MID041-02.jpg (39960 bytes) New York Architecture Images- Midtown

Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church


Carl Pfeiffer 


705 Fifth Avenue, at West 55th Street. 










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




Two blocks north and another much different church sits on the NW 
corner. Built in 1875, the church was closed and undergoing a thorough 
restoration when I visited (October 2003). Not satisfied with one, or 
even two towers, this one has three, and all very different. Two towers 
flank the west (actual east) front. The NW tower is the largest, of 
four stages with stubbly pinnacles and a recessed spire. The SW tower 
is smaller, with a saddleback top which carries a large polygonal 
turret and spire. Behind at the NE corner is a much plainer tower in a 
later C15 style, of different stone too and probably a later addition. 
(Is this the Parish House? If so it dates from 1925 and was designed by 
James Gamble Rogers.) 

Designed in the Gothic style by the New York architect Carl Pfeiffer in 1873, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church is the largest Presbyterian sanctuary in Manhattan. The church cornerstone was laid on June 9, 1873. At 286 feet in height, the steeple, completed in 1876, was then the tallest in New York City.

Our church has had four homes
The present building is the fourth home of the historic Fifth Avenue Church founded on November 6, 1808. John McComb, Jr., designed the first building on Cedar Street. The second church on Duane Street in the downtown area of Manhattan was designed by James Dakin in the Greek Revival style. The third church, located at Fifth Avenue and Nineteenth Street, was designed by Leopold Eidlitz. In a short period, the church had stood in three locations, paralleling the northward growth of the city, and by this time, the trustees wanted a more permanent location. They felt that the recently established Central Park would be a natural barrier against business and factory expansion. The location of the present building, however, was quite undeveloped in 1873.

The architect
Eleven architects were considered, but it finally came down to a choice between George Post and Carl Pfeiffer. The church commissioned Pfeiffer, a 57-year-old German émigré, who was less known than Post. Pfeiffer's other known building in New York was the Metropolitan Savings Bank designed in 1867. One can speculate that his engineering ability appealed to the trustees and that he eagerly listened to the requirements of the strong-willed minister, Dr. John Hall. Carl Pfeiffer's engineering ability is reflected in the modern technological innovations introduced into the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, including the installation of an excellent heating and ventilating system with openings below the pews for the heated air to rise.

The interior design
The general form of the interior followed Reformed Protestant worship precepts, with the most important being the emphasis on the spoken word, including preaching and reading scripture. Dr. Hall, then one of the most renowned preachers in New York, no doubt requested that Pfeiffer locate the pulpit centrally with a choir loft and organ above and Communion table below. All seats were then focused on this central point: the Sanctuary floor slopes and the pews fan out from the pulpit, and the balcony surrounds all that is below, thus bringing the entire congregation within clear sight and hearing range of the preaching and musical ministry.

Unlike the rigidity of the Gothic cathedral, the interior of this church contains no right angles - all flows outward from the pulpit. The openness and lightness of the space renders the modern Gothic decoration more comforting and accessible, suggesting a God present in the lives of ordinary people. While the building's interior is cloaked in the decorative style of Medieval times, the planning principles were "modern" and Reformed by the standards of the 19th century and are as "modern" and useful to us today as they were then.

The woodwork
The church commissioned the New York firm of Kimbel and Cabus to design the interior ash woodwork, including the pews, pulpit and gallery front. Although there have been many alterations, most of the original carved woodwork remains intact. Kimbel and Cabus, once a prominent New York furniture and interiors manufacturer, exhibited furniture in the modern Gothic style in the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. In recent years, their pieces have been acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The stained glass
The brilliantly colored stained glass windows were designed and produced by John C. Spence of Montreal, Canada, a city known for its fine ecclesiastical work. The designs, inspired by the English Reform precepts of the 19th century, allow more light to penetrate the interior. There were no Biblical figures of saints who could be worshipped apart from God - an iconoclastic fear still prevalent among some austere 19th century Presbyterians.

Although the church's beautiful interiors are carefully
preserved, functional changes were required over the years. The organ case was replaced in 1913 and modified in 1960 with the installation of a new organ, which allows more seating for the choir. Electrical fixtures replaced the original gas lighting. The stenciling covering the ceiling and extending below the Gothic arches of the windows has been repainted. The walls below, originally stenciled, are painted off-white today.

The Church House and Chapel
The church's two-story annex on Fifty-Fifth Street was replaced in 1925 by a ten-story Church House designed by the New York architect, James Gamble Rogers (1867-1947). Trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Rogers is best known for his collegiate Gothic architecture for the Memorial Quadrangle and Harkness Tower at Yale University. New York philanthropist, Edward Stephen Harkness, provided the funds for the Church House and the beautiful chapel.

The design of the Chapel offers a direct contrast in design philosophy from that of the much larger Sanctuary. The planning is that of a small parish Gothic church. All is rigidly organized in a long and narrow rectangular space from back to front where there is a semi-circular apse with a raised pulpit off to one side and a lectern on the other. In a church prior to the Reformation, the center of the apse would contain an altar table where the priest would celebrate the Eucharist. Following Reformed Church precepts, seats for the ministers replace the altar table. As with the main Sanctuary, the primacy of the spoken word is expressed over the celebration of the Eucharist as the central act of worship.

The hard stone surfaces of the interior, with its resultant echo, make the Chapel superb for the performance of organ and choir music. The drier, sound-absorptive wood and carpet of the Sanctuary make it more suitable to hearing the phonic sounds of the spoken word. While both spaces employ Gothic decoration, the darker hues in the dimly lighted Chapel seem to reinforce the mystical and omnipotent nature of God so prevalent in the sensibility of the great Gothic cathedrals. The Chapel uses stained glass in the traditional Gothic manner to illustrate Bible stories. The most exquisitely beautiful window in the church is found above the balcony in the rear of the Chapel. This warm and inviting building serves as an appropriate home to the hundreds of people from around the world who come here each Sunday for Worship. Services are held each Sunday at 9:30 am and 11:15 am.


"The Presbytery of New York at their session, the twenty-eight day of June, 1808, in the City of New York, received under their care a new congregation in said city who contemplated worshipping in Cedar Street and permitted them to prosecute a call on the Rev. John B. Romeyn of the Presbytery of Albany."

1808: Our beginnings
So reads the very first entry of The Records of the Session of the Presbyterian Church in Cedar Street New York. The entry, like the spirit in which it was penned, followed the congregation uptown to Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. Today, the Cedar Street site in downtown Manhattan is the plaza area for the Chase Bank complex, barely recognizable as "good soil," but nonetheless the earth from which the tree of life on Fifth Avenue was transplanted.

Our first pastor, Rev. Dr. John B. Romeyn
Dr. Romeyn accepted the invitation to be the Pastor of the Presbyterian Church on Cedar Street and assumed the post on November 8, 1808. The first congregational meeting was held December 13. Though 28 people had signed the June 28 petition to the Presbytery, only 26 attended the December meeting and became members.

This small but notable congregation included such members as Oliver Wolcott, former Secretary of the Treasury and son of a signer of the Declaration of Independence; Archibald Gracie, whose Gracie Mansion is now the residence of the Mayor of New York, and Betsy Jackson, an African-American slave. Among the first officers of the church was Richard Varick, an aide to George Washington and former Mayor of New York City.

Dr. Romeyn was just 28 years old when he was called to the pastorate of the Cedar Street church, yet he was considered one of the finest preachers of the day. The son of a Dutch Reformed minister, Dr. Romeyn was raised in a predominately Dutch-speaking household. In fact, all the family’s Bible readings were in Dutch. He attended Union College in Schenectady and received a degree from Columbia College at the age of 18.

Dr. Romeyn had served a Dutch Reformed church in Rhinebeck, NY, then the First Presbyterian Church of Albany. His preaching skills were renowned, and he received an invitation to preach at the General Assembly of the Presbytery. Two years after coming to Cedar Street, he was named Moderator of the General Assembly.

Our early outreach
The Church was instrumental in founding such organizations as the New York Bible Society, The American Bible Society, the Princeton Theological Society and various interdenominational mission boards. In 1815, the congregation established the first free schools, which later were expanded into the New York Public School System. A year later, Cedar Street Presbyterian participated in the founding of the Presbyterian Board of Home Missions and, subsequently, the Board of Foreign Missions. Members of the congregation also helped found The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Natural History, and the Manhattan Eye and Ear Hospital.

The first manse was located on White Street in a shady, quiet residential area. Dr. Romeyn would drive his horse-drawn buggy from there down Broadway on Sunday mornings to conduct the service. In those days the city allowed the street to be chained off so the congregation would not be disturbed during worship by street noises.

1830s: A new location for the church
Downtown Manhattan was changing from a residential to a commercial area, and the city decided to widen Cedar Street around 1830, putting the church’s future in jeopardy. The congregation sold the land for $75,000 and began looking for a new site for their church. Four lots were purchased from Trinity Church on the southeast corner of Chambers and Chapel Streets. However, Chapel Street was part of the City’s street-widening plan and the congregation was able to void the sale and buy a lot at Duane and Church Streets. (While there is no historical evidence that street names played any role in the congregation’s decision-making process, it does seem to have been divinely inspired.)

A "temple" of marble with a colonnaded portico was built at Duane and Church, and Rev. Cyrus Mason was its pastor. He resigned "due to a condition of health" (he stuttered) not long after the Duane Street Church was dedicated on January 3, 1836. The new church’s design included twelve pews for a choir. Before the 1830’s, it was not proper to have the congregation or a choir sing during a worship service, let alone an organ be played. Today, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church resounds on Sunday mornings to the melodies of joy that reverberate from the Church.

1840s: Another move is necessary
The paint barely had time to peel off of the new Duane Street Church when the newly installed Rev. Dr. James W. Alexander began to lobby in 1844 for another move farther uptown. Stiff opposition caused him to resign in 1849, but he must have been popular, because the move was made to 19th Street and Fifth Avenue, where a new church was dedicated in 1852 and the good Dr. Alexander was recalled.

1860s: A new home and new changes
It was 1867 when women were allowed to vote on church matters. That was also the year the Rev. Dr. John Hall was recruited as pastor all the way from Armagh, Northern Ireland. One complimentary newspaper described Dr. Hall as follows: "He usually wears a gown, and is always reverential, generally solemn, never in the pulpit humorous."

The design of the new church was similar to our present edifice, though it didn’t have a suspended ceiling. Already the roof was being raised by a congregation that loved to sing. Lowell Mason was the music director. Stores were closed on Sundays in those days, including the Arnold Constable department store behind the Church. This was the hub of the Merchants’ Mile (Broadway from 14th to 23rd Streets), and there was no question that this Presbyterian church was a New York City church. It had 200 pews!

1870s: The move to 55th Street and Fifth Avenue

Soon even this building was insufficient, and big plans were hatched for a new church at 55th Street and Fifth Avenue. The land was purchased at the intersection of what were still two dirt roads amidst mansions like those that still stand along the east side of Central Park. The cost of the land was $350,000. The new church was dedicated May 9, 1875, and construction costs were fully paid by 1877.

According to news clips in the archives of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, The New York Times gave the opening of the sanctuary rave reviews. The newspaper reflected that many of the attendees at the first Sunday service, May 9, were not members, and the expectation was that the attendance would decline. It is interesting to note that the attendance more than doubled in ten years’ time.

1900s: The congregation grows
Under the early 1900s ministry of Rev. Dr. John Henry Jowett, originally from Birmingham, England, it was not uncommon for Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church to have to turn away as many as 1,000 would-be worshippers on any given Sunday. Church membership was at an all-time high of 2,606 in 1916.

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Rev. Dr. John Bonnell served as pastor from 1935 to 1962 and introduced pastoral psychology/counseling, a field in which he became recognized as a leader. His Pastoral Psychiatry, published in 1938, was the first book on the subject. Dr. Bonnell (1893-1992) was a nationally renowned author and religious broadcaster on the ABC radio network as host of the series, "National Vespers, " from 1936 until 1961. In 1956, he introduced "Dial-a-Prayer," which continues to be a valued ministry of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church today. Dr. Bonnell played a leadership role in the movement to increase ties between Protestants and Roman Catholics, and in 1966 he was presented with a silver medal for ecumenical services by Pope Paul VI during a private audience. He also served as co-chair of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. Dr. Bonnell's interfaith interests, as well as his service as a guest lecturer at Princeton Theological Seminary, helped develop an international awareness of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. In fact, he "made the name of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church synonymous with human sympathy, evangelical warmth, and spiritual refreshment," according to the Rev. Dr. John A. Mackey, President of the Princeton Theological Seminary, who praised Dr. Bonnell's services in 1943.

1960s: "You can't go it alone in New York."
The Rev. Dr. Bryant Kirkland served as Senior Pastor from 1962 until 1987. He was named Clergyman of the Year in 1975 by the Religious Heritage of America. The Shelter for the Homeless, which today remains open seven days a week, 365 days a year, was begun by Dr. Kirkland, Minister Emeritus, until his death on April 23, 2000. Dr. Kirkland was the author of several books, including A Pattern for Faith and Living in a Zigzag Age.

Dr. Kirkland was succeeded in 1987 by Rev. Dr. Maurice Boyd, who came to Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church from the Metropolitan United Church in London, Ontario. Dr. Boyd's charismatic preaching attracted many worshippers during his tenure, and it was during his time with the church that his book, Permit Me Voyage, was published.

1990s: Into the new millennium
Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church renewed its long relationship with Princeton Theological Seminary in 1994, when a protégé of Dr. Kirkland's, Rev. Dr. Thomas K. Tewell, was invited to the church as Senior Pastor. Dr. Tewell had held that position at the 5,000-member Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas. Under his leadership, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church established the Center for Christian Studies, which has rapidly grown into a highly regarded center of religious education. Dr. Tewell and the pastorate of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church today carry on a two-century heritage of God-inspired preaching and humanitarian outreach to New York and the world.


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