Standing directly at the western end of Wall Street, Trinity Church is perfectly framed. Seriously, the young colony could not have chosen a better spot. Today it looks a bit out of place at first glance, but its Gothic spire and dark exterior seem to hold the nearby skyscrapers at bay—which is fitting since this building reigned as the tallest in the mid-nineteenth century. Sunlight and shadow coexist perfectly on the grounds, making the surrounding churchyard a refuge from the busy city that flows around the land. Buildings have lives of their own. They have histories, and they mark and record the history, culture, and time that passes around them. Trinity Church, which is one of New York City’s oldest houses of worship, is no different.
In 1696 the Anglican community of the growing colony petitioned Governor Benjamin Fletcher for land for a parish. He approved the sale of the downtown plot to the Crown, which then issued a charter to the parish with a rent of 60 bushels of wheat annually. The church appeared to be well received. In fact, legend has it that even famed Captain Kidd pitched in to help with construction. This building was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1776, which was believed to have been set intentionally and destroyed twenty-five percent of the city. Rebuilt in 1790, the roof of the second building collapsed under the weight of snow 40 years later, and the third building—the one that stands today—was constructed in 1846.
I think Trinity Church is an interesting testament to religious freedom, considering that it was built for parishioners seeking a link to a religion that many others had fled in the in first place. The Great Fire of 1776 was thought to have been set by Patriots—though no one is truly certain—as an act of rebellion at British occupation of the city during the Revolutionary War. It is believed the fire started in the Fighting Cocks Tavern on Whitehall Street, and spread quickly due to favorable conditions. When it crossed Broadway it burned ravenously, destroying much between Broadway and the Hudson. It took the combined efforts of Patriots and British marines to bring it under control. There are some who believe that Trinity was allowed to burn because the Church had aligned itself with the British Crown—the Crown was its landlord, after all.
The current building was designed by Richard Upjohn, an English-born architect famed for his neo-Gothic style. He is credited with establishing Gothic Revival designs throughout America and the list of Episcopal churches on his resume is impressive. Upjohn’s story fits perfectly with the American dream. Though his father had believed he would enter into the clergy, he apprenticed as a carpenter and opened his own business in England. However, the demands of a young family proved greater than his fledgling business could provide, and he accumulated heavy debt quickly. He immigrated to New York (circa 1820s) looking for better opportunities, but they were slow in coming. Upjohn struggled as a woodworker for a time—even accepting potatoes as payment for his work to help feed his family—and eventually moved to Massachusetts. Through this hardship, his love of architecture never wavered, however, and there are records of him having purchased architectural design books which much have been a sacrifice on his meager budget.
America did not have a formal licensing process for architects during the 1830s, and Upjohn saw an opportunity to pursue his dream. He moved to Boston and marketed himself as an architect. It was here he was able to obtain work at Boston’s Trinity Church, and made friends with Rector Jonathan Mayhew Wainwright, who would go on to become a powerful cleric in New York. When New York’s Trinity church began to show signs of structural damage in the 1830s, it was via Wainwright that Upjohn was called in to make the repairs. However, Upjohn was able to successfully convince the church leaders that a new church should be built and he was commissioned for the design.
Upjohn’s design marks a return to a more serious and pensive consideration of religion. The Gothic style is known for features suggestive of longstanding, somber traditions, such as long, narrow aisles, and dimly lit interiors broken by periodic splashes of intense, vibrant colors—all of which provide powerful symbolic meaning to religion. These features were thought to encourage mysticism among devotees. Gothic architecture was particularly popular in England, France, and other places where the church had a strong foothold. Given Upjohn’s religious background, his choice of this style is fitting.
And Trinity fits perfectly into the intended experience. When you enter the building you are enveloped in darkness, and it is easy to believe you are the only one there—if not for the occasional flash from a camera belonging to a tourist who failed to read the signs. The church has few sources of natural light. The stained glass mural over the altar is one of the few bright spots in the building—the blues and reds capture your attention firmly, drawing wandering eyes, and attention spans as well, to the altar. The pews swallow those who choose to take a few moments of contemplation. It really is just you and your thoughts. The darkness gives the impression of intimacy—rather than feeling dwarfed by the vast ceilings and coming to terms with your tiny place in the world as can be the case in Cathedrals, Trinity draws you in and wraps you in your thoughts. It connects with you. And when the organ begins to play, and the ambient noises are swallowed by the bellowing pipes, you might find yourself waiting expectantly. For what, I’m not sure, but there is a sense that something could happen.
And perhaps that feeling is due in part to the fact that Trinity Church has borne witness to so much. The city has grown and matured around this institution. And Trinity for its part has expanded along with the city. In 1766, the parish expanded to include St. Paul’s Chapel just a short walk away but built to serve the “uptown” residents of the expanding colony. St. Paul’s Chapel is the oldest public building in continuous use in NYC. Trinity expanded its land holdings becoming one of New York City’s premier landlords--and playing a central role in the development of the city. Here are some highlights:
- 1709: Trinity founded the Charity School, now the Trinity School, the oldest continuously operated educational institution in NYC.
- 1754: Trinity granted land for King’s College (now Columbia University).
- 1774: Trinity Church leaders side with the British during the war.
- 1789: George Washington attends a Thanksgiving Mass following his inauguration.
- 1879: Trinity establishes a Mission House to oversee its social programs, which included a vocational school for girls, a home for aging women, cooking and nutrition classes for immigrant women, counseling for the sick and unemployed, and a workingman’s club.
- 1922: Trinity is the first to take to the radio airways with a Christmas Eve radio broadcast.
- 1941: Eighty men and four women from the Mission House serve in the armed forces—a monument to them stands in the churchyard today.
- 1959: Trinity establishes an outreach program for young people living on the LES.
- 1982: St. Paul’s Shelter opens offering transitional housing and life-skills training for males.
- 1988: Trinity founds John Heuss House, a 24-hour outreach ministry for homeless individuals with chronic mental illness.
- 2001: Trinity and St. Paul’s Chapel survive the attacks on the WTC. Trinity is able to resume services by September 16th.
In recent times, Trinity has continued to figure prominently. When the economy collapsed due to Wall Street’s misappropriations, the church provided free counseling for workers who were affected by the sudden economic change.
It will definitely be interesting to see how the city continues to change around this landmark, which anchors us to an important part of our history.
For more photos, please visit the album at the Anthropology in Practice FB page.