my lady the Baroness Halkett.”

Seventeen hundred invitations had been sent out and “the ceremony was witnessed by such a brilliant assemblage as seldom gathers even in New York,” said the newspaper.  “The church was filled to the very doors with the people of the city’s most exclusive society circles.  The floral decorations were on a scale of magnificent splendor.”  The newspaper’s sub-headline read “A Pretty Woman and Many Millions Won by a Scion of Nobility.”

Exactly one month to the day after the elaborate society wedding a well-dressed James Hamilton Howells Jones entered the sanctuary around 3:30 in the afternoon.  During Lent the church was open all day so people could drop in a pray.  Jones was from Pittsburgh and had been in New York about a week.

He took a seat in a pew near the altar.   The silence was broken only by a sole singer.  After a few minutes there was the noise of something falling.  “The young man had slipped from the seat partly to the floor.  A moment later he dropped wholly on the floor,” reported The Sun on March 12, 1890.  “The noise he made would have been inconsiderable anywhere else, but in the silent church it was startling.”

As the doorman and choir singer ran to Jones’s aid, others in the church rushed outside for a policeman.  “The excitement spread outside the church at once, and people ran in from the street until they were obliged to close the doors.”

A strong odor of ether surrounded the unconscious man.  As Policeman Joseph Sontheimer and a doctor from Bellevue Hospital tried to rouse the man, a letter fell from his pocket.  The policeman slipped it into his uniform pocket.  It was later discovered to be a suicide note.

“Then the policeman and the doctor shook him and walked him about in the church, and poked him, and did all they could to brighten him up.  Every now and then he would stiffen himself and say something.”

“I came in here to die.  I wanted to die in church close to the altar,” he mumbled.

But the would-be suicide fell short of its goal.  Jones had swallowed ether; and while it caused him to pass out, it did not threaten his life.  Along with the embarrassment of failing to kill himself, Jones was charged with attempting suicide and arrested.

In 1893 the church received “some important additions,” according to The New York Times on November 24.  Most significant was the immense stained glass window in the chancel, donated by Mrs. George Lewis, Jr. in memory of Mrs. Moses Taylor.  Executed by Heaton, Butler & Bain of London it was deemed “the largest and undoubtedly the finest window in the United States,” covering 588 square feet of glass.  By now the large painting “Christus Consolator” (the Consoling Christ) had been installed and the window was planned around it.

The rich coloring of the window was “toned so as to be sympathetic with the beautiful painting of the ‘Christus Consolator,’ directly over the altar,” explained The Times.  “This picture is a copy of a great masterpiece in Holland.  In this copy the coloring is changed from the original blue and red to a white and brown.  All the decoration in the church is made subservient to this picture, and this rule is observed in the design and coloring of the window.”

A magnificent new pulpit was unveiled around the same time.  A gift of Mrs. J. Hall Browning in memory of her sister, it was constructed of antique oak with six bronze panels.  “The whole is quiet and in good taste, blending harmoniously with the rich, subdued air of the church,” said The Times.

At the turn of the century the church that had once been isolated had seen the most exclusive residential district engulf it and then move past.  In 1900 mansions still surrounded the church; yet commerce was inching northward.  Still, high society weddings and funerals were the norm here.  In 1900 the fixed rate for a wedding was $238 (nearly $7,000 today).   And while the rector, Rev. Dr. D. Parker Morgan, told a New-York Tribune reporter that there were occasions when he married poor couples for free in his mission work on the East Side, he frowned on the practice.

“But I do think,” he said, “that unless the couple can pay $2 or $5 to the clergyman and $1 or $2 to the sexton, who has come a long way to open the church, they ought not to try to marry.”

A yearly spectacle on Fifth Avenue was the annual service for Squadron A.  The cavalrymen marched up the avenue four abreast, then into the church two by two.  As the first soldiers entered, the magnificent organ burst forth with the “Squadron A March” accompanied by a military band.  It was a pageant repeated year after year.

Squadron A files into the church on May 4, 1902.  New-York Tribune May 5, 1902 (copyright expired)

In 1908 the city widened Fifth Avenue, necessitating the removal of mansion stoops and bay windows and resulting in the removal of Heavenly Rest’s portico.   Now flat-fronted, the church was even more easily overlooked.   The New-York Tribune noted a few years later “Hidden in the heart of a Fifth Avenue block, the Church of the Heavenly Rest attracts little attention…The façade is of ecclesiastical design; but it occupies only the width of a city lot, and the street widening regulations have taken away its distinctive and distinguishing marks.

Without its portico, the building looked even less like a church.  The once-grand mansions around it have been converted to businesses.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

“The building conforms so well to its environment that the mother of a preacher who was to occupy the pulpit on a Sunday morning last year passed by and missed the service because she could not find the church.”

While Father Francis P. Duffy, pastor of Holy Cross Church, is remembered as New York’s “fighting priest;” the Rev. Herbert Shipman was equally involved in World War I.   Appointed chaplain of West Point when he was 27 years old, he was reappointed by Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt.  When he arrived at the Church of the Heavenly Rest to take over from Rev. Dr. D. Parker Morgan, “Fifth Avenue was changing,” said the Tribune.  “Fine old residences were being transformed into business buildings.  A floating population filled the nearby hotels…It was freely predicted that Dr. Morgan’s successor could not hold the parish together in its present location.”

Rev. Shipman removed his clerical garb for the uniform of the U.S. Army -- photograph the New-York Tribune March 17, 1919 (copyright expired

But Shipman did.  Then, with the outbreak of war, he was sent to France as the chaplain of the First Army.  In war he not only counseled the soldiers and prayed over their bodies; he wore the uniform of a fighting man.  When he once addressed a group of recruits eager to plunge bayonets into the bodies of the enemy, he asked “Can you imagine Jesus going over the top to do just that thing?”

Then he continued to the somewhat startled men, that it would be even more difficult to imagine “the Master whom we preach standing supinely by while a little child is ravished or a girl led off into something that is worse than death.”  He concluded that while Jesus was called the Prince of Peace; righteousness would come first, then peace.

When Shipman returned to the Church of the Heavenly Rest in March 1919 the “church was filled to overflowing, and, despite the narrow, unpretentious façade, it is not a small building,” reported the New-York Tribune on March 17.

Within five years the church was smothered by commercial structures.  The property was valued at $2 million in 1924 and the decision to abandon the old building was made.  Heavenly Rest merged with the Church of the Beloved Disciple and laid plans to build a $4 million edifice on Fifth Avenue at 90th Street.

On April 19, 1925 the Rev. Dr. Henry V. B. Darlington preached the last sermon from the old church.  At 9:30 that night the doors were closed for the last time, and demolition began the following morning.  Most of the stone was shipped to Queens to rebuild St. John’s Episcopal Church in Flushing which was damaged by fire the previous November.  The large painting of Christus Consolator was removed to be installed in the new uptown edifice.

Two years late the 38-floor Fred F. French Building, designed by H. Douglas Ives and Sloan & Robertson was completed.
photo by Ian Gratton


  1. Both magnificent and awkward how the elaborately majestic entrance is wedged, squeezed and shoe horned into it's townhouse sized plot. Would have loved to see what the interior nave and altar looked liked after reading the description. Any photos available online?

  2. At least the Fred French building is a worthy replacement.

  3. Interior photo here:

  4. Great link thanks. Quite a majestic interior too.