Monday, August 1, 2011

The 1766 St. Paul's Chapel -- Broadway and Fulton Street

The Broadway entrance was intended to be the rear of the church.

Ten years before the Declaration of Independence was signed, the last stone was placed in St. Paul’s Chapel at Broadway and Fulton Street. The dignified house of worship was erected on land granted by Queen Anne as a Chapel-of-Ease for worshipers who lived north of Trinity Church.

While today the five city blocks that separate St. Paul’s from Trinity may seem like an easy walk; in 1766 the site was well removed from the established city below Wall Street and had been a field of wheat prior to ground breaking.

Designed by Thomas McBean, the church was situated with its rear wall towards Broadway so that the front had a pleasing view of the river. McBean, who was a student of the renowned London architect James Gibbs, constructed the chapel from small, rough-faced field stones quarried on the site. Andrew Gautier was the master craftsman in charge of the construction. Window and door openings and corners were then trimmed in dressed brownstone that gave a sophistication to the otherwise rural feel of the structure.

St. Paul's prior to the addition of the elegant 1828 wrought iron fencing in a still semi-rural setting -- NYPL Collection

Inside were the clean, elegant lines associated with Georgian architecture. The painted woodwork of fluted columns and paneled arches that would be found in an upscale home of the period was used here.  Fourteen Waterford cut glass chandeliers hung from the ceiling.

Georgian woodwork and Waterford chandeliers grace the interiors -- photo by official-ly cool

As picturesque as the view might have been, parishioners complained about the inconvenience of the entrance.  Three years later demands were met when a carriage portico was added to the Broadway side. The roof line was extended to the property line where four graceful fluted stone columns upheld the deep pediment. A primitive wooden carving of St. Paul was inserted in a niche in the pediment and a balustrade graced the roof line above the cornice.
Broadway bustles in front of the carriage portico where a primitive wooden statue of St. Paul stands in a niche -- NYPL Collection

By the time the British Army landed on Manhattan in September 1776 many New York residents had already fled. On the evening of September 21 a fire broke out in the Fighting Cocks Tavern, according to an eyewitness, near Whitehall Slip. The fire spread quickly, engulfing the closely-built structures. The conflagration raged through the night, destroying up to 25 percent of the buildings, including the 1698 Trinity Church.

St. Paul’s Chapel escaped the flames.

As the American Revolution drew to an end, the ruins of Trinity Church still stood on Broadway at the head of Wall Street. On his Inauguration Day on April 30, 1789, George Washington attended services at St. Paul’s and continued to worship there for the next two years while New York served as the nation’s capital.

In the 1850s, well-dressed Victorians visit Washington's pew beneath the north balcony -- NYPL Collection

Above his pew hangs an oil painting -- the first depiction of the Great Seal of the United States.

Ivy covered most of the facade by 1897 -- NYPL Collection

Atop Thomas McBean’s square stone tower architect James Crommelin Lawrence added an impressive spire in 1794 which he modeled after James Gibbs’ Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London. It was a fitting conclusion to the design of Gibb’s student. Later, in 1840, the spire would be sheathed in copper.

The chapel was not only a place of worship but a place of remembrance and in 1787 the first monument to a Revolutionary War hero was erected in honor of Richard Montgomery, sculpted by Jean-Jacques Caffieri.  Pierre L’Enfant’s “Glory,” a neo-Baroque sculpture was installed and, outside, the ample graveyard received the burials of New York’s most elevated citizens.

Over a century later, as a bronze tablet commemorating the centennial of Washington’s inauguration services was dedicated, the rector, Dr. Mulchahey, commented on St. Paul’s use as a place of memorials. Comparing it to Westminster Abbey in that regard, he said “I would not object to see these walls entirely covered with memorials of persons and incidents conspicuous in the history of the church and the State.”

photo by Alice Lum

In what would be one of the first of many heart-felt memorial services, those lost at sea in the sinking of the RMS Titanic were remembered here on April 19, 1912.  Using words that would be prophetic in decades to come The Rev. W. Montague Geer prayed “for those, who, whether prepared to meet their God or not, were suddenly called upon, in the darkness at dead of night to cry, many of them in the anguish of their souls.”

Skyscrapers had begun surrounding the churchyard in 1906 -- New York Public Library Collection

In July 1925 the first restoration work in the long history of St. Paul’s began to restore it “as it was when George Washington worshiped there.” A month later, the crystal chandelier that had been missing since 1838 was found in the attic by workmen. In 1926 the church was reopened with all fourteen chandeliers in place.

On September 11, 2001, in one of New York City’s and America’s most devastating tragedies, terrorists struck the nearby World Trade Towers with airliners, collapsing them to the ground and murdering nearly 3,000 innocent civilians.  St. Paul’s emerged unharmed and was almost immediately turned into a place of refuge for recovery workers.

Outside, photographs of the missing were hung from the 1827 wrought iron fence, creating a heart-breaking wall of grief. Inside workers came to rest and sleep.  Volunteers worked at the chapel for eight months, 24 hours a day in 12-hour shifts serving food, changing linens, offering counseling. To help the police, firefighters and construction workers recover, citizens from all walks of life came to St. Paul’s Chapel to offer their services: chiropractors, massage therapists, stress counselors, and even musicians.

Many of the memorial banners remain in the sanctuary and a number of exhibits are on display here. They remember those who, like the victims of the Titanic, “whether prepared to meet their God or not, were suddenly called upon.”

While the World Trade Center site still smoldered months later, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani chose St. Paul’s Chapel from which to give his farewell Speech on December 27, 2001. In the sanctuary where Lord Cornwallis, Presidents Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison and George H. W. Bush once worshiped, President George W. Bush, Senator Hillary Clinton, George Pataki and Mayors Michael Bloomberg and Rudolph Giuliani attended a memorial service on September 10, 2006.

Memorial banners for the victims of 9/11 hang from the balcony -- photo by

St. Paul’s Chapel is the oldest existing church building in New York City. Of the surviving 18th century buildings in Manhattan, the Landmarks Preservation Commission deemed it “undoubtedly the most notable both architecturally and historically.”

In designating the property a landmark, the Commission said it “represents the epitome of the Georgian period of architecture.”


  1. It was at this chapel April 30, 1789 our First President, George Washington newly inaugurated led our government leaders to pray and consecrate America to God, and to commit America's future to God. This done on the first day of our new government. 212 years later God sends the Isaiah 9:10 Warning to America to Return to God at this same location on 9/11/2001 the destruction of the World Trade Center which was built upon land once owned by St. Paul's Chapel. America did not listen, and more judgment was sent 7 years later the September 2008 stock market crash. America still did not listen, so 7 years later ......

    1. Fail -- America did not exist when the Book of Isaiah was composed, and land did not exist west of Church Street, it was river.

    2. The land owned by the church was North of Vessey Street, the Trade Center Complex was across the street to the South. This land you refer to was the old Bogardus or Domine's Bowerie, owned by Anneke Janse.

  2. The Montgomery Monument was installed after the war, in 1787.

  3. WOW just what I was looking for. Came here
    by searching for father and mother xxx

  4. H.P. Lovecraft married Sonia Greene here.