Fifth Avenue between 50th & 51st
Developer: Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York
Architect: James Renwick Jr. & William Rodrigue.
By Carter B. Horsley
The city's most beautiful church, modeled
in a melange of Gothic revival styles but more reminiscent of
the single tower cathedral at Salisbury, England, depicted several
times in paintings by John Constable, including one at the Frick
Collection in New York, St. Pat's transcends its sectarianism
and is the ceremonial heart of the city.
Its prominence is due in part
to its location and architecture, but also to the disproportionate
role Catholics play in the city's politics and the police department.
When construction started, the Irish comprised abut a quarter
of the Manhattan's population.
The first St. Patrick's was
built in 1815 at 260-4 Mulberry Street between Prince and East
Houston Streets. Designed by Joseph Magnin as the city's first
major Gothic Revival building, it had cast-iron columns supporting
a timber roof and burned down in 1868 and was rebuilt but downgraded
to a parish church after completion of the new cathedral uptown
on a site that had been purchased by the church as a burial ground.
In his book, Essential
New York, published in 1979 by Holt Rinehart Winston, John
Tauranac observed that the cathedral is almost a picturebook
amalgam of the cathedrals of Rheims and Cologne, with some of
the lacy quality that Renwick had brought to Grace Church
on the northeast corner of Broadway and 10th Street. Noting that
its interior was reminiscent of Amiens, Tauranac said that
the cathedral is filled with all the mystery and power of
the great medieval houses of worship.
In his book, The City
Observed, New York, A Guide to The Architecture of Manhattan,
published by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, in 1979,
Paul Goldberger, then the architecture critic of The New York
Times, described the cathedral as rather stuffy and dry,
adding that the building seems to want to be on an open
site - it makes no attempt to relate to the Manhattan street grid,
as at [Bertram] Goodhue's St. Thomas Church up the street...and
there is no element of it that works as a lively element in the
cityscape, as the towers of both Trinity and Grace churches do.
Goldberger also said that the absence of flying buttresses
makes for a certain blandness.
It must have been very foggy
and overcast when Goldberger was looking as, in fact, St. Patrick's
exterior resonates with rhythmic energy and is a soaring, symmetrical
composition of considerable beauty and grace that dominated the
midtown skyline when it was built and is Fifth Avenue's most beautiful
building. When construction started, the area was relatively open
and during construction it fronted on several important mansions
across the avenue and the church ran an orphanage across from
it on 51st Street that was later razed and replaced by the Union
Club. The club subsequently moved uptown to Park Avenue and was
replaced by Best & Co., a department store that was torn down
by Aristotle Onassis and Arlen Realty for Olympic Tower, the bronze-colored
glass, mixed-use skyscraper that now obscures many views from
the north of the cathedral's spires. Fortunately, Rockefeller
Center's International Building, directly across the avenue, has
a large recessed plaza, with Lee Lawrie's great sculpture of Atlas,
shown at the left, that affords pedestrians a wonderful frontal
view of the cathedral and also gives the great church some more
"space." With the development of the New York Helmsley
Palace Hotel (now just the New York Palace Hotel) over the landmark
Vuillard Houses directly behind the church across Madison Avenue
and the Swiss Bank/Saks Fifth Avenue midtown Tower on its south
side, the church is, indeed, hemmed in. As it is set back on its
own raised terrace and gardens, however, the impact of the surrounding
towers is not quite as disastrous as it might seem, although ideally
its wonderful spires should have more breathing space.
The interior, shown below,
is almost as handsome as the exterior despite the fact that it
contains no significant art works. A soaring, majestic Gothic
space of noble proportions, it may well be the epitome if not
epiphany of lobbies in the city. When it was erected, St. Patrick's
was the largest cathedral in the United States and the eleventh
largest in the world. It's considerably smaller than the later
St. John The Divine Episcopal Cathedral on the Upper West Side,
but that great nave is fairly dark in comparison.
The twin Fifth Avenue St. Patrick's
spires, which have foliated tracery in the English Decorated style,
reach 330 feet high, which is 24 more than its length. Renwick
originally planned for a 400-foot-high tower over the Lady's Chapel
at the cathedral's rear, but his plans, fortunately, were not
carried out although certainly traditional in plan. He did design
the Archbishop's residence on the northwest corner of Madison
Avenue and 50th Street and the Parish House on the southwest corner
of Madison Avenue and 51st Street, both on the same block.
The existing Lady's Chapel
was designed by Charles T. Mathews and added in 1908.
The St. Patrick's Day Parade,
of course, passes by the cathedral's raised front entrance and
its tradition inspired countless other parades to also take over
Fifth Avenue for their special days despite the fact that such
parades create horrendous traffic jams not only in midtown but
also on the Upper East Side and should be moved into the Central
Park drive (See The
City Review article on parades.)
The church is truly majestic
and unquestionably the most important building architecturally
on the avenue even if it was not innovative, or even stylistically
It simply is very beautiful,
not in all details but as a whole. While it has been enclosed
by tall buildings, its soaring spires still inspire.