Coming up the weekend of May 20-21 is the Sacred Sites Open House, a series of programs organized by the New York Landmarks Conservancy to give visitors unique access to an array of religious institutions across the state (Village Preservation is a cosponsor of the event.) Several of those churches stand in the neighborhoods we serve (including two in the Greenwich Village Historic District), which you can explore during the open house: the Church of the Ascension and St. John’s in the Village.
The Church of the Ascension
Standing tall on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 10th Street, the Church of the Ascension was formed in 1827, when a group of evangelical New Yorkers decided to form their own congregation. Their first home was in a French Huguenot parish in Lower Manhattan that had been founded in 1687 (and still survives today as L’Eglise Francaise du Saint-Esprit on East 60th Street). The following year, the cornerstone was laid for a new church on four lots purchased by Ascension parishioners and located on the north side of Canal Street just east of Broadway.
The new church was designed by Town and Thompson, who used the ancient Temple of Theseum as a model for the Greek Revival structure; the structure was completed and consecrated in 1829. Over the next 10 years, the parish grew to just over 300 members. Sadly, on June 30, 1839, a fire started among the lumber of a carpenter’s shop at the rear of the Church of the Ascension, and smoke and flames appeared during a 4 pm Sunday service, just before the sermon. The church and adjoining Sunday School building were destroyed. The Dutch Reformed Church at East Ninth Street and Astor Place, east of Broadway, allowed the Church of the Ascension to use its building as a temporary home.
Church leadership decided to build in a new location in 1840, purchasing a lot on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Amos Street (later 10th Street) for $32,000. The cornerstone for the new structure was laid on March 19, 1840, for a church designed by Richard Upjohn, who the year prior started work on Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan. For both churches and many other houses of worship that would come later, Upjohn chose the Gothic Revival style as a symbol of his devotion to Christianity. When completed in 1841, Ascension became the first of many churches to be built on Fifth Avenue.
While the exterior is a dramatic example of early Gothic Revival in the United States, the interior was left rather plain, dark and undecorated. A remodeling in 1885-1889 by Stanford White of McKim Mead & White considerably lightened the interior space, removing galleries on the north and south sides, adding stained-glass windows, and installing a mural called “The Ascension of Our Lord” by John LaFarge. Further renovations have been done over the decades, including one that accommodated the new Manton Memorial Organ and addressed leaks in the roof and windows in 2009 and 2010; that project earned the church a Village Award from Village Preservation in 2011.
St. John’s in the Village
Another church taking part in the Sacred Sites Open House is St. John’s in the Village, at 224 Waverly Place (corner of West 11th Street). The church can trace its origins to St. Jude’s Free Episcopal Church, which through 1853 was located in the building that today serves as the IFC Theater. That year, the church and another missionary congregation were incorporated as St. John the Evangelist, which held its first services at the Bleecker Building on Morton Street. The church found itself in a series of homes after that, eventually purchasing the Greek Revival-style Hammond Street Presbyterian Church, built in 1846 on the corner of Waverly Place and West 11th Street (née Hammond Street). St. John’s held its first service there in 1856.
Skip ahead to March 6, 1971: Following a break-in at the church, a fire broke out at 1:15 AM that consumed all of the wooden building except for the parish hall wing. In its place rose a new building, completed in 1974, that was designed by Edgar Tafel, a colleague of Frank Lloyd Wright. The new structure mimics the appearance of the old Greek Revival temple in shape and faux columns, but with a red brick facade and more modern approach that gave the church a structure full of light and better acoustics.
For information on Sacred Sites Open House activities at these and other institutions, visit the New York Landmarks Conservancy’s website here.