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JULY 6, 1912.
ST. JOHN'S CHAPEL AND VARICK STREET WIDENING
A Plan Proposed For Saving the Edifice From Mutilation—New York City's Best
Elxample of Colonial Architecture—Would Use the Arcade For a Public Thoroughfare.
POSSIBLY old St. John's Chapel can
be saved from the consequences of
widening 'Varick street. Thlrty-flve or
forty feet cut oft the front of the edifice
would sacrifice both the portico and tha
spire, and leave nothing worth preserv¬
ing. So it is now being proposed, since
the courts have said that the opposite
side of the street cannot be widened in¬
stead, to let the portico stand and the
sidewalk run under it, as has been done
sometimes in other cities. The Scenic
and Historic Preservation Society is op¬
posing the widening the street if it is to
mutilate the church.
The steps would have to go, but the
CJorinthian columns could be saved with
all the rest, and an architectural effect
obtained that would be new to New
■york, by permitting the public to pass
through the arcade. Both St. Michael's
and St. Philip's churches at Charleston
have been treated in this manner. As
the floor of the porch of St. John's is
now above grade, piers would have to be
built under the columns.
A movement has been started outside
of parish officialdom to save the church
from destruction by this expedient. Bor¬
ough President McAneny, who has had
the proposal laid before him, is inter¬
ested but non-commital. If a general
public desire should ibe indicated and the
consent of Trinity Parish obtained, the
Board of Estimate will be asked io work
out the plan.
On the part of the general public St.
John's Chapel is admired for its archi¬
tectural beauty and revered for its his¬
torical associations. As for the parish-
loners, some want it preserved and the
others do not care. Under the direction
of the vicar of St. Luke's chapel there is
a celebration of the holy communion on
Sunday mornings at seven-thirty in St.
John's, but the congregation of St. John's
has been consolidated with that of St.
Luke's and all other services are con ■
ducted at St. Luke's Chapel, from which
center all the parochial work is carried
on. This fact of itself indicates the offl-
cial attitude of Trinity Parish toward the
old church, as having outlived its useful¬
ness under the changing conditions of a
great city. So far as known the rector
has not identified himself with the new
effort to save the chapel.
The records of the parish show that
the plans for the erection of the chapel
were accepted on May 12, 1803, and that
the architects of record are John and
Isaac McComb. The church was not built
upon the site originally Intended, a
change was caused by the discovery that
a firm foundation could not be had with¬
out driving piles. It was finally decided
to build "on the east side of Hudson
The building was finished and conse¬
crated in 1807. The total cost is said to
have been $172,833. The organ was built
five years later at Philadelphia and
shipped by sea, but on the way the mer¬
chantman carrying it was captured by a
British man-of-iwar lying in wait off
Sandy Hook. It was afterward ransomed
under a flag of truce for $2,000. The
clock in the tower was built in 1814 by
Henry Harris of London. The builders
. of St. John's were Isaac McComb, T. C.
Taylor, Henry Headley, Daniel Domi¬
Prior to the completion of the City
Hall, in 1812, St John's Chapel was one
of the sights of the town. The stone
columns were referred to in the public
prints as "very genteel." The Corinthian
capitals of these columns are supposed
to have been the first carved out of stone
in the city, if not the earliest example of
the use of Corinthian capitals on the ex¬
terior of a building in this country.
As may be supposed, a church so costly
and graceful for its time was not erected
in a desolate place. On the contrary,
Rev. Dr. Dix termed it in his history of
the parish "the court end of the town."
The improvement of the waterfront with
commercial erections was compatible
with the maintenance of the interior
parts as a swell neighborhood. Had it
■Varick Street. John McComb, Architect,
ST, JOHN'S CHAIPEL.
not been for the coming of the Hudson
River Railroad it might have been kept
as attractive as some other old churches
have been, notwithstanding the immigra¬
tion of business interests into the neigh¬
borhood. But a railroad was more than
most of the adherents of the beautiful
chapel could stand.
Values of a Park to Surronnaing; Real
A heroic remnant of the congregation
refuse to be dislodged, and a consider¬
able number come from a distance on
Lord's Days to attend the early morning
and only service held there. The social
and financial knell of the neighborhood
was rung when the park in front of the
church was given up, forty years ago,
for Commodore Vanderbilt's million.
Montgomery Schuyler once said that the
consent to the degradation was a most
pitiful modern instance on the part of
the church stewards of the worship of
the golden calf; and one could not point
to a more exact though inartistic effigy
of the golden, or rather of the bronze
calf, than the highly ridiculous "Van-
derbilt bronze" set up for worship on the
west side of the freight station.
The value of a park as "a social anti¬
septic" was not so well understood in
1868 as it is now. 'With the park's elms
and lawns retained, the high qual¬
ity of the neighborhood would have sur¬
vived, and real estate values with it.
Turning the park into a freight sta¬
tion meant certain destruction to the
quarter as a place of abode; but so eager
was the city for the advantages to be
gained from a railroad that whatever
the barrier the congregation set vrp was
to frail to stand against the Commodore's
influence and tlie public clamor behind it
■Washington Squafe, a later social cen¬
ter, was also affected by the injection of
railroad and allied interests into the
community and would have fared alto¬
gether quite as poorly as Varick street
had it not been for the retention of the
park. From the history of all the down¬
town parks it can be learned that the
presence of a park is of the highest im¬
portance to the maintenance of real es¬
tate values in the vicinity through the
changes which the generations bring in
a modern city. In the final development
of the neighborhood, when the tide of
Commerce has overcome all social oppo¬
sition, frontages on the square or park
still command prices higher than any¬
where else in the vicinity. The park
tends to preserve the best social atmos¬
phere until the best forms of business
are ready to acquire the surrounding
The church lot originally measured 250
feet wide and 155 in depth. 'When St.
John's had been completed, steeple and
all, St. Paul's was still withtJut a steeple
and was far from being as handsome and
costly as St. John's. Old Trinity, the
mother church, as it then was, was
architecturally overshadowed by her two
daughters, until rebuilt. Besides, the
new church led a social migration to the
lower 'West Side that was as notable in
its time as the social upbuilding of ■Wash¬
ington Square, Gramercy Park and Madi¬
son Square later on.
The whole front of St. John's is of
ashlar, ■while the front of St. Paul's is
of cheaper stucco. Moreover the "stone"
columns in St. John's are real, while St.
Paul's are only brick covered with stucco.
The sides of both churches are of rubble,
but instead of simple quoining at the
angles, as in St. Paul's, the corners of
St. John's are more expensively turned
with cut-stone pilasters and have elabor¬
ate and expensive Corinthian capitals to
match those of the portico. 'Whoever has
he-'i n.i '•: the I -wer of St, John's I.:"
also remarked the large size of the oak
timhers cmi.osing the framework a-d
fi^rtned the conclusion that here in,I( c.l
is a Ini'I'ling that will stand.
A city architect who has been further¬
ing in various circles the movement for
preserving the building, while adm'ttiiig
thit the \videning of "Varick street in
cinnecti(m with the extension of Seventh
a.'e.nue is an absolute nece.3si"y, ex¬
pressed his views on the architectural
side of the question to this effect:
"On grounds both 'scenic' and 'hlstdto'