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The Riverside Church

By: James Retarides
490 Riverside Drive
New York, N.Y. 10027
Phone: 212-870-6722/20
Fax: 212-870-6800

In the early twentieth century, Christian congregations (in New York) and those who supported them were torn between a modernist and fundamentalist interpretation of the Holy Scriptures. The man who they looked to for answers was a Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick who preached passionately and became a central speaker in the debate stemming from a sermon he gave on May 21, 1922 in the First Presbyterian Church in New York City, titled "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" Sparked by Fosdick's words, and led by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the body of members desired to create a church, beautiful beyond words, and as great as the city where it would be erected. Dr. Fosdick was asked to direct them towards this goal. Fosdick agreed, but only on these three conditions:
  • The only requirement for membership will be affirmation of faith in Christ.
  • The church must be interdenominational.
  • The church must be a very large building with a more expansive ministry in a neighborhood crucial to the livelihood of the whole city.
The decision was made; The Park Avenue Baptist Chruch, a stone's throw away from Columbia University, Barnard College, Teachers College, Union Theological Seminary, St. Luke's Hospital and the Jewish Theological Seminary, was to be remodeled, and forged by the community.

The construction of the church was funded largely through the sale of church properties on Park Avenue and donations made by opulent individuals, most notably John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Rockefeller's mettle and leadership capabilities enabled him to institute a building committee.

The Architecture

The building was designed by Henry C. Pelton and Charles Collens. The two men rambled and searched through France and Spain for the finest gothic architecture in attempts to assimilate it and recreate it in a contemporary setting. Pelton and Collens decided to model the Riverside Church after a 13th-century gothic cathedral in Chartes, France and the cornerstone was laid on November 20, 1927.

The spirit of the congregation was challenged when (on December 21, 1928) the wooden scaffolding caught fire and spread throughout the church's massive nave. A dark cloud of strain and halt of construction loomed dark over the congregations enthusiasm and anticipation, but graciously, they were invited to converge at the Temple Emanu-El by their newly found Jewish friends. Construction was completed and the first mass was held on October 5, 1930. 
            The Nave (and Chancel): 

            length: 215 FEET
            height: 100 FEET
            width: 89 FEET
            capacity: 2,500

The floor maze in the chancel is an adaption of the maze in a cathedral at Chartes, France. It is one of a select few such designs that remain from the Middle Ages. It is not known exactly how the maze has religious significance, but it is suggested that the maze may have been a reference to Christ's path to Calvary (the Via Delorosa) or an alternative journey for those who could not accompany the crusaders.

The stone carvings depict outstanding people from throughout history whose lives have "exemplified some aspect of the life of Christ." A Christ carving is central to each section of the screen.

Carvings-Section 1: Physicians 
  1. Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564)
  2. Joseph Lister (1827-1912)
  3. Robert Koch (1843-1910)
  4. Hippocrates (c.460-c.377B.C.)
  5. Luke
  6. Christ the Physician
  7. Thomas Sydenham(1624-1689)
  8. Louis Pasteur (1822-1895)
Section 2: Teachers 
  1. Thomas Aquinas (c.1225-1274)
  2. Henry Drummond (1786-1860)
  3. Thomas Arnold (1795-1842)
  4. Socrates (c.470-399B.C.)
  5. Christ the Teacher
  6. Desiderius Erasmus (1465-1536)
  7. Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827)
Section 3: Prophets 
  1. Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498)
  2. John Ruskin (1819-1900)
  3. Moses
  4. Christ the Prophet
  5. Isaiah
  6. John the Baptist
  7. Micah
  8. Elijah
  9. Elisha
  10. Amos
  11. Hosea
Section 4: Humanitarians 
  1. Christ the Humanitarian
  2. Francis of Assisi (1186-1226)
  3. Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-1231)
  4. Valentin Hauy (1745-1822)
  5. Ann Judson (1789-1826)
  6. Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)
  7. Booker T. Washington (1858-1915)
  8. Samuel Chapman Armstrong (1839-1893)
  9. The Good Samaritan
  10. Earl of Shaftesbury (1801-1885)
  11. Florence Nightingale (1820-1910)
  12. The Family Doctor
  13. Walter Reed (1851-1902)
  14. Edward Jenner (1749-1823)
  15. John Howard (1726-1790)
  16. William Booth (1829-1912)
  17. Mary the Mother of Jesus
  18. John the Disciple
Section 5: Missionaries 
  1. Philip the Evangelist
  2. Stephen (c.977-1038)
  3. John Eliot (1604-1690)
  4. Christ the Missionary
  5. William Carey (1761-1834)
  6. Augustine (354-430)
  7. Francis Xavier (1506-1552)
  8. Robert Morrison (1782-1834)
  9. Adoniram Judson (1788-1850)
  10. Paul
  11. David Livingstone (1813-1873)
Section 6: Reformers 
  1. George Fox (1624-1691)
  2. John Knox (1505-1572)
  3. John Sesley (1703-1791)
  4. John Wycliffe (c.1324-1384)
  5. Christ the Reformer
  6. Martin Luther (1483-1546)
  7. John Calvin (1509-1564)
Section 7: Artists 
  1. John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892)
  2. Fra Angelico (1387-1455)
  3. John Milton (1608-1674)
  4. Giovanni Palestrina (c.1524-1594)
  5. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
  6. Christ the Lover of Beauty
  7. Michelangelo (1475-1564)
  8. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
The Pulpit:

The wood canopy above the pulpit emulates the architectural theme or motif of a medieval cathedral. Each canopy of the pulpit and the lectern display a distinct property of medieval design. Each of the three major parts of the pulpit were carved out of 3-ton chunks of stone. Around the supporting column there are five statues of prophets inside of the canopies, they are: Anna, Amos, Isaiah, Hosea, and Miriam from left to right. The ten canopies along the pulpit rail represent the classic cathedrals: Amiens, Toulouse, Albi, Rouen, Chartres, Tours, Countances, Rheims, and Notre Dame.

The oak choir stalls' theme is "Praise of God." An artist rendering of the "elements and living things" called by the psalmist in Psalm 148 is carved on the ends of each stall. Similarly, Psalm 51 and its opening words are the inspiration for the names on the Misericordi. The misericordi were modeled to manifest a classic ritual in which monks used to sit and rest while reciting the psalms.

The pulpit itself is in memorium of Cornelius Woelfkin, the pastor of the previous Park Avenue Baptist Church who helped organize the Riverside Congregation. On the face of the First Gallery there are four stone statues, Moses, Amos, David and Gideon.

The chancel rail delineates twenty of the common interests, ceremonies and other activities exhibited by those in congregation. They are (as Published):
  1. Prayer- The Publican and the Pharisee
  2. Prophecy- Isaiah, the lion and lambs
  3. Evangelism- Paul on Mars Hill
  4. Ministry- Moses and the Commandments
  5. Ordination- Candidate and two elders
  6. Dedication- Parents, child and minister
  7. Memorial- Woman at the tomb
  8. Baptism- Charlemagne, bishop and knight
  9. Communion- Christ with two Apostles, bread and wine
  10. Immortality- Christ and Mary Magdalene in the garden
  11. Creation- God and Adam
  12. Hymnody- Angel trio
  13. Marriage- Pastor and couple
  14. Festival- Triumphal entry
  15. Friendship- David and Jonathan
  16. Patriotism- Joseph gives grain to his people
  17. Sacrifice- Mary anointing the head of Christ
  18. Forgiveness- Christ and the woman taken in adultery
  19. Nw Testament- The Sermon on the Mount
  20. Old Testament- The Ark of the Covenant
The Windows:
The windows of The Riverside Church may very well be its greatest asset. It is the crowning jewel to the churches glorious architecture. During the morning, the chancel fills with radiant light as the windows create a rainbow semblance and a heavenly effigy. Possibly the most lustrous are the five apse clerestory windows above the chancel. They are titled: Apostles, Jesse, Heavenly Host, Worship and Praise. 

The Carillon :

In memory of his mother, John D. Rockefeller Jr. donated the Carillon to The Riverside Church. It consists of 74 bells (all solid bronze), the largest is the 20-ton bourdon and the smallest is a 10-LL.B. treble bell. The total weight of all the bells is over 100 tons. The bourdon is the largest tuned and cast bell in existence. 53 bells of the Carillon were installed by Gillette and Johnson Foundry of England in 1925 making it the largest carillon in the world. This made it the only carillon in the world that could surpass five musical octaves and achieve a bourdon of pitch C.

The Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Tower reaches 392 feet into the sky. The open-air observation platforms allow a 360-degree view of the city and adjacent Hudson River.

The Paintings :

In The Riverside Church hang three paintings by Heinrich Hofmann donated by John D. Rockefeller , Jr. "Christ in Gethsemane" (1890), "Christ in the Temple" (1871) and " Christ and the Rich Young Man" (1889). Another was a gift from Elise A. Drexel called "Christ's Image."

The Tapestries :

There are four main Tapestries inside of The Riverside Church. One is a panel of early 16th-century "Franco Flemish mille Fleur tapestry" which reveals active birds, rabbits and deer in a resplendent field with a plethora of flowers. Another tapestry of the same genre portrays a unicorn with other graceful animals such as birds and rabbits. It was given to the church by the daughters of a Mrs. Edward L. Ballard in her praise. King Clovis I is portrayed in a religous ceremony from a Flemish Transitional Tapestry dated circa 1500. Lastly there is a French Renaissance Tapestry dated circa 1600 limning a feast . This tapestry as well as the latter were a gift to the church from Edward and Margaret Green.

Conclusion :

The Riverside Church is located at one of highest points above sea-level in New York City. Its surrounding speak volumes of the poverty and resources of Harlem. It is located nearby many religous and educational institutions yet also neighbors some of the most impoverished neighborhoods in New York. It is in many ways equidistant to both our ideals and fears. A long time ago the citizens of this city wanted to make it a city upon a hill and in many ways, they have. The Riverside Church is on top of that hill looking over us, after us.

  • Coffin, Jr., William, The Riverside Church in the City of New York, (New York, Sterling Roman Press, 1978)
Links [All on Medieval New York main page] 
  • Cathedral of St. John the Divine
  • Trinity Church
  • St. Patrick's Cathedral
  • St. Vincent Ferrer

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© Site Concept and Design: Paul Halsall created 26 Jan 1996: latest revision 20 January 2021 [CV]