Trinity is currently undertaking repairs on the retaining wall around the churchyard to address basic wear and tear on the wall. As water drains from the yard, it pushes against the stones, damaging the wall and causing visible bulges. Seasonal freezing and thawing exacerbates the problem. Structural engineers and masonry conservators will work together to remove sections of stone, install concrete beams and soil anchors, and then replace the stones. When the project is complete, the wall will look exactly as it does today, minus the bulges.
Back in 1697, when the first Trinity Church building went up, the churchyard ended near the shore of the Hudson River. Today, Trinity Church is nearly half mile east of the Hudson River. Lower Manhattan was widened first by individuals filling in “water lots,” offered for sale by the city on condition that the owners fill in the space between the high and low water marks. The island was widened later by fill from construction, subway, and river dredging projects.
Looking east at Trinity Church from the Hudson River, 1740
As this illustration shows, the embankment Trinity stood on was steep. The soil that makes up the churchyard is “sand varying from moderately fine to very fine with ground water at about 36 feet below the surface of the churchyard.” The entire churchyard drains to the west, toward the river.
Because of the location, soil composition, and drainage patterns of the churchyard, a retaining wall was built on the yard’s south and western sides. Trinity’s records don’t pinpoint when the wall was built, or who built it. Vestry records show that the wall existed by July 30, 1787, because it was “ordered that the committee of Repairs secure the Wall in the Rear of Trinity Church Yard and Raise a new Wall if found necessary.” The vestry had the churchyard enclosed by a fence back in 1704, and it’s possible the wall was already in place then.
In 1864, the Common Council resolved to extend and widen Church Street (called Trinity Place as it passes behind the church; this article uses Church Street throughout) from Fulton Street in the north to the Battery in the south. The Council sought to alleviate traffic problems on Broadway and other nearby thoroughfares. At the time, the road that passed behind the churchyard was known as Trinity-alley and described as dirty, narrow, and unpaved.
As a result of these improvements, the grade of Church Street changed, and the wall of the churchyard had “to be supported by a new wall to be built underneath the present one,” at a cost of approximately $6000. James Webb and Son was employed for the job. The work on the wall was completed to everyone’s satisfaction—unlike the work on the street extension itself. An August, 1871 New York Times article accused the project of being “a huge “job” for extorting money from the pockets of property-owners, who live so far from the line of improvement that no benefit could possible accrue to them.” The writer went on:
“…the street is still unpaved and obstructed with car-loads of brick and rubbish, and heavily-loaded trucks and wagons driving through the streets drag and stick in the mud.…the sanitary condition of the street itself is disgraceful. A considerable population live in Greenwich-street, and the rear of a number of tenement-houses opens on Church-street. Garbage and filth of every description is thrown out into the unpaved thoroughfare to mix with the mud and putrefy in the hot rays of this August sun. The lanes running from the street to Broadway and Greenwich-street are covered with decayed matter and excrement that makes the air of the neighborhood reek with the foulest odors.”
The Sixth Avenue El ran past Trinity churchyard, feet from the retaining wall
Click to visit New York Public Library's Digital Gallery and view a larger version of the image.
The Church Street extension was eventually completed. In 1878 the 6th Avenue Elevated Railway, which ran along Church Street from South Ferry to Park Place before curving onto Murray Street, began operation. Passengers on the El’s steam locomotives passed Trinity churchyard at eye level. By 1881, the line offered 24 hour service--and soot and debris continually falling onto the darkened street below. The line remained in operation until 1938.
In 1918, the BMT Broadway line--now the N/R/Q train lines--opened a station at the corner of Rector Street and Church Street, about ten feet from the churchyard wall, directly below the 6th Avenue El. Trinity’s vestry hired an engineer named Mr. H. de B. Parsons to monitor the wall.
A stairway from the churchyard to Church Street was added in 1963, at the time that the Manning Wing was added to Trinity Church.
A survey of the retaining wall done in 1996 showed movement in the west wall. Expert opinions were sought, repairs decided upon, approval received from the Landmarks Commission, and funding allocated. Work was scheduled to begin in early fall, 2001. Then, on September 11, the World Trade Center--just two block north of the churchyard-- was destroyed. An engineering survey of the wall taken the following month showed a small amount of additional movement (as a result of the attacks or just time?). Repairs to the wall were finally completed in October, 2003.
An undated photograph of repair work on the spire.
The spire of Trinity Church rises to a height of 280 feet, 5 inches, and was once the tallest structure in New York, a beacon to ships entering the harbor. Now surrounded by skyscrapers, it remains an important landmark for both tourists and those who live and work in Lower Manhattan.
Visitors to Lower Manhattan this summer will find scaffolding rising around the church’s historical spire. Survey and repair work will begin once the scaffolding is complete in early July. Workers will begin by surveying one level and then begin performing work on that same level while moving on to survey the next level as work is taking place.
Repairs will include “tooling,” work on the mortar joints, and “spaulding,” removing and sometimes patching the flaking outer layers of sandstone. The masonry will be cleaned once the repair work is complete. Specifically, the green moss that currently grows on the stones will be removed. A structural engineer will evaluate the spire.
This is not the first time the spire has been repaired. In 1935 the Comptroller of Trinity Parish hired Hobart Upjohn, grandson of Trinity’s architect Richard Upjohn, to “study the extent to which the spire and tower are out of plumb.” Upjohn’s study, conducted with contractor Ralph Chambers, revealed that the spire “inclines at its topmost point about 22 ½ inches from the vertical,” toward the east. After reading Upjohn’s report, the Vestry approved funds for structural underpinning of the spire.
Throughout most of the twentieth century, the edifice of Trinity Church was black---a “somber” and “brooding” presence at the head of Wall Street. The color was the result of a supposedly protective paraffin coating applied to the stone in the early 1900s. The coating attracted the city’s ubiquitous coal dust, eventually obscuring the church’s true sandstone color. The paraffin also wound up exacerbating the deterioration of the stone.
Trinity Church from Wall Street, prior to cleaning
In 1987, amidst a slew of Lower Manhattan restoration projects, the parish created a plan to remove the paraffin coating and clean the church. The word was expedited and expanded after a piece of stonework fell from the church. The 1992 Christmas issue of Trinity News explained the work that followed:
“A stone conservationist was brought in, and combined chemical-and-steam cleaning process was decided upon, and work began...During the cleaning process, necessary repairs were made to the stone itself. Since the quarry that had provided Trinity’s sandstone no longer existed, damaged stone was replaced with concrete in half a dozen places, tinted to match the color of the original. Up to fifteen crew members worked to clean and repair the church, alternating between chemicals during the day, and steam at night.
“…Little by little, as work progressed, the somber blackness began to give way, surprisingly, to a light brown color, tinged with an unmistakable pink hue. The lighter color brought out the details of the stone carving on the exterior of the church, and expert carvers went to work to recapture the precise details of the superb masonry.”
Stay tuned for additional updates on the spire.
St. Paul's Chapel with west portico prior to restoration
St. Paul's west portico after columns and floor stones were removed and foundation explored.
It was an unusually warm March day in Lower Manhattan as archeologist Joan Geismar sifted through dirt removed from below the west portico of St. Paul’s Chapel.
“I was hoping to get an 1814 coin or something that would tell us when the portico was put in,” Geismar explained. “But it looks like the portico has been redone several times.”
Though Geismar didn’t find a coin, she did find pieces of an earlier Lower Manhattan mixed into the dirt beneath the portico: an oyster shell and shell fragments, a shard of rim from glass container, a fragment of animal bone, and a bobby pin.
Author: Trinity Church
Created: February 27, 2012
A number of projects related to the preservation and maintenance of Trinity Church, St. Paul's Chapel, and the Trinity Church Cemetery are underway. Check this blog often for updates about the work, and tales from the fascinating history behind these historic places.