In an earlier post, I wrote about the Gothic design of St. Paul’s church on South Ferry Street. But what did the interior of that building look like?
During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the standard chancel configuration consisted of a “triple-decker” pulpit, with the holy table (seldom referred to as an altar), tucked at its base:
The lowest level of a triple-decker pulpit was reserved for the reading desk, at which the lay clerk led the singing and verbal responses of the service. Above the clerk’s desk was the minister’s reading desk, where a Bible, a large prayer book, and a metrical psalter were usually placed. Above this desk was the top deck, 10 feet or more above the floor, where the minister preached his sermon. Sometimes one desk served for both clerk and clergyman, and the middle tier was absent.[i]
This replaced an earlier arrangement, in which either the pulpit and holy table were at opposite ends of the nave, or the massive pulpit stood in front of the table, completely obscuring the congregation’s view.[ii] The newer arrangement represented two changes in Anglican practice. Since the Great Awakening, the spoken word (and especially the sermon) had become central to Anglican worship. The lofty pulpit and reading desk underscored the word’s importance.[iii] Additionally, the prominent position of the holy table in a central location immediately adjacent to the pulpit represented a growing recognition of the role of the Eucharist in Christian worship.[iv]
Despite these laudable intentions, the bishop of New York, John Henry Hobart, was dissatisfied with this chancel arrangement. In his view, “[t]he holy eucharist is the highest form of Christian worship,”[v] and he thought that hiding the holy table beneath a huge pulpit did not make it sufficiently visible. It is then unfortunate that this design has been attributed to (and often blamed on) Bishop William Henry Hobart, and referred to as the Hobart Chancel. Hobart had a long-term interest in chancel design, and had significant influence of new buildings of the period. He was very much aware of the triple-decker’s limitations, and made recommendations precisely aimed at solving them.
In discussing the South Ferry Street church’s exterior, we mentioned three instances in which Hobart expressed opinions on the exterior design of churches. We will now see that in each of these, Hobart also spoke of the design of chancels, and in each affirmed or proposed a design that gave the holy table its due prominence.
First, we have seen that Bishop Hobart had a hand in the design of the interior of Zion Church, Morris, Otsego County, New York, built in 1818. Hobart requested a copy of the chancel design from its architect, Horatio T. McGeorge, Jr.[vi] According to contemporary accounts, there were two holy tables in that church, on either side of the pulpit. At the Eucharist, one table was brought forward in front of the pulpit, in full view of the congregation.[vii]
The second example is the 1821 article in which The Christian Journal and Literary Register enthusiastically described the new Episcopal church in Gardiner, Maine. In that same article, The Christian Journal (issued “under the inspection of the Right Rev. Bishop Hobart”) also expressed strong approval for the layout of that church’s chancel:
In this church the whole congregation see the clergyman in the performance of all the sacred offices. The altar especially is in full view. We wish this might be more generally the case, and that the cumbrous reading desks, which were introduced only on account of the great size of the cathedrals, might either be dispensed within small buildings, or made so light and small, and placed in such a point of view, as not to obstruct the sight of the chancel.[viii]
Third, in the Christian Journal article titled “Church Edifices” in the May 1827 issue (which copied the Vermont article on construction “low, snug” stone buildings) expanded on these recommendations, speaking directly and in great detail to the problem with the standard triple decker.[ix]
The first page of “Church Edifices” reproduces “Elevation and ground Plan for a Pulpit, Reading Desk, Chancel, &c,” drafted at Bishop Hobart’s request. The elevation shows a typical double-decker pulpit. But the text explains the difference with the standard arrangement which are illustrated in the ground plan: the pulpit, reading desk and communion table (labeled 1 through 3 respectively) are elevated by chancel (4), kneeling step (5) and platform (6):
“The principal object is to procure in new churches such an elevation of the chancel that the communion table and rails of the chancel may be seen above the pews from every part of the church. It is desirable also that there should be a platform between the chancel and the pews, of such a rise, that in case of ordinations or confirmations, the persons who stand on it may be seen by the congregation without inconvenience. With this arrangement of the chancel, the interesting solemnities which are performed there may be celebrated in the view of all the congregation. The disappointment will thus be avoided, which always takes place when, from the lowness of the chancel, and from there being no platform around it, the greater part of the congregation cannot witness those holy offices, no small part of the interest of which arises from their being seen.”[x]
It is possible that this 1827 chancel design was implemented in St. Paul’s Church, Buffalo. Christine B. Lozner states that “[[I]n 1826, Hobart introduced a new version of the “triple decker” pulpit, complete with Gothic detail (Fig.7), which became an important interior feature in many churches built during and after his tenure.”[xi] Her Figure 7[xii], labeled “Triple-decker pulpit recommended by Bishop Hobart C1826, Buffalo, St. Paul’s Church.”, reproduces a plate of a very similar chancel published in a history of St. Paul’s, Buffalo, [xiii] Lozner, however, gives no source for either the date or the connection to Bishop Hobart.
The chancel of Rochester’s St. Luke’s Church (consecrated by Bishop Hobart in 1827) may have followed the same plan, but I have not been able to find a plan for confirmation.
Turning now to the South Ferry Street building, can we see evidence of Hobart’s influence? We have only two contemporary descriptions from the brief period that St. Paul’s used the building (1829-1839). The first is far more detailed:
The interior finish is also gothic, and painted (by Messrs. Russel and Davis[xiv] of this city) in imitation of oak; there are 138 pews below, and 66 in the gallery. The pulpit, screen and altar were designed and drawn by Mr. George Vernon[xv], architect, and built by Mr. J. Bigelow[xvi]. The screen is 24 feet wide, supported by four octagonal gothic columns, in panel work, and rising about 18 feet from the chancel floor. The columns are finished at the top with pinnacles, ornamented and encircled with carved leaves and vines: in the centre of the screen and immediately over the pulpit, there rises a pediment, supported by clustered columns and an arch; the pediment also surmounted with a richly ornamented pinnacle extending to the ceiling, and standing in relief, in a niche prepared to receive it. The top of the screen and bases of the pinnacles are finished with castellated battlements, and the panel work in quatre foils.
The church is supplied with a large and splendid organ, from the factory of Mr. Henry Erben, of the city of New York.
The church has been built for the congregation of which the Rev. Richard Bury is the Rector, and the building and interior finish has been done under the superintendence and direction of Mr. W.W. Dougherty.[xvii] , [xviii]
The second description (oddly enough, from the same page of the same newspaper) gives an additional clue as to the arrangement of the chancel:
The Gothic screen and chancel, with which the pulpit and reading desk are connected, are said by competent judges to surpass any thing of the kind in this country, and to be a specimen of pure Gothic architecture.[xix]
These descriptions are supplemented by a diagram from the 1830s, showing the appraisals of pews on the building’s first floor. At the front is a large rectangular area. This is the chancel, containing pulpit, reading desk, screen and altar.
Our only image of the interior was made in 1895, long after the Roman Catholic congregation to which we sold the building had modified the chancel. In this photograph, we can see the arches, columns and pinnacles, because they are unchanged. The altar, reading desks and pulpit have all been replaced by the Roman Catholic congregation. Despite these losses, two major design elements remain: the steps and platform, raising the altar so it was in full view of congregation, the heart of the design “drafted at Bishop Hobart’s request.” I think we can assume that the missing elements also followed that design and closely followed Hobart’s recommendations.
[i] David Hain and Gardiner H. Shattuck, Jr., The Episcopalians (Westport CT: Praeger, 2004), 23.
[ii] William Wilson Manross, The Episcopal Church in the United States 1800 – 1840: A Study in Church Life (New York: AMS Press, 1967), 147.
[iii] Robert W, Prichard, A History of the Episcopal Church (Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing, 1999),64.
[iv] Manross, 147.
[v] John Henry Hobart, A Companion for the Altar (New York: T. and J. Swords, 1819), 25. For a discussion of the place of the eucharist in Hobart’s theology, see E. Clowes Chorley, Men and Movements in the American Episcopal Church (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948), 178-181.
[vi] Arthur Lowndes (ed.), The Correspondence of John Henry Hobart 1798-1801, volume II of Archives of the General Convention (New York: privately printed, 1911), 504-505.
[vii] Lowndes, 513-514.
[viii] “Christ Church, Gardiner,” The Christian Journal and Literary Register, volume V, number 1 (January 1821), 30-31.
[ix] “Church Edifices,” Christian Journal and Literary Register (New York, NY), volume XI, number 5 (May 1827), 134-136.
[x] “Church Edifices,” Christian Journal and Literary Register, 135.
[xi] Christine B. Lozner, “Historic Churches of the Episcopal Diocese of Central New York,” National Register of Historic Place Multiple Property Documentation Form (received 31 Jul 1996), Section E, page 9. https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/GetAsset/NRHP/64500452_text, accessed 20 Jun 2019.
[xii] Lozner, Section E Illustrations.
[xiii] Charles W. Evans, History of St. Paul’s Church, Buffalo, N.Y. 1817-1903 (Buffalo: The Matthews-Northrup Works, 1903), facing page 34. The diagram of the chancel layout has been clipped from a depiction of the nave and chancel layout facing page 31 of the same book.
[xiv] The firm Russell & Davis is listed in Albany city directories for 1827, 1828-1829, 1829-1830 and 1830-1831 at 364 N. Market Street, and identified variously as painters, painters and glaziers and as a paint store. The partners were Elihu Russell and Joseph Davis.
[xv] George Vernon (born George Verrall) was a comedian and singer, who managed the Albany Theatre on South Pearl Street from 1828 until his death in 1830. H.P. Phelps, The Players of a Century (Albany: Joseph McDonough, 1880), 111-112. Oddly, he is not listed in any city directory for the period 1827-1831. Vernon died in 1830, and was buried in St. Peter’s cemetery. The grave was later moved to Albany Rural Cemetery in Menands, New York. https://albanychurchgrounds.wordpress.com/2013/11/30/featured-gravestone-george-vernon/
[xvi] Jotham Bigelow (or Biglow), a carpenter, is listed in Albany city directories for 1828-1829, 1829-1830 and 1830-1831.
[xvii] William W. Dougherty is listed in Albany city directories for 1827, 1828-1829, 1829-1830 and 1830-1831 as either counselor, or counselor and attorney with office and residence at 603 S. Market Street. Dougherty was a St. Paul’s vestryman from 1827 until 1829, and was a member of the church’s building committee. In a classified advertisement inserted multiple times in the Albany Argus during the spring of 1828, contractors wishing to submit proposals for “building and finishing St. Paul’s church, in the city of Albany” are directed to Dougherty’s South Market Street office, where they could see the plans.
[xviii] “St. Paul’s Church,” Albany Gazette 25 Aug 1829. The item is dated “Albany, Saturday, August 22.” This description was later copied by two magazines: The American Masonic Record and Albany Saturday Magazine (volume 3, 29 August 1829, page 246) and The American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge (volume II, number III, November 1835, page 93). The Masonic Record copied this text precisely (other than claiming that the church has 148 rather than 138 pews), but credited the Albany Daily Advertiser. The American Magazine varies the text slightly, without adding additional relevant material.
[xix] “[Communication],” Albany Gazette 25 Aug 1829.