As you walk through St. Paul’s narthex, you see the engraving of our first church building, located on the northwest corner of South Ferry and Dongan Streets. Completed in 1829, the building looks quite exotic: a low, broad building with rough walls of undressed stone, wall buttresses and arched windows, topped by pinnacles and a castellated parapet. And it looked even more exotic in the first third of the nineteenth century, because it was the first Gothic church built in this city.
Following the organization of the parish in November 1827, our first vestry needed to decide where the congregation would meet. Rejecting an offer to continue meeting in an old school house, they chose to erect a new building, and appointed a committee to purchase lots for that purpose.
But what style was right for the new congregation’s first church home? Guidance was readily available in the pages of The Christian Journal and Literary Register to which a vestryman or the rector probably subscribed[i]. The Christian Journal certainly carried authority, since it was issued “under the inspection of the Right Rev. Bishop Hobart,”[ii] bishop of the Diocese of New York, which then encompassed the entire State.
In 1818, the Christian Journal republished an article from the Albany Gazette about Bishop Hobart’s consecration of Zion Church in Louisville (now Morris), Town of Butternuts, Otsego County, New York. Titled “Consecrations,” it includes this description of the building:
The Church at Butternuts, which is a substantial stout edifice, 67 by 47 feet, is of the Gothic order of architecture, with a handsome tower, and is finished in the enterior (sic) as well as exterior with much neatness and elegance. The architect, Mr. McGeorge, of Oxford, deserves much credit for the design of the building, and for the manner in which he has executed it. The Church, it is thought, affords in many respects, a finer specimen of Gothic architecture than any other Church in the state; and it is an evidence of the zeal and liberality of the congregation by whose contribution it has been erected, and an ornament to a flourishing town, which less than thirty years since was a wilderness.[iii]
While the Albany Gazette congratulates the architect, Bishop Hobart himself may have had a hand in Zion Church’s design as well. We know that he requested and received a sketch of the chancel layout from Horatio T. McGeorge, Jr.[iv]
In 1821, following an enthusiastic description of Christ Church in Gardiner, Maine, the Christian Journal explicitly recommended its Gothic style:
We are decidedly of opinion too, that for country churches especially, and we are inclined to make the remark still more extensive, the Gothic or pointed form of architecture is the most solemn and interesting.[v]
Then, only a few months before St. Paul’s was founded, the Christian Journal repeated in full an article from an anonymous article in The Episcopal Register, a journal edited by the Rev. Benjamin Bosworth Smith. Titled “Church Edifices,” it argues for the construction of Gothic churches of stone:
Rather than build more airy and tasteful, but perishable houses, let us imitate the humble English country churches and chapels of the middle age – snug, low, Gothic structures, with massive walls of rough, unhewn stone, adorned with a few plain windows, and a decent humble tower; and calculated to accommodate the worshippers of twenty generations.[vi]
The Register article does not mention it, but B.B. Smith had personal experience with such a building. The congregation of which he was rector, St. Stephens Church in Middlebury, Vermont, had recently completed precisely such a “snug, low, Gothic” structure.
What was the attraction of these three churches to Bishop Hobart and his fellow high-churchmen? Hobart was seeking to define the young Episcopal Church, and to distinguish it from the Presbyterian and Congregational denominations that were then dominant in New York. The churches in Butternuts, Gardiner and Middlebury were strikingly different from the common Greek Revival meeting houses of the Protestant denominations. Because they were reminiscent of medieval English churches, they connected the young Episcopal Church in a new republic to a long, unbroken continuity with English tradition[vii], which in turn reached back to an idealized “apostolic and primitive church.”[viii] St. Paul’s first rector, Richard Bury, referred to this continuity in his sermon at the laying of the building’s cornerstone when he spoke of the liturgy of the Episcopal Church as “sustained by scripture and primitive usage, and by the consent and practice of the church from its earliest period down to this our own day.”[ix] Presbyterian, Reformed, Methodist and Baptist congregations could make no such claim.
Gothic churches had one other advantage, in Hobart’s view. During the Second Great Awakening, Protestant denominations were convulsed by revivals and religious excitement. Hobart’s high-church party felt that Gothic architecture elicited feelings of solemnity, awe, reverence and wonder, consistent with an Anglican mix of thoughtful contemplation and worship. This contrast also helped set the Episcopal Church apart. [x]
Bishop Hobart, through his Christian Journal, was clearly recommending construction of a Gothic church. But what did he understand by “Gothic”? What did these three buildings look like? They were, essentially, rectangular, Georgian buildings, with such Gothic decoration as arched windows divided by mullions, buttressed stone walls, pinnacles and parapets. One commentator called two similar churches of the period in the mid-Atlantic states “crisp essays in neoclassicism Gothicized,” and the style “premature Gothic”;[xi] others have referred to them as pseudo-Gothic Revival. In this period, Gothic details alone were considered sufficient for a building to be seen as “Gothic.”[xii]
In 1827, the Gothic revival in church architecture had just begun. This was almost a decade before the publication of John Henry Hopkins’ Essay on Gothic Architecture (1836), which first made detailed plans of medieval English churches available in North America. And St. Paul’s vestry was making their decision two decades before the formation of the New York Ecclesiological Society (1848), which encouraged Gothic church design throughout the diocese.[xiii]
We have no record of the discussions that led to the design of the South Ferry Street building. The vestry knew of Bishop Hobart’s preferences, and may have seen one or more of the three models of which he approved. They might also have seen the only local example, St. Paul’s, Troy, which was still under construction, and said to be based upon the design of Ithiel Town’s Trinity, New Haven.[xiv] Or perhaps they had heard of the another H.T. McGeorge church, the recently-completed St. Luke’s Church, Rochester.
Our vestry must have discussed these examples with local architect Philip Hooker,[xv] whom they hired to produce a design. It is unlikely that Hooker recommended this style, because it differs sharply with other churches that he was working on this period, most of them Presbyterian or Reformed Church meeting houses, relying primarily on Greek Revival touches.[xvi]
According to a description written shortly after the building was erected:
The design is from an ancient Gothic temple. The width of the main body of the building is fifty-six feet by eighty-five long; fronted with a semi octagonal vestibule of thirty-two feet diameter, with a corresponding roof rising into the front pediment of the main roof. The walls of the whole building are of unwrought stone 3 ½ feet thick in the basement — the upper walls two feet. There are five windows on each side, and two in front supported by center reeds, diverging at the head, so as to form three distinct gothic arches to the casements and frames of each window. The mullions are diagonally disposed and contain glass of 5 ¼ inches square. The angles of the walls and the partition wall at the landing of the gallery stairs, are supported by buttresses of two feet square having in each three abatements coped with cut stone, and surmounted with quadrangular Gothic pinnacles. The eaves finished with a deep Gothic frieze and cornice, and the parapet carried up in the form of battlements.
There are niches in the right and left angles of the entrance way, prepared for statuary. The front door is ten feet wide, on each side of which are columns supporting the arch of a window above the impost of the door. The eaves of the vestibule roof are finished with a cornice and chainwork, and the angles surmounted with pinnacles.[xvii]
One element now common in churches is missing from this description: there was not a cross to be seen on the building’s exterior. In the early 19th century, crosses were considered “Popish,” and were seen only on Catholic churches. In 1834, George Washington Doane[xviii], bishop of New Jersey and rector of St. Mary’s Church in Burlington New Jersey, placed a cross atop the parish’s newly-renovated building, the congregation objected vehemently, and persons unknown sawed the cross off in the middle of the night. While the cross was immediately replaced, this incident clearly shows the attitude to its display among the Episcopal laity in this period.[xix]
Notice also that, while the windows are arched, they contain plain glass. Stained glass in North American church windows was not known in this period.[xx] True stained glass, using medieval techniques, only dates from William Jay Bolton’s work at the Church of the Holy Trinity, Brooklyn, in 1847.[xxi]
The design of St. Paul’s church on South Ferry Street follows the recommendations endorsed by Bishop Hobart. As recommended by the anonymous author of the Vermont article, the exterior was built of undressed stone, the proportions broad and low, with a tower to be placed at its rear.[xxii] While it does not look like an English parish church of the middle ages, it does have the Gothic touches which impressed contemporaries, who judged that “[t]he whole building may be considered as a fine specimen of Gothic architecture.”[xxiii] And it certainly would have stood out among other churches in Albany when it was completed in 1829.
The building still stands on South Ferry Street, now used as the Equinox Youth Shelter. As it is now, with the tower never built, and shorn since 1910 of its vestibule and all of its Gothic trim, it is hard to recognize as Gothic. While to 20th century observers the building “may appear poorly proportioned and awkwardly composed,”[xxiv] let us look at it as St. Paul’s first congregation may have seen it. Of similar pseudo-Gothic churches in Connecticut, Gretchen Buggeln has written:
Even the most ‘Gothic’ of Connecticut Episcopal churches of the period, Trinity and St. Paul’s in New Haven, and Christ Church in Hartford, to our eyes look more or less like rectangular boxes with spires in front – not so different from neighboring Congregational meetinghouses. Yet their stone construction and Gothic ornament made them seem wholly different to contemporary viewers: dark mysterious, substantial, and even historically accurate. Rather than critique these structures for falling short of ‘true’ English Gothic, we should wonder why New England Episcopalians clung so tenaciously to this style in the early national period, how they changed it, and how they made it their own.[xxv] [italics in original]
[i] In December 1827, The Christian Journal printed letter from an anonymous St. Paul’s vestryman announcing the congregation’s organization. “St. Paul’s Church, Albany,” Christian Journal and Literary Register, volume XI, number 12 (December 1827), 376-377.
[ii] An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, https://www.episcopalchurch.org/library/glossary/christian-journal-and-literary-register, accessed 29 Jan 2019.
[iii] “Consecrations,” Christian Journal and Literary Register, volume II, number 22 (November 1818), 352. I have been unable to locate the original Albany Gazette article.
[iv] Arthur Lowndes (ed.), The Correspondence of John Henry Hobart 1798-1801, volume II of Archives of the General Convention (New York: privately printed, 1911), 504.
[v] “Christ Church, Gardiner,” The Christian Journal and Literary Register, volume V, number 1 (January 1821), 30-31.
[vi] “Church Edifices,” Christian Journal and Literary Register, volume XI, number 5 (May 1827), 135-136. This was originally published as “Church Edifices,” Episcopal Register (Middlebury, Vermont), volume 2 (March 1827), 41-42.
[vii] Robert Bruce Mullin, Episcopal Vision/American Reality (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 76-77.
[viii] John Henry Hobart, “The Churchman,” in A Word for the Church: Consisting of “The Churchman,” and “The High Churchman Vindicated,” (Boston: Stimpson and Clapp, 1832), 13.
[ix] “St. Paul’s Church – Rev. Mr. Bury’s Address,” Christian Journal and Literary Register, volume XII, number 9 (September 1828), 286. This is a copy of “St. Paul’s Church, Albany” published in the 12 Jul 1828 issue of The Gospel Messenger, published in Auburn, New York by Bishop Hobart’s friend John C. Rudd. On the Gospel Messenger and Rudd’s connection with Hobart, see “Origins of the Episcopal Church Press From Colonial Days to 1840,” Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church, Vol. 11, No. 3 (September, 1942), 201-318.
[x] Gretchen Townsend Buggeln, Temples of Grace: The Material Transformation of Connecticut’s Churches, 1790-1840 (Hanover: University Press of New England, 2003), 112.
[xi] Phoebe B. Stanton, The Gothic Revival & American Church Architecture: An Episode in Taste 1840 – 1856 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1968), 220.
[xii] Ryan K. Smith, Gothic Arches, Latin Crosses (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 88-89.
[xiii] See Stanton’s chapter “The New York Ecclesiological Society and Its Journal.” The Society’s architect, Frank Wills, designed Albany’s Church of the Holy Innocents (1850) and Grace Church (1852).
[xiv] Bishop Hobart knew Trinity Church, Hartford well, since he had consecrated the building in 1818.
[xv] Philip Hooker had a personal connection to the congregation as well: his parents, Samuel and Rachel Hooker, became communicants at St. Paul’s in the late summer of 1830, one year after the building their son had designed was consecrated.
[xvi] Douglas G. Bucher, W. Richard Wheeler, Mary Raddant Tomlan, A Neat plain modern stile: Philip Hooker and his contemporaries, 1796-1836 (Clinton, N.Y.: Trustees of Hamilton College, 1993). Meeting houses listed ther are: Hamilton College Chapel (p. 203), First Presbyterian Church, Utica (p. 211), Niskayuna Reformed Church (p. 233), Fourth Presbyterian Church, Albany (p. 251). The only other Hooker church in the period was Roman Catholic, St. Mary’s, Albany (p. 258), also with a very plain Greek Revival facade.
[xvii] “St. Paul’s Church,” Albany Gazette 25 Aug 1829.
[xviii] Father of William Croswell Doane, the first bishop of the Diocese of Albany.
[xix] Smith, 51-52.
[xx] William Wilson Manross, The Episcopal Church in the United States 1800 – 1840: A Study in Church Life (New York: AMS Press, 1967), 145-146.On the adoption of the cross and stained glass as part of the Gothic Revival, see Smith’s chapters on “The Cross,” 51-82 and “The Gothic,” 83-117.
[xxi] Willene B. Clark, “America’s First Stained Glass: William Jay Bolton’s Windows at the Church of the Holy Trinity, Brooklyn, New York,” The American Art Journal, vol. 11, no. 4 (October 1979), 32-53. The first authentic stained glass in Albany was created by Bolton’s brother, John Bolton for the Church of the Holy Innocents in 1850 (Willene Clark, 34.)
[xxii] Letters About the Hudson River and Its Vicinity (New York: Freeman Hunt & Co., 1837), 148.
[xxiii] “St. Paul’s Church,” Albany Gazette 25 Aug 1829.
[xxiv] Bucher et al., 242.
[xxv] Buggeln, 111.