Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Church of the Incarnation -- Madison Ave. and 35th Street

During the Rev. Dr. Taylor’s sermon on the day of the consecration of the new Grace Church on March 7, 1846, he said “my object is to ask of you to give me the means of building, and preparing for the most efficient and the most immediate operation, Grace Church Chapel.”   Taylor recognized that Manhattan’s population was already moving past the borders of his parish.

Three plots were purchased on the northwest corner of Madison Avenue and 28th Street and a "neat and tasteful building erected thereon."  More than half a century later, in 1912, historian Joshua Newton Perkins noted “The site selected for the chapel was in a sparsely settled district, a short distance north of Madison Square…In 1852 the chief house in that locality was the little white cottage of Corporal Thompson at the corner of Broadway and Twenty-third Street.”  The New York Times commented that the chapel was “intended for the many poor of the congregation who could not afford to pay pew-rent.”

On April 19, 1852 the mission committee met for the purpose of forming a new parish—separating from Grace Church.  The result was the Church of the Incarnation.  Rev. Huntington later asked the Rev. Edwin Harwood how he chose the name.  “He said he gave it the name, as the parish had started from Grace Church, ‘for by grace came the Incarnation.’”

The “neat and tasteful building” was soon a problem. John Jay at a vestry meeting on November 8, 1855, noted “the very defective construction of the church edifice.” Three years later, on May 31, 1858 the New York Churchman wrote “The Church of the Incarnation was built some five years since, as a Chapel of Ease of Grace Church in this city.  The appearance of the structure would suggest great age, and the contrast is the more glaring from the comparison with the substantial edifices in its vicinity. It must have been originally very imperfectly put together, and demands reparation, if only from the consideration that it is God’s House-‘the place where His Honour dwelleth.’”

The property was sold back to Grace Church and in June 1863 the rector announced that $50,000 had been subscribed to the building fund and that amount would be spent on the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and 35th Street.  (As it turned out, the property was acquired for $48,000.)

Joshua Perkins related “Three designs for the building had been under consideration, submitted respectively by Messrs. Gambrel and Post, Mr. H. G. Harrison and Mr. E. T. Little.  The vestry decided upon the plan of Mr. Little, and he was accordingly appointed architect of the church.”

Emlen T Little was born in Philadelphia and focused almost exclusively on ecclesiastical design.  Like Richard Upjohn, he preferred Gothic Revival for his church architecture. And so it would be for the Church of the Incarnation.  His instructions, according to Perkins, were “that the church should be without galleries, should seat eleven hundred and six people, that the organ be placed near the chancel and that the entire cost should not exceed the original estimate.”

The cornerstone for the new building was laid on March 8, 1864 by the powerful Bishop Horatio Potter.  Despite the upheaval caused by civil war the building continued at a blinding rate. Six months later, on September 26, The New York Times remarked “The new church is of the early decorative Gothic order, and is intended to seat about twelve hundred people, without the side galleries.  It is built of Newark stone, the dressings and weatherings of Cleveland stone; the Chancel of Apisdal, and lighted from above.”

The $8,000 organ by Stambridge had already been installed at this point.  “The wheel of the organ is to be turned by a running stream of water, a new style, and one which it is said will produce a greater evenness of sound.  A peculiar feature of the building will be a beautiful series of memorial windows.  The Church is to have a spire 185 or 190 feet high, and its cost, without the spire, will be about $130,000,” said the newspaper.

The edifice was completed by December and its cost came in a little under The Times’ prediction at $120,000—over $1.8 million today.   The church which was originally intended for the poor who could not afford pew rent now sat squarely among the mansions of some of New York’s wealthiest citizens.

The church as it appeared prior to the fire--only backwards.  The publisher accidentally flipped the negative.  History of the Parish of the Incarnation, 1912 (copyright expired)

Emlen T. Little described his work saying it “is in the Early Decorated English Gothic style, of the first part of the XIVth century, adapted to modern principles and improvements in architecture…The exterior and interior sculptures are modeled after natural leaves; the arch braces of the roof are filled with tracery purlins and intermediates, forming square panels, above which is the chestnut ceiling.  The chamfers have been colored with vermilion and the roof oiled and stained.”

The furnishings were of ash, walnut, and chestnut and the ceiling was decorated in brilliant colors.  “The lower panels filled with plaster tinted to deep ultra-marine, are relieved with constellations of golden stars,” said Little’s notes.  “The upper panels are filled with white glass with ruby border…The walls of te church are encrusted with diaper work in plaster.”

The church was formally opened on December 11, 1864.  The Times reported “Notwithstanding the exceedingly inclement weather, a very large congregation occupied the spacious and beautiful sanctuary.”  The newspaper was taken by the care Little had taken to eliminate outside glare. “The light is so admitted that not a ray falls into the eyes of the people.  At night the church is illuminated by gas-jets around the poles of the columns, and by a superb corona in the chancel.”

The concept of free pews for the poor had fallen by the wayside.  On the Friday following the first service a public sale of pews was held at 7:30 p.m.  The New York Times remarked a few days later “We understand that one hundred thousand dollars’ worth of pews have been sold in the new Church of the Incarnation.”  Additional monetary gifts of $25,000 had been donated and $20,000 in “premiums” had been received.  “The success recorded above is believed to be without a parallel in the history of the Protestant Episcopal Church in this or any other city,” opined the newspaper.

The congregation of the Church of the Incarnation included the names of some of Manhattan’s most respected citizens.  So when vestryman Louis F. Therasson was arrested in November 1877 it was shocking at least.   Reporters were told he was “regarded as a man of means and as an energetic Christian worker, above the faintest breath of suspicion.”

The 57-year old lawyer was, according to The New York Times “of nervous temperament” and “of highly respectable parentage.”  He lived “in good style” at No. 518 Madison Avenue; a style more understandable when it was discovered her had swindled clients out of around $130,000.

The same month that the messy affair was publicized, the church unveiled an 8-foot memorial to the Rev. Dr. H. E. Montgomery who died in 1874.  Designed by architect Henry Hobson Richardson, it incorporated bronze panels by Auguste St. Gaudens.  The Gothic memorial consisted of carved sandstone and marble and cost the donors $1,500.  There was only one other memorial—a white marble tablet to Admiral Farragut—in the church.

Dormers with leaded glass openings provide additional light to the interior.

In 1882 Sexton James P. Tibbitts was concerned that the gas light burners were too near the ceiling.   Workmen were brought in to lower the fixtures to prevent fire.  The cautionary move produced the opposite result.

The gas-fitters finished their work around noon on March 24, 1882.  When Assistant Sexton William Garvin returned to the church after dinner, around 8:15, to prepare for the next day’s service, “he found the building full of smoke, and on passing into the church, saw smoke rolling along the Gothic roof.”

Instead of sending an alarm to the fire department, Garvin ran to the house of Sexton Tibbitts at No. 1284 Broadway.  By the time Tibbitts got to the church the fire had advanced.  “When firemen entered by the chapel door the flames were bursting through the floor of the church behind the chancel and in the passageway leading from the chancel to the chapel,” reported The Times.

After an hour of fighting the fire, it was finally under control.  The Church of the Incarnation was nearly entirely destroyed.  According to a congregant, Mrs. Kellner, when the rector arrived “a neighboring Presbyterian minister could not resist saying to him, ‘You Episcopalians manage your fires with as much decorum as you do everything else.’”

Inside the building highly-expensive items were lost, like the $20,000 organ by Erben which had replaced the original; and the $15,000 memorial window in the west end of the church.  “The roof of the church, with the exception of a small portion toward the front, was destroyed, but the walls of the building and the square tower on the south-west corner of the structure were intact. The chancel was burned out entirely, and the handsome fount and reading-desks were destroyed,” reported The New York Times.

The damage was estimated at $50,000, all of which was covered by insurance.  Rather than demolish the ruins and start over; the congregation opted to repair their beloved structure.  On June 29, 1882 John L. Riker announced plans for the rebuilding of the church.  “The walls are to be taken down and the structure rebuilt as it was before the fire,” reported a newspaper.

Two days later the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide noted that the architects chosen for the project were brothers David and John Jardine.  The church was enlarged “and improved,” and the construction was completed by Christmas.  The cost of rebuilding and outfitting the building was $75,000.  The architects respected Little’s original exterior design; however the “interior presents an entirely new appearance,” according to The New York Times on December 25, 1882.

History of the Parish of the Incarnation, 1912 (copyright expired)
Although the church was reopened in December, it would take years to totally complete the renovations.  In May 1883 the installation of the new organ was completed and a “complimentary concert” was given.

Artist John La Farge was given the commission to create to panel paintings.  As he worked on them in November 1885, the Record and Guide deemed them “the most important work he has yet undertaken in the character of the subject, the artistic aim, and the linear dimensions.”

William Garvin, the sexton who had discovered the fire in 1882, was an Irish immigrant.  A widower, he lived with his two sons and a daughter in Brooklyn.  On the evening of Saturday June 17, 1892 Rev. Dr. Arthur Brooks reminded him to lock up and be back early to open the church for services.  When Sexton Jackson arrived at 10:00 on Sunday morning, he was surprised to find the choir waiting outside and the doors still locked.

“Jackson opened the door with his own keys, and found Garvin lying dead in one of the aisles,” reported The Times.  He had apparently suffered a massive stroke.

By 1895 the interior decorations were essentially finished.  La Farge’s two panels, the Nativity of Christ and the Visit of the Magi, were acclaimed by The Times’ art critic.  “Both are delightful, each in its way, the latter perhaps being richer in color than the former, and having greater depth and fullness of tone.”

The stained glass windows were executed by the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company; two by La Farge; and seven by Henry Holiday in England.

The often-acerbic art critic Helen Henderson would be less glowing when she described the La Farge panels in 1909, calling them “badly set.”  She called his two windows “early examples of no great importance.”

Henderson did not confine her criticisms to La Farge.  “The embellishment of the Church of the Incarnation seems to have been pursued without definite plan, and the result is more curious than pleasing.”  She complained that Holiday’s and La Farge’s styles “were diametrically opposed” and “it is unfortunate for the ensemble that the work of the two artists should be thus juxtaposed.” And she called the two small stained glass windows by William Morris “of little consequence.”

Helen Henderson was nearly alone in her opinions.  The Times considered the Holiday windows “of the highest character” and said that La Farge’s windows “both well represent him.”  The baptismal font was sculpted by Louis St. Gaudens and surmounted by a figure of John the Baptist.  “This work is attractive in many ways, and marks a commendable departure from the inartistic architectural designs of fonts generally seen in other churches,” said the newspaper.

In 1896 the trustees hired architects Heins & La Farge to enlarge the church by moving the rear wall back six feet.   The renovation cost the congregation $5,000.

The neighborhood around the Church of the Incarnation changed in the 20th century. The mansions of Madison Avenue were replaced by office buildings that towered over the Gothic stone structure.  But the residential side streets of Murray Hill remained upscale and the congregation continued to be well heeled.

A mid-century postcard depicted the impressive church.

Nevertheless, the church adapted to changing times.  Allen Hughes, writing for The New York Times on December 19, 1970, said “Most of the music being presented in Christmas programs in churches this season is traditional, but at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation tomorrow a more modern sound will be heard.  Richard Felciano’s ‘God of the Expanding Universe’ will be performed, and it is a work for electronic tape and organ.”

A century after the rebuilding of the Church of the Incarnation, its age was posing a danger.  In 1990 chunks of stone began falling off the building, prompting officials to erect scaffolding with mesh netting to protest pedestrians.  The following year a $1 million restoration was initiated.   The reddish tone of the brownstone reappeared after 127 years of city soot was removed.  The roof and the masonry were repaired.

Ornate iron gates protect to portico.

Another restoration was conducted in 2014.  Despite Helen Henderson’s pedantic rant in 1909, the Church of the Incarnation represents a treasure of 19th century architectural and artistic work.

non-credited photographs by the author


  1. So I am always curious, if as you say the critic Helen Henderson was nearly alone in her opinions, why is she quoted and not the majority opinion? Seems that the minority opinion is given more weight than the majority, especially in this example where she is clearly wrong and thankfully forgotten. I have the pleasure of walking past this church every evening after work. The interiors, windows and towering steeple are quite beautiful. I presume the parish townhouse was a later acquisition?

  2. Contemporary critiques, good and bad, are part of the history of the building. We wouldn't want to simply ignore one side or the other, would we? Positive comments were included in this post. I think that including other views makes the story more interesting and well-rounded. The parish house was later, yes.