Monday, January 30, 2012

The Lost 1807 St. John's Chapel -- Varick near Hudson Streets

photo Library of Congress

In the first years of the 19th century, Trinity Episcopal Church owned vast amounts of land north of the city, granted by the British Crown in 1705.  The Board of Trinity moved to begin development of this unused land, known as the Church Farm, and on September 13, 1802 resolved to erect a chapel of convenience.

When, in March 1803, the Board announced the intended site, an uproar ensued.  Erecting a substantial church structure along Hudson Street to the north, it was widely felt, was foolish.  The area was undeveloped and boggy, filled with reeds and overrun with mosquitoes and snakes.    It was a rural area “where was skating in winter and hunting in summer.”

Trinity was undeterred.  The chapel was intended to be the focal point of what would become an exclusive residential neighborhood, centered on a private park. 

Architect John McComb had recently completed the design for New York City’s distinguished City Hall, with Joseph-Francois Magnin, which was currently being constructed.  The church gave the commission for St. John’s Chapel to McComb.

Construction began later that year and as the church rose, the previously-worthless Hudson Square was converted to an elegant park.  By the time the chapel was completed in 1807, St. John’s Park had become accepted as a fashionable area and elegant Federal mansions were being constructed.

The Chapel, the park and the surrounding residences created the most exclusive enclave in New York -- print The New York Mirror 1829 (copyright expired)

John McComb’s completed St. John’s Chapel was magnificent.  A near-copy of London’s St. Martin-in-the-fields, it cost a staggering $172,833.   The organ, ordered in Philadelphia, cost another $6,000.  In 1908 the Architectural Record would call it “in the straitest sect of the British Georgian of its period.”  A prominent double-height portico, supported by carved Corinthian sandstone columns sheltered the entrance.  Above, a glorious 214-foot tower rose. 
The church was among the finest examples of Georgian architecture in the United States -- photo NYPL Collection

“The interior of St. John’s, with its towering side columns and high, wide, sweeping arches, is in keeping with the imposing exterior,” the New-York Tribune commented a century after construction.

photo NYPL Collection

St. John’s Park, anchored by the chapel, became the most fashionable residential neighborhood of the city.  Well-dressed ladies strolled its paths and elegant carriages discharged the most respected citizens at the doors of surrounding homes.

St. John's Chapel and the park in winter around 1865 -- print NYPL Collection

Trinity Church was not only in the business of saving souls, it was in the business of business.  Two years after the end of the Civil War the church shocked New York City by selling St. John’s Park to the Hudson River Railroad Company.    The company immediately began plans to replace the refined private green with a freight terminal.

A stereopticon slide captured the destruction of St. John's Park, to be replaced by a freight terminal, around 1868. 

St. John’s Chapel, however, continued on even as its wealthy parishioners began moving away from the noise and dirt of the new rail yards.  On December 25, 1869, the New-York Tribune reported on the chapel’s holiday decorations.  “There are more than thirty trees in the church, which in some degree, wears the air of a little garden.  A running vine festoons the arches on the west end, and the capitals of the pillars are festooned with laurels.”  The article added that “There will be an interesting children’s festival in the church on Tuesday evening, 28th inst., when presents will be liberally distributed, and there will be a grand Christmas tree.”

The following year a similar event was held when approximately 2,000 children crowded into the chapel.  “Before the altar was a huge Christmas tree profusely decorated, and lighted by a calcium light,” reported the New-York Tribune on December 28, 1870.  “The gifts for the children, chiefly books and toys, were spread on tables in front of the altar.  The presents were valuable, liberal contributions, having been made by the vestry of Trinity parish, to which the chapel belongs, and by the congregants.”

One-by-one the grand brick homes were either razed or converted to warehouses and offices as their owners fled the neighborhood.    In 1890 The Real Estate Record and Guide noted that fashionable citizens thought “it vulgar to live among the packing boxes, and to inhale the odor of fresh fish and tarpaulins.”   John McComb’s refined Georgian edifice now sat among decidedly unfashionable structures.

In 1892 the vestry of Trinity announced its intentions to raze St. John’s chapel.  The remaining congregants, as well as indignant citizens who simply admired the chapel’s architectural beauty, rebelled.   An ongoing battle to save or destroy the church ensued that would last two decades.  At the forefront was St. John’s pastor, the Rev. Dr. Philip A. H. Brown who earned the sobriquet “The Fighting Vicar.”

On Sunday, May 2, 1896 Dr. Brown spoke of the church from its pulpit.  “It stands today, with its weather-beaten, but still magnificent porch, its thick strong walls, built to last for centuries, one of the finest specimens of this kind of architecture to be found in the country.  There are in this city many more costly church buildings, but I don’t know of any which so impresses me with the quiet dignity belonging to the House of God as does St. John’s.”

In 1908 Dr. Manning, Rector of Trinity Church, closed the chapel, saying it “was not good business or religion to continue services where the attendance was so small.”

With Dr. Brown’s death in 1909, the cause was taken up by other concerned citizens as Trinity moved closer to demolition.   In April of that year John Burke “and others” filed an injunction against the “Rector, Churchwardens, and Vestrymen of Trinity church, and others,” to prevent the destruction of St. John’s Chapel. 

Things worsened in 1912 when the Board of Estimate planned the widening of Varick Street – the portico of St. John’s Chapel sat squarely in the path of the road improvement. 

Yet, Borough President George McAneny took up the church’s cause with a brilliant scheme.  He proposed that the structure be preserved with the sidewalk simply running under the portico.  The plan was based on the identical treatment of St. Michael’s and St. Philip’s churches in Charleston, South Carolina.    The city was in agreement.   All that was necessary was the consent of the corporation of Trinity Church.

But the Church was still in the business of business.   The land on which the century-old structure sat—once virtually worthless—had become exceedingly valuable.     Writing in The American Architect in 1912, Ransom W. Haddon recognized the looming danger.

“It is a fact, unfortunate as true, that most of the people here in America take little interest in the few remaining good examples of early Colonial architecture that have escaped destruction…A good example is offered by St. John’s, one of the chapels of Trinity Church, in this city, now menaced by the proposed widening of Varick Street…Unless some action is speedily taken, this venerable building will soon be razed.”

John A. Handforth pleaded in a letter to the editor of the New York Tribune, noting the priceless architectural integrity of the building.  “Of the churches designed by Sir Christopher Wren now remaining in the City of London proper,” he wrote, “only two, St. Bride’s and St. Mary-Le-Bow, exceed it in beauty as to detail, and neither is so finely proportioned as is old St. John’s.”
The widening of Varick Street inches closer to St. John's Chapel (background) in 1918 --photo

Intent on realizing the property value under the church, Trinity announced it would donate the building to anyone buying the land.  The chess game went on as the widening of Varick Street inched closer and closer to St. John’s Chapel.

And then time ran out.

On October 6, 1918, The New York Times mourned, “In the demolition of St. John’s Chapel New York has lost not only a revered landmark but one of the choicest specimens of Georgian church architecture in the United States…Architects have agreed that St. John’s had few if any superiors of its kind either in England or this country, and it has been said that neither the justly admired St. Michael’s Church in Charleston, Christ Church in Philadelphia, nor King’s Chapel in Boston surpassed it in simplicity of proportion or exquisite refinement of architectural detail.”
Within two years Trinity Church Corporation got its wish when it sold the land to Adolph Pricken of Coastwise Warehouses for a $2 million warehouse.

The AIA Guide to New York City perhaps best summarized the loss.  Speaking of the concrete-covered, traffic jammed area still called St. John’s Park, it said “…try to superimpose this image: gents in top hats and elegant women in long skirts strolling in a gracefully quiet park lined with staid houses, the chapel bells tolling in the evening.  All gone.  Our ancestors preserved many a New York treasure, but blew it here.”


  1. Thanks for a great post. It gave insight to past and present history of the neighborhood where some of our family members lived.

    In 1828 Uncle Nathaniel Cogswell moved to Varick Street on St Johns Park leaving his home in Dorchester, Mass. Today this Dorchester home is called the Morton-Taylor house. He is buried in NY Marble Cemetery.

    It was Cogswells NYC home on Varick St where our gr-gr-grandmother came for refuge the winter of 1829.

  2. We need today to stop the sense destruction of monuments such as this for private profit. Thanks for a great article