Saturday, December 14, 2013

The 1854 Marble Collegiate Church -- 5th Avenue and 29th Street

photo by Alice Lum

In 1621 when the Dutch East India Company was organized, the Protestant Reformation was only a century old.  The Dutch settlers who founded New Amsterdam two years later had left a homeland still embroiled in the Revolt of the Seven Provinces--the Protestant Dutch against the Roman Catholic King Philip II of Spain.  They brought with them their Reformed Dutch religion.  According to The New York Times over two centuries later, in 1626 “the first religious meetings of which any record is left, were held in the upper room of a mill erected by Francois Molemaker, near the Port of the Battery.”

It was the planting of the seed of the Reformed Dutch Church in New York City.  The Collegiate Church was founded in 1628.  Over two centuries later, in 1851 an additional structure (there were Reformed Dutch churches on Washington Square, one on Fifth Avenue and 21st Street, and another on Lafayette Place and Fourth Street) was deemed necessary to accommodate to northward residential migration.

Church lore suggests that Fifth Avenue was at the time rural and that livestock roamed the chosen building site at the northwest corner of 29th Street.  In fact, Fifth Avenue was paved as far uptown as 42nd Street in the 1840s and the area was quickly developing with high-end rowhouses.  For the church fathers to erect a white marble edifice capable of seating 1,500 worshipers in a weed field would have been either exceptionally far-sighted or simply foolish.

The cornerstone was laid on November 26, 1851 with what The New York Times deemed “appropriate ceremonies.”  Architect Samuel A. Warner’s design had transformed a traditional New England wooden church design into a commanding white marble edifice.  The large blocks of marble were hand-chosen from quarries at Hastings, New York.

Construction would take three years at a cost of $200,000—a staggering $4 million in today’s dollars.  The New York Times called the completed structure “though-out one of the finest church buildings in the cities of New-York or Brooklyn.”  The dedication was held on October 11, 1854.  In addition to the ground floor seating, 400 worshipers could be accommodated in the gallery wrapping three sides of the sanctuary.

The New York Times praised the beautiful marble stone.  “Spires, finials, and other terminal points are all of the same material, strongly distinguished in color and consistency from the stone in common use for similar purposes.” 
photo by Alice Lum

While the architect called his design “Romanesque,” The New York Times was a bit more accurate in saying “The groundwork of the design is decorated Gothic.”  The newspaper described the structure in detail.  “The magnificent tower and spire, rising to a total height of 230 feet from the pavement, is flanked on the north and south corners, fronting on the avenue, by two pinnacles, each 135 feet high.  On each side wall are six main buttresses, inclosing five mullioned windows, twenty-five feet in height, and of proportionate breadth.”  Perched on the steeple’s pinnacle was a six-foot weather vane in the form of a rooster.

Inside, the vast auditorium space was a single cavernous space with no visible means of support of the arched ceiling.  Graceful groining sprouted from long, heavy carved brackets in the corners and between the windows.

Collegiate Church drew its name from its “colleagues;” ministers who served all the Reformed Dutch churches rather than having a dedicated pulpit.  That method of rotating ministers expanded into an early ecumenical idea in 1858 when other denominations joined in.  On March 23rd of that year The New York Times reported that “Some weeks since several of the up-town pastors agreed to hold union meetings, worshiping one week in each of their churches.  The first was held at Dr. Gillette’s church in Twenty-third-street; the second at Dr. Parker’s, Fourth-avenue;  the third at Dr. Macauley’s, Fifth-avenue; the fourth at the Rev. F. G. Clarke’s Twenty-third-street; the fifth at the Collegiate church, on Fifth-avenue and Twenty-ninth-street.”

Further down on the page that day, the newspaper reported on a recent meeting of the New-York City Temperance Alliance.  Before very long the Collegiate Church, too, would be fully embroiled in the battle against alcohol.

But first there was a greater issue on the horizon—civil war.  On February 3, 1862, less than a year after the first shot was fired at Fort Sumter, a meeting was held in the church to discuss ways to minister to the soldiers in the field.  The New York Times reported that “A very large assemblage was gathered last evening in the Collegiate Church…the object being to hear addresses from eminent Divines, upon the necessity of providing for the religious necessities of the army, by furnishing the troops with tracts and reading generally of a religious character.”

Among those speaking that night was the Rev. Dr. Strong, Secretary of the Board of Publication of the Reformed Dutch Church.  Although already many publications had been forwarded to the troops in the battlefields, he urged those assembled that it was not enough.

“Still more was needed; and the Reverend Doctor proceeded eloquently and pathetically to urge upon his hearers the necessity of hearty and active cooperation in this good work, which was designed of God.”

In 1873 the total membership of the Collegiate Reformed Dutch Church throughout the city numbered 1,600.  Of those, 1,100 attended the church on Fifth Avenue at 29th Street.
photo by Alice Lum

While times and traditions changed in some churches, the Dutch Reformed Church did not.  That was made clear on October 16, 1883 when the Rev. Dr. Terry delivered a preached here specifically denouncing reforms.

“The Rev. Dr. Terry delivered a sermon, in which he remarked that of all Protestant denominations the Dutch Reformed was the most conservative.  Others had made changes in their forms of services, and changes had even been suggested in doctrine to keep up with the age.  The Reformed Church was not strong numerically as compared with other denominations, but the preacher protested against any innovations in church doctrine,” reported The New York Times.

While the Collegiate Church remained steadfast in opposing change for the most part—at least in doctrine—it was quick to adapt new technology when appropriate.  By the end of the year in 1890 the church had installed the latest in technology.  Until now churches enlisted the aid of young boys to pump the bellows that provided wind through the organ pipes.

In December 1890 a newspaper noted that “The blowing of church organs by means of electric motors has now reached that point where the undertaking may be said to have passed the experimental stage and become a permanent and assured success.”  The article made note of the church’s innovative use of electric motors.   The “electric plant,” said the article “in the Collegiate Church at Twenty-ninth Street and Fifth Avenue very nearly solves the problem of a compound organ.  This organ has two bellows—one supplies the entire organ, with the exception of one register, which is supplied by a high-pressure bellows.  The arrangement is to throw this bellows into automatic action when the stop is drawn, thus making the supply of wind available.  When the stop is put in, the automatic arrangement is checked and the supply is cut off.”

By now the surrounding neighborhood was one of brownstone mansions and high-end hotels.  The churches of the city’s wealthy closed their doors for three months every summer as the wealthy congregants abandoned the city for resorts like Newport and Bar Harbor.  The hiatus gave the churches the opportunity to repaint or make other necessary improvements without causing interruption to services.

On October 11, 1891 the church, now formally known as The Marble Collegiate Church, reopened with a change in its services.  The New York Times reported that “The interior of the church was repaired and changed during the Summer.  In accordance with the new plan—the cathedral plan—of carrying on the work of the church, there were three services yesterday.”

The following year the fiery and influential pastor Rev. Dr. David J. Burrell gave one of his first sermons on temperance.  Railing against what was termed by another minister “The Respectable Saloon,” Burrell charged “I should prefer that my boy learned to pollute his body and destroy his soul in the lowest ‘dive’ than in one of these ‘respectable saloons.’  His course toward hell would be quicker, and would cause him and those who cherish him less suffering.

“The ministerial voice that was recently raised up in behalf of the saloon uttered the words, ‘The saloon has come to stay.’  So have yellow fever and smallpox come to stay.  So have snakes and tigers come to stay.  So have theft, murder, and uncleanness come to stay. But has any minister of the Gospel ever yet dared to put the benediction of God upon these enemies of mankind?”

Reverend Burrell’s tirade against drink would be among the first stones thrown in a long-lasting battle.

Interestingly enough, Burrell was less intolerant when it came to sports.   A month later, on November 19, it was announced that “To accommodate those who may desire to attend church on Thanksgiving Day, and also to witness the Yale-Princeton football game, the hour of service has been changed to 10:30 A.M. for that day.”

In September 1899 Fifth Avenue is decorated in preparation for the welcoming of Admiral Dewey.  Coaches wait in front of the vine-covered church.  The original diamond-paneled windows are evident in the shot.  photograph by Robert Bracklow, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Burrell was unimpressed with Warner’s mostly-clear, mullioned windows and envisioned the more up-to-date stained glass.  He initiated a thrust to replace the windows and on December 9, 1900 the first was unveiled.  Donated by Sarah A. Sandham, the Tiffany Studios window was dedicated to the memory of her son, George Augustus Sandham.  A year later another Tiffany window was installed, this one donated by Jennie Dayton. 

Dr. Burrell’s project ground to a halt and it would be nearly a century before another stained glass window replaced one of Warner’s originals.
In 1900, the year that the Tiffany Studios windows were installed, brownstone mansions were giving way to commercial buildings -- photograph Library of Congress

On January 26, 1915 the powerful evangelist Billy Sunday announced that he had been invited to conduct a revival meeting at the Marble Collegiate Church, mainly to attack alcohol.  He gladly accepted the challenge.

“Although I am pretty well dated up, I certainly can’t let the Modern Babylon slip by.  Three strikes ought to be called on booze in that city, and I’m going to help all I can.

“Wherever you find booze you’ll find the devil backing it up with all the canister hell can produce and I’m ready to fight it anywhere.  The Lord’s battles must be fought wherever booze is entrenched,” he was quoted in The Evening World.

Three years later the conflict was still raging.  On January 28, 1918 William Jennings Bryant appeared as a “surprise speaker” and he pulled no punches regarding his disdain of the press in its opposition to prohibition.

“The New York newspapers are the center of the opposition to prohibition in this country.  An editorial in one of them is like getting a whiff of a whiskey bottle.”

Saying he expected to see the country free of saloons before he died, he decried the alcohol industry.  “The liquor interests would tie every American down, bind him hand and foot, and pour liquor into him three times a day.  I thank God we have a War Department and government which made the cantonments safe for the soldier boys.”  Bryan was referring to the law that prohibited the sale of liquor to soldiers.

Reverend Burrell, William Cullen Bryan and the other prohibitionists eventually got their way.  In 1933, however, with the repeal of Prohibition, the cause for which the Marble Collegiate Church had so ardently supported for decades was lost.
The Austin organ dominates the entrance wall behind the worshipers in 1938--photograph by Wurts Bros., from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Even more memorable and influential than Burrell was the pastor who came to Marble Collegiate in 1932.  The charismatic Dr. Norman Vincent Peale served the church for more than half a century; during which he wrote 46 books including his best seller The Power of Positive Thinking.  He innovated ministry when he took to the airwaves in 1935 with his weekly "The Art of Living."
A mid-century postcard depicts the sanctuary decorated for Easter.

As the exclusive residential neighborhood continued to move northward along Fifth Avenue the mansions around Marble Collegiate were razed for business buildings.  Yet the congregation remained upscale throughout the decades of the 20th century.  The eyes of the world watched on December 22, 1968 when President-Elect Richard Nixon escorted his daughter Julie into the church for her wedding.  Outside throngs of New Yorkers crushed the avenue to get a glimpse of the politician and the beautiful bride.
A statue of the charismatic and influential Dr. Norman Vincent Peale stands outside the church -- photo by Alice Lum

National attention of a more scandalous sort came when church member Donald Trump met 21-year old Marla Maples at a 1985 tennis tournament in Atlantic City.  The married Trump was smitten with the small-time actress and People Magazine later noted “By 1987, during services at the Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, Trump was secretly romancing Maples as he found ways to temporarily ditch Ivana and their kids.”

In 1997 a committee was organized to address the windows.  Eight stained glass windows were commissioned to complete the sanctuary windows.  The following year a restoration project was initiated that would take a year and a half to complete.  The nearly 150-year old marble was cleaned and repaired along with other necessary restorations. 
photo by Alice Lum

In 2002 a spectacular wedding took place in the church that perhaps overshadowed even the Nixon wedding.  The sanctuary was banked with flowers and fifteen bridesmaids proceeded down the aisle in a lavish production of a ceremony for 56-year old Liza Minnelli and concert promoter David Gest.  The wedding party included Elizabeth Taylor and best man Michael Jackson.  In the pews were Jane Russell, Gina Lollobrigida and columnist Cindy Adams.

Little of Marble Collegiate Church has changed, both inside and out, since it opened its doors in 1854.  Not only a symbol of the oldest Protestant Church in the country, it is a rare and wonderful architectural survivor.
photo by Alice Lum

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