Monday, November 1, 2021

The Lost St. Bartholomew's Church - Madison Avenue and 44th Street

To the left of the church is the rectory, also designed by Renwick & Sands.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

St. Bartholomew's Protestant Episcopal Church was founded in 1835.  Its congregation initially worshiped in a simple structure at the corner of Great Jones Street and Lafayette Place.  In the first years following the end of the Civil War, however, society was moving further northward and plans were laid for a new building on the southwest corner of Madison and 44th Street.  The well-known architectural firm of Renwick & Sands was hired to design the new structure, and as construction neared completion, the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide gave its hearty approval on October 19, 1872.

"Since the erection of the splendid synagogue of El Emanuel, on Fifth avenue, no place of public worship has been constructed in this city more pleasing and satisfactory, as a specimen of ecclesiastical architecture, than the new Episcopal church of Saint Bartholomew," said the article.  With the exception of the soaring Byzantine-inspired bell tower, the style would be termed Sicilian Romanesque today.  But the Record & Guide's critic had trouble putting a finger on it:

The design is in what might, in general terms, be called the Byzantine style of architecture, but the architects have so closely adhere to the peculiar branch of it illustrated by the Cathedral of Pisa and other works of that character, that it may more properly be classified as Pisan Romanesque.

Renwick & Sands incorporated five different types of stone into the façade to provide a variation of color and visual texture.  The Record & Guide found fault only in the tower.  "In St. Bartholomew's church, the whole frontage may be pronounced absolutely perfect, tower and all, until we reach that stage of the latter where an open octagonal turret, formed of a wooden and slated dome resting on slender columns, is placed upon the square portion of the tower, sloping away at the angles to receive it."  The critic felt that the slope of the dome was "very defective."

The cost of construction was reported at $240,000.  When the costs of the organ, the furnishings and decorations were added in, the price rose to $400,000, according to The New York Times--or just under $8.75 million today.  On the evening of October 31 the still uncompleted church was "open to the inspection of the public," as reported by The New York Times, which called it "a magnificent specimen of the most chaste and ornate architecture."

Workmen were paving East 44th Street when this photograph was taken in 1895.  photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The article noted, "Rich music was discoursed from the organ, which is one of the finest in the City, and cost $12,000.  A new and splendid altar is being completed, and will soon be in position.  A font of white Carrara marble, the gift of a lady, has been ordered, and is now being executed in London."  Another member had donated a silver communion service produced by Starr & Marcus.

The Record & Guide wrote, "The effect, on entering, is gorgeous and imposing.  Beautiful polished columns, of Aberdeen and Peterhead granite imported from Scotland, separate the lofty nave from the aisles on either side, surmounted by richly carved and gilded floriated capitals, while the whole vaulted roof and surface walls are ablaze with polychromatic decoration of well-contrasted colors mingled with gold."  Memorial stained glass donated by congregants had been installed, leaving only two plain glass windows to be replaced later.  The critic of the Record & Guide was especially pleased with their magnificence, saying they were:

...utterly devoid of that vulgar transparent green and yellow and orange glare so common in our churches, but executed by various New York artists in such fitting designs and brilliant but subdued rubies and other rich colors, that some might pass for the works of the famed [Thomas] Willement or [William] Wailes of England.

As with almost all wealthy churches, pews could be rented or purchased.  Only those in the back or least favorable positions, (if any) were free to use.  On November 7, 1872 a pew auction was held.  The New York Times reported that the church "was crowded last evening, by the fashionable residents of the neighborhood interested in obtaining good pews."

It proved economically wise to buy rather than rent.  The annual rental fee for Pew No. 12, for instance, was $2,500.  James A. Roosevelt purchased it "at a premium of $900."  Similarly, William Henry Vanderbilt purchased a double pew, No. 15, for $1,100.  The proposed rent was $2,500.  He also purchased pew No. 17 for $1,500.  Nevertheless, others preferred to sign leases and at the end of the night the rentals amounted to $150,000--more than $3.25 million in today's money.

While St. Bartholomew's counted among its members some of the wealthiest and most influential citizens of Manhattan, perhaps none was more active in its affairs than the extended Vanderbilt family.  Most notable was the clan's matriarch, Maria Louisa Kissam Vanderbilt, who was involved in many of the activities and charities of the church.

On November 22, 1877 The New York Times entitled an article "A Vanderbilt Married."  Florence Adele, the daughter of William Henry and Maria Kissam Vanderbilt, had been married to Hamilton McKown Twombly in St. Bartholomew's church the previous evening.  The article noted, "Several thousand invitations on oblong tinted paper...had been issued."  They included a small card that granted admission to the church.

But society weddings and funerals often attracted mobs of what the newspapers termed "gawkers," those who wanted to get a glimpse of the celebrities of the day--the millionaires.  Outside the Vanderbilt-Twombly wedding, things got out of control.  The canopy erected from the curb to the entrance for the guests became the epicenter of near riotous behavior.

"Just inside the outer edge of the canopy stood two rough individuals shouting 'Tickets,' like at a circus," reported The New York Times.  "The uninvited crowd, composed of several thousand persons, the majority of them women, pressed against the canopy on both sides, and defied the efforts of the Police to keep them in order."  Several times the crowd rushed the canopy, threatening to topple it.  "In these rushes guests were roughly handled.  Men and women in evening attire were squeezed and jostled, their costumes disarranged, and their persons bruised."

The behavior of the crowd, which The New York Times reporter called "simply disgraceful," nearly resulted in a fatality.  "One lady in a low-necked dress was thrown under the feet of a pair of carriage horses that had just driven up, and placed in imminent danger of her life."

Even inside, the decorum of the church was threatened.  Eight prominent gentlemen acted as ushers, including Frederick Vanderbilt, Florence's brother, and Henry Sloane, husband of her sister Emily.  "The ushers had their hands full," said the article.  "Several times they were obliged to drive the mob back."

The newly-wed Hamilton and Florence Twombly recess from the altar, followed by the bride's parents.  Leslie's Monthly Magazine, December 1877 (copyright expired)  

Once the guests were seated and the church doors closed, calm finally reigned and the ceremony was conducted without incident.  The reception was held in the Vanderbilt mansion at Fifth Avenue and 40th Street, where the gawkers were waiting.  "Here, too, a large crowd of curiosity seekers had assembled, and the presence of a squad of Police was necessary to keep them in order," reported The New York Times.

Despite the wealth of its congregants, the construction debts were not paid off until the beginning of 1878.  On February 21, St. Bartholomew's Church was consecrated by Bishop Henry C. Potter.  The impressive ceremony began with a procession of 60 clergymen, which was joined at the main entrance by the wardens and vestrymen.  Those men's names alone signified the wealth of the congregation:  Jacob Reese, James A. Roosevelt, William H. Vanderbilt, George G. Kellogg, Alfred M. Hoyt, and Henry A. Taylor amount them.

At 2:00 on December 8, 1885 William Henry Vanderbilt was in his private study talking with railroad executive Robert Garrett.  The New York Times reported, "Mr. Vanderbilt was speaking, when suddenly Mr. Garrett perceived indistinctness in his speech.  The next instant the muscles around his mouth began to twitch slightly.  Then they were violently convulsed.  In another moment the great millionaire’s arms bent under his body, he toppled forward, and pitched headlong toward the floor.” 

In a moment bells were ringing and feet were flying in every part of the house.  The butler, the footman, and the other servants were hastening breathless from the basement.  Mrs. Vanderbilt and George W. Vanderbilt, her youngest son, were hurrying, pale with terror, from above.  In a minute all were in the study, where Mr. Garrett was bending over his host’s body.  The ruddy firelight did not light up the pallid features now.  The ghastliness of death was upon them.

On December 11 a private service was held in the Vanderbilt mansion on Fifth Avenue.  Afterward a hearse carried the casket to St. Bartholomew's Church, followed by the various Vanderbilt carriages.  Maria Louisa was so overcome with grief that she could not attend her husband's church service.  Upon its completion, a cortege of 60 coaches accompanied the hearse to the Vanderbilt vault at New Dorp, Staten Island.

The second major Vanderbilt funeral was held in the church 11 years later.  As had been the case with her husband, a private service was held in the Fifth Avenue mansion for Maria Louisa Kissam Vanderbilt on November 10, 1896, prior to the St. Bartholomew's funeral.  The New York Times reported, "The ceremonies will be simple, in recognition of the modesty and disapproval of all forms of display which distinguished the late Mrs. Vanderbilt's character."

The article noted, "The death of Mrs. Vanderbilt is nowhere more deeply lamented than among the parishioners of St. Bartholomew's Church...To her more than to any other person, with the possible exception of [Rev.] Dr. Greer, is due the growth of that great institutional church.  The crowds that crammed the streets were now far more respectful.  "Outside the church, on Madison Avenue and Forty-fourth Street," said The New York Times, "hundreds were gathered who were unable to gain entrance.  As the cortege passed many of these uncovered their heads."

William Henry and Maria Louisa's eldest son, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, died unexpectedly of a brain hemorrhage on September 12, 1899.  Two days later The World headlined an article "Funeral To Be To-Morrow / Services Will Be Held in the Vanderbilts' Church."  The "Vanderbilt's Church" was, of course, St. Bartholomew's.

Cornelius's wife, Alice, had taken over the position as the Vanderbilt matriarch, as well as her mother-in-law's former standing within the congregation.  In October 1902, she announced "that a new façade would be erected for St. Bartholomew's church as a memorial to Cornelius Vanderbilt."  According to the New-York Tribune later, "The original plan included only memorial bronze doors, but as the work advanced it became evident that the architectural surroundings of these doors and tympana would not be harmonious.  Mrs. Vanderbilt and her children then decided to erect an entire new porch, extending across the whole Madison-ave. front."

The work was a collaboration of the architectural firm McKim, Mead & White, and sculptors Daniel C. French and Andrew O'Connor.  The magnificent bronze doors were designed by Philip Martiny and Herbert Adams.  Typical of so many McKim, Mead & White works, it drew inspiration from an existing antique building--in this case the Abbey of Saint-Gilles in southern France.

A vintage postcard depicts the Abbey of Saint-Gilles, which inspired the Vanderbilt Porch.

Completed in January 1903, the Vanderbilt Porch, as it became known, was in perfect harmony with Renwick & Sands's original design.  

from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

At the same time the Vanderbilt Porch was being installed, the spire section of the bell tower was removed.  The residual stump would have most likely have been more pleasing to the Record & Guide critic who was so harsh in 1872, but left it devoid of its former exotic character.

The topmost section has been removed in this photo taken by McKim, Mead & White...

...and lower portion was gone in 1903 when the firm took this one.  photos from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Serving as rector of a church like St. Bartholomew's was rewarding.  Rev. Dr. David Hummell Greer had been head of the congregation since 1885.   His salary, according to The Sun in 1903, was around $12,000--or $385,000 today.  He and his family maintained a summer home in Easthampton and, according to the newspaper, "His two daughters are in society and his sons are members of New York clubs."

Greer had turned down three bishoprics over his years at St. Bartholomew's.  But in the fall of 1903 he accepted the position as Bishop Coadjutor to Bishop Potter.  It meant that the congregation, quite accustomed to the status quo, would get a new rector.  He came in the form of Rev. Leighton Parks, formerly of Boston, who had some new ideas.

The choir of St. Bartholomew's Church, led by organist and choirmaster Richard Henry Warren, was renowned.  But Emmanuel Church in Boston, from which Rev. Parks had come, had always had a boy choir.  He arrived at St. Bartholomew's in January 1904 and, according to The New York Times, "It is said that he at once began to agitate the abolition of the adult choir of forty voices, which is considered one of the finest in the country."

Under pressure to disband his choir, Richard Henry Warren submitted his resignation in February 1905.  The New York Times reported, "Mr. Warren's resignation is said to have been perfectly acceptable to the rector, who at once began to organize through the organist of Emmanuel Church, Boston, a choir composed of trained boy singers."  And Rev. Parks did not back down.  In place of Richard Henry Warren he hired Polish choirmaster and organist Leopold Stokowski, who would later earn renown as a symphonic conductor.

As early as 1909 the trustees of St. Bartholomew's were considering a move.  On April 21, 1909 The Sun noted, "St. Bartholomew's Church is in the middle of a large hotel and apartment district, with the entire rapid transit system centering at its door.   Five years later property was acquired on the east side of Park Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets  and architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue was hired to design the new St. Bartholomew's Church.

On June 13, 1914 the Record & Guide reported, "Many of the works of art now standing in the old building will be incorporated and erected in the new scheme.  The beautiful bronze doors, the gift of Mrs. Vanderbilt as a memorial to her husband, the late Cornelius Vanderbilt, will be reset in the new building."  Other artifacts slated to be installed in the new building were the altar painting Christ in Glory, the statuary and stone tablets, and other memorials.

The new St. Bartholomew's Church was formerly opened on October 20, 1918.  Nine months later, on July 5, 1919, the Record & Guide reported that the "old St. Bartholomew's Church" had been sold for $1.5 million."  The purchaser was the Fifth Church of Christ Scientist.  Two weeks later the Record & Guide reported, "A combination church and office building is planned for the site."

Demolition was underway when Byron Company took this photograph in 1919.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

An alteration to that building, completed in 1993, resulted in a glass and steel facade.

photo via has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

1 comment:

  1. To me, the Renwick and Sands bell tower looks way top heavy. It should have stopped where it ended up in the 1903 photograph.

    I've read that after their wedding Florence and Hamilton Twombly's names rarely appeared in newsprint, possibly because of the riot at their wedding. But they were also secure enough in their social position to not court publicity. It also helped that Hamilton Twombly was an inspired venture capitalist. In one instance he invested in a sulphur mine where, after the sulphur ran out they struck oil. A few decades later when other Vanderbilts like the matriarch Alice were running out of money (by their standards) Florence was richer than ever. Inheritance tax would eventually claim most of the Twombly family fortune.