New York Architecture Images-Greenwich Village

Grace Church (Episc.) Landmark


James Renwick, Jr.


800  Broadway at 10th St.












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The original Grace Episcopal Church was built as the neighbor to Trinity Church downtown. When forced to vacate its site and move uptown, the church chose a site on Broadway at a point where the street curves westward, making the new church visible from its former location. Built in white stone, the commission established the career of architect James Renwick, Jr. The religious complex was expanded in the 20th century and now includes a school adjacent to the church.
  As the earliest example of Gothic Architecture in New York City, The Grace Church of New York provides a stunning introductory example. Designed by the then unproven young architect, James Renwick Jr., just 24 years old, it served as the beginning of his highly successful career. The church has stood for over 150 years, undergoing several additions as its congregation grew, and is currently undergoing a renovation that will restore the church to its full beauty.
  The original Grace Church was incorporated in 1809, in a much smaller and plainer building some 2 miles away from the current address. In 1843, having out grown its current housings, plans were prepared for the construction of a new church further north to keep up with the expanding city. The land for the current church was purchased from Henry Brevoort Jr. The rector at the time, Thomas House Taylor, selected James Renick Jr. to be the architect behind the construction. It was probably Taylor, who had spent time in Europe looking at the churches there that influenced the decision to build the church in the Gothic style. This taking place before the Gothic Revival and before any such structure had been built in New York.

The building was completed in 1846; however, it was a much plainer than it is today. The steeple was built out of plain wood to save expense, and would remain so for nearly twenty years until it was replaces with the marble one that stands today. None of the artworks and few of the memorials were there, as well as the elaborate stained glass windows. It was through the action of independent peoples that the church grew into its own.

Philanthropist Catharine Lorillard Wolfe is responsible for many of the additions to the church. In 1879, she had the Chantry, a small chapel next to the church, constructed to house the choir and Sunday school. She later gave funds for the construction of the parish house that connected the church to the rectory. Her most profound donation was the beautiful East Window. Until this point, the window was simply lightly tinted glass. This donation propelled many of the parishioners to follow her example and almost all of the stained glass windows were donated in this fashion.

Several more buildings were added in the years to come. Most of which border Fourth Avenue. Several house the Grace Church School, which enrolls 370 students. The garden, which runs along East Tenth Street, was also a donation. 

Gothic architecture is one of the most easily recognizable styles of architecture. It originally grew out of the Romanesque style, and grew into its own around 1150 AD .The beginning of the style is marked by the construction of the Abbey Church of St. Denis, which is located in France. The style finds it origins in Abbot Suger, chief advisor to Louis VI. He wanted to recentralize the power of the king, which was being lost to the nobles, so he convinced the king to build a church that was serve as a focal point for the religious and patriotic ideals of the kingdom. The building was being constructed in the only area of France were the king had any power, Ile de France. He hoped that this would become a pilgrimage point to the people and strengthen his power. With this the gothic era of architecture began, and would last for almost a century. During which time many of the great cathedrals of Europe would be built.

Many stylistic differences separate the buildings of the Gothic era from those of the Romanesque. The Gothic churches, with their superior vaulting techniques allowed for a greater amount of windows, which lit the interiors of the churches. The buildings seemed more open on the inside due to the structural supports located on the outside. 

This style of architecture is evident in the structure of the Grace Church. The east wall is composed almost entirely of stained glass, as are many of the side wallsThe Spire resembles many of the churches of the Gothic period. The Garden as well as the rectory and parish house are similar to those that were present to the churches of the Gothic period.

Like churches of the Gothic age, the Grace Church was a focal point for its community. The Cathedrals of that period were centers of education, much like the Grace Church School, which began as a school for the choirboys, and has grown into a reputable learning establishment, with over 300 students enrolled. The church also provides adult education as well as summer courses. 

With the celebration of the church's 150th birthday, the Municipal Art Society added the church to its list of seven New York Landmarks that are of "national importance." The restoration of the church was begun in 1995 and is costing nearly three million dollars. Over one million of which was donated by the parishioners. The focus of the restoration is the crumbling marble exterior and the protection and restoration of the beautiful stained glass art it the windows. 

Carlo Bonavita
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The view of Grace Church (right) was taken long before my visit here, but the October 2003 day I called the steeple was shrouded in scaffolding and red sheeting as a major restoration was underway. The church was locked but a visit to the rectory to the north (through a very pleasant lawned garden) of the church and the lady priest showed me through into the church from there.

The church is built of white marble, apparently quarried by the inmates of Sing Sing Jail. The architect was James Renwick Jr. (who was only 23 when he designed it) and the church was completed in 1846. However there were concerns about the steeple and the spire was first built in wood, replaced with the marble spire of today in 1884. The restoration of the church began in 1995 and the delicate parapets and pinnacles and fine arrray of windows are revealed again in all their original glory. Hopefully it will not be too long before the spire glistens once more over Broadway.

The interior is breathtaking, cruciform, with fine lierne vaulting and a mix of Flamboyant and Geometric tracery. Unusually the crossing has no arches, the vaulting carried through nave choir and transepts without a break. The aisles half-embrace the tower, and the transepts have E & W aisles. There is a bust of Renwick in the north transept.

The church quickly became fashionable, and has staged many Society weddings, perhaps the most notorious being the staged wedding by Phineas T. Barnum of the midget General Tom Thumb in 1863.

My most lasting memory of the interior is the regular rumbling and shaking of the ground as a subway train goes by; I wondered at the time if this was the cause of the tower being in scaffolding! This must intrude into the services, it certainly breaks the reverential silence at other times.

Special thanks to (British and international church architecture site) for generous permission to use images and info.

Grace Church hopes to steady its shifting spire

By Albert Amateau

The Rev. David Rider, pastor of Grace Church, last week showed two visitors some fragments of crumbling marble.

“You can see the sugaring of the stone,” he said, pointing to the powdery substance among the chards of Vermont marble that came from the spire of the elegant Gothic Revival church on Broadway and 10th St.

A box of blue pipe scaffolding and orange netting now encloses the famous silhouette of the spire that towers 230 ft. above Broadway. The scaffold was erected to examine the topmost 18 ft. of the spire, which is leaning slightly — but definitely leaning.

“It’s been off plumb for several years,” said Rev. Rider. “The architect, Robert Bates uses the word ‘dynamic,’ a word we’d rather apply to our programs, not to the building.”

The top of the spire now tilts about six in. to the north-northeast, and has been off the strictly vertical for at least nine years. The problem is attributed to the rusting of a horizontal iron plate that anchors an iron rod that runs down the center of the spire from the top to pin the stone together.

Villager photos by Elisabeth Robert
The Grace Church spire sheathed in scaffolding and netting
“The plate is imbedded in the spire and as it rusts it expands and puts pressure on the stone above it,” said Bates, a member of Walter B. Melvin, Architects, the firm retained by the church. “There are still hidden conditions in the spire,” Bates added, suggesting that the top of the spire could continue to destabilize.

So it is likely that the top 20 ft. will have to be dismantled and rebuilt. “We hope to be able to use some of the sound marble — and the same cross which was put there in 1953,” said Bates. “We’d like to stabilize or take the spire down before the hurricane season,” Bates added.

The $2.5 million restoration includes repair of the church roof, which leaks.

Grace Church, designed by James Renwick, Jr., when he was 24, was built in 1844. Renwick later designed St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Ave. but the work of his youth is widely considered his finest design.

The spire, however, was first made of wood and the scandalous rumor in the congregation in 1844 was that Renwick failed to make the building strong enough to bear the weight of a stone spire. The Episcopal clergy put the rumor to rest by acknowledging from the pulpit that it was lack of money, not lack of structural strength that necessitated the wooden spire.

The lack of money also resulted in plaster and lath being used in the Gothic interior instead of carved stone. “It was a scandal at the time because plaster and lath was not really Gothic,” said Anne Rieselbach, a church member who leads monthly tours of the landmarked building.

To the casual eye, the interior looks like carved stone except where water from the leaky roof has dissolved the plaster.

The wooden spire was replaced by marble in 1883. But by that time, the Mt. Pleasant, N.Y., quarry that provided the marble for the main part of the church had closed. So the spire was built with Vermont marble. “If the church were cleaned, you could see that the spire is chalk white,” Bates said.

Grace Church has spent $3 million since 1993 restoring the stained glass and stonework, cleaning the interior and installing air conditioning.

But the spire has not been touched since 1953 when the stone cross from 1883 was replaced with an aluminum cross. Eighteen months is the estimate for the spire work, but if next winter is as severe as the past one, the project could take longer, Bates said