Week 8: St. Peter’s Church

619 Lexington Avenue

Christian (Lutheran)


Current building
Architect: Vignelli Associates
Consecrated: 12 December 1977

Citi’s former headquarters at 601 Lexington Avenue seems at first glance a solid exercise in late modernism. It is a simple, elongated box with walls that rise 279 meters (915 feet) straight up, broken only by rows of glass encircling the building, indicating each floor. But when its designer, Hugh Stubbins, decided to cut off its top at a 45° angle, he made a bold statement: modernism was dying and postmodernism had arrived.

As bold a statement as the building’s peak was — it dominated Midtown, as it was New York City’s seventh tallest building at the time — perhaps the bolder claim for postmodernism was made at the base. While the site was cleared and the former buildings demolished, the Citicorp Center didn’t obliterate everything whose place it took. And, unlike its mid-20th-century prologues, it wasn’t a mere, sterile office building that lived only during weekday office hours. It made space for what was there before, and in so doing completely reconfigured and reinterpreted it.

When the congregation of St. Peter’s Church decided to allow the developers of 601 Lexington Avenue to build an office tower on the site of their old Gothic church, they did so on one condition: that the new tower leave space for their church in its own separate building. Doing so presented a challenge to the architects and engineers, and their solution produced a building unlike almost any ever built. The tower rests on four stilts at the center of each side. These stilts raise the base of the building 35 meters (114 feet) above the ground. The floors of the tower extend out 22 meters (72 feet) to the corners. Underneath is space for St. Peter’s Church.

Approaching St. Peter’s from Lexington Avenue, visitors enter on a walkway that forms a balcony above the sanctuary, which is one level below the street. The architecture in this space is restrained, austere even. The flat, white walls are void of decoration. The pews are arranged in neat little rows that echo the straight lines and right angles of the space. The ceiling rises overhead in a 45° angle that echoes the peak of the office building above and creates an empty void.

Yet it is not foreboding. It is warm and even inviting. The peak of the roof is broken by skylights that extend down the corners of the building and flood the space with natural light. From the skylight, slats of warm, light-colored wood slope downward along the ceiling. (I assume they are there for acoustical purposes.) In one corner the wood connects to an organ case, a traditional musical instrument staking its claim in a thoroughly modern space, and continues to the floor of the sanctuary, where it encircles congregants in a series of risers. The pews themselves are of the same wooden color, and their cushions, in three different patterns dominated by pink and orange, are about the only color in the space. The effect is simple, pure, and beautifully harmonious.

As visitors continue down the walkway, they walk through another set of doors and into a lobby at the center of the church. From the information desk at the center, they can connect to classrooms, a senior center, and other facilities, including the York Theatre. But just off the main lobby is another of the church’s gems, a chapel containing the only permanent environmental installation by Louise Nevelson in New York City. The Chapel of the Good Shepherd is almost the antithesis — it is everything the main sanctuary is not: a small, intimate space that envelopes visitors and worshipers in art.

And in this, St. Peter’s Church is postmodernism at its earliest and yet most pure stages, full of contrasts — stark yet warm, new yet old, traditional yet modern, bold yet meek. It is these contrasts — and some would say contradictions — that led architecture away from postmodernism in the early years of this century. It has virtually disappeared from our architectural vernacular, and even some of its best examples, such as Cesar Pelli’s World Financial Center or even 601 Lexington Avenue’s own plaza, immediately adjacent to St. Peter’s, are being stripped away through clumsy renovations that seek to capitalize on the spaces’ commercial value.

But St. Peter’s remains virtually unchanged since the day it was consecrated in December 1977. Back in 1971, when the church decided to remain in this spot in a new building, the city around it was changing dramatically. Some would say, justifiably, that the city was dying, and its churches were, too — at least, those that weren’t fleeing to the suburbs with their congregants. But the church made a commitment to the city of New York. Committing to the city in such a troubled time required rethinking what a church could be. This reexamining expressed itself in the bold reimagining of the shape and form of a sacred space at the corner of Lexington Avenue and East 54th Street — the architectural manifestation of a “persistent commitment” St. Peter’s continues to uphold.

Want to visit?

St. Peter’s Church is open to visitors every day of the week, with a busy schedule of worship services as well as public events and programs. Learn about upcoming events as well as the church’s history and the modern building that houses it on the church’s excellent website.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s