“The interior of the edifice presents a novel and yet a very agreeable and impressive aspect. It is of the perpendicular Gothic Style, without columns to sustain the long extending arch, which makes the seats in a remarkable degree available and unobstructed. This is a new feature in modern architecture. The slips [pews] are of black walnut of native growth, most beautifully and tastefully carved…. The ceiling is formed by a system (if it may be so called) of groined arches, with intersecting ribs and pendants forming the keystone of this massive structure.”
—A report in the January 12, 1846 edition of the New York Herald, describing the interior of First Church’s new building
Officially known by the imposing name of the First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York, informally it is called Old First, or the First Church. With its origins at 10 Wall Street in 1716, the Old First celebrates its 300th anniversary this year.
Old First moved to its present location, 48 Fifth Avenue, between West 11th and West 12th Streets, when the Neo-Gothic-styled building was completed in 1846. Joseph C. Wells (1814–1860), an English immigrant, served as its architect. The cost was $55,000.
Mr. Wells chose two English churches to use as his models. For the overall plan, the 1832 Gothic-Revival Church of St. Saviour at Bath, England, served as inspiration. The crenellated and eight-spired central entrance tower was based on the 1509 Magdalen Tower at Magdalen College, Oxford, England. The building material of the Old First is brownstone, quarried in Belleville, New Jersey, where all the brownstone used for building in New York City came from.
Nicknamed the “Church of the Patriots” during the Revolutionary War because many of its members fought for independence from the British Crown, the Old First was the first religious institution to apply for, and to be granted a charter from the newly formed State of New York, once the 13 colonies had won their freedom. Therefore, in a very real way it is the ‘first’ church, at least in New York.
The Great Fire of 1835 destroyed the church’s building on Wall Street, which was rebuilt as a commercial thoroughfare. The city was expanding northward along Manhattan Island; and the Old First moved with the times. It bought land on newly laid-out Fifth Avenue. This was the “suburb” of Greenwich Village, well beyond the city’s population center. The city’s well-to-do had begun to live here.
Joseph Collins Wells, a founding member of the American Institute of Architects, has several designs listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Two of them, the Henry C. Bowen House, in Woodstock, Connecticut, and the Jonathan Sturges House, in Fairfield, Connecticut, are designated U.S. National Historic Landmarks. Each of these were designed in the wildly popular 19th-century, Neo-Gothic style as private homes; the Sturges House remains in that family, while the Bowen House is a museum. The Old First is a designated New York City Landmark in Greenwich Village.
Discover the Old First and four other historic churches during our Greenwich Village Walking Tour. Take the Tour; Know More.
ALL PHOTOS AND TEXT, EXCEPT NOTED QUOTES, © THE AUTHOR 2016