Monday, February 10, 2014

The Lost St. Nicholas Church -- 5th Avenue and 48th Street

By the 1944 the church was much diminished by soaring office buildings -- photograph by Wurts Bros, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The oldest denomination in Manhattan, the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church was founded in 1628.  As the city and its population grew, so did the Reformed Dutch Church.  One by one new edifices were constructed as the residential neighborhoods of Manhattan crept ever northward.

By 1851 there were Reformed Dutch churches on Washington Square, one on Fifth Avenue and 21st Street, and another on Lafayette Place and Fourth Street.  Land was acquired in the fashionable and rapidly-developing neighborhood of Fifth Avenue and 29th Street where another, the Marble Collegiate Church, was completed in 1854.

With astounding foresight, the Church purchased land from Columbia University in 1857 more than thirty blocks north.  The plot on Fifth Avenue at the corner of 48th Street was two blocks below the site of the Roman Catholic St. Patrick’s Cathedral which would begin rising within two years.  But for now only a handful of structures dotted the still-unpaved Fifth Avenue.

Construction on St. Patrick’s ground to a halt during the Civil War.  But in 1869, as workers once again toiled over the massive marble structure, the cornerstone for the Collegiate Dutch Reformed Church was laid further down the avenue.  Like St. Patrick’s the Protestant edifice would be in the Gothic Revival style, recently popular for church structures.  But that was where the similarities would end.

Architect Wheeler Smith would create an eccentric brownstone structure that rose high above Fifth Avenue with a succession of stacked Gothic windows along the side, buttresses, gables, spires and angles.  An exaggerated stone steeple, purposely out of proportion, rose nearly three times the height of the church proper—to 265 feet above the sidewalk.

Construction would continue for another three years and on December 21, 1872 the Real Estate Record and Builder’s Guide ignored St. Patrick’s, the Gothic masterwork of James Renwick, Jr., and described the Collegiate Dutch Reformed Church as the outstanding Manhattan example of the style.

“Among the many wretched platitudes with which downright ignorance has defaced the city, under the pretended name of Gothic architecture, it is so refreshing to meet with a building which, as in this case, exhibits thorough knowledge, motive, and earnest thought in the designer, that we should be very sorry to do it injustice.”

The Record and Guide did not overlook the idiosyncrasies of the wonderfully unconventional design.  “With all its peculiarities, it is so immeasurably superior to the generality of churches hitherto erected in New York, that the author of it may be fairly ranked among the very few architects in our midst to whom we can look for anything like progress in art.  With all the boldness, earnestness of thought, originality and inventive faculty which it exhibits, this edifice has failed in being a perfect model of Gothic architecture only because the designer of it allowed his love of eccentricity to misapply in manifold instances, the very beauties of which he has been evidently so diligent and successful a student.”

The 18th century bell which had hung in two earlier Reformed Dutch Churches was installed in the belfry of the massive stone steeple.  Although the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide praised the church once again, calling it “A most beautiful example of a Gothic, so hardy as to be rather French than English;” not every critic was so complimentary.  The often acerbic Montgomery Schuyler protested “It is simply Gothic gone roaring mad.”

By the time construction was completed in 1873, the Fifth Avenue neighborhood around the church had filled with the mansions of Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens.  Among the elite families on the church’s membership roll were the Roosevelts.  When John E. Roosevelt married Nannie Mitchell Vance on February 19, 1879, the sanctuary was crowded with New York’s most socially prestigious names.

“There was a large and select gathering present,” reported The New York Times, “including very many representatives of the Roosevelt family, the Schermerhorn, the Schuyler, and other old families of the City.  Eighty-six carriages stood in line in Fifth-avenue and the streets in the vicinity of the church.”
At the opposite corner of the block was the mansion of Robert W. Goelet -- from the collection of the New York Public Library
One of the many Roosevelts to worship here was young Theodore who was 15 years old when the church was dedicated.  For years he and his family would sit in Pew No. 39 in the heavily-carved Gothic interior.

The sidewalk in front of St. Nicholas Church is crowded on Easter Day -- photographer unknown from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Eventually the Collegiate Dutch Reformed Church would become known as the Collegiate Church of St. Nicholas.  But on January 8, 1919, when Theodore Roosevelt was laid to rest on Long Island, newspapers still referred to it by its formal name.  “As a tribute to Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, New York City will pause in its work for one minute at 1 o’clock this afternoon, the hour of the funeral at Oyster Bay,” reported The New York Times.  At that precise moment, “the bells of the Dutch Reformed Church, which Colonel Roosevelt attended, will be tolled,” said the newspaper.

At the time the pastor of the congregation was the Rev. Malcolm James McLeod.  The minister and his family were suffering deep personal problems.  When the United States entered World War I, young Henry Blakely McLeod sailed off to Europe to fight.  Early in 1918 he disappeared from his Army platoon and at the time of the Roosevelt funeral was still missing.

The architectural intricacies of the church can be seen at street level in 1920 -- from the collection of the New York Public Library
It would not be until May 1, 1920 that newspapers reported on his return to the McLeon house.  “Although the findings of the army medical board have not yet been announced, Dr. McLeod said he understood through indirect sources that his son was found to be suffering from psychosis,” reported The Times.  The traumatized soldier had spent five weeks in the psychopathic ward of Walter Reed Hospital before being sent home.

During the summer of 1929, when many of the wealthy congregants were away to Newport and other resorts, the brownstone exterior was repaired.  Two weeks were required simply to erect the scaffolding around the complex structure and renovations took three months at a cost of $45,000.

Throughout the first decades of the 20th century the brownstone church continued its fashionable reputation.  It was here, on December 23, 1938, that the funeral for Mrs. Finley J. Shepard, the former Helen Gould took place.  The philanthropist daughter of the 19th century mogul Jay Gould, she had lived her entire life in the Gould mansion on the opposite corner of Fifth Avenue and 47th Street.

In 1936 Berenice Abbott captured the church with the soaring RCA Building in the distance.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In a tragic twist of irony, Rev. Dr. McLeod’s youngest son, Malcolm James McLeod, Jr., left home to fight in World War II.  A lieutenant in the Army, he died in England on November 22, 1945.  The Army Air Forces Aid Society worked with the church in establishing a memorial to the fallen airman.  At the same time, the church opened a “hobby shop” for Service Men at 16 West 48th Street.  Several rooms were designated for service men could learn crafts including painting, designing and carving.

In 1925 St. Nicholas Church and the Goelet mansion clung on as reminders of a far different time.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
But clouds were forming over St. Nicholas Church.  Two months later, on January 29, 1946, The New York Times reported on the proposed sale and demolition of the 73 year old church.  A schism was growing between congregation members who approved of liquidating the valuable property and those who opposed it.  The value of land, which in 1915 was placed at $1.6 million, was now in excess of $4 million.

The new minister, Rev. Dr. Joseph R. Sizoo, was vocally against the destruction of the structure.  Sizoo was heartened with an uprising of community outcry against the proposed vandalism.  “Public sentiment is crystallizing and we are being urged to carry on where we are with ever-increasing effectiveness,” he told reporters.  He famously said that the sale of the church would put the dollar sign before the cross.

Rev. Sizoo managed to stave off the sale for months; but eventually strife among the church factions was severe enough to cause his resignation and for all but 400 members to walk out.  On July 24, 1949 the final service was held in the grand brownstone church.  Nearly before the last reverberations of the great organ had abated, August F. Stauff, chairman of the churchmasters’ committee told The Times “Dismantling of the church interior will start immediately.  We intend to salvage as much as we can of the furnishings and distribute them to near-by churches.  We have had several requests, particularly of the pews.”
The most famous of the sought-after pews was No. 39 which now wore a bronze plaque dedicated to the memory of its former holder, Theodore Roosevelt.  The ornately-carved pew was removed and relocated to the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site on East 20th Street.  The two-century-old bell was removed from the belfry and eventually installed in the New Middle Collegiate Church on Second Avenue.

By the end of the year the delightfully eccentric old St. Nicholas Church was gone.  In its place rose the Sinclair Oil Building, deemed by Andrew Cusack as “rather bland yet relatively inoffensive.”

photo by Alice Lum


  1. That is what most of Fifth avenue has become in comparison to it's golden heyday, rather bland but inoffensive, not exactly the direction any city wants to be heading in. A beautifully eccentric Victorian masonry pile. NYarch

  2. So this is what heartbreak feels like...I am not a religious person at all but man churches are the best structures in this country and to see this amazing one go down because of the dollar really says something about that congregations' greedy members. This is as bad as the demolition of the Madison Square Presbyterian Church. Vandalism at its absolute worst

  3. One need not be a student of church architecture to realize this place was a mess. A steeple way out of proportion, and arched windows on top of other arched windows. Two unevenly placed arched entryways on Fifth Avenue. Idiosyncratic only starts to describe it. The congo did the right thing to take the money and run, particularly when Dutch reformed Protestants had become very thin on the ground by 1949, in NYC.

  4. As a former architectural student and current licensed architect I have come to appreciate that perfection is not the only thing that makes great architecture. I would choose this ornament heavy, quirky Gothic Victorian masonry pile any day over a critically acclaimed, cold, soulless steel and glass box. NYC has lost much wonderful architecture to horrific "modern" knockoffs. The unfortunate loss of this stunning church has robbed the passing pedestrian and all of us of the soaring inspirational feast for the eyes that one sees and the goosebumps one gets in such structures. The irreplaceable volume of space, the colorful light streaming in from the massive windows, the textural feel of the fine materials and overwhelming intricacy of the ornamentation, not to mention the countless laborers and their craftsmanship, all which can never be found in the hard cold environment of the bland International style replacement box that sucks the life from the 5th Ave streetscape.

  5. Has anyone seen any photos of the interior of this vanished church? My father was a paid soloist here for some years before its sale and demolition. Thank you.

  6. No doubt Gothic gone roaringly mad ...but still a feast for the eyes. Too bad the congregation put the almighty dollar ahead of the Cross and made off with a great real estate deal to fill their pockets. Had it yet stood today it would have rivaled Renwicks Cathedral just up the street. Whenever I get to the spot I imagine what the ornate front portals looked like and the elongated steeple.... and I shake my head when my vision focuses on the Ann Taylor sign and the TGI Friday restaurant which would be where the front steps once were....

  7. One of NYC's saddest losses period.

  8. Are you sure the date is correct for the young man killed in the Second World War? Weren’t hostilities concluded by November 22,1945?

    1. The last American killed in action was Army Sergeant Anthony J. Marchione on August 18, 1945. Malcom James McLeod was an active airman at the time of his death in England, which occurred apparently not in battle.