Monday, October 8, 2018

The Lost 2nd Trinity Church - Broadway at Wall Street

Handsome brick Georgian-style homes lined the Broadway neighborhood.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
In 1697 the first Trinity Church was constructed at the head of Wall Street, with its back to Broadway.  Parishioners leaving services were greeted with sweeping views of the North (later renamed the Hudson) River.  As the population of the city mushroomed, Trinity Church was enlarged in 1737.

Two men in tricorner hats stand behind the enlarged structure in 1737.  print by John Evers, from the collection of the New York Public Library 
Disaster came on September 20, 1776 when fire broke out in the Fighting Cocks Tavern near Whitehall Street.  The city had been occupied by the British for five days and colonists blamed the red coats for setting the blaze.  The British blamed the rebels.  Whatever the cause the inferno burned all night, destroying hundreds of structures including Trinity Church.

Vestryman Thomas Barrow made a set of etchings, including this one, of the ruins.  His name survives as Barrow Street in Greenwich Village.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Rebuilding would have to wait.  Many of the parishioners were now homeless and essentially the entire congregation, including pastor Rev. Charles Inglis, evacuated the city.

In 1788, five years after the last shot in the war was fired, construction began on the second Trinity Church.  It was not completed in time for the inauguration of President George Washington in 1789, who prayed instead at St. Paul's Chapel.

The structure, now facing Broadway, was finished in 1790.  The name of its architect is unknown, but his fieldstone structure was elegant.  Larger than its predecessor, its stone steeple rose 200 feet above Broadway.  An elegant half-round portico sheltered the entrance.

Famed architect Alexander Jackson Davis, Jr. created this depiction around 1830. from the collection of the New York Public Library
The New York Herald described the interiors decades later.  "It had galleries on the two sides, and on the east end, a part of the last of which formed the organ loft, in which was placed a fine organ, built in London soon after the church was finished.  The galleries were supported by square pannelled [sic] columns; directly over each of which rose a clustered Gothic column of the roof."

From the center of the three arches above the nave hung "three large and elegant cut glass chandeliers" and four smaller versions hung below the galleries.  The Gothic-pointed windows were extremely early examples--the Gothic Revival style would not be fully embraced in America until the 1840's.  Each of them contained "very small panes."  The largest, in the sanctuary, was considered "one of the largest windows in the United States," according to The New York Herald.  The newspaper said it contained 1,039 panes.

On March 27, 1790 the Gazette of the United-States reported "The new Church lately built in Broadway on the site of the old Trinity Church, was on Thursday last solemnly consecrated and dedicated to the service of God, by the Right Reverend Father in God, Samuel, Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church...A great number of people were assembled on this occasion.  The President of the United States, together with the Rev. Clergy of the different denominations in this city, and many other persons of distinction were present."

The Society of Iconophiles re-published this early print by William Strickland in 1908 from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The symbolic importance of Trinity Church made it a central point for gatherings.  Public announcements were posted on its fence and assemblies were held on its sidewalk.   None, perhaps, were more notable than those following France's declaration of war against Britain--America's recent enemy--on February 1, 1793.

France had been a strong ally and played a vital role in the United States' victory over the British.  Understandably, the French Government now looked to America for military support.  In 1793 a proclamation of neutrality by a doubtlessly conflicted George Washington was affixed to Trinity's fence.  It was followed by a large gathering at the spot on August 13 to support his decision.

The Gazette of the United-States reported "Citizens of all parties, and every class were present; their unexampled unanimity it is hoped will discourage the few, the very few, turbulent men among us, and cannot fail to instruct foreigners, that however we may disagree in our local politics, we stand united and firm, in our decision to maintain our neutrality."

For whatever reason, The Herald occasionally took editorial swipes at Trinity Church, often making reference to the church's great wealth; other times printing somewhat sophomoric jabs.  On January 14, 1837, for instance, it wrote "The Rev. Mr. Higby from Washington, preached in Trinity Church on Thursday evening, before a congregation consisting of the silver haired Trustees--the venerable matrons--the amiable aunts--and a choice collection of the young and fascinating among the intellectual and refined."

And on October 16 that year the newspaper complained "Who painted the inside of Trinity Church?  He must have been a disciple of Alexander, the copper-smith, for such a botch we never saw.  We can't say our prayers quietly there till it be repainted."

The trustees would soon have more to worry about than a bad paint job, however.  On September 25, 1839, the Telegraph and Texas Register reported "The old Trinity Church, in New York is about to be pulled down, and a new edifice erected in its stead.  It was discovered by workmen employed in repairing the roof, that the walls were out of plumb, and were in some places cracked from the cornice to the base."  The newspaper added "Indeed the whole structure seems to have been miserably built."

print by J. Evers from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The trustees had brought in architect Richard Upjohn to assess and correct the problems.  But the structural defects were deemed irreparable.  Part of the problem was the mortar, which the Bulletin explained did not have "its due proportion of sand [and] never formed a cement, and now crumbles at the touch.  In consequence, it has become necessary to raze the old church, to make room for a more substantial, and perhaps a more magnificent temple."

What might have seemed a straightforward project of demolition and rebuilding was not.  On August 2, 1839 the Morning Herald strongly proposed that the razing of Trinity Church opened the opportunity to extend Wall Street to the North River.  As for the burial ground that filled the churchyard, the newspaper was dismissive.

The grave yard of Trinity Church is utterly useless, in these latter days, for its original purpose.  All the saints, savans and beauties of the last and virtuous age are buried there; but of late years roguery has so much increased in the world that few deserve to be buried in Trinity Church yard.  In the meantime what improvement would more adorn the city, or benefit the public health, than the elongation of Wall street from Broadway to the North River?

The newspaper accused Trinity Church of "bribery and corruption" to fight the proposal.  "We know very well that this sainted corporation can expend $100,000 in quieting the press and the people's servants about this improvement."

The Morning Herald struck again on August 31, saying "if we could so far overcome folly, bigotry, and hypocrisy, as to get the street cut through to the North River, (which must soon be done) and a splendid square laid out, or Cathedral built on the site of Trinity Church, it would far surpass in beauty, and utility any street in the known world."

The editors of the Morning Herald did not get their way.  There would be no "cathedral square" and Wall Street would not be cut through.  Instead, Trinity Church was demolished and construction of Richard Upjohn's replacement began over the venerable site.  The eight bells of the old steeple were distributed to churches throughout the city.

The Morning Herald sounded conciliatory on October 1, 1840 when it wrote "The Episcopalians are rich, gay, and pious as usual.  This is the richest and most respectable sect in the country.  They are not numerous--but influential and powerful.  Their new Trinity Church is making great progress.  It is a beautiful building."

The Bulletin, in 1837, had hoped for "perhaps a more magnificent temple."  And that is what Manhattan got.  Upjohn's glorious Gothic Revival structure, which survives, is a masterpiece.

Richard Upjohn personally created this depiction of his new church.  from the collection of the New York Public Library


  1. Since early times the Christian tradition in the west was to place the sanctuary with its altar in the east end of the church. This was especially true of the Anglican churches of our Colonial period. St. Paul's Chapel is an excellent example of that tradition.

  2. Five of the cut glass chandeliers are in St Paul's Episcopal Church in Oxford NY.