Thursday, March 22


Gothic New York II - The Riverside Church

A partially high-rise structure housing a liberal Protestant community who got their current place of worship due in part to a massive injection of Rockefeller money, its architecture is an intriguing and, to be frank, mildly strange mixture of steroidal neo-Gothic, Chartres Cathedral and 1920s skyscraper. Its omnivorously eclectic iconography manages to include everything from stained-glass images of the Virgin as Sedes Sapientiae and the Mass of St. Giles--and Savonarola, Kant and Confucius--to statues of Einstein, the Apostle Paul, Bach, and Dr. Livingston. It is, I suppose, the logical conclusion of the congregation's own outlook, though for a Catholic used to familiar saints and angels, a visit can often be strangely disorienting.

Rockefeller supposedly hoped to create a free-church rival to St. John the Divine just five blocks south; and the congregation's liberal outlook fit well with his own, which also lead to an equally unconventional decorative scheme at the posthumous Goodhue-designed Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago, which features a facade crowned with statues of Christ, Socrates, and, if I recall correctly, Buddha. Had Goodhue lived, some think he might have gotten a shot at Riverside--which is instead designed in a more conservative, literalist form of Gothic revival, despite the extraordinary tower--and perhaps even Rockefeller Center, which would have been far more stunning had it resembled the architect's own quasi-Art Deco work for the Nebraska Capitol.

The twenty-odd storey bell-tower rising above Union Theological Seminary, magnificent in its stunning unreality.

Another view of the main tower.

The twelve apostles around the main door. The Einstein statue is, I think, somewhere up where the twenty-four elders of the Apocalypse usually are in such compositions, though I've never looked for it.

Before the south wing was built, the tower faced out onto a mini-golf course.

The skyscraper church, or at its least the high-rise variant, was a bit of a fad back in the thirties. Ralph Adams Cram turned down a job for a congregation of Methodists intent on building the greatest church in the world when he discovered their definition of greatness meant putting a parking garage in the basement and a hotel above. Riverside, however, just has its enormous ring of bells and a range of offices in its tower.

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