Week 4: Church of St. Paul the Apostle

 

Location
405 West 59th Street
60th Street at Columbus Avenue
Manhattan

Faith
Christian (Catholic)

Founded
1858

Current building
Architects: Jeremiah O’Rourke and Father George Deshon
Cornerstone laid: 4 January 1876
Completed: January 1885

I am now in my fourth week of this project. Up until now I have visited each church by myself, though I did have a tour guide last week. This week I decided to bring someone along with me. So two of my three children — Fiona, who’s 7, and Colin, who just turned 4 this month — joined me for a Saturday adventure in Manhattan.

We started the morning on the east side of Midtown, where we took a look at Philip Johnson’s AT&T Building, later known as the Sony Building and now known by its address, 550 Madison. It was one of the first examples of postmodernism, the style that dominated architecture in the United States and elsewhere for the last two decades of the 20th century and into the 21st. Its new owner, which purchased the building in 2016, plans to demolish the stone façade at the building’s base and replace it with a contemporary glass design. I wanted to see and photograph it before it is lost forever.

From there we made our way to Central Park, where we climbed on rocks and spent some time exploring the Hallett Nature Sanctuary, a part of the park that had been closed to the public since the 1930s. It was reopened in 2016 but I had yet to visit. Fiona and Colin really enjoyed traipsing through its secluded paths and looking down on the park and the city beyond — its original name, the Promontory, really fits, as it’s elevated above the surrounding parts of the park. The remarkable thing is that these 1.6 hectares (4 acres) had been sealed off from public view for 80 years right in the middle of what is perhaps the most used section of the park, at the southern end within a short distance of Central Park South.

We made a quick pit stop at the Shops at Columbus Circle, where we picked up some pains au chocolat at Whole Foods, before heading over to the church.

The Church of St. Paul the Apostle is the mother church of the Paulist Fathers, the oldest order of Catholic priests founded in the United States. It sits in the shadows of some of the tallest buildings in New York City, and yet it still has a dominating presence, in part because it is a massive building: 86.6 meters (284 feet) long, 36.9 meters (121 feet) wide, and 34.7 meters (114 feet) tall to the tip of the towers. You will notice that the photos that accompany this post don’t show the entire church; it was difficult to capture in a single image. (There are a couple that get close in the set of raw photos of the church I’ve posted on Flickr.) The church’s sheer scale, and its gray, largely windowless granite walls, make it perhaps a bit cold, foreboding even.

But any sense of foreboding melts away the moment parishioners and visitors walk through the doors. Clearly all the color, except for blue in a relief over the main door, has been saved for the inside. Here almost all the decorative elements of the church — columns, arches, the apse, the ceiling, and of course the windows — come alive in an intriguing mix of color, light, and dark. The church’s website explains that the design was inspired by the fourth and fifth century basilicas in Ravenna, Italy. But the interior is the creation of a who’s who of American artists of the period: John LaFarge, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Lumen Winter, Stanford White, William Laurel Harris, Frederick MacMonnies, Bertram Goodhue. Their work together forms one of the most remarkable church interiors in New York City.

Fiona, Colin, and I slowly made our way clockwise around the sanctuary, pausing to take in altars and artwork nearly 150 years old. We also noted that a number of the pews at the back of the nave are reversible: the backs move to allow congregants to sit facing toward the main altar at the west end of the church or toward the baptismal font and narthex at the east end. (If you have ever ridden an old streetcar, or even some trains still in service on NJ Transit, and noticed how the seatbacks can be reversed, the concept is pretty much the same.)

As we returned to the back of the sanctuary, between the narthex and baptismal font, I took a moment to try to take it all in. But there’s only so much you can take in when you’re also keeping an eye on two small children to make sure they don’t fall into a baptismal font. So we decided to move on. We walked a couple of blocks north to the plaza at Lincoln Center, where we sat by the fountain and ate our pains au chocolat. Which, it turns out, was perhaps what Fiona and Colin considered the best thing about our Manhattan adventure together.

Want to know more?

The church’s website has some fairly brief information about the history of the parish and the building itself. The page about the church’s history is notable for the historic photos of its construction; notice the old Ninth Avenue El. As I mentioned above, the Church of St. Paul the Apostle is the mother church of the Paulist Fathers, the first order of Catholic priests founded in the United States. The church’s website also has information about the Paulist Fathers, though for even further information you should check out the order’s own website.

The most detailed and well-researched information about the church, in particular its architecture and history, can be found in the New York City Landmark Preservation Commission’s designation report (PDF). The Church of St. Paul the Apostle was designated a New York City historic landmark in 2013.

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