Wednesday, June 5, 2019

St. Bartholomew's Church - 109 East 50th Street

The congregation of St Bartholomew's Protestant Episcopal Church, founded in 1835, worshiped in a simple structure at the corner of Great Jones Street and Lafayette Place until 1872 when it moved into its new home at Madison Avenue and 44th Street.

The 1872 structure was designed by James Renwick Jr.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

St. Bartholomew's counted among its members some of the wealthiest and most influential citizens of Manhattan--perhaps none more active in the church's affairs than the extended Vanderbilt family.  

On Friday, December 11, 1885 the casket of William Henry Vanderbilt was removed from his Fifth Avenue mansion and a procession of 60 carriages accompanied it to St. Bartholomew's.  It was the first of a succession of Vanderbilt funerals in the church, culminating with that of Cornelius Vanderbilt II in September 1899.

On June 22, 1902 The New York Times reported "Plans for the new bronze doors and portals for St. Bartholomew's Church, which have been given by Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt in memory of her husband, have been prepared by the architects, McKim, Mead & White."  The 11-foot tall central double doors, eight feet in width, were designed by sculptors Daniel C. French and Andrew O'Connor.  The northern door was modeled by Philip Martiny and the southern by Herbert Adams.  The four artists were responsible for the marble reliefs of the porch as well.

The Times announced "A new porch, with three ornamented Romanesque arches, is to be erected across the Madison Square front of the church in order to show off the beauty of the new doors and tympanums.  This porch is to be 75 feet in width and 28 feet in height.  It is to contain twenty-four columns of green marble, several niches and statues, and a rich frieze carved in the stone between the pillars."  In all 400 figures were depicted in the doors and portals.

The installation was completed by April 1904 when The Architectural Record, while giving McKim, Mead & White its just dues, commented that the new portals and bronze doors "are more evidently the work of the sculptor than of the architect."

Photographed in 1916, the church had gained a portal and lost a spire.  McKim, Mead & White's installation fit seamlessly into the structure.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

In January 1917 the church's rector, Rev. Dr. Leighton Parks, announced that $1 million had been collected within a 10-month period for the construction of a new edifice.  The site had been acquired on the east side of Park Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets.  Until recently Park Avenue had been an unfashionable street, but the lowering of the train tracks into Grand Central Terminal had changed all that.

The New York Times reported "It was also stated that work on the new church was to be begun immediately, the old brewery buildings have already been removed, and that services probably would be held in the new edifice by the Fall of 1918."  Construction costs had been projected at $1.2 million ($23.5 million in today's dollars).  The new St. Bartholomew's, said the article "will be one of the finest and costliest in America."

The congregation had hired architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue in 1914 to begin designing its new structure.  As he worked and reworked the plans the costs rose.  On May 2, 1917 The New York Times reported "The new edifice will cost $3,000,000, and will be constructed of Indiana limestone."

Goodhue's original 1916 rendering included a massive dome.  image via St. Bartholomew's Conservancy
The cornerstone was laid on May 1, 1917 in the presence of 300 members.  Within the previous two months another $1 million had been raised for the project.  Within the cornerstone were an Episcopal Prayer Book, a copy of the church plans, a history of the church and other items, including 1917 coins ranging from a penny to a $20 gold piece.  Not surprisingly, among those who "braved the rain," according to The Times, was Alice Vanderbilt.

Also not surprising was that Mrs. Vanderbilt's costly gift in memory of her husband--what would become known as The Vanderbilt Porch--was included in Goodhue's new design.

The Vanderbilt Porch was removed from the Madison Avenue church and installed at the new site.

The building was formerly opened on October 20, 1918.  The war in Europe prompted a newspaper to say "Patriotism and religious fervor were the predominating notes of the service."  Following the processional hymn the congregation sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" and Dr. Parks made a special prayer for the military men who had lost their lives.  He read the complete roll of the church members currently serving.

Although usable for worship, the church was still not completed.  In his remarks Dr. Parks noted "It is not finished and in many respects the interior is bare.  We have been unable to carry out the plans for the dome and cloisters, and burlap covers parts of the wall that should be tiled or otherwise decorated.  Undoubtedly in time the church will reach a completed state."  It would take decades for his prophesy to come to be fulfilled.

It would be years before the dome was constructed.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The church could not be dedicated until the debt was eliminated, and that took place on May 1, 1923.  The New York Times explained "The consecration was made possible by the liquidation of the last $155,000 of debt upon the building."  It was an imposing ceremony that included several bishops and numerous clergymen.

Modernism--a movement among certain priests to reevaluate traditional church tenets--was causing upheaval in the Episcopal Church at the time.  And the Rev. Dr. Leighton Parks embraced its often controversial viewpoints.  They were not shared by Alice Vanderbilt and the inevitable breaking point came during services on December 16, 1923.

The Niagara Falls Gazette reported the following day that before entering the pulpit he removed his surplice and stole, "symbols of his priesthood."  His following sermon shocked and infuriated Alice Vanderbilt.

"He challenged both the doctrines of the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection and welcomed a trial for heresy," said the article."  It was the last straw for Mrs. Vanderbilt.

Two months later, on February 27, 1924, The New York Times reported "Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Sr. has left St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church...She has been a member of St. Bartholomew's for fifty years, and she and her late husband were so active in its life and so generous in their support of the church and all its philanthropies that St. Bartholomew's often was referred to as 'the Vanderbilt Church.'"  The article cited the December sermon as the cause of the rift.

The upheaval was not merely local news.  The upstate newspaper the Watertown Standard ran a front page headline on February 26, "Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Quits St. Bartholomew's Because of Controversy" and said she "has attended services at the equally fashionable St. Thomas' church, it was learned today."

The following year Rev. Parks stepped down and in March 1925 his replacement, the Rev. Dr. Robert Norwood, was announced.  The differences in their theological stances could not have been more extreme.  Norwood told reporters that all modernism was "slander against God" and said it "crucifies Christ again."

Under Rev. Norwood a new community house was begun in 1926, designed by Mayers, Murray & Phillip, associates of Bertram G. Goodhue.  The architects sympathetically drew from Goodhue's Byzantine design and the church's materials and  colors to create a harmonious complex.  Congregation members (for a $1 per month fee) would enjoy the 60-foot long swimming pool (touted as "the finest swimming pool in any such plant") and gymnasium on the ground floor.  The first floor held an auditorium and stage where a full-time dramatic director would stage amateur theatricals.

The second floor held offices and the library.  The New York Times, on November 27, 1927, said "The third is the Women's Floor.  There are large parlors and lounge rooms equipped with folding card tables.  Bridge will be allowed but no playing for money will be permitted."  Above was the Men's Floor with pool and billiard rooms, parlors and lounge rooms, and a grill room.  This fifth floor was devoted to children, with a kindergarten (tuition was $150 per year, just over $2,000 today), and quarters for Boy Scouts.  Staffing the new building required six stewards, three maids, two telephone operators and two elevator operators.

The community house is seen to the right.  photo by Wurtz Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
With the community house completed, the congregation turned its focus on completing the church proper.  On April 7, 1929 Dr. Norwood informed the congregation that more than half a million dollars of the projected $700,000 had been pledged for the erection of the dome and completion of the interiors.

The following January The Times announced that work on the "mosaic work in the narthex of the church," a new 1,825-pipe Skinner organ, and construction of the dome were just months away.  The article added "when these projects have been carried out the church, which is one of the most striking examples of the modern phase of Byzantine architecture in the world, will be practically completed."

The extent of the renovations, which included the installation of several memorials, led the vestry to decide to have a new dedication.  It was officially re-opened by Dr. Norwood on October 5, 1930.  He praised the building as "a perpetual hymn to God."  The mosaics had been executed by Hildreth Meiere, windows by J. Gordon Guthrie, and the new sculptures by Lee Lawrie.   Except for nearly two dozen stained glass windows, the church was complete.

The redecorated sanctuary was clad in deeply veined marble--a material which sparked declarations of a miracle in February 1932.  Dr. Norwood preached a sermon on the resurrection on February 20, 1932 and as he turned from the pulpit, in his words, "was amazed to see this lovely figure of Christ in the marble.  I had never noticed it before.  As it seemed to me to be an actual expression o the face of the marble of what I was preaching, 'His Glorious Body,' I consider it a curious and beautiful happening."

A journalist from The New York Times described it on February 23 as "a figure of Christ, clothed in white and rising from the dead...The figure, measuring about one foot and a half in height, is enclosed in an oval, resembling in miniature the heroic representation of the Transfiguration over the high altar."  The article said that a worshiper who came to pray the day before "was so impressed by the picture, even in the dim overheat altar lights, that he believed it to be a part of a mural painting."

The news prompted a pilgrimage of sorts.  On February 24 the newspaper reported "People streamed all day yesterday into St. Bartholomew's Church...where they viewed in silence the figure of Christ, which is clearly discernible in the veining of the brownish marble on the wall of the sanctuary."

The Rev. Dr. Norwood died of a cerebral hemorrhage on September 29 that year at the age of 58.  The Times pointed out, "One of the most forceful speakers in the pulpit, Dr. Norwood preached almost invariably to a full church of more than 2,000 persons."  His funeral, on October 1, saw St. Bartholomew's Church packed.  "More than 2,200 persons in all walks of life, among them clergymen of many denominations, crowded the edifice, and late comers stood at the rear," said The Times.

In December 1942 The Rev. Dr. George Paull T. Sargent announced that funds had been donated for 15 stained glass windows.  Miss Harriett E. Sheldon and Mrs. James Sheldon would provide 12 chapel windows and two clerestory windows in memory of their sister, Adelaide Sheldon; and the rose window was donated by Mrs. Henry White in memory of her daughter, Lila Vanderbilt Field.

By the time the windows were dedicated on November 19, 1944, the number had risen to 22.  The Sheldons were not only responsible for 21 stained glass windows, but a chapel altar cross.  Another window was dedicated to Ellen Brymer Williams, mother of the the church's organist and choirmaster David McK. Williams.

By 1980 the Park Avenue property under St. Bartholomew's Church was a tempting target for developers.  In September 1980 a "very prestigious American corporation" offered the church $100 million for the property.  Carter B. Horsley, writing in The New York Times on September 19, noted "The church, which is noted for its modified Byzantine eclectic architecture, is an official city landmark, and approval for demolition or any alteration to its facade must be sought from the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission."  That condition would result in a long and heated battle.

The vestry and the congregants were split.  The rector, the Rev. Thomas D. Bowers, led the charge to sell and demolish the Community House to raise funds for the church's work with the poor and elderly.  The other faction argued that the disposition of any church property would detract from its symbol as a Christian haven in "bustling midtown Manhattan."

The Bowers camp seemed to have won when St. Bartholomew's laid plans for a 59-story office building on the site of the Community House.  A hearing lasting nearly nine hours took place at the Landmarks Preservation Commission offices on January 31, 1984.  Dozens of witnesses testified on both sides of what The Times's David Dunlap deemed "one of the most important landmarks struggles of the decade."

When the LPC vetoed the plans, St. Bartholomew's Church sued the city, claiming its landmarks preservation law was unconstitutional.  A formidable opposition joined forces--among them Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Brooke Astor and Brendon Gill.   It ended up in the United States Supreme Court.  Twice.

On July 10, 1987 a federal judge ruled that the New York City law was constitutional.  Refusing to concede, St. Bartholomew's appealed.  On December 13, 1989 a second judge "rejected a broad challenge to the New York City's landmarks preservation law by St. Bartholomew's Church."  

So the church sued again, this time fighting the designation and charging "that landmark status interfered with its freedom of religion and its property rights."  And again it lost.  On September 12, 1990 The New York Times reported "The landmark designation of St. Bartholomew's Church on Park Avenue was upheld unanimously yesterday by the Federal Court of Appeals."

The church had exhausted its options.  Taking the "if you can't beat them, join them" position, in 1992 the church established the St. Bartholomew's Preservation Foundation.  Restoration of the structure, including the leaking dome, was begun.  The dome restoration was completed in September 2017.

The remarkable church and Community House were designated National Historic Landmarks in 2015.

photographs by the author


  1. The train tracks were not lowered: they were covered over by bridges holding the streets and buildings. None of the many buildings since constructed have basements, because the multitude of train tracks still run underneath.

    1. With all due respect, the trains ran at street level down the middle of Park Avenue (Fourth Avenue) originally. There was public outcry to "sink the tracks below ground level" as early as 1873. The city shouldered half the cost with Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1875 to lower and cover the tracks.