Throughout much of the nineteenth century the area around St. Paul’s Chapel and what is now City Hall Park was a fashionable theater district. Theaters—previously open to the sky and offering day time performances—had moved indoors in the seventeenth century, spurring the development of stage lighting techniques and equipment. Candles, gaslights, and lime lights were the primary nineteenth century light sources, and many were needed to adequately illuminate the stage. Actors and audience were literally surrounded by fire and flammable objects: canvas scenery, wooden set pieces, cotton rope, curtains.
It’s no surprise then that St. Paul’s Chapel was twice threatened by theater fires, first in 1820 and again in 1848. Around 1am on May 25, 1820, a fire erupted in the Park Theater at 21, 23 and 25 Park Row, which one newspaper reporter described as “the most grand and spacious in the Union.” The theater was built and owned by the original John Jacob Astor. A play called The Siege of Tripoli, which, according to one newspaper account, “exhibited the burning of a frigate” on stage, was performed the night before.
A reporter described the scene: "The flames spread with the rapidity of lightening—the whole city was illuminated, and wind carried the burning embers a mile from the Theatre.”
John Jacob Astor had the Park Theater rebuilt only for it to burn down again in December 1848. The Astor family declined to rebuild a second time, as the theatre’s higher class clientele had moved uptown.
Stay Tuned: Next week The Archivist's Mailbag brings you the story of The Man Who Helped Unify Italy and Save St. Paul’s Chapel (and May Have Been a Spy) but Died Poor Anyway
Since the discovery of this 1768 fire bucket, The Archivist’s Mailbag has taken an interest in tales of fire near St. Paul’s Chapel. Eighteenth and nineteenth century Lower Manhattan—with densely packed wooden buildings, candles and cooking fires—was extremely vulnerable to mass conflagrations.
St. Paul’s steeple caught fire on April 22, 1799, when strong winds carried embers from a fire on Washington Street between Courtland and Dey Streets, where the the World Trade Center site now stands. On April 24, 1799, an article about the fire appeared in The Spectator:
“A fire broke out in the shop occupied by Mr. West, builder, on the west side of Washington-street…It is said to have been communicated by a boy’s imprudently placing a pot just taken from the fire amongst some shavings... Several buildings at a considerable distance from the conflagration were frequently set on fire from the flakes carried by the strong westerly wind—one of them reached even to the steeple of St. Paul’s Church and in a few moments the base of the Northwest Urn was in a blaze. One of the workmen employed about the church was immediately let down by rope from one of the upper apertures, and cut it away, when the fire was soon extinguished.”
The Archivist’s Mailbag isn’t clear what the writer meant by “northwest urn.” It may be this architectural element, which is shaped like an urn:
There is one positioned at each corner of the steeple, and it would have been possible to lower someone through an upper window of the steeple.
It’s a great and oft-repeated story: Trinity Church gave the first performance of Handel's Messiah in the New World.
Too bad it’s not true.
Luckily, the real story is actually more interesting.
The first performance of Messiah in the New World was given by William Tuckey, a bankrupt former employee of Trinity Church, as a benefit for himself on Tuesday, January 16, 1770. The concert was held at “Mr. Burns Rooms,” also know as “Burns Coffee-house,” a tavern at 9 Broadway. Tuckey actually advertised his performance as the first in America. Admission was 8 shillings.
The concert was originally scheduled for Tuesday, January 9, 1770, but postponed for one week because there were "a considerable number of Ladies and Gentlemen engag'd for the 9th, which Mr. Tuckey flatters himself will honor him with their Company."
Original advertisement from The New-York Journal, January 4, 1770:
The postponement announcement from The New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, January 8, 1770:
Tuckey, an Englishman who came to the colonies in 1752, had been vicar choral of the Cathedral Church of Bristol and Clerk of St. Mary Port, also in Bristol. He was hired by Trinity Church in 1753 at a salary of 25 pounds a year. His wife and children then joined him in the colonies. Tuckey’s official title was clerk and his tasks, besides teaching choir, were to set out the music for the service and lead the singing of psalms. In November 1756 Tuckey was fired from his clerk position for “refusing to officiate in time of Divine Service.” (It is unclear what the Vestry meant by that.)
After his firing, Tuckey was occasionally paid for preparing special occasion music, including music for the first service at St. Paul’s Chapel. He seems to have continued organizing choirs as well. But by 1769, he was an “insolvent debtor,” and a newspaper advertisement requested his creditors to appear before a judge to seek restitution.
From The New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, April 3, 1769:
On October 3, 1770, eight-and-a-half months after Messiah’s American premiere in a tavern, Trinity Church gave a performance of selections from the oratorio as part of a benefit for The Corporation for the Relief of the Widows and Children of Clergymen of the Communion of the Church of England in America.
The performance was well-received.
Notice from The New-York Journal, October 4, 1770:
As for Tuckey, he remained active in the New York City music community, publishing church music and giving concerts. But his money troubles never disappeared. In 1775 he had this advertisement printed in city newspapers:
From The New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, January 30, 1775:
September 21, 1776
The night was dry and blustery. Days before, the Continental Army had fled and left New York City in the hands of the British. Sometime between midnight and 1 AM a fire broke out on Whitehall Street. Trinity Church, the rector’s house, and the Charity School were soon engulfed in flames.
Illustration of the Great Fire of 1776:
Night watchmen patrolling the streets sounded alarms, shaking rattles and ringing bells. According to his own report, the Rev. Charles Inglis, Trinity’s assistant minster, organized a bucket-brigade that poured water on the roof of St. Paul’s Chapel, an action he credited with saving the building. Could the bucket pictured above, dated 1768, have been used to save St. Paul's Chapel?
While there's no way to know for certain, it is likely this bucket was used to fight the fire of 1776.
The fire bucket--recently discovered by Omayra Rivera, program administrator for St. Paul’s--lead The Archivist's Mailbag into the fascinating history of fire buckets and fire-fighting at St. Paul's Chapel.
Fire buckets were used to get water to a fire. They were made of thick leather, sewn together with linen thread, and sealed with either paint or pitch, a tar-like substance. When fires broke out, everyone available—including women and children—would form a line from the fire to the nearest well, pond or river, and pass buckets back and forth. Men would pass the full buckets, and women and children would run or pass the empty buckets back to the water source. Later, buckets were used to feed hand-driven pumps that propelled water onto fires.
Devastating fires were a fact of life for early European settlers on the island of Manhattan. In August of 1628, just four years after the Dutch founded New Amsterdam, a minister named Jonas Michaelius wrote the second letter known to have come from the town. In it, he writes that many settlers had lost their baptismal certificates in a “general conflagration.”
By January 1648, New Amsterdam had several hundred citizens, almost all living in flammable wooden buildings crowded south of Partition Street (now known as Fulton Street). The city’s ruling council, under the direction of Peter Stuyvesant, passed an ordinance appointing fire wardens, who were to levee fines on those caught with dirty (and therefore more flammable) chimneys and flues. The fines were used to purchase ladders, hooks, and fire buckets for the city.
Throughout the 1650s the city’s government struggled to raise the money needed for firefighting equipment, at one point levying what appears to have been a deeply unpopular tax on each house. Eventually the council strong-armed citizens into paying up, and four shoemakers were commissioned to make the buckets. Evert Duycking, the city’s glazier, was hired to paint numbers on the buckets so they could be tracked and counted easily. The buckets were hung in homes and businesses across the city, in order that they would be accessible no matter where a fire broke out.
The 1776 fire was rumored to have been started by angry Patriots in response to the British capture of the city. Loyalist newspapers reported that prior to the fire, church bells were stolen, and fire buckets had their bottoms slashed—both of which suggested the fire was arson.
Excerpt of 1776 newspaper article about the fire:
St. Paul’s fire bucket has an intact bottom that appears to be original.
1730 illustration of a fire. Image links to the New York Public Library Digital Image Gallery:
Arson or accident, the fire of 1776 was widespread and difficult to contain. How effective were fire buckets at stopping a fire? For this information, The Archivist’s Mailbag consulted Gina Bertucelli, Manager of Life Safety for Trinity Real Estate, who has a Masters degree in fire science with a concentration in arson investigation. She’s also a former firefighter.
It takes between 8,000 and 10,000 gallons of water to contain 1,000 square feet of structural fire. A modern fire engine, with four hoses, will typically pump 800-900 gallons per minute onto a fire—provided there is unlimited water available. A colonial fire bucket holds approximately 3 gallons of water and weighs 25 pounds when filled. A human bucket brigade working at top speed would struggle to deliver 100 gallons of water per minute.
New Amsterdam’s other weapon for fighting fire was the Rattle-watch. Starting in 1655, able-bodied men were employed to walk the streets from 9 pm until sunrise, calling out the time at each corner, and watching for any signs of fire. They carried wooden rattles and shook them to warn people of fire or any other threatening situation.
New Amsterdam came under British control in 1664, but the city’s fire prevention measures remained largely unchanged. Ordinances were introduced requiring fire equipment to be stored in sheds in several locations around town, and requiring each house to have its own fire buckets. The rationale for these ordinances reads: “…great Damages Have bin Done by ffire in this Citty by reason there were not Instruments to quench ye same.”
On February 16, 1757, a fire broke out and burned more than an hour “before the Citizens had proper Notice of it,” leading to criticism of the Rattle-watch. At the time, all male citizens of New York were required to watch four times a year—or pay someone to do it for them. As the New York Post-Boy put it: “The citizens are required, at least four Times a year, to watch, or pay their Two and Six-pence to a Parcel of idle, drunken, vigilant Snorers, who never quell’d any nocturnal Tumult in their Lives; (Nor, as we can learn, were ever the first Discoverers of a Fire breaking out,) but would, perhaps, be as ready to join in a Burglary, as any Thief in Christendom. A hopeful Set indeed, to defend this rich and populous City against the Terrors of the Night!”
Public outrage over the conduct of the Rattle-watch during this particular fire was followed by a formalization of Rattle-watch rules.
1776 Plan of the City of New York, showing wards:
The original fire companies were organized according to ward. At the time, Lower Manhattan was divided into the South Ward, Dock Ward, East Ward, Montgomerie Ward, West Ward, and North Ward. According to ward map, St. Paul’s Chapel stood on the northern edge of the West Ward.
St. Paul’s Fire Company
St. Paul’s Chapel was consecrated in 1766. A 1761 city ordinance had instituted tougher fire regulations, but those rules proved expensive and onerous and were suspended until January 1, 1768. St. Paul’s leadership may have planned the fire bucket purchase to comply with the ordinance. This is one possible explanation for why the fire bucket found at St. Paul’s was dated 1768, rather than 1766.
City records from 1768 include a complete list of volunteer firefighters, organized by ward. The Archivist’s Mailbag compared the list of firefighters to the first extant St. Paul’s pew register, which is from 1782. Jacob Roome, foreman of the West Ward company, and John Roome, of the East Ward company, shared pew 79. Were Jacob and John Roome part of the Rev. Inglis’ bucket brigade? Given that St. Paul’s Chapel is located in the West Ward, it’s likely that Jacob Roome, as foreman of the West Ward company, participated in the bucket brigade.
In 1778, John Roome was named fire inspector:
The Roome family played an important role in early fire companies--but they also appear to have been active members of Trinity’s parish. John and Jacob Roome each sponsored several baptisms during the 1780s. Many other Roomes were baptized, married and buried in the parish. There were several Henry Roomes active in firefighting and in parish life in the late 1700s. In 1756 a Henry Roome married Anne Griggs at Trinity Church, and in 1762 the couple buried two children in Trinity churchyard. Five nearby graves belong to Griggs and Roome family members.
Grave of Henry Roome, aged 5, and his sister Sarah Roome, aged 2, both of whom died during the summer of 1762:
Jacob Roome is credited with manufacturing the first American-made fire engine, for Company 1 in Brooklyn in 1785. John P. Roome, likely from a later generation of Roomes, was foreman and assistant engineer of Company 14 from 1808 until 1824.
Two John P. Roome’s—possibly his sons—died as children and were buried in St. John’s churchyard. (Mary Alice Tisdall, subject of an earlier blog entry, was also buried in St. John's Cemetery.) The churchyard no longer exists; in 1897 it was converted into a park, now known as the James J. Walker Park. A William H. Roome also served in Company 14 in 1788.
Firehouses in the Churchyard
St. Paul's Churchyard as it looked in 1812, showing both Engine Company 14 and Engine Company 39:
Interestingly, Company 14, known as “Columbian,” was headquartered in St. Paul’s Chapel from 1780 until 1812, after which it was located in the churchyard, at the corner of Church and Vesey Streets. Company 39, known as “Franklin” or “Old Skiver,” was headquartered at the opposite side of the churchyard, at the corner of Church and Fulton Streets, from 1812 until 1820.
Drawing of a water-pumping contest between Engine Company 14 and Engine Company 34 held around 1850:
Having fire companies in the churchyard would prove useful, as St. Paul’s Chapel survived several major fires of the nineteenth century. Check back next week for part two of the story of St. Paul’s fire bucket.
Richard Bleecker (L) and Jim Boulden (R), descendants of Anthony Lispenard Bleecker, at the Anthony Lispenard Bleecker Family Vault. Jim Boulden also has ancestors buried in the nearby Morris Family Vault and in St. Paul's churchyard. Read more about the Bleecker family here.
The recent discovery of a 1768 fire bucket at St. Paul's Chapel lead The Archivist's Mailbag to hunt for more forgotton treasures inside St. Paul's. Check out the photo gallery <a href="/news/photos#gallery/treasures-of-st.-pauls-chapel">here</a>, and stay tuned for an upcoming post all about the fire bucket and how it may have saved the church from the great fire of 1776.
When Jan Jansen Bleecker arrived in New Netherland in 1658, he couldn’t have imagined the thoroughfare that would carry his name into the 21st century, Bleecker Street, nor the generations of American Bleeckers that came after.
Bleecker Street runs east-west from the Bowery to 6th Avenue then curves sharply north until it dead-ends into Hudson Street in the West Village. The history of Bleecker Street traces the history of Manhattan: open farmland to middle class suburb to crowded turn-of-the-century tenements to Bohemian mecca to down-and-out flophouses to boutique shopping. Bleecker Street is sung about by musicians from Simon and Garfunkel to Bruce Springsteen. Bleecker Street, it seems, means something in American culture—something different to everyone. Bleecker Street song lyrics can be found here.
But let’s go back to Jan Jansen Bleecker, stepping onto the shores of the New World in 1658. He settled in Albany, where he served as mayor and had several children, including a son name Rutger. Rutger’s son Jacobus married Abigail Lispenard, the daughter of a prominent Huguenot family, and settled in Manhattan. Jacobus was an auctioneer, primarily of real estate. His eldest son, Anthony Lispenard Bleecker, followed his father’s footsteps and became a prominent merchant and auctioneer. Anthony Lispenard Bleecker or his sons owned the land through which Bleecker Street now runs. That land may have been part of the old Lispenard estate, and Anthony, Leonard, Thomas, Barclay and Lispenard Streets are all named for Lispenard family members.
Both the Bleecker and Lispenard families attended Trinity Church, and church records show dozens of baptisms, marriages (often to other prominent colonial families) and funerals. Anthony Lispenard Bleecker was a vestryman and warden, and his son and grandson were also vestrymen. No wonder, then, that these men and other family members were laid to rest in Trinity churchyard, many in the Anthony L. Bleecker Family Vault, purchased in 1790.Nearly 30 members of the Bleecker family were buried in the churchyard, primarily during the 19th century. Lispenards are buried in the Barclay Family Vault, and another branch of the family is buried in the Robinson Family Vault.
The Bleecker family has consistently taken an interest in their ancestral resting place. During the construction of the current Trinity Church in December 1839, Anthony W. Bleecker wrote a forceful letter to the Trinity vestry concerning the treatment of a vault.
In pulling down the church …the vault has been most wantonly trespassed upon—the Coffins destroyed, the Silver Plates taken away + the bones of my Relations put in a Rough Box and left exposed at the end of the Yard.Be pleased to let me know what Indemnification I am to expect for this trespass.
Vestry minutes reveal that Mr. Bleecker’s complaint was received and referred to “the building Committee with Instructions to make Inquiry into the facts and to confer with Mr Bleecker.”
The last of the nineteenth century Bleeckers was buried in the churchyard 1884. As the city became more crowded, restrictions were enacted that prohibit traditional burials in Lower Manhattan, but allow for interment of the ashes of the direct descendents of a vault’s owners.In January 1971, Helen Murray Macdonald’s ashes were interred in the vault; church records shed little light on her relationship to Anthony L. Bleecker.
In 1966 an addition to the church was constructed over the Bleecker vault, and the vault stone was moved to a thin strip of churchyard just west of the building. It was there when Richard W. Bleecker, great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson of Jan Jansen Bleecker, noticed it in 1981. He began corresponding with the archivist and building manager at the time, and maintained sporadic communication throughout the next twenty years. In 2001, he wrote this account of visiting the Bleecker Vault:
The church no longer has much contact with descendants of the original vault owners.Evidently, mine was the only inquiry received in the last twenty years. Church officials and I examined old records…It appeared that the [Bleecker] vault was still intact beneath the building.Expressing interest in having my remains placed in the Vault, I asked to visit it to see if there was enough space.
The church officials were not at all confident that the Vault could be accessed; evidently no one had tried to get to that particular area since the building’s expansion. (Editor’s note: Officials at the time must have been unaware that Ms. Macdonald’s ashes had been interred in the vault in 1971.) I persisted with my request, and eventually a workman was dispatched to the area.He reported that it was possible to reach the hallway leading to the Vault, but that trip would be difficult and the conditions primitive.I was not discouraged, and asked that we press on.
On the chilly morning of November 22, 2000, accompanied by five workers from the church, I began the trek that would hopefully lead to the ancestral burial place.First, we descended a flight of stairs and entered a large boiler room.Against the far wall a ladder was placed.A climb to the top revealed a narrow crawl space that lead into darkness. Portable lights affixed to long extension cords were brought up so we could find our way.After carefully crawling over and around dusty pipes and ducts for about twenty-five feet, we came to a heavy concrete slab.Several of the men moved the slab to one side, exposing a black opening.This was as far as the previous workman had ventured.We dropped a second ladder into the opening and descended into the immediate area where the Vault was believed to be located.
We found ourselves in a hallway.There were three doors on either side.Each door was the entrance to a family vault.The Bleecker Vault was the third one on the right.
The air was perfectly still.For a few second, it seemed as though my heart, my breath and time itself were suspended.As soon as the lighting was brought down to us, I entered the Vault.The space was perhaps twelve feet by twelve feet, with a curved ceiling.This was a sacred place.
On the floor were the remains of my ancestors.Simple wooden coffins were stacked in piles.With the passage of time the coffins had come apart.The coffins on the bottom had largely disintegrated due to the weight of those above them.Ancestral dust and skeletal remains commingled with wood from the coffins.I bent down to read some of the inscriptions on the small metal markers that were attached to the coffins.They gave the names and dates of those who had been placed there…Cornelia Bleecker…Mary Bleecker…
I imagined the blessings that had been said, the memories invoked, during the nineteenth century burial rituals that had taken place there.I remained in the Vault for awhile, seeking spiritual communion and kinship.
Before climbing back to the crawlspace, I looked into the other five vaults.They were the same size as the Bleecker Vault.Several were almost empty, however, and none had been used for as many burials.
Shortly after that visit, accompanied by the wife, Juanita, I attended a Sunday service in the Trinity Church.Seated in the pew, an aura of grace surrounded us.It was unlike anything I had felt before.After the service, we wandered through the building, knowing that somewhere beneath our feet lay the Vault.On one side of the main worship hall, we came upon a small, intimate chapel. It was a perfect place to kneel and pray that the souls of my ancestors would forever rest in peace.
For 20 summers at the beginning of the last century, the Rev. William Wilkinson would don a cassock, mount a “dry-goods box,” and preach to crowds in the open air on Wall Street.
He was something of a phenomenon.
Wilkinson was one of a number of preachers from New York’s most august churches who were setting up shop on street corners and thoroughfares throughout the city. He was the most successful, however, drawing 400-500 congregants a service, who would encircle their pastor, rows deep and silent, until he was done. He became known as the “Bishop of Wall Street.” Letters were sent to the editors of The New York Times to praise his work.
Summer of the Saved
In New York City in 1905, the Greater New York Evangelistic Committee, which was supported by the Episcopal Church, had been formed primarily in response to the heavy flow of immigrants to the city at the time. At a May 8 meeting that year, the Rev. Dr. Walter Laidlaw reported that, “Before 1920, New York will be the largest city on earth…if the present immigration keeps up, in two more years we will have more Italians in New York City than there are in any city in Italy today.”
A survey by an organization called the Federation of Churches had determined that there were more than one million “churchless” Protestants in the city, and that there were 11,000 more foreigners in New York than in Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Boston, and Baltimore combined.
The leader of the evangelistic committee, Bishop Coadjutor David H. Greer, struck an inclusive note: “The Gospel is not for one section of the city, but for all human life. The churches are rising above, ignoring and forgetting the differences of creed, and are going to preach the Gospel to the city.”
And so that summer, the committee erected ten tents at city parks and beaches in a campaign to “redeem New York.” For years, missionaries had headed west alongside coal miners, lumberjacks, and Native Americans. Now the missionaries were coming East, and William Wilkinson was among them.
Wilkinson had arrived in the U.S. in 1880, from Yorkshire, England. He would see much of the United States as a missioner to loggers and Native Americans in the northwest and frontier lands of the country. He first came to public notice not as a preacher, but as an author, documenting the Minnesota forest fire of 1894, in which more than 400 died and the town of Hinckley was destroyed. (His book Memorials of the Minnesota Forest Fires in the year 1894 was accepted as an official version of events by the Smithsonian Institution.)
After the fire, Wilkinson was rector of St. Andrew’s in Minneapolis. At the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 1895 in that city, he met a pair of city folks who would change his life: the elder J. Pierpont Morgan and Dr. William Reed Huntington of Grace Church in Manhattan. Huntington was drawn to Wilkinson’s oratory, and recommended that he come to New York to be a street preacher. In 1905, Wilkinson did.
At the end of the 1905 summer mission, a celebratory meeting was held at Carnegie Hall. The Times reported that some 4,000 new “converts” attended, and that Wilkinson, the “evangelist who had made himself and his open-air meetings well known this summer in the Wall Street district” described his ministry:
“They ask me how I go about getting at the people of Wall Street…. There isn’t any difference essentially between the men of Wall Street and the men of San Juan Hill. They all have mothers and sisters and children. They all die the same death. They all know the crying out of consciences, and you get at them in a simple open-air meeting in the same way.”
In 1909, Trinity Church hired Wilkinson as “Parish Missioner,” and he would remain in that capacity until 1917. In all likelihood, two factors led to his hire. First, the preacher had been drawing hundreds to his weekly services, just outside the great bronze doors of Trinity. Second, the rector under whom Wilkinson would serve, the Rev. William T. Manning, had a serious missionary bent. In his 1914 Parish yearbook report, Manning wrote: “Much of the work that Trinity Parish is doing in New York is as truly missionary in character as any that is being done in China or in Nevada, and we rejoice that this is so….”
Several reports of Wilkinson’s services appeared in the Times, suggesting that Bishop Greer’s vision of the life of the Gospels was realized. Following is an excerpt from the Times, describing Wilkinson’s final summer sermon of 1906, which was incongruously given indoors, at Trinity Church:
“Scattered throughout the crowd of young clerks, stenographers, telephone girls, and all the varied degrees of young men and women who make up the army of office employees in the Street were many men, young and old, who were evidently of importance in financial affairs. Not a few workmen from the tall buildings in course of construction in the neighborhood were easily distinguished by their rough working clothes and lime-stained shoes.”
A report a year later extends the breaches of societal divisions to the religious: “His congregation is perhaps the most unique the world has ever seen. It includes Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and Hebrews; white men and black, bank Presidents, stock brokers, clerks, messenger boys, bootblacks, all the big and little human cogs that make up the huge Wall Street machine….” Missionaries at the time usually employed brass bands and catchy hymns, but Wilkinson was a solo artist. He simply talked for 45 minutes, using the Book of Common Prayer as a guide, and then launching into a sermon. It was said that he drew heavily on the words of the prophet Micah for inspiration.
Wilkinson retired from Trinity in September 1917, but kept preaching until 1925. The Rev. Caleb R. Stetson, who succeeded Manning as rector, noted in 1923 that in the years following the end of World War I:
“The impression has been created that the Church is losing its hold upon the people, and that her influence is failing. Old ideas and standards have been brought under the light of searching criticism. Old loyalties have been deserted and new ones have not been found…. It may be that there is a widening gulf between those who are indifferent and agnostic, and the Church.”
There was a hint of wariness in his words, even of depression. Perhaps it was simply the case of a new rector keeping expectations low, but the following year, Stetson was as ebulliently optimistic — “There has been a marked increase in attendance at services and in the vigor of parish life in every place…” — as he was defiant: “The gross materialism of the 19th century has failed and passed away; we are entering a new period. Religion is now recognized as a constant element in human life. Religion cannot be eradicated; those who are attempting it are attempting the impossible.”
Wilkinson, of course, would have been preaching just down the street to large crowds during these years.
In November of 1925, Wilkinson became ill. He died on December 8, and lay in state at Trinity, where 4,000 people viewed the body.
In 1927, Trinity Church hired Captain B.F. Mountford of the revivialist Church Army to do some street preaching in the summer. Mountford continued his evangelizing into the next decade.
Workmen with the cross, 1989.
Trinity Church’s spire terminates in a cross—a shiny, gilded beacon in the Wall Street canyon. It seems natural: a church topped with a cross. But in 1845, when the church was under construction, it was a controversial issue that divided Episcopalians along “High Church” and “Low Church” lines.
“High Church” supporters favored Anglo-Catholic style services with a higher degree of ceremony. “Low Church” supporters were committed to simpler services and a more traditionally Protestant approach. To Low Churchmen, the cross on the spire was symbol of Rome, Catholicism and the Pope; they preferred to top church spires with secular weather vanes.
Trinity Church’s architect, Richard Upjohn, was a committed High Churchman, and Trinity’s design reflects his theology. However, the choice to use the cross fell not to Upjohn but to Trinity’s vestry.
How did the debate surrounding the cross play out? There are three versions.
According to Richard Upjohn: Architect and Churchman, a 1939 biography written by Upjohn’s great-grandson Everard M. Upjohn, Upjohn himself gave this account:
“While the spire was being built, the vestry were discussing the question of its proper termination…Many of the vestry preferred a secular weather vane. Upjohn…had a cross prepared on the ground and when the spire was completed with no specific directions to the contrary from the vestry, on his own authority had it set in place. He ordered the workmen to take down the scaffolding at once. By the time the hostile members of the vestry observed its presence, the architect was able to point out that a change would entail considerable expense…”
Upjohn’s account, while dramatic, doesn’t match Trinity’s vestry minutes. The minutes show that, while the matter was debated, the vestry committed using a cross on May 13, 1845. The minutes provide no insight into the nature of the discussion; for that, we turn to diarist George Templeton Strong. On June 14, 1845, he wrote:
Trinity spire is nearly at its climax—only one or two courses of stone yet to ascend and then comes the cross, of copper. Upjohn did not like to venture on a stone cross of magnitude corresponding to the height of the spire. The church, he says, will be ready for consecration by Christmas, but so he said last year. There was a great pow-wow and parochial jaw in the vestry touching the cross—Philip Hone made a great speech against papistical innovations.
Monument to God or “papistical innovation”, the cross atop Trinity Church remains an important part of the Lower Manhattan skyline.
The cross and spire, 2009.
Author: Trinity Wall Street Communications
Created: March 18, 2009
Trinity Wall Street has played a pivotal role in the religious and civic life of the city and nation since its founding in 1697. This blog will answer readers’ questions and provide a glimpse into the fascinating and provocative history of the parish.