Tuesday, September 27, 2011

St. Patrick's Cathedral -- 5th Avenue at 50th Street

The newly-finished, gleaming white marble Cathedral sat next to a yet-undeveloped plot.  Across Fifth Avenue is the lawn of a mansion -- photo Library of Congress
James Renwick, Jr. was 25-years old when he received the commission to design Grace Church in 1843.  An engineer, he had no training as an architect and had, to date, designed only a fountain in Bowling Green.  Renwick did not disappoint, however.   Completed in 1846, Grace Church was a masterpiece – the first major Gothic Revival structure in the U.S. 

Within the year he had designed the Smithsonian Institution Building, often referred to as the Renwick Castle.   The architect would, for the rest of his life, be a busy man.   But he would hold none of his designs in greater importance than the masterful St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

The first Archbishop of New York, John Hughes, summoned Renwick in 1853 to start plans for a replacement to the Cathedral on Mott Street which had been completed in 1815.  Although the existing St. Patrick’s Cathedral was the largest church in the city, the Archbishop yearned for a more magnificent church.

The land Hughes had selected for the site, on 5th Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets, was well north of the established city, resulting in skeptics calling it “Hughes’ Folly.”    Renwick went to work on the drawings which, according to Archbishop John Murphy Farley’s 1908 history of the Cathedral, “were changed several times until 1858, when they were definitely agreed upon.”

With the plans approved, the Archbishop presented Renwick and his assisting architect William Rodrique (who coincidentally or not married Hugh’s sister Margaret) with contracts.  Each would receive $2,500 a year for eight years and the Archbishop had the right to suspend or discontinue the building at will.  It was a highly unusual arrangement; although financially advantageous for Renwick.

The plans that were “definitely agreed upon” were for a soaring, white marble Gothic Revival structure that would compete with the great medieval structures of Europe.     The cost of construction was fixed with the Hall and Joyce Company, the builders, at $850,000 and a contract was signed on March 5, 1859 with the stipulation that the construction would be finished on or before January 1, 1867.

The cornerstone had been laid on August 15, 1858, half a year before the contracts were finalized.  The immense structure rose steadily filling the 5th Avenue block towards Madison Avenue.  Then in 1861 the Civil War broke out.  As the conflict worsened more and more of the men of New York abandoned their jobs to fight for the Union.  Eventually work on the Cathedral stopped completed.

Archbishop Hughes would not live to see his magnificent Cathedral rise above 5th Avenue.  He died in 1864, succeeded by Bishop John McCloskey who would take up the project as construction commenced again after the war.  Two decades after it was begun, St. Patrick’s Cathedral was dedicated on May 25, 1879. 

Harper's Weekly featured Archbishop Hughs' funeral in the unfinished Cathedral in 1864.
The new Cathedral had a seating capacity of 18,000 and every seat was filled at 10:00 when McCloskey, by now a Cardinal, and an entourage of bishops and priests processed up the aisle.  One hundred and twenty five policemen were positioned around the building to keep order.  A local newspaper described it as “the noblest temple ever raised in any land to the memory of Saint Patrick, and as the glory of Catholic America.”

The Cathedral as depicted in an 1890 print -- Library of Congress

The white marble church stretched 332 feet to the east, sitting on a base course of Maine granite.    Although the Cathedral was officially opened, the soaring spires – rising 330 feet above the avenue -- would not be completed until October 1888. 

In 1900 construction was started on the glorious Lady Chapel.   Designed by Charles T. Mathews, it was completed in 1908 and a year later the first of the chapel’s stained glass windows was installed.  It would be 25 years before the windows were completed. 

The original estimate of construction fell sorely short.  The spires alone cost $200,000 and by the time the Lady Chapel was completed Archbishop Farley estimated the cost at $4 million.

Generally hailed as a masterpiece of design, the Cathedral was not adored by everyone.   Art and architecture critic Helen W. Henderson was known to be brutally frank in her sometimes snobbish opinions.   

 The 75 stained glass windows were created, for the most part, in the studios of Nicholas Lotin at Chartes and of Henry Ely at Nantes.  Henderson complained “The modern French and Roman windows, which to the eye of the later criticism, impair the beauty of the simple interior, were considered something most desirable in their day, and their completion was hastened in order that they might be shown at the Centennial Exhibition, of 1876, where they were a feature much admired.”

She admitted that the St. Patrick window – donated by Renwick – “has at least an antiquarian interest.”  In the lower panel of that window is a depiction of Renwick presenting the plans of the Cathedral to Cardinal McCloskey.   She found the priceless windows of the Lady Chapel the “only windows of aesthetic interest in the church.”

Potted trees line the sidewalk as a well-dressed crowd watches the procession into the Cathedral for its consecration in 1911 -- Library of Congress
The Cathedral was the scene of a major scare when, on St. Patrick’s Day 1918, a crowd of thousands was assembled awaiting the parade.   Everyone remembered the bomb that had been discovered in the church on March 2, 1915 and anarchism was a constant threat.  Suddenly the throng was panicked by an enormous chunk of a stone spire that broke loose.  The largest piece crashed through the roof, breaking through the organ loft inside.  Outside, large stone fragments showered down on the masses.

“The crash and roar of the big missile caused fear that the whole great structure had been dynamited and might topple into the street,” reported The New York Times.  As the dignitaries in the reviewing stand stampeded to get away, Congressman Thomas F. Smith suffered a broken wrist as he was knocked to the ground.

The 1915 bomb would not be the last of the threats to the Cathedral.    In January 1951 a letter was received announcing that a bomb would be set off at a Sunday mass.   And between December 1951 and July 1952 there would be five more bomb threats.   On July 12, a deep-voiced male voice ordered the Rev. Edward Connors “get them out,” referring to worshipers in the Cathedral.  Thirty minutes later he phoned again, warning “your beautiful cathedral will be blown up before midnight.”

St. Patrick’s Cathedral has always been a work in process.   In 1927 Cardinal Hayes initiated an ambitious $2 million renovation project that included an enlarged sanctuary, rebuilt choir gallery, new organs in the gallery and chancel, new nave flooring and pews and a new baptistery.  Two decades later Cardinal Spellman added new upper windows, a new high altar and a replacement altar in the Lady Chapel and extensive exterior stone restoration.

Hayes also commissioned the great bronze doors  which were felt to be more “in keeping with the rest of the building.”  Seventeen of the 19 altars as well as the Stations of the Cross were repaired, cleaned and repolished.  

The great bronze doors weigh over 20,000 pounds each; yet they are so balanced that they can be opened with a single hand.  Sculptures of saints and "blessed people" grace the panels. -- photo by St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Restoration of the entire interior was done in 1972, the exterior was restored in 1979 and in 1984 a six-year structural repair process was begun.  This included replacement of much of the roof, resetting of the exterior steps, refinishing the doors, restoring the bells and rebuilding the organs.

Throughout the years the Cathedral has been the focal point of protestors railing against the Viet Nam War, the discontinuance of the Latin mass and, of course, the annual protests of Gay Rights advocates to march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade.

Despite Helen Henderson’s criticisms of the great cathedral, the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission said of it “St. Patrick’s Cathedral represents the epitome of the Gothic Revival in New York City” and called it “A marvel of architectural design for its day.”


  1. I agree with critic Helen W. Henderson on both the main Nave glass at eye level and the Lady Chapel glass. Never liked the overall effect of the stained glass at St. Patrick's. Colorful as in cartoon but not very meditative or well thought out as in design etc.

  2. It is a good thing some critics fade into the past and are long forgotten. Saint Patrick's is a glorious beacon on 5th Ave, especially now in 2015 after it's recent exterior restoration has restored the bright white shine to the marble facade. The building is inspiring and uplifting and the glass shimmers in the sunlight like never before. A NYC landmark and much treasured house of worship.