Friday, January 25, 2013

St. James' Episcopal Church -- 865 Madison Avenue

photo by Alice Lum

Following the Revolutionary War, the summer estates of Manhattan’s wealthy citizens on the northern reaches of the island were reopened as a sort of normality returned.   Small churches were erected to serve the seasonal communities, among them St. James’ Church on Hamilton Square at 69th Street and Lexington Avenue.

What would become Lexington Avenue is unpaved and muddy -- print from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Paid for by Trinity Church and built in 1809 through 1810, the clapboard chapel served the residents with properties along the East River.   Its rector rushed between services here and at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, a similar wood-frame country church on the opposite side of the island, using the Harsenville Road (what is essentially now 71st Street).

Within a decade several of the wealthy parishioners made the area their full-time residence.  The little church was opened year-round in the 1820s.  While the neighborhood remained rural for some time (in 1837 the city was renting much of the land as pasture); the city was moving closer.

During the Civil War Hamilton Square was used as a parade ground and in 1867 the city reduced its size to accommodate development.  Two years later, it eliminated the park altogether.   Despite the war raging to the south, development continued.  Engineers leveled Lenox Hill, laying out the cross streets and extending Lexington Avenue northward—necessitating the demolition of St. James’.

Now a heated discussion arose concerning a new building.  The neighborhood, known as Yorkville, had been filling with immigrants fleeing the overcrowded and unsanitary Lower East Side.  The rector pushed for rebuilding near the old site in order to serve this needy community.  The church trustees, however, preferred to retain the congregation’s upper-class tradition and move closer to the new mansions rising along Madison and Fifth Avenues.

Land was procured on East 72nd Street and in 1869 the new church was dedicated.  The wealth of the congregation is evident in their choice of architects.  James Renwick, Jr. was responsible for the masterful Gothic Revival Grace Church, completed in 1846, and his monumental St. Patrick’s Cathedral was rising on Fifth Avenue when he was approached to design the new St. James’.    Renwick’s design would be less historically pure than the former two churches; its updated Victorian Gothic façade more charming than majestic.

But the Renwick church would not suffice for long.  Development of the Upper East Side boomed during the last quarter of the century and in 1884 construction began on a larger structure at the corner of Madison Avenue and 71st Street.  Once again the parish had turned to one of the leading architects of the time—R. H. Robertson.

Horse-drawn street cars go north and south near the Robertson-designed St. James' with its never-completed, stubby corner tower -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Robertson embraced the newly-popular Romanesque Revival style, developing his own take with rough-cut stone and contrasting materials.   For the new St. James’ Episcopal Church he played all his cards.  Brownstone, granite, terra cotta and tiled shingles melded together to form connected, arched windows, towers and arcades.  Robertson turned the building around, putting the entrance down the block rather than on Madison Avenue as would be expected.  Now there was no chance that the glorious windows of the chancel would be blacked out by tall construction next door.

The new building was completed in 1885 and services began with a rather stumpy corner tower still uncompleted.  It never would be.

Robertson's church and parsonage were a delicious feast of materials, textures and shapes -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Unlike the Gothic Revival style favored by Renwick that became nearly synonymous with ecclesiastical architecture, the Romanesque Revival style faded.  By the 1920s Robertson’s robust design was not yet historical, it was merely old-fashioned.  Perhaps no architect of the day was more well-known for his Gothic designs than Ralph Adams Cram.

In 1924 Cram was the Supervising Architect of Princeton University where his Collegiate Gothic buildings had been going up since 1907.  He had received the commission for the gigantic Cathedral of St. John the Divine in 1911 and was responsible, with Bertram Goodhue, for Saint Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue.  He was now approached by St. James’ to remodel the outdated church.

Cram removed Robertson’s towers and round arches and completely reoriented the sanctuary.   The three entrances openings were positioned on Madison Avenue, affording a grander entry.  Above the central entrance door a large, lacy rose window burst forth.  Robertson’s squat corner tower remained; but now with a more complete-looking Gothic belfry added by Cram in 1926. 

The earlier church was unrecognizable after Cram's redesign.  In 1926 the newly-added belfry is evident in the contrasting color and texture of the stone -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Inside the architect embellished the space with exposed polished beams supporting the ceiling, a gilded reredos and soaring stone arches.

Cram designed the breathtaking gilded reredos -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Structural problems with the Gothic tower appeared in the 1940s, necessitating its removal.  Architect Richard Kimball was commissioned to design a replacement which was completed in 1950.  By current tastes, the mid-century addition is, at best, incongruous.  The modernistic steeple has been dubbed “the tin can.”

photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Considering St. James’ somewhat haughty history, its outreach to the homeless in the 1980s might have seemed ironic.   In 1981 the Rev. William E. Smyth became alarmed at the increasing number of homeless bedding down on church doorsteps, including his.   He helped form the Neighborhood Coalition for Shelter with the support of other churches, synagogues and other institutions.  The coalition worked to find shelter for those truly in need.

Somewhat affectionately called the "tin can," Kimball's steeple marches to its own music -- photo by Alice Lum

The church opened a soup kitchen around the same time, offering meals to the homeless.  Well-dressed residents of the neighborhood would often see a line of up to 60 indigent men waiting patiently for a hot lunch.

A restoration of St. James’ was initiated in 1999 by architect Lee Harris Pomeroy.  Now half a century old, the anomalous Kimball steeple had become a familiar if quirky part of the architecture.  Rev. Brenda G. Husson reportedly explained “We all know it doesn’t fit architecturally, but it’s our steeple.”

photo by Alice Lum

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