Monday, August 16, 2021

The Lost 1870 St. Thomas' Church - Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street


from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

In July 1824 the newly-organized St. Thomas' Church laid the cornerstone for its first home at the northwest corner of Broadway and Houston Street.  In an address a century later, on December 6, 1923, the Rev. E. Clowes Chorley would recall, "The choice of such a location was a venture of faith.  It was far removed from the population.  The residential section centered around City Hall Park and St. John's Park.  Houston Street was surrounded by large open spaces dotted with big trees, and it was freely predicted that no congregation could be gathered so far uptown."

Designed by Joseph R. Brady and John McVickar, the Gothic Revival style structure was completed in 1826.  
The neighborhood that once, it was feared, could not attract a congregation grew stylish and the burgeoning St. Thomas' congregation was affluent.  

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

Fire destroyed the church in 1851, and a replacement building was erected on its site.  But by the time the new church was dedicated, fashionable society had forged northward.  Rev. Dr. William Ferdinand Morgan was elected rector in 1857.  "It was evident, however, that the church most move further uptown," said Rev. E. Clowes Chorley.  The neighborhood, he explained, had become "the 'tenderloin' of New York and the whole section was seized for amusement and shameful vice."

The last service was held on April 29, 1866.  "Lots were purchased at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Fifty-third Street--a location then in the fields," said Chorley.  Esteemed architect Richard Upjohn was hired to design the new structure.  (He worked with his son, Richard Michell Upjohn on the project.)  The cornerstone was laid on October 14, 1868 and the structure completed two years later.

On October 6, 1870 the church was opened for worship.  The Upjohns had created a Gothic Revival style edifice clad in brownstone that demanded attention.  A 260-foot-high corner bell tower dominated the design.  Romantic crenellated towers, elaborately carved spires, crockets, Gothic-arched openings, and a substantial stained glass rose window combined to create an impressive structure.

The dedication service was officiated by Episcopal Bishops Potter, Littlejohn and Talbot.  The New York Times reported, "there were 150 ministers present, about half of whom wore vestments."  The newspaper noted that the building had cost $650,000--more than $13 million today.  "It has two organs which cost $15,000, one of which is worked by electricity, and two memorial windows, one being the gift of Mr. Lovett Rodgers and the other of Mrs. Moffat and Mrs. Mitchell, the mother of Maggie, the famous actress, whose father was present yesterday."

If Reverend E. Clowes Chorley felt that the location was "in the fields," it would not be for long.  Brownstone mansions were cropping up all around and Manhattan's wealthiest families were quickly filling the recently vacant blocks.  The upscale tenor of the neighborhood was reflected in the congregation of St. Thomas' Church.  On April 6, 1874 The New York Times reported on Easter services, saying, "Few if any of the richer congregations which attend the fine church edifices in the upper part of this City surpassed in point of numbers and display the crowds that were assembled yesterday morning at St. Thomas' Protestant Episcopal Church."

When this photo was taken around 1876, mansions like the one in the foreground were rising.  In the background is the spire of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church   from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

The article estimated the standing-room-0nly crowd at 2,700 with 1,000 turned away.  At the time for communion, "handsomely dressed and delicate ladies were crowded and jostled up the aisles until they reached the chancel steps, and endured the fatigue of standing nearly two hours in order to participate in the services."

St. Thomas' Church was, of course, the scene of socially-important weddings and funerals.  One such event on May 10, 1877 was the marriage of Clara N. Hammond, daughter of Dr. W. A. Hammond, the former Surgeon-General of the United States, to the Marquis Manifrdi Lanza di Mercato Bianco.  The Italian marquis was the third son of the Duke of Brato.  

Whenever an American heiress received a title through  marriage, society took notice.  The New York Times said, "The interest evinced in the ceremony was intense.  Opera-glasses were plentifully employed, and little knots in cozy pews industriously criticised bride and groom, their attendants, and the habiliments and ornaments of their friends."

Christmas Day ceremonies that year would be especially notable.  During the processional, "Hark! The Herald Angeles Sing," King Kalakaua of Hawaii and his royal party arrived.  The New York Times reported that they "sat in chairs placed for them in the front half of the centre aisle."  Outside, throngs of New Yorkers hoped to get a glimpse of the king.  "At the conclusion of the services a well-dressed, if not a well-bred, crowd gathered on the sidewalk and awaited the exit of the King."

In 1878 the extended Vanderbilt family began changing the face of the western side of Fifth Avenue from 51st street to 57th Street with the construction of sumptuous mansions.  Simultaneously St. Thomas' Church was doing extensive interior decoration, completed in time for Easter Services.

Some of the most important artists of the Esthetic Period had been commissioned for the work.   The new altarpiece had been designed by John La Farge and its sculptured elements executed by Augustus St. Gaudens.   On May 6, 1878 The New York Times reported, 

One sees a piece of shrine-work by an Italian jeweler of the sixteenth century.  But in it stands or rather is glued, in the centre, a modern cross, severely simple and gilt all over.  About the cross are tiers of angels worked out by the young sculptor, St. Gaudens (of New-York) after a hasty sketch by La Farge.  They are adoring the cross in attitudes of devotion which are meant to be neither constrained nor theatrical.

La Farge created panels on either side of the alter, their frames executed in "black wood, curiously inlaid with mother-of-pearl, with gilding and silvering."  The New York Times opined, "They might have been conceived, although not executed, in Florence, during the ages when Florence was still full of the traditions of the great sculptors."  La Farge's redecoration included a gold roof over the vault, new stained glass windows, and "the frieze that runs under the windows of the apse; the inclined lane that separates the frieze from the paintings; the gilded frieze with emblems of the apostles underneath; pilasters between the clay angels and paintings."  The critic praised the project, saying "the managers of this piece of decoration have gone to a man who is unquestionably an artist, and they have secured a work of art which will make their church always notable, if not famous."

On November 3, 1895 The New York Times reported, "The arrangements for the marriage of Miss Consuelo Vanderbilt, the only daughter of Mr. and Mrs. William Kissam Vanderbilt, and granddaughter of William H. Vanderbilt, to Charles Richard John Spencer Churchill, the ninth Duke of Marlborough, have been completed."  The engagement had been announced at a glittering ball at Marble House, the Newport estate of the bride's parents.

Behind the scenes the match was anything but romantic.  Consuelo Vanderbilt was in love with another man, Winthrop Rutherford.  But her mother was determined that she should marry a nobleman.  (Alva Vanderbilt most likely was concerned about securing her daughter's social standing, given that Alva and William Vanderbilt had divorced earlier that year--an action that could have ruined Consuelo's reputation.)  Consuelo was forced into the marriage.

The wedding took place on November 6, 1895.  The New York Times said it was "without exception, the most magnificent ever celebrated in this country, which was quite fitting, in view of the great wealth and social position of the bride and the high rank of the bridegroom."  Alva Vanderbilt's decision to divorce her husband had not sat well with her in-laws.  The article noted, "The only regret that might be expressed is that...outside of the bride's immediate family, none of the Vanderbilts were in attendance."

Liveried coachmen line the sidewalk outside the church during the Vanderbilt-Churchill wedding.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The church was decorated with palms, flowers and ribbons of pink and white satin.  "It took thousands of yards of smilax and holly and hundreds of posies" to make the garlands which streamed from the dome of the church, reported the article.  "It took a score of people several days to complete the work."  Music was supplied by a symphony orchestra and a choir of 60 voices.

In November 1895 two stained glass windows by Tiffany Glass & Decorating Company were unveiled.  Designed by Frederick Wilson, they represented St. Martin and Dorcas.  The New York Times remarked, "There are many windows of great merit in St. Thomas's Church, and they are admired by all lovers of ecclesiastical art, yet this new memorial will attract more attention, probably, than those that are older and more familiar to those who attend the church."

Another notable society wedding was that of Pauline Whitney, daughter of former Secretary of the Navy William C. Whitney, to Almeric Hugh Paget on November 12, 1895.  Society weddings always attracted what newspapers termed "gawkers" and this was no exception.  "The crowd extended fully a block up and down the street, and lined along the curb as if some great procession were soon to pass by.  Most of the women appeared to be of the class that loves to read the so-called society papers," said The New York Times.

Ivy had covered much of the facade by the time this hand-colored postcard was produced.

Five months later, on April 6, 1896 former President Benjamin Harrison married Mary Scott Lord Dimmick, the widow of W. E. Dimmick.  As had been the case with Consuelo Vanderbilt's wedding, newspapers made note of conspicuous absences among those present.  The New-York Tribune remarked, "The fact that General Harrison's daughter, Mrs. McKee, and his son, Russell B. Harrison, were not at the wedding, caused considerable comment.  It has been rumored that Mr. Harrison's family were strongly opposed to their father's marriage to Mrs. Dimmick."

Perhaps the last of the "penny princesses" (American heiresses who married foreign nobles) to be wed in the church was May Goelet, the only daughter of millionaire Ogden Goelet.  Her marriage to Henry John Innes-Ker, eighth Duke of Roxburghe, took place on November 10, 1903.  Once again the streets were packed with gawkers.

The New York Times reported, "One disagreeable incident was the mobbing of Miss Goelet's carriage by thousands of inordinately curious women.  In the carriage with the bride-to-be was her brother Robert Goelet...The crowd of women was quick to recognize the bridal veil, and immediately the carriage was surrounded by well-dressed women, who did not hesitate to poke their heads into the open window of the vehicle.  Miss Goelet was plainly frightened, and her brother asked the police to hold the women back."

The floral decorations of the Goelet-Ker wedding.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York 

Shortly after 6:00 on the morning of August 8, 1905 the housekeeper of the rectory, Mrs. Sandsbach discovered a fire raging in the sanctuary of the church.  She ran screaming into the street, alerting policeman Thomas Hewitt who pulled the handle of a nearby firebox.  Within hours the magnificent structure, filled with irreplaceable artwork, was a smoking ruin.

The New York Times said, "Despite the efforts of fifty fire companies, to save St. Thomas's Episcopal of the most notable edifices in the city, with perhaps the richest congregation in the whole country, was destroyed by fire."

The following day, while the debris was still smoking, the congregation was already laying plans to rebuild.  The replacement building, designed by Ralph Adams Cram and Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, was completed in 1913.

from the collection of the New York Public Library has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog


  1. I can't identify the mansion at right in the 1876 photograph, but in about three years from that photograph work would begin on the corner vacant lot at far left. It was there Alva and Willie K Vanderbilt built their famous petit chateau at 660 Fifth Ave, designed by Richard Morris Hunt. A photo in that post shows the unidentified mansion across the street would soon be torn down.

  2. I wonder what year the exterior statues of the saints were completed?

  3. The image attributed to the floral arrangements for the Goelet-Ker wedding is not correct.
    The pipe organ in the photograph had a different facade after 1884. The facade shown in the image dates from the original Hall, Labagh & Co. organ which was installed in 1870.