213 West 82nd Street
The Upper West Side was particularly creative in the great age of Catholic Church building 1890-1920. Here, in what seemed to be the future center of wealth and culture of the city, the plans were bolder and the resources more lavish than elsewhere. St. John the Divine on West 112th Street had helped set the pace. For the Catholics, there arose a French baroque dome inspired by Mansard (Notre Dame) and a cathedral in the style of 13th century Gothic (Blessed Sacrament). And then we have what is surely the most outrageous and audacious parish church in Manhattan: New York’s own Hagia Sophia: Holy Trinity.
Built 1910-12, Holy Trinity is one of the rare “Byzantine Revival” structures of New York (St Bartholomew, Episcopal, is another leading example). First explicitly revived in the 1830’s in Munich, the art of Byzantium and the Late Roman Empire – sacred, hierarchical and mysterious – started to fascinate artists and architects, particularly those active in religious art. It offered an eminently Christian alternative to the reigning Gothic or Renaissance/Baroque styles, each of which had ideological shortcomings for certain camps – just recall the exchanges between Pugin and Newman on rood screens and the style of the Oratory! 1) In the 1850’s in New York, the Redemptorist church of Most Holy Redeemer on East 3rd Street, designed by a Munich trained architect, was already felt by contemporaries to be “Byzantine.” By 1911 much more historically correct versions of the style were possible. The parish priest, Fr Michael Consodine, initiated and led the construction project – Joseph McGuire was the architect. Work on the decoration continued into the early 1930’s. 2)
The church of Holy Trinity presents to West 82nd Street a harmonious Beaux-Arts façade with different courses of brickwork somewhat like that other Byzantine revival masterpiece of the same era, London’s Westminster Cathedral. Underlining the explicitly “theological” nature of the Byzantine Revival style are statues of St. Peter and St. John symbolizing the unity of Eastern and Western Christendom. But the most magnificent element of the exterior is the set of bronze doors. Like many churches, the facade has suffered deterioration over the years – copper domes crowning each tower were removed in 1995 3)
The façade does not prepare the visitor at all for the overwhelming impact of the interior. Holy Trinity is a vast centralized space with balconies on three sides and crowned by a vast, soaring dome. This dome is covered by the famous Guastavino tiles of pre-World War I era. At its apex there is a Pantheon-like oculus – here covered by a skylight. Thanks to the numerous but relatively small stained glass windows all is shrouded in mysterious, prayerful darkness. The sanctuary, set against the North side, is partially encased in beautiful marble. The high altar is distinguished by a baldachin and mosaic. To the east of the high altar is suspended a magnificent metal crucifix in the style of the 12th century. Throughout this church, indeed, the lavish statuary, stained glass and particularly metalwork are of the highest quality.
Regrettably at some point in the not too distant past the interior suffered a barbarous conciliar “updating.” The communion rail was partially removed, a new altar moved forward towards the center of the church and the baptismal font placed in the sanctuary. The door to the baptistery was reused as a decorative backdrop to the font, the doors to the sanctuary were incongruously installed on the steps of the high altar and the magnificent crucifix of the high altar placed on the floor in the rear of the church. We can, however, be grateful that these components of the original decorative scheme were preserved and didn’t end up on the junk heap. (For images of the pre-restoration sanctuary see (4); also see the UPDATE below for more old photographs)
It seems the current, apparently very active, congregation is especially proud of its organ and musical program 5)
Holy Trinity is a vast, impressive achievement in brick, terra cotta and stone. However, I find that aesthetically this church does not reach the heights of some of its sisters of that era. For all its exoticism, Holy Trinity bears a very strong reflection of certain trends of contemporary Beaux Arts secular architecture. Both in its interior and exterior, for example, one can note disturbing similarities to the elephant house of the Bronx Zoo. Budgetary restrictions also meant that the full glory of Byzantium could not be achieved – there are very few mosaics.
Despite all the vicissitudes of the last century, few churches are as redolent of the era of their creation as Holy Trinity. And yet its silent, tenebrous, otherworldly ambience is also the greatest possible challenge to the materialistic bustle of this city – then and now. Is it for these reasons that a feeling of melancholy befalls the visitor leaving this church on a dark winter evening? For here the capital of the New World Order encounters both a recreation of the glorious first ages of the art of Christendom and a memento of New York City’s own, seemingly equally distant Catholic past. How will this stark confrontation end? Up till now the struggle seems to have gone only in one direction – but fortunately the last word has definitely not been spoken….
UPDATE: The Museum of the City of New York has available a magnificent set of 1931 pictures of Holy Trinity – after the completion of the interior decoration. You can check many of the images in this posting against these historical photographs. The most obvious, tragic loss: a huge central chandelier that appears to have been in the style of that of Aachen Cathedral. (Thanks to Samuel J. Howard for the reference).
The lower windows are especially fine; they were made by the noted German firm of Dr. H. Oidtmann. From Linnich, they represent a departure from the usual Innsbruck or Munich windows of that period.
1) J.B. Bullen, Byzantium Rediscovered (Phaidon Press, 2003)
2) Frederick D. Taylor, Holy Trinity Church, Medieval New York,
4) Taylor, Op. cit., http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/medny/taylor4.html
5) See the parish website