Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Lost "Church of the Holy Zebra," Mould's Unitarian All Souls' Church

The Unitarian Church of All Souls in 1893 -- from "A Loiterer in New York," 1917 (copyright expired)

Jacob Wrey Mould had been in the United States only a year in 1853 when he was consulted by Moses H. Grinnell regarding plans for a new Unitarian Church of All Souls. The church, under the strong guidance of Rev. Dr. Henry Whitney Bellows, had been searching for an adequate design.  When architect C. F. Anderson presented his plans, Grinnell, the president of the trustees, was less than impressed.

Although the trustees had approved Anderson’s design, they were vetoed by Grinnell.

Mould had been hard at work designing decorative elements for the Crystal Palace Exhibition in Bryant Park. His vibrant, colorful work was novel to New Yorkers and, for some, would prove over-the-top.

Three months later when, on July 8, 1853, his plans were exhibited to the board of trustees Grinnell convinced a wary Bellows to accept them. Bellows would remark that Grinnell was “bewitched by the architect.”

Accustomed to expected Gothic Revival and Romanesque church designs, the congregation and the public at large was taken aback by Mould’s unconventional plan. As Helen W. Henderson explained in her 1917 A Loiterer in New York, “This was in the year 1854, long before New York had become accustomed to see planted, on her stern rock foundations, those exotics that now bloom so easily in the strong sea-light of the island city.”

Built on the southeast corner of Fourth Avenue and 20th Street, it was completed in 1855.  Although contemporary critics termed the style “Byzantine,” it was actually Italian Romanesque, modeled loosely on the 14th century Basilica di San Giovanni Battista.  In fact, the church would proudly display for decades “elaborate drawings of both San Gio Battista and All Souls,” according to Henderson, to demonstrate the similarities.

A stereopticon view of All Souls around 1869 - from the collection of the New York Public Library

With his design, Mould had, indeed, stepped out of the box.  By using alternating courses of deep red Philadelphia brick and beige-yellow Italian Caen stone, he created a striped overall effect which, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Architecture and Landscaping, “introduced structural polychromy to the USA.”

With its striking central dome, it was by far a building not to be overlooked.  Dedicated on Christmas Day of 1855, Dr. Bellows spoke of it as:

...a building in which mean economy, superficial show, worldly artifice and fraud, should not enter—a building religious in its structure, from cornerstone to dome; and if a consummate skill, an unfailing taste, an unsparing devotion, a self-possession which neither ridicule nor blame could disturb, and a zeal which neither sickness nor pain could impair—if these deserve fame, then indeed the modest architect of this Christian temple has achieved it.

Critics, however, were quick to react. It was called by one, “the most unfortunate ecclesiastical edifice ever to be erected not only in New York, but anywhere else in the world for that matter.”  The congregation, some of whom felt they now owned a “white elephant,” according to Henderson, was even more shocked when it was revealed that Mould had gone $48,000 over budget.

It was Grinnell who helped relieve the financial crisis from his own pocket.  However the lofty campanile the architect had originally intended, matching the one at the Basilica, would never be built.

Bellow’s daughter, years later, would remember that she “found the church handsome and unique, though it excited much derisive comment and received many nicknames.” Among those irreverent nicknames, the two that quickly gained popularity were The Church of the Holy Zebra and the Beefsteak Church.

Dr. Bellows died in 1882 and four years later a bronze memorial table with a life-sized relief of the minister by Augustus Saint-Gaudens was unveiled in the sanctuary.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens' life sized bronze memorial of Dr. Bellows -- from "A Loiterer in New York," 1917 (copyright expired)

By the turn of the century New Yorkers had grown accustomed to the exotic architecture of All Souls' Church.  When, in 1913, rumors spread that the congregation would possibly sell the valuable property, now surrounded by modern lofts and wholesale businesses, The New York Times lamented:

When the church does go, the city will lose one of the most remarkable architectural creations ever placed upon Manhattan Island.  It was built in 1855, in the Byzantine style of architecture, and with its sharply definite lines of red brick and white caen stone, has often been called the zebra striped church.

Later, the book Dr. Bellows and All Souls Church remarked that “architecturally [it] is of exceptional interest.” 
The building, however, was in trouble. In 1917 Henderson wrote that “All Souls’ Church looks, on the week-day, neglected and shabby.  Its stone work is scaling off, its garden is overgrown, and its gates padlocked and rusty.”

Early in 1929 the congregation sold the property to a developer for $475,000. The church sat empty and neglected for two years before being destroyed by a fire on August 23, 1931. As The New York Times had predicted, New York lost “one of the most remarkable architectural creations ever placed upon Manhattan Island.”  Jacob Wrey Mould’s atypical and wonderful Church of the Holy Zebra was lost forever. has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

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