Monday, January 24, 2022

The Lost Church of the Holy Trinity - East 42nd and Madison Avenue


from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

On September 8, 1864 The New York Times reported, "The corner-stone of the Church of the Holy Trinity, Madison-avenue, corner of East Forty-second-street, will be laid at 4 o'clock this afternoon.  This is a new enterprise, started by Rev. Stephen H. Tyng, Jr., in the Rutger's Institute Chapel, early last Spring."  The congregation had commissioned architect Jacob Wrey Mould to design the structure.  This church promised to carry on his well-known affinity for colorful and somewhat exotic designs.  "The building is to be of blue and Ohio yellow stone, and brick laid in black mortar."

As the building rose, on May 6, 1865 The New York Times described the design.  "Mr. Mould has not assumed to embody any features of the so-called Gothic, Byzantine, Italian or renaissance styles, but simply such a combination of architectural elements as are best adapted to product a temporary, economical and yet commodious church building."  The writer praised Mould's "charming novelty of effect, and a cheerfulness of interior aspect that effectually combines the church with the home."

Jacob Wrey Mould's quaint, country-like church.  original source unknown

The church building was consecrated in 1865.  According to The New York Times, construction had cost $59,000--just under $1 million today.  Its northern location prompted Andrew C. Zabriskie, in an address to The American Numismatic and Archaeological Society, to say, "...the small brick Church of the Holy Trinity stood as a sentry on the edge of civilization."  But civilization was close on its heels.

As the Murray Hill neighborhood developed, the church was no longer able to accommodate its growing congregation.  On March 2, 1873 Rev. Stephen H. Tyng, Jr. delivered his last sermon in the building.  The New York Herald commented that "The elegant and well-known Church of the Holy Trinity...was filled to overflowing yesterday morning by parishioners and strangers to take part in the farewell services of this house of worship, as around the present structure there is already being laid the foundation of a more commodious and grander building."

Rev. Stephen H. Tyng, Jr. The American Portrait Gallery, 1877 (copyright expired)

The replacement structure had been designed by Leopold Eidlitz.  Construction was completed within the year, the first service being held on Easter Sunday, April 19, 1874.  Its $200,000 cost would equal a staggering $4.7 million in today's money.   The New York Times described it saying, "both externally and internally [it] is one of the finest in the City, and, from a purely architectural standpoint, is an ornament to the flourishing locality in which it is situated."

The Daily Graphic, April 28, 1874 (copyright expired)

Eidlitz's Ruskinian Gothic design featured polychrome brick and stonework, colorful decorative brick diapering, and multi-hued patterns in the slate roof and steeples.  The main tower contained two belfries and rose 190 feet.  The interior was a departure from expected church architecture, its seating arranged in amphitheater style.  The New York Times wrote, "The ground plan of the building might, in the first instance, suggest the idea of a theatre, in respect to the arrangement of the pews, but the general features of church architecture are so adhered to as to dispel this illusion."  

The New York Herald wrote:

The interior of this church is both handsome and comfortable.  The Gothic roof and the gilding and decorations in renaissance have an excellent effect.  There is a happy combination in the amount of color introduced.  As for the upholstering, it appears to have been designed to make the congregation feel a delightful sense of repose.

The large building accommodated the church's several outreach programs.  Holy Trinity operated a dispensary for "the suffering and afflicted poor" and "presided over by able and benevolent physicians," according to The New York Times.  Upstairs were the Sunday school, and a large sewing school.  The church supported the House of the Evangelists upstate, an orphanage, a "Reformatory Farm" near Sing Sing, and five mission chapels.

In the basement of the church indigent locals were fed--what today would be called a church soup kitchen.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

In 1887 Rev. Edward Walpole Warren took over the pulpit from Rev. Stephen Tyng.  But for a while it appeared the congregation would have to find another replacement.   Warren was "imported from London by the vestrymen of the Church of the Holy Trinity in the Fall of 1887," as worded by The Evening World.  He arrived in New York about the same time that John S. Kennedy "engaged a skilled gardener in Scotland to come to America and take charge of his country estate," according to that newspaper.

from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

Authorities, citing the Contract Labor Law which banned imported labor, refused the Scottish gardener entry into the country.  In response, Kennedy, "to show the folly of the law," demanded that Rev. Warren be deported as well.  The case ended up in the courts, which held that Warren was, indeed, "an imported laborer under contract," however deemed him a "teacher," an excepted class under the law.

Rev. Warren brought the ire of New Yorkers in general upon himself five years later.  When asked by a reporter why he had not yet sought citizenship, he replied:

I have refrained from taking out papers as a citizen of New York because the city is so wicked and corrupt that I would not wish to be identified with it, even as a voter.  Until it has rid itself of an administration that is vile from top to bottom I will remain an alien.  The entire municipal machine, I believe, from Mayor Grant down, is absolutely corrupt.

On April 10, 1892 a reporter from The Evening World went to services at the "ultra-fashionable" church, in order to speak to Warren who had been elusive since his remarks.  He proved no easier to pin down in person.  

"Positively, no! I cannot be interviewed!  You must excuse me; I am too busy," he told the reporter.  He then "dropped into a pew and into a chat with one of his female parishioners, who had remained after the service."  The writer noted, "Dr. Warren, who has drawn a handsome salary and lived quite elegantly in this modern Sodom for nearly five years, only waved his small fat hand in a 'do go away' gesture, and the reporter withdrew."

The uncomfortable meeting had taken place in a newly renovated sanctuary.  Eidlitz's amphitheater configuration was completely remodeled.   The New York Times, on February 15, 1892, explained, "The old interior reminded one of a big concert hall.  It was elliptical in shape, and the acoustic properties were abominable."  The new motif was Gothic, according to the article, "and the result is a dignified and ecclesiastical house of worship."  The newspaper noted, "The cost has been very heavy."

Among the most notable additions was a memorial reredos donated by Mrs. Clara Bacon.  The New York Times said, "It is the largest mosaic and one of the most artistic ever placed in the United States."  The central panel, Our Blessed Lord Enthroned, was 14-feet high.  The vast work was executed by Charles R. Lamb, of J. & R. Lamb.

The remodeled, Gothic-style interior.  Clara Bacon's short-lived reredos is clearly visible.  original source unknown

The "very heavy" cost of the remodeling added to the already deep debt the congregation suffered.  It was the financial straw that broke the back of Holy Trinity.   Only two years later the Journal of the One Hundred and Eleventh Convention of the Diocese of New York explained, "The heavy debt upon the church had for nine years crippled all possibilities of doing a satisfactory work for so important a church (a debt which had rested on the church ever since its incorporation), and had made families afraid of joining membership with a church so financially embarrassed; and the noisy corner of Forty-second Street and Madison Avenue...had long been a cause of annoyance to the congregation."

Holy Trinity merged with St. James's Protestant Episcopal Church on 71st Street and Madison Avenue.  On November 1, 1895 The Sun reported that the combined parishes had sold former Holy Trinity structure for $900,000 (about $28.6 million today), "and with the proceeds pay off the indebtedness of both churches and erect a new church and parish house."

In its September 1895 issue, Metaphysical Magazine lamented, "...this extinction of churches reaches its climax in the sale of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Forty-second Street...And now this magnificent structure has been sold to a railway corporation."  The following year, in July 1896, The Church reported, "at this writing the very walls of the old...Church of the Holy Trinity, at East Forty-second Street and Madison Avenue, are in process of demolition...A business structure of mammoth proportions will be erected on the site where the conspicuously decorated edifice of Holy Trinity has long stood."

Today the site is occupied by the 93-story One Vanderbilt skyscraper.

photo by Sean Shang

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  1. I wish you had gone into the history of the office buildings erected on the site between the church's demolition and the current super-tall structure there now.

    1. That would be a separate post, unrelated to this specific building, though. I'm often faced with that dilemma and have to decide when the history of a certain structure ends.