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Thursday, January 28, 2016

Postcard Thursday: The Granite Colonnade at St. John the Divine

The next time you happen to be in Morningside Heights with a few minutes to spare, take a moment to visit the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Amsterdam Avenue and walk to the building's apse to look at the massive granite columns surrounding the choir. These were originally intended by the cathedral's first architect, Heins & La Farge, to be the largest free-standing columns in the world.

As we write in Inside the Apple:
The cornerstone for the cathedral was laid on December 27, 1892—the feast of St. John the Divine—but work proceeded slowly. The sheer size of the project was daunting, and despite the rocky nature of the heights, it took workers a full two years—and 72 feet—before hitting solid bedrock. Once construction began, the architects’ grandiose plans were difficult to execute, in particular Heins and La Farge’s apse, which called for the world’s largest granite columns. A lathe had to be custom-built and only one granite quarry in the nation—in remote Vinalhaven, Maine—was deep enough for the excavations. However, the columns kept breaking under their own massive weight, and ultimately the plan had to be abandoned.
You can see one of the columns in two pieces in the postcard at the top. Today, when visiting the cathedral, if you look closely you can see the seams where pieces of stone have been connected together.

Heins & La Farge's vision for the cathedral (shown here in the black-and-white image) never came to fruition.
In 1907, before even the apse and choir were finished, George Heins died, which freed the cathedral from their contract with the firm. Once the apse was completed in 1911, the cathedral fired La Farge and hired Gothic aficionado Ralph Adams Cram to finish the church. Cram promised he could build the church faster and bigger. He also jettisoned any of Heins and La Farge’s Byzantine touches for a completely Gothic building. Cram’s work began at the crossing in 1916 and over the next twenty-five years his team completed the massive nave. On November 30, 1941, the church kicked off an eight-day festival to celebrate the nave’s completion. On the final day of the festivities, December 7, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and, for all intents, work on the cathedral stopped.

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Thursday, January 21, 2016

Postcard Thursday: Trinity Place

This rare view of Trinity Place shows the rear of Trinity Church, along with the Trinity Building (left) and the American Surety Building (right).

Trinity was built three times on the same spot. As we write in Inside the Apple:
In 1696...Trinity leased the city’s burial ground at the rate of one peppercorn per year. A year later, the church received its royal charter from William III and from that point forward only church members could be buried in the churchyard. Not coincidentally, this was the same time that a separate “Negroes Burial Ground” [today's African Burial Ground National Memorial] was established outside the city. The original church, a simple stone and wood building, was erected in 1698 with both financial and material help from one of its richest congregants, Captain William Kidd, who just three years later would be hanged in London for piracy. Trinity quickly prospered. Six years after its construction, Queen Anne gave the parish an additional 215 acres of the crown’s land, stretching from Wall Street north to the village of Greenwich....
The original Trinity had burned down on September 21, 1776, in the fire that swept through the city as Washington’s army retreated. A second church was consecrated in 1790, but a series of heavy snowstorms in the winter of 1838-39 so badly damaged the roof that the vestry voted to tear down the building and start again. The snows came at an opportune moment. Already, neighborhoods like Greenwich Village had pulled prominent churchgoers northward.... Trinity needed to do something to return itself—in its own eyes, at least—to its rightful place as the city’s premiere religious institution. 
Richard Upjohn’s grand Gothic Revival building quickly restored Trinity to the forefront of the city’s social and architectural scene. In 1844, architect Albert Gilman wrote of the almost-finished church: “[It] surpasses any church erected in England since the revival of the pointed style.” Its spire, at 281 feet tall, made it not only the tallest church in the city, but New York’s tallest building, a title it would retain for nearly 50 years. Part of what made the church so perfect was that Upjohn had copied it, almost exactly, from the design for “An Ideal Church” in the book True Principals by A.W. Pugin, the leading English proponent of the Gothic Revival. And unlike many of Upjohn’s successors and imitators, he had an attention to detail—overseeing everything from the stained glass to the exterior carvings—that gave Trinity an unequalled aesthetic appeal. 
The building was also controversial, however, both inside and out. A devout “high church” Anglo-Catholic, Upjohn introduced architectural elements that were utterly foreign to most Americans, including a chancel at the west end of the church complete with a high altar and rows of choir stalls. (At first, this was deemed too Roman Catholic, and the stalls weren’t used.) Outside, the building was constructed of brownstone, a locally quarried, soft sandstone. The stone was chosen for its outward resemblance to materials used in medieval English architecture, but not only did it lack the strength of schist, it was also commonly considered a cheap building material. Though many people tend today to call all single-family townhouses in New York “brownstones,” in the 19th-century no one would have conflated cheaper brownstone buildings with their more expensive brick cousins. (In her autobiography, Edith Wharton deplored the look of New York, claiming it was bathed in a “universal chocolate-coloured coating of the most hideous stone ever quarried.”) Both at Trinity and at Ascension in Greenwich Village, Upjohn had to convince his employers that the look of brownstone outweighed its déclassé associations.

By illustrating the church from the Trinity Place side, the postcard also includes in the foreground the elevated railroad. Depicted in the postcard is the Rector Street station of the Sixth Avenue El; the line ran up Trinity Place, then connected to West Broadway, and ultimately jogged over to Sixth Avenue at West 3rd Street. (James wrote about this briefly in his West Broadway article last week.)

For a better look at the station, check out this image:

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Thursday, January 14, 2016

Postcard Thursday: West Broadway

The Bradford Plan, courtesy of the Boston Public Library
Today's not-a-postcard (see last week's post) shows New York City as it appeared on the Bradford Map, ca. 1728-30. In those days, the city barely made it north of today's City Hall Park (labelled here"Common").

This image is just one of many accompanying James's article that was published today on the history of West Broadway, the street that runs north from the World Trade Center to Washington Square.

West Broadway is one of those afterthought streets to many New Yorkers: people know it's there, but it usually doesn't make much of an impact. It turns out the street has a colorful history--and maybe has had more names (and attempted name changes) than any Manhattan thoroughfare.

Read all about it in How West Broadway Became One of NYC's Most Important Streets at -- and share with your friends!


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Thursday, January 7, 2016

Postcard Thursday: Times Tower Redux

(courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Welcome to 2016! One of the things you'll notice with "Postcard Thursday" this year are more old photos, advertisements, etc. We'll still feature postcards from our collection, of course, but there such an abundance of good material out there -- why not share it all?

Last Thursday, we blogged about the Times Tower in Times Square and its role as the location of the annual ball drop on New Year's Eve.

"The great white way" B'way south from 42nd St (courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Today, we revisit the same building (pictured above before it had all the signage added to its facade). Did you know that the most expensive of those ads cost $4 million a year to rent? Even amortized over the billions of eyeballs that see them just on New Year's Eve alone, is it worth it?

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