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Richard Upjohn — A Missionary for the Gothic Revival

British-born architect Richard Upjohn was born on January 22, 1802 in Sheffield, England. He moved to the United States in 1829, and in 1835 designed his first of many churches throughout the United States. He would go on to design over 50 churches in the Gothic Revival and Italianate styles across the country throughout his almost forty-year career. Most were in the northeast, from Pennsylvania to Maine, but some were as far as Maryland and Wisconsin. He also designed several mansions, courthouses, and schools, many of which still exist. Perhaps his most prominent project is Trinity Church on lower Broadway, designed in 1846 and credited with kicking off the Gothic Revival style in the United States, and one of seven Trinity Episcopalian churches he would design over his career. Locally, he designed the Church of the Ascension on 5th Avenue and West 10th Street.

Church of the Ascension on 5th Avenue West 10th Street, constructed 1840-1841

The Church of the Ascension was built in 1840–41, and was the first church built on Fifth Avenue.  The design for this church is very similar to Trinity Church. John Tyler, the tenth president of the United States, was married at the Church of the Ascension on June 26, 1844 — the first of the three presidents to marry while in office. During the Great Depression, the church opened its doors for 24-hour-a-day prayer and meditation, earning the church the name “The Church of the Open Door”. Its interior was remodeled by Stanford White between 1885 and 1888.  The church is located within the Greenwich Village Historic District, designated in 1969.

Richard Upjohn, circa 1870

Upjohn was a devout Christian. He tried to contribute designs for one mission church each year. His design book, “Upjohn’s rural architecture: Designs, working drawings and specifications for a wooden church, and other rural structures”, published in 1852, was extremely popular. This book included designs for poorer parishes to construct churches with wood in the style known as Carpenter Gothic.  He was so passionate that Gothic architecture was the true expression of Christian architecture, that he refused to design a church for the Unitarians, a sect he considered anti-Christian.

Upjohn’s St. John Chrysostom Church in Delafield, Wisconsin, constructed 1851–56

On February 23, 1857, Upjohn and thirteen other architects founded the American Institute of Architects. He was its first president, serving in that role for almost 20 years until he stepped down in 1876. Upjohn passed away in 1878 in upstate New York, afflicted by “softening of the brain”. Upjohn is honored by the Episcopal Church along with fellow architects  Ralph Adams Cram and John LaFarge with a feast day on Church’s liturgical calendar on December 16.

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